What kind of Game do you want, anyway?

The other day, Christian at Destination Unknown posted about what happens when the game you have is not the game you really want (OK, so I’m mangling his premise, but to read what he really wrote, just follow the link… I really just wanted to use his post to blog about ME, anyway). This seems to be a familiar problem… perhaps because there are an embarassment of choices and opinions.

Frequently, conversations about ‘what gamers want’ becomes an exercise in comparing different rule sets OR comparing different play styles or a little of both.

Rules: I’d love to say that ‘rules don’t make a difference,’ but think that position is naive. I’m afraid that I find 3.5 and Pathfinder versions of D&D unappealing — this is my opinion and not that interesting so I won’t go into it here (other than to say, yes, I think I did give the 3.5e game a fair shot, playing it and 3e for a number of years both as a player and a DM).

Play Style: Current discussion on blogs and forums seems to set up the ‘sandbox game’ and the ‘story driven game’ as the two opposite ends of opinion, and both have their champions. As the years go by and I muse on it, I think I’d like to find myself somewhere in between with a few caveats related to how the game is managed. As a player, I find myself chafing under the game masters who have decided ahead of time what will happen in a given session. I remember playing under one DM who would simply decide that X, Y or Z would happen that session… and if the players did not cooperate, then the DM would simply announce that whatever he had planned would happen anyway. I found it frustrating because it did not seem to matter what we did or what we attempted… as an example, if the DM had announced that a flood was about to ravage the land, the players often had to play guessing games until we lit upon what he wanted us to do before the game could go forward. So if the DM had cooked up the flood because he wanted to convince us to head for higher ground, if we tried to reinforce the levee with sandbags or build an ark or do ANYTHING other than what he wanted, our actions were doomed to fail until we did what we were supposed to so what the DM wanted to happen would happen. He never rolled dice for wandering monsters — monsters just appeared when he thought it was dramatically appropriate or when he was bored or when he thought the players were not paying enough attention. And he saw his way of running a game as a virtue.

I suppose my ideal game would have a lot of options for the players, and chances to go off into unexpected directions and the events that occur in the game could, ideally, be created by both the players and the DM. The players could describe actions and the DM (witht he help of the dice) would choose reactions. If the DM wished, larger events in the fantasy world could follow some predetermined course which could be altered by player action (for example, if the pre-determined course is upset by the players eliminating an important NPC, then so be it, the players have had a hand in creating the history of that fantasy world). I’d also love to have ‘game within the game’ events, like the occassional minis battle to decide the course of kingdoms… a practice I tried to interest players in years ago but failed to catch fire (ah well, perhaps my presentation was lacking). When I was high school/junior high, I wanted to give each player a ‘chunk’ of the fantasy world consisting of a kingdom or two and let them design it as they saw fit — then players could wander from one DM’s kingdom to the next and different people take turns DMing. This, unfortunately, never came to pass.

Unfortunately, time and energy for these pursuits are lacking… and I don’t think I have a crop of enthusiastic collaborators to draw from.

"Special Collectors Edition?"

Recently I clicked on a series of links and ended up at a forum discussion where the forum members were discussing a ‘special collectors edition’ adventure that was only going to be availible if you went to a particular convention (the details are not important to me, but, if you are curious, the link in question is here).

At issue in the discussion (at least in the page that I read) was a special edition copy of an adventure that was going to be availible only if you attended the particular convention. Some people (who want to collect at least one sample of every single adventure this company puts out) were upset because by putting out an adventure that could be purchased only at the Con, the publisher was forcing them to either go to the con or have an incomplete collection.

I’m not really a ‘people person’ (my never-to-be-realized dream is to live alone in a small cabin in the wilderness, near a body of water) so conventions are not my thing, but collecting ‘completeness’ is not something I understand either. I’m plenty greedy and grasping and I like certain things, but I can’t imagine wanting to own books without physically handling and reading them. The pride that some people take in collecting things just to have ‘one of each edition of the same book’ like in this photo just baffles me:

I got that picture from Austrodavidicus’ (sp?) blog. I didn’t know what it was a picture of at first until I read the text and followed the links and discovered that it was multiple copies of the same game (like the original D&D sets) in all the different printings and variations, all wrapped up in plastic. Theres a LOT more to that particular collection. Follow the links and see.

I have no idea of what a collection like that is worth (I suspect it is worth a lot) and, if I had that kind of scratch, I’d probably be trying to buy that aforementioned cabin in the woods as well as a shitload of canned goods, liquor shotgun shells and .30-06 rounds so I would be ready for the inevitable zombie apocalypse. I’d also buy artwork from artists I like (but I would ‘use’ that too — by hanging it on the wall). And I have my own things that I am fond of — I have a lithograph by Arthur Rackham that I am fond of (and I suppose it is worth something, but not a huge amount) and a Piranesi etching of one of his ‘fantastic prisons’ pictures (which I bought for very little and probably still overpaid for) and I crave ownership of expensive Smith & Wesson and Walther pistols and Leica cameras even though I don’t NEED them… so I am not innocent of being infected by the need to own shit.

If it brings the collector joy to have one of each, then good for them I guess. Seeing all those games collected together to just ‘be a collection,’ however, is strange (and sad) to me… especially since I would like to have just one of those boxed sets (but I would probably just ruin it by reading and playing with it). I have a few very tattered OD&D booklets and some PDFs so I suppose I am good.

I don’t know what to think about books and games being produced as “special edition collector’s items.” On the one hand, I suppose it’s good for the people who publish game books (and probably anything that can create positive cash flow ought to be tried… well, nearly anything). On the other hand, I can understand the “completeist’s” frustration at the creation of artificial scarcity.

As a player/reader/tinkerer/doodler, I just don’t think I ‘get’ collecting because my relationship to the books and things that some people see as objects in a collection is quite different. I see it as bedside reading or reference material for my doodles.

No Gen Con for me

I was hoping to go to GenCon this year in order to celebrate the release of my book (“Exquisite Corpses“) and spend some time meeting fine folks at Joseph Browning’s / Expeditious Retreat’s OSRG Booth… (I hear even Ostensible Cat was coming all of the way from Italy!) but continued cash flow problems make that impossible.
I’m just a sad-faced clown, crying on the inside while whining on the outside.

Melan’s Fomalhaut

A while back I downloaded Melan’s custom made RPG rules for his campaign on Fomalhaut (which he has shared with the world here. Thankfully for those of us in the US, it is not in the author’s native Hungarian).

His game, “Sword and Magic,” seems to answer many of my wishes for a simple, intuitive and fun rule set that is capable of expansion by the referee and players. I’m also fond of the adventure diary Melan’s players shared on The Dragonsfoot boards.

The photo at right is not Sauron’s Eye from a Peter Jackson Movie, but rather a strange optical effect of some kind picked up by The Hubble Space telescope caused by light and dust specks. That dot in the middle is the star named Fomalhaut. Perhaps I am also fond of Melan’s campaign because we both named our games after a distant star (his is Fomalhaut, mine is Aldeboran). I don’t know who did it first but suspect it was Melan. I remember deciding to name my campaign after the distant star when reading about Chalmers and Bierce sharing ‘Carcosa’ as a fictional location (Either Chalmers or Bierce made allusions to another place named ‘Aldeboran’ which is also the name of a distant star).

A to Z: A is for Assumptions

The latest bandwagon has started to roll and I just managed to scramble aboard! The (unfortunately named*) ‘Tossing it out’ blog announced “The A to Z” challenge in which bloggers try to do one post per day in April for each letter of the alphabet. Never to be one to refuse to ride someone else’s coat tails to fame and glory, I’m scrambling aboard at the last minue before that wagon rolls. (I just signed up — I am blog # 1062 to join).

So this is day 1 and our letter is for today is ‘A.’ I thought about doing ‘Arduin’ but I don’t own (and can’t afford) the Arduin books so everything I know about it would be second hand. And Grubb Street already handled A is for Arduin. I was also thinking about ‘Albinos’ and ‘Apes’ (or albino apes) but didn’t get very far with that. Then I decided to do “assumptions,” as in, “what are the basic assumptions when you and your group sit down to play?” More accurately, this might be called ‘melieu’ or ‘campaign flavor’ or even ‘rules.’ And I don’t think that there is any ‘right’ answer to what you assumptions should be — I just want to mull it over.

I would start with ‘default D&D’ as my first shared assumption of what players are getting into when they sit down to play a fantasy game. And if you are reading this blog, you probably know what your own conception of ‘default assumption D&D’ is. Open the rulebook and read the rules. If it says that player characters can be humans, dwarves, elves, etc., and can perform as fighters, magic users, thieves, etc., then that is a big part of the ‘assumption’ of default D&D.

The advantages of ‘default D&D’ are probably obvious. New players can come into the game, and, if they are even passing familiar with the edition you are using, they can take part and interact with the environment without having to ask a lot of questions. And I like ‘default’ D&D even though a lot of my fellow players seem to think that it is ‘boring’ or ‘predictable.’ Part of what I like is that the ‘imagination’ part of the game can be manifest in what you do with those stock elements. In addition, if players know a good deal about the world in terms of the ‘default’ assumptions, they are empowered to make more decisions and act upon the world. And, as a player, I sometimes find 100% reliance upon the DM for all information to be frustrating, especially when I end up feeling that my actions are being directed or forced by the DM when I start asking questions that cause the DM to start erecting narritive fences and railroad tracks. If the assumptions are simple and agreed upon from the start (even things as simple as the AD&D default where dwarves can’t be wizards, etc.), it doesn’t mean that exceptions to the rules can’t occur; it just means that such exceptions are accepted as exceptions.

Settings, games and rules which violate default D&D are harder to quantify. I am an enthusiastic reader of The Metal Earth (Aos’ blog of his house-ruled campaign), Planet Algol (another pulpy ‘sword and planet’ inspired blog) and others. To the usual mix of dragons, warriors and wizards, these ‘homebrews’ toss in new rules for everything and may let players create mutants, robots, ninjas and pirates as player characters. All of the ‘base assumptions’ of default D&D are up to debate or subject to revision and these campaigns seem to enjoy genre mixing and customization. “Assumption violating” campaigns seem very exciting to me; the act of creation seems like it could be almost as much fun (or more fun) as playing. And my own ‘Aldeboran’ (which feels like a somewhat stillborn creation that I occassionally dig out of the closet, revive and tinker with only to later shove it back intot he closet again) feels like it is closer in spirit to the ‘assumption violating’ campaign than the ‘default’ campaign. Although, since I don’t run any games in that world, the point is somewhat moot. Arduin, mentioned earlier on Grubstreet, is perhaps one of the precedents in publishing of the ‘assumption violating’ campaign.

Many campaigns seem to ‘blur the line’ between the two. I’ve never managed (either through laziness or stupidity) to run a 100% “by the book” game — a fact which used to make me feel somewhat inadequate whenever I would read one of Gary Gygax’s more strident editorials on the subject of house rules or ‘Dungeons and Beavers” (as he derisively called the campaigns of DMs who deviated from the rules as written for a time). And the idea of running any game by the book bores me. But at the same time, I think it helps player’s personal investment if they feel that some baseline assumptions within the campaign are shared and immutable. To create an extreme example, it would be very frustration to play in a game where everything that effected the actions of the characters was constantly in flux at the whim of the DM and the players didn’t know from session to session whether or not water would continue to be wet, fire would continue to be hot and ice would still be cold, etc. One of the fun things (at least for me) about a role playing game is that the world described by the referee and inhabited by the players has reference back to our world… so, imaginatively, we can wrap our heads around it and share information. Thus, although there are plenty of things we never encounter in the real world (dragons, unicorns, leprechauns, etc.), we still understand the basic physics of the world and the relationship between creatures and situations we might meet. So, although I’ve never actually BEEN in the fantasy world, I would understand that ships would sail on water, milk might come from cows (or other mammals), etc. I wouldn’t need to have it explained to me that gold might be worth more than iron since I already KNEW that before I ever played D&D. There is plenty of ‘real world’ knowledge that I can use while navigating the fantasy world and that means I can envision it more easily when we are trying to share the experience of navigating the fantasy world as a group.

I see advantages in both and am still sitting on the fence as to where I would go if I were to run a game again. Since I don’t forsee that happening, I suppose I can afford to continue sitting on the fence.

* I am relatively certain that “tossing it out” is NOT a masturbation reference, but, given the eccentric nature of people in general, one can never be 100% sure.

More positive press for Exquisite Corpses

Sometimes the web shows you some love. ‘C’ has posted a very positive review of my little book over at his blog-o-zine, Hack & Slash. Check it out, subscribe and then head on over to Lulu and buy a copy. If you already have a copy, buy another for the bathroom or guest bedroom!

Scaling Wandering Monster encounters in the great outdoors

Crossposted to DF:

I prefer random generation for wandering monsters over simply ‘picking’ what the players will encounter when because I like the unexpected nature that a roll of the dice can introduce. Maybe the dice will call for an unexpected monster that I would have never picked myself and lead to an interesting encounter.
I also like the wandering monster tables that are either environment appropriate (i.e.: you are unlikely to encounter camels in the arctic or fish in the desert if you roll on the right chart) and the ones that are ‘scaled’ for dungeon level… especially the ones that make it likely that you will encounter 1 hit dice creatures on level 1, 2 hit dice on level 2, etc., but the players can also occassionally encounter a monster from a deeper level that has ‘wandered up’… but such ‘deeper level’ monster encounters are less likely.

Has anyone created tables that are keyed to both environment and average party level/power? Thus you level 1 group is more likely to encounter a band of orcs while wandering in the woods while the 4th level party will encounter ogres instead (or maybe just a great many more orcs?).

I suppose I could put such tables together myself, but it seems a real pain in the ass. Maybe someone has already done the work for me.

When did "roleplaying" become a suicide pact?

Some players seem to come up with an idea for a character and then want to stick with that idea through hell and high water — being ‘true’ to the idea that they originally generated the character becomes the way in which they ‘are’ that character. So, before hand, the player might decide that the concept of their character is that the character is an elf hater. They might generate some sort of backstory where the corpses of their parents were found riddled with elvish arrows, making the character a kind of Charles Bronson: Deathwish’ guy who just hates elves. Should an elf show up in the game, the player will have his/her character react with hatred, attacking or refusing to cooperate with any elf (whether NPC of PC).

Unfortunately, the player will argue that his/her character’s maniacal hatred of elves will allow no other action. If objections are raised, the player will say, “But I am just playing my character.”

The problem with this approach to roleplaying(at least from my point of view), is that it tends to make all interactions with elves ‘about’ that one player character’s pathological hatred of elves. Any time an elf steps into the game, the player will grab center stage by acting on the object of their character’s wrath. Unfortunately, this seldom seems to leave much room for other players to ‘play’ whenever an elf is around because the violent dislike of elves ‘built into’ the one player’s character will preclude all other action on the part of the group.

I would suggest that generating a character with an impossible personality trait (like an unreasonable hatred of elves) can serve as a ‘poison pill’ for any hope of cooperative play. Instead of just being a ‘quirk’ of one player’s character, the player’s choice can become that which all of the action revolves around and the rest of the players need to either spend their time making sure the player character in question avoids elves or be content to having every elf NPC or PC get hacked down or driven away. My suspicion is that creating a player character that, by design, cannot cooperate with the other player characters is perhaps a passive-agressive power move on the part of the player. He or she selects a role that insures that the action will almost always revolve around them.

Blackmoor: Return to the Origins

One of my art teachers used to like to say, “The essence of originality is a return to origins.” At the time, I think he was trying to tell us something like, “All ideas come from somewhere, so if you like the way a given artist uses leaf shapes or animal shapes, etc., then, instead of imitating that artist, go look at leaves or animals.”

