Monday, September 30, 2013

More Than a "Good Time"

Yesterday, I played my first game of Numenera, Monte Cook's role-playing magnum opus. Before the game, I also snuck in half of a game of Thunderstone with two other players who showed up early.

Thunderstone went considerably better than my last attempts to play it (see my blog posts titled "Too Fast, Too Hard"), and it was a lot of fun. I'm pretty sure I might have even won, but then the last player showed up for Numenera, and since I publicized this meetup for that game, we quit Thunderstone.

I wanted everyone to make characters from scratch at the table, so we went over character creation first. The book made character creation sound like it shouldn't take longer than 20-30 minutes, and I would, overall, call that accurate. It did take longer, but that was mainly because there was a lot of musings and asides throughout the process. Character creation went smooth and easy. Part of what made the process so smooth was the abundance of Numenera paraphenilia that we had on hand. When I promoted this meetup during the previous D&D session two weeks ago, something about the game really struck a chord with Jim. He slipped into a bit of a mini-obsession, buying every single material available for the recently-released game, and hunting down all kinds of community add-ons and Kickstarter extras. He printed all of this material, put it in a binder, and had it ready at the table. He even had a system of colored beads and mini plastic containers for the stat pools! It was quite impressive, though he tells me his wife was not so impressed. I told him to tell her I only introduced him to the game, and I take no responsibility for the ensuing obsession. That's Monte's fault.

The game itself went pretty well, but I cut it short due to the extra time we spent on character creation. I also wanted to tailor further installments of the game to the specific characters that were created. We didn't do much more than two or three scenes: an introduction to the village the players were from, and then an attack on said village by mutants.

After the session, I received some interesting criticism. Jim (the budding Numenera addict) said he was mildly disappointed that the adventure devolved into one big fight. He had fun, he said, but he expected this game to be about discovery and exploration, and instead I plunged them all into a chaotic battle around their home. I did explain that we only played a small part of a larger adventure, and the rest of the adventure is considerably-less combat oriented, but I still found myself musing on that comment the rest of the day. I had a golden opportunity to show everyone what Numenera is about, and I blew it. I'm not completely disappointed, because I know what's coming down the road for the players and I think they'll be happy in the long run, but I was a little disappointed in myself for a typical combat scenario to be the start of the game. Jim, this guy who so clearly loves this game already, didn't feel like the adventure was completely in the spirit of Numenera. Looking back, I can completely see where he's coming from, and I have plans in motion to address his concerns for next weekend.

Some less-useful criticism came from HZ. She told me she wanted to see more roleplaying, moments after she sent me a multi-page email discussing her characters abilities, powers, and backstory. HZ is a new player; yesterday's Numenera session was her first time playing a tabletop RPG. Normally, I LOVE having new players. Bringing new people into the hobby is one of my favorite things to do. It's part of why I tend to publicly post my RPG groups instead of going private with a smaller group of friends. Every player I have brought in so far has been an eager student to the hobby, and were willing to go with the flow, which I think is very important for new players (sometimes, the only advice I'll give new players in my games is "whatever happens, roll with it!")

HZ is a different, rarer breed of new player, one I've encountered in the past numerous times, but have had the good fortune of not having to run across since making my games public. HZ is one of those new players who fails to grasp that this is a group activity. She thinks she understands this, but her wordy critique and over-thinking of her character are dead giveaways. What she really wants to do is lead the group, and have both myself and the other players play the game she wants to play. If she were a veteran player with a grand, ambitious vision, I might indulge this fancy of hers. But this is her first game ever, and I've been doing this for over 20 years, so I consider her "helpful hints on ways to get players roleplaying," unnecessary at best, insulting and condescending at worst.

The question now, of course, is what do I do about this? I'm still not sure. However, the whole thing has got me reconsidering my stance on public gaming. I have met dozens of fantastic people in the past year since I've been hosting RPGs for the public. I have all of their emails and phone numbers. It would be nothing for me to hand-pick my favorite group of gamers and begin a real game with them. Something substantial. Something like the vision of Numenera that Jim wants to see. It may be time to settle down and have a committed, long-term game, and not just my average Sunday RPG Meetup....

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Hunger for More

Ever since the raise at my job and the move to a cheaper apartment, I have loosened the tight leash on my game spending. I have picked up a number of things I’ve wanted for quite some time (and a few things that were, frankly, impulse buys). For the first time since my raise, nearly a month ago, I have no packages coming to me from Amazon this week. No plans to go to Labyrinth Games before my Friday boardgaming group to pick up a new game to bring. No “shopping list” of items that could be helpful in running my Sunday RPG group.

There are two reasons for this: one, I am a federal employee, and the rumors of a government shutdown are reaching an unignorable crescendo, and two: to avoid going nuts with spending, as I have every other time in my life I’ve had a financial windfall, I have established a very generous budget, generous on the condition that I stick to it. I WANT to stick to it. I want to be a “reasonable consumer.” I don’t want to be on Hoarders: Extreme Geek Edition.

And yet, here I am, counting down the days till October 1st, praying for no government shutdown so I can have a clean slate again to go nuts in October.

I don’t give myself a hard time about this too often. I’m making more money than I’ve ever made in my life. I have no children. My wife also has a job. This is my primary hobby. Though there are some important, mature things I can do with my money, like pay off my remaining debt and build up more savings for retirement, both of those things are budgeted for sufficiently. So what the hell else is a 34-year-old married man who doesn’t drink much and hates the outdoors supposed to do with all that money?

I think I may have a minor shopping addiction. I love the high of obsessively stalking something I want, then finally being able to pull the trigger on it. I love getting it in the mail, or bringing it home from the store, and rapidly plundering its secrets, discovering the joy of it, and later mentally cataloging what specific “fun niches” this new thing covers. I relish that feeling of tranquility, of knowing that something I wanted is now mine, to do with as I please.

Is that wrong? I guess the answer to that would be “Well, if you can stick to your budget and pay all your bills, absolutely not.” And therein lies the very reason why I’m writing this. I want to pull the trigger on more stuff RIGHT NOW. And I’m writing this in a desperate attempt to understand this hunger and hopefully stave it off, at least until Tuesday (again, assuming there is no government shutdown, at which point I can literally no longer afford to indulge myself). I write this as nothing more than a direct attempt to fight the urge. Like performing surgery on one’s self, I’m cutting into my own mind to see what the problem is, and seeing if there’s anything I can do to ease the pain of waiting.

Engaging the Senses

When I was younger and played RPGs, nothing else mattered but the sound of my voice. Role-playing games have always been a conversation, but they were especially so in my teenage years of gaming. I would talk. My friends would listen. My friends would respond. I would listen. I would respond to their response, and so on.

But as I get older, I increasingly see the value in engaging the player on a level beyond just talk. I've broken out sketches and battle-maps more frequently. A few weeks ago, for what I believe is the first time ever in my RPG career, I broke out miniatures. The old me would have scoffed at a game like Star Wars: Edge of the Empire and it's requirement for funky, custom dice just to play it. Who do they (Fantasy Flight Games) think they are? I'd ask, confident I had just side-stepped what was most-assuredly a money-grabbing gimick. Indeed, younger Ed would have looked down his nose at things like read-aloud text, or even published adventures.

What changed?

The cynic is me says it's just laziness. I don't want to have to explain an entire situation to players, so I use a map. I don't want the theme, tone, and pace of the game to lie solely with my storytelling, so I rely on funky dice and other "crutches." But I think the wiser side of my gamer brain says it's a concession. I'm finally putting a firm check on my ego and realizing that a good adventure doesn't have to be all about me. I can spread the narrative around a little, to other players, to inanimate objects, and trust that the highest objective of a role-playing game...to have fun with others...will be met.

I'm getting to this point just a little behind the industry as a whole, I think. Newer RPGs, like the aforementioned Edge of the Empire, are wholly-aware of the new dimensions such props can bring. Other "new-school" RPGs, like Fate Core, readily utilize the players themselves as a storytelling resource beyond just what their character represents.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Too Hard Too Fast

After that first game of Thunderstone, I kept thinking about the game. It was exactly what I was looking for in a good deck-builder, and I had a blast...but James was taking so damn long! And now that we've worked a few of the "first game bumbles" out of the way, the second game should be even smoother and faster, right?

When I go to these boardgame meetup groups, I have two simple rules, rules I have formed from the experience of dozens (maybe hundreds, at this point) meetings: you don't play a game twice in one night, and you don't play anything heavy past 11 P.M.. You don't play a game twice in one night because there are tons of games that everyone brings to these things, and it's just a waste, when there are so many great games out there. Furthermore, changing the game up is a good chance to connect with other people, rather than staying with the same group and just resetting a board. You stop the big games at 11 because the majority of people in these groups are on a normal, 9-to-5 schedule, and around 11 is when energy levels...and, correspