Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A Reason to Kill (Addendum)

Well, I can’t sleep. Which is unusual because I can usually sleep anywhere at the drop of a hat. However, I either drank too much coffee today or (more likely) I’ve just been wound too tight because of the stress this whole trip has caused me. Anyway, I might as well throw some follow-up thoughts to my last post.

When I say, look at the conflict you want to portray as central and build around it, I’m not (necessarily) saying you need to write “Raising Kids: The Role-Playing Game” or something. And I’m not saying you need to give up combat systems, either.  I’m just saying:
  1. You need a way to engage the players besides “ooo, this is a neat setting (or story/plot/arc) that I want to explore, “ and
  2. Make that “engagement thing” central in your design priority.


And I’m saying it to myself as well.

All that interesting exploration stuff will appear (if you want it to), in the proper amount, IF you can engage the players. At least, that’s my theory.

Look at the movie Star Wars. I’m sure most of the readers of this blog have watched the original trilogy a couple times. In the first movie, what have we got for a driving conflict? We’ve got this small band of misfits/adventurers fighting against a tyrannical impossible force, yeah? One ship, half a dozen characters (a couple of whom are noncombatants) against hundreds of soldiers, fighters, the Death Star, Darth Vader…even when they get “the Rebels” involved, it still boils down to the main characters’ actions (those other X-Wings are just set-dressing pyrotechnics for all they accomplish in the assault).

The challenge here is finding your courage. It’s something most B/X players might relate to.

The second movie (Empire) is different. Now, the characters are certifiable war heroes. They’ve proven their courage. The war (and the fighting of said war) is backdrop for the real story, the real challenge, namely “can you sacrifice what you hold dear for something that will bring you greater satisfaction?”

[Huh?]

Or something like that (it’s after 2am, cut me some slack, folks). Let’s look at the characters:

Han Solo: cherishes his freedom. Is he willing to give it up to begin a relationship with the princess? This is his conflict through the whole film. In the end, he literally loses his freedom in semi-permanent fashion.

Leia: cherishes her role in the Rebellion. Is she willing to give it up to begin a relationship with a scoundrel/rogue like Solo?

Luke: has achieved his childhood dreams of becoming a fighter pilot, joining the rebellion, and becoming a respected hero. Is he willing to give that up (his status as a “great warrior”) to pursue a more mystic journey towards peace and knowledge on the Jedi path? He finds he can only meet the sacrifice halfway, and loses a piece of himself because of it.

Lando: has become a responsible, respected (and apparently wealthy) leader. Is he willing to give it up to “do the right thing,” fighting against the Empire?

[yes, Lando is a main character…he’s like the dude who shows up to the gaming table late and has to bring his PC in halfway through the session]

All these characters in the story face this challenge, and they all meet it with varying degrees of success. It makes for a richer (in terms of character) movie, if not one with the same “wa-hoo” as the first film. It’s still fantasy adventure, it still has fights, but the fights aren’t the focus of the action. That’s not the challenge that’s engaging the protagonists.

Lukas had a lot of disagreement with the director of the 2nd film, by the way (and was unhappy with the profits compared to the costs of the over-budget opus), and returned to his “original recipe” when doing Return of the Jedi. The result feels a touch slap-dash as it ties up the character development of the 2nd while sticking with the action formula of the 1st film: a small band of heroes facing overwhelming odds (Han and Leia against “a whole legion of troops,” Lando against a Death Star and a thousand fighters, Luke against giant monsters, armies of goons, and two Sith Lords).

[*sigh* how many days has it been since my last post mentioning Star Wars? Re-start the tally tracker]

None of this, by the way, is about saying one path/film is better. I’m using these films as examples of potential RPGs due to the way they model inherent parts of RPGs (fantasy adventure + multiple protagonists). If they were RPGs, not films, you could see that film #2 is either “heavily drifted” (to use a Forge term), or else a different game system from films #1 and #3. Film #1 is definitely the most “Old School” of the three: you have a main adventure site, you have encounters with bad guys, you have challenges to overcome, etc. Film #3 is still pretty “Old School,” though with a little extra “role-playing” thrown in (Film #1 doesn’t have much role-playing, only the jocular “in-character” banter).

Film #2 (if transported to the tabletop) has a different set of rules and objectives.  No game role-plays “training”(well, except for Ars Magica). Few RPGs deal with player-to-player romance.  But in the end, it’s neither the Dagobah Boot Camp nor the sweet-sweet-love that is the point of play…the challenge is the characters’ own inner journey/transformation. The shooting of things is pretty much an afterthought.

The first RPG I can recall relegating combat to a (very) subordinate system was the vastly underrated, out-of-print game Maelstrom. Maelstrom (of which I thought I'd blogged before but apparently haven't) is about as fantasy adventure as you can get and is all about the exploration…I’d like to read (or write) books on the game’s setting. Unfortunately, that doesn’t give a GM much direction as to what to do with the thing, and there’s no engagement that comes from that exploration (*sigh*). BUT the Story Engine’s neat game system (and the thing that makes Maelstrom one of the grandfather’s of narrativist RPGs) was it’s imperative that scenes must be about something, and players resolving the conflict inherent in the scene with a single roll, rather than using multiple die rolls to determine the effectiveness of individual actions (i.e. you didn’t roll “to hit;” you rolled to see if you were successful at the scene “objective”). It was all quite brilliant, in a meandering, primordial narrativist ooze kind-o-way.

*ahem* ANYway. Why am I even talking about this shit? Um…besides the fact that the ix-nay on exploration was kind of a (mild) epiphany this evening/morning? Well, I was just thinking about my son. We play a lot of “pretend” games together, including a lot of games with superheroes who “fight” bad guys…but, of course, D has been taught not to actually “fight” other children himself (except when pretending, natch), and often our games involve non-lethal conflict resolution. If someone gets “hurt” there’s usually a pause in play to have the doctor fix them (and to put the injured party in bed and feed ‘em soup, etc.). Sometimes the bad guys get talked into (or spontaneously decide) to become “good guys.” Sometimes everyone just wants to dance. We do a lot of things besides pretending to karate chop someone’s head is the point.

I’ve been working on two games the last month or so, and making good progress on both. One is a post-apocalyptic fantasy based on B/X that has a bunch of new rules designed to encourage more collaboration between players. The other game is A Very Fantasy heartbreaker that is my homage to Holmes Basic (in much the same way as 5AK was my homage to OD&D). The latter is aimed at a “younger” audience, and (I think) has a younger tone. No, not so young as my son (he’s three), but definitely more Susan Cooper than Michael Moorecock.

But I did ask my boy’s input and let him pick most of the monsters that would be included. And yet, as I write the game I keep thinking “neat as this innovative new combat system is (I wouldn’t mind using it in a B/X game)” do I really want to resolve conflicts with the sword all the time? And if the game is not about “battling evil” than what IS it about? Turning evil “from the Dark Side?”

[actually, I know for a fact that’s NOT what the game’s about, since it has a definite objective to play]

Anyhoo…more musings at 3am. Oh, look: they’re serving breakfast! (do they know it’s 3am?)

Yak at ya’ later.


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Reason to Kill

[somewhere in the air, halfway to Miami]

Much as I prefer RPGs (tabletop) to video games, there is one area (or potential area) where the video RPG excels and where the tabletop RPG falls short: exploration. And that is to say, exploration for the sheer joy of exploration.

In many video games, whether you’re talking Super Mario Brothers or Mass Effect, one of the things that instill a sense of wonder in the gameplay is the opening of new areas and seeing the graphics that the designers have created. Even if there was nothing to DO in the game except “run around,” you could still have an enjoyable time exploring different areas, seeing the flora and fauna and marveling at the fantasy world. I know that when I played the game Fable, I spent a lot of time just wandering around villages and forests, not necessarily engaging in combat (or the plot) just wandering in a fantasy land. That was cool way to blow a few hours.

[maybe that is the appeal of the Sim games. As I’ve never played them, I don’t know]

But just “wandering around” in a tabletop RPG is, well, kind of boring. No matter how elegant the description provided by the GM, there’s no real engagement until the players have something with which to engage: a problem to solve, a challenge to overcome, an opponent to defeat. Old adventure modules that have many paragraphs of boxed text just bore the players…at least that’s been my experience over the years. Tell me I’m in a desert and its hot and ask me what direction I want to go…don’t describe the endless hills of bone white sand and the shimmering of the air and the blah blah blah. Tell me that in the light of my torch I can see the corridor goes left or right and ask me what I want to do, but don’t waste my time describing the type and coloration of the stone and mold in loving detail.

With a video game, part of the reason why folks play (and why they keep upgrading their hardware and why each new piece of software is judged by what’s come before) is to see how far our technology has advanced and just how lost we can get in the beauty of gameplay.  But a picture is worth a thousand words, and since the RPG GM has nothing but words (and an occasional illustration/handout to give the players), it’s going to take many, many thousands of words to try to duplicate the wonder one would get from the latest vid. And that’s just f’ing tedious.

Action…that’s what the tabletop RPG thrives on. LARPing may be different (I haven’t LARPed but from what I gather Camarilla folks aren’t biting each other), but even those drama-filled story games that are the antithesis of an Old School dungeon crawl has something happening in them. There is conflict and there is resolution in all RPGs, but the game begins to fall flat in the exploration for the sake of exploration.

But okay, so what? Why is this interesting? Well, just look at how much adventure fiction involves exploring new things…and how much the enjoyment of the adventure comes from enjoying the marvel of the exploration, in all but the most fast-paced of pulp action.

I just finished reading Doyle’s The Lost World (it’s a long flight) about a group of explorers that set out to find an isolated plateau abounding with a mix of prehistoric life: dinosaurs, ape-men, etc. Yes, there is action that takes place a couple-three “encounters” with monstrous antagonists. But most of the book is just wandering around, getting lost, looking at neat stuff, and trying to get un-lost. It’s still an adventure book…it’s still interesting and exciting. But you couldn’t run an RPG like that. There’s just no way to make a game that translates a scientific expedition…even one in a fantasy realm…into an exciting role-playing experience.

“Make your zoological skill roll to identify a thought-to-be-extinct insect?” No, that’s just silly.

When I consider this, I suddenly see why combat takes precedence in so many RPGs. Yes, yes…it’s an accepted trope of RPGs that descends from their wargaming roots, I get that. But, it’s also a very easy and straightforward method of injecting conflict and action into the imaginary game world. Things getting boring? Throw an encounter at the players and watch them engage.

Maybe this is elementary school stuff to others but I see it as a big stumbling block of the (fantasy RPG) genre. I’ve asked before on this blog “Is it all supposed to be about combat?” considering the answer to be “no.” But while the enjoyment of fantasy RPGs may NOT be all about combat, that doesn’t mean they can go without action, drama, and conflict. Those things are necessary to engage in gameplay. Otherwise, what are we doing at this table listening to this GM guy yak at us about his/her wonderful fantasy world?

Can you play Star Trek without phasers? Maybe…but you probably can’t play it without the misunderstandings and random conflicts that occur when the landing party encounters a strange, new cultures. What if Kung Fu’s Kane just wandered around the Old West without getting into fights or conflicts due to discrimination? Would that be interesting to anyone? What would Robotech be like without the Zentradi?

RPGs need conflict to engage the players. It’s why ElfQuest is such a damn, hard game to use to emulate the comic books. Yes, you can use the Chaosium system to pick fights with trolls and humans and MadCoil (good luck with that!), but trying to play something that looks like Cutter’s “quest?” It’s real, real tough. You might as well just go back and reread the comics.

That being said (and I really do want to wrap this up and sleep a bit before landing), I have a feeling that giving precedence to a combat system is kind of a lazy way of injecting conflict into your RPG design. And count me among the guilty parties (many of my concepts for games come out of a spontaneous “neat combat system” idea…but then, felling foes with a mighty axe is my daydream of choice). Maybe we just need to kick out the idea of “exploration” (of setting, of character) as a design priority, and instead focus on what kinds of conflict we want…which may not be oriented on “killing stuff.” Maybe the KERNAL of fantasy RPG game design should be taking that conflict and building around it.

People are already doing this, by the way…consciously or not. Look at Hillfolk and its main conflict system of seeking emotional concessions. Look at Sorcerer and its goal of resolving the character’s “kicker.”

RPGs without conflict and challenge…even the simple one in Traveller of making money to pay off your ship and fuel…are boring. Games that leave the injection of that conflict in the hands of the GM (hello, White Wolf!) as opposed to putting it front-and-center in the design are just lazy.

Anyway, that’s my thought of the evening (or rather morning, since we’re well past 1am). Maybe I’ll feel different on the next flight.
; )



22 Straight Hours of Travel...

...will really wreck a person. I might need a day or two to recover.

I wrote a couple little thangs during the flight that I've scheduled to post. I was pretty loopy at the time, so you might want to ignore them. But I'll throw 'em up anyway so you have something to read while I sleep for the next 24 hours or so.

Later. ZZZzzz...

Monday, August 18, 2014

In About Eight Hours...

...I'll be on a plane headed back to Seattle. For some reason, I'm nervous as hell.

I need to pack. Later, folks.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

I Hate Technology.

I have managed to update my Google+ profile, and fix my blog account so that it's separate from my "normal, everyday" accounts. Not that it matters terribly, but now I can share blog posts on Google+ (for the folks that follow me that way) without messaging all my non-gamer friends and family (who could care less whether I'm hating on 5th Edition or have devised a fantastic new method of calculating hit points).

*sigh* I hate technology.

Which is to say, I hate that I am so uncomfortable with it. I prefer to only participate in things that I'm...well, if not "good at" then proficient, at least. And managing social media devices is not an area in which I'm even mediocre.

Just trying to climb out of the Dark Ages here. I think I need a nap.

Just a Test

Sorry to intrude. Trying something here...

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Quantity versus Quality

[warning: probable "nerd rage" on the horizon]

Well, it would appear my self-imposed hiatus is winding down, as things have gotten more organized around this neck o the woods. We'll see...I'm not promising to come back in "full force" but I've definitely started poking my nose back into the blog-o-sphere. And I've got one hell of a shnoz.

This post was originally going to be called "Monsters, Monsters Everywhere" but I've already got a blog post by that title (waaaaaay back a few years ago) and I try not to duplicate; however, for folks who were hoping for an NFL/Blood Bowl entry...no, this one's going to be about D&D.

Back in 1981 or '82 when I started playing D&D, my introduction to the game...my first rule set...was the Basic book edited by Tom Moldvay. Much of my love and appreciation for this particular game has been documented on this blog, but allow me a quick summary: the book gave me everything I needed to play D&D, and in doing so it changed my life. I can say this honestly with the hindsight of 30+ years to look back on.

I'm not going to pretend I follow what WotC does with the D&D brand all that closely. I don't. I'm just not interested in most of their revenue streams and I don't read or frequent their forums. I have a curiosity about 5th Edition, both as a person familiar with the play of most editions of D&D and as an active game designer interested in other folks' work. And it's because of this curiosity/interest that I've bothered to download and read the (free) PDFs of WotC's D&D Basic Rules. I grew up playing something called "Basic" D&D, and I still find it an elegant piece of craftsmanship. I'm interested in seeing how WotC handles the same task given to Moldvay and Holmes and Mentzer...namely, making a simplified game that "was designed to be easily read and used by individuals who have never before played a role playing game."

[that's from the Foreword of Moldvay's Basic book]

My first impression of the new Basic rules was not a good one. As an obvious work-in-progress, an incomplete game, I wondered at why WotC would even bother to release such a thing. As I wrote at the time:

"There's no information on running the game, no information on creating adventures, no information on running NPCs ("monsters"), no information on treasure, and (perhaps most basic of all) no information on how XP is earned/awarded. In other words, no information on what the objective of the characters are, or what they're supposed to do."

There are other things that were left out of the 110 page (now 115 page) rule book that Mike Mearls said was "the equivalent of the old D&D Rules Cyclopedia," like how a DM was supposed to award inspiration (a new mechanic that I have not seen in prior editions)...but then the new rules were only in their "version 0.1" (now "0.2") stage and a little digging in past press releases found that the rules needed for adventure creation, running the game, etc. would all be released in time.

Welp, last night I stayed up to read the new, 61 page document that is the "Dungeon Master's Basic Rules Version 0.1." Most of it (59 pages) is content. It is divided into the following four sections:

Monsters (51 pages)
Non-Player Characters (3 pages)
Building Combat Encounters (3 pages)
Magic Items (2 pages)

The Non-Player Character title is a little misleading: there's no information on creating or using NPCs, simply additional stat blocks (with light description) the equivalent of the monster entries. In other words, it's three pages of additional "monsters" that can be used to further describe (or add abilities to) humanoid NPCs encountered.

The last two sections each have highlighted sidebars noting they are Works in Progress! and that additional material will be released as the new DMG gets written. Which is probably a good thing because some folks might be prone to panic (or scoffing) when they see the hot mess that is Building Combat Encounters (not, um, "designing adventures" or something) or the small handful of items (18 total) that comprise the Magic Items section. No, there are no randomized tables in the latter section.

You know, it's fascinating: Moldvay gave us 50+ magic items in 4 pages (including the random tables). Is it possible (I'm not being sarcastic or rhetorical here) that the new "Basic" is over-thinking itself?

ANYWAY...monsters. That's the bulk of the new Basic "DM's Guide." Stat blocks for monsters and information on how they fight and information on how to set-up combat encounters because, you know, while Mearls talks about three broad categories of activity (exploration, social interaction, and combat...see page 5 of the Basic Rules), really people only give a shit about fighting.

*ahem*

Back in March of last year, I wrote a piece on cosmology (and paying attention to it in design) that no one seemed to give a rat's ass about, probably because it was attached to a series exploring clerics and their inclusion in fantasy adventure games and "been there done that." But I was writing about more than just clerics...I was talking about putting a little forethought into the whole creation process, especially with regard to monsters. But yeah...murderhobo doesn't care.

For me, I put a lot of thought into what "monsters" I include in the (B/X-style) games I design. Mine is not a "kitchen sink" approach...I make lists, I consider what fits and what doesn't and then I write it up. It's one of the tougher parts of the game creation process...I have more than one work-in-progress currently on-hold due to the "NPC" section. And it's not like I write paragraphs and paragraphs of text for each entry! The entries for monsters in my B/X Companion are positively "wordy" compared to the entries in Five Ancient Kingdoms. For comparison purposes:

B/X Companion: 16 pages, 67 entries (roughly 4/page)
Five Ancient Kingdoms: 17 pages, 86 entries (but on half-sized pages!)

The new Basic has a total of 159 entries in 51 pages (or 169 in 54 pages if you count the NPC section...which I do). Regardless of the number per page (WotC can make their books as big as they want...this is their precursor to a new Monster Manual, after all!)...regardless of the amount of space they take up, 169 entries is a LOT of monsters. More than both my published works combined (and for the record, there's only nine or so shared entries between the two, so the total count is still over 140 in 20-30 pages). Maybe you're licking your chops at the prospect of all the combat encounters you can build with such quantity...but maybe we should look at what that quantity consists of?

Mearls and Jeremy Crawford (who are listed as the "lead designers"), have statted out each individual monster as its own entry, regardless of similarity to monsters of its own ilk. For example, in my B/X Companion, I count Animals of Legend as one entry, even though it lists four different creature profiles (and gives notes for creating others). I count Ruinous Powers as one entry even though there are five unique creatures. My entry for Giant includes both Half-Giants and Mutant Giants, but I count it as one entry.

It's a space saving device to group monsters together...something I learned from Moldvay's Basic book (see Cat, Great for panthers, mountain lions, lions, tigers, and smilodons; see Bear for black, grizzly, polar, and cave). I use the same tact in 5AK (Vermin, Giant all fall under one category regardless of bat, rat, whatever. Same with giant insects, donkey/mules, etc.)...I don't need or want to "pad" my word count...I'm trying to cut down on the pages I'm sending to the printer to reduce my costs and that of the consumer.

Mearls and Crawford don't seem to buy this idea. We have separate entries for brown bear, black bear, and polar bear. There are separate entries for draft horse, riding horse, and warhorse. There are separate entries for fire elemental, earth elemental, air elemental, and water elemental. And the thing is organized in strict, alphabetical order so it's not like the horses or elementals are even grouped together (air elemental with the "A" monsters, water elementals with the "W" monsters). You want to find the stats for an adult red dragon? It's not under "D" (for dragon) or even "R" (for red) but under "A" (for adult). Looking for a "Frog, Giant" to put in your swampy temple? You'll be searching in the "G" section of the document under "Giant Frog," right between "Giant Fire Beetle" and "Giant Goat."

Giant Goat?

Yes, a classic monster...surely you've encountered many in your D&D games over the years. In 5E, it's worth 100 XP and has a "Sure-Footed" feat that gives it advantage on STR and DEX saving throws that would knock it prone. It has a Challenge Rating of 1/2, you will have to include 3 to 6 when building an encounter for your party of 1st level adventurers. But if you're worried that a small herd of giant goats with their damage range of 5-11 will be too tough, you can always use non-giant goats.

WTF?

Yes, the goat...it's a medium beast, unaligned and it's CHA is only 5, but with that STR of 12 it has +3 to its Ram attack roll (only 2-5 damage). And that's a LOT more than the damage done by a normal frog.

Frog?

Yes...a tiny beast, the frog only has a STR of 1 (WIS of 8 however!). It has 1-3 hit points and the following special abilities:

Amphibious: the frog can breathe air and water.
Standing Leap: the frog's jump is up to 10 feet and its high jump is up to 5 feet, with or without a running start.

The description states:

"A frog has no effective attacks. It feeds on small insects and typically dwells near water, in trees, or underground."

Wow...thanks for that! Now I know how to use that frog entry when building my combat encounters.

These are worth 10 XP a pop! Eat all three for 30!

There's a lot of bullshit filler like this in the book. Some of the entries you might find less than useful for  Building Combat Encounters include the Badger, Bat, Cat, Crab (blue shell, I think), Deer, Elk (really? do we really need a separate entry between deer and elk? Where's the reindeer and the moose?), Hyena, Jackal, Lizard, Mule, Owl, Pony, Rat, Raven, Spider (not giant spider...just a spider), Vulture, Weasel. You might get more mileage out of the giant versions.

Oh, here's a good one: the Awakened Shrub. It's a small plant, animated by magic. With its 3D6 hit points, it's a lot tougher than it's friend, the evil Twig Blight, which looks like a dead shrub but has 2-5 hit points and is (for some reason) of a higher challenge rating than the Awakened Shrub (25 XP instead of 10 XP).

There's a lot of weirdness with the stat blocks. Since when does a Medusa have 17 hit dice? Same Challenge Rating as a Mammoth (6), though the latter, huge beast, has only 11 hit dice (the medusa is a medium monstrosity). I mean, not that it matters terribly...I'm just curious.

Okay, this is getting long and I'm already late to pick up my boy. Maybe I'll write more later. Maybe.