It is in this spirit that I have dug out my old copy of the medieval miniatures game, “Chainmail” and my copy of Dave Arneson’s “First Fantasy Campaign.” I’ve been thinking about running a continuing campaign with fantasy armies battling for supremacy in a fantasy continent reminiscent of Tony Bath’s “Hyboria” campaign for a long time. A few years ago I tried to jump start interest in a D&D campaign that switched back and forth between players RPGing adventurers going on adventures and generals running armies with mixed success by surprising the players with a war game one night. I don’t think the players liked it that much.

Instead of trying to sell others on the idea, I have begun to think about just doing a ‘minis’ campaign for my own amusement, and fighting pitched battles where I can play the part of both generals and allow fate (or the dice) to decide the course of empire.

I already have a fairly substantial collection of minis, including lots of orcs, goblins, humans, etc. I have some scenery (including scratch built buildings) although the terrain in my photos (link above) is long gone. I originally wanted to do this with my own fantasy maps, but recently I came across my copy of “The First Fantasy Campaign” and think I will just use that.
The rules will be Chainmail, with certain modifications (I think Chainmail’s morale system is impossibly complex and want something simpler).

My basic idea is to set up the fantasy kingdom as it is described in “The First Fantasy Campaign” at the start and establish each kingdom (Blackmoor, Egg of Coot, Duchy of Tehn, etc.) with a baseline of resources, including armies, monsters, etc. Then I would like to write the general motivations for each kingdom/power. The Egg of Coot, for example, wants to conquer all others on the map and convert them to his/her/it’s territories. Then I need to come up with random event cards (there are about 50-60 already in the First Fantasy Campaign) which randomly indicate viking attacks, diesease or plagues, storms, invading orcs, etc.

Hopefully, when I am done, like a ‘low tech’ game of the “Civilization” computer game. I can set events in motion and see how they develop. If Egg of Coot conquers or destroys one of Blackmoor’s villages, then Blackmoor is less able to regenerate/replace troops or supplies.

Although given everything else on my plate, I need another project like a hole in my head… but I’ve wanted to do this for a long time and have always delayed because “the time was not right” or I couldn’t find others interested. Enough. I’ll try to keep the general public informed and maybe even set up a blog/site with battle reports once I get going.

You just can’t go back…

Sometimes I wish I could re-create the fun my young friends and I had back in 1978, starting with the ‘basic set’ (pictured at right). Maybe I’m looking at the past with rose-colored glasses, but it seems as though we were less jaded that the players I encounter (or the player I have become) today.

One of the most obvious changes seems to be in the number of options and choices available to the players in preparing a character to play. Here I guess I’ll start to sound like the old Dana Carvey curmudgeon who wheezes about walking barefoot fifteen miles to school in the snow each day, uphill both ways, “and we liked it,” but I actually find myself nostalgic for the very basic and simple ‘cookie cutter’ characters and classes in the original D&D. One started character creation by rolling dice to determine your strength, intelligence, wisdom, etc., and then, based on what you rolled, you chose a character class. One could adjust your scores in very minor ways: you could swap two points of intelligence for one point of strength if you were a fighter, etc., but one usually ended up with characters whose average ability score was 8 to 10.

My memory of those games is that as players, our pleasure in the game was much more immediate and less abstract — what we as players decided to do or not do seemed to have more bearing on events than anything written on our character sheets. There seemed to be less ‘rules lawyering’ because there were fewer rules to lawyer with. Instead of resolving all actions through balanced universal d20 mechanics with things like ‘roll a dice to notice’ or ‘roll a dice to listen’ or ‘roll a dice to use your engineering knowledge,’ we would talk about what we wanted to do. “I want to look under the bed and behind the dresser” instead of “I roll a search check.”

I’m thinking about these things because recently a friend of mine, who was running a session of a newer RPG told me that the last time they met “he had the worst session ever.” I don’t honestly think that a different set of rules would have helped or hindered (the problems were probably more a set of abrasive personalities rubbing each other the wrong way), but our conversation about what went wrong at the session made me want to think about what goes wrong or right when we sit down and play (I was not at this horrible session, BTW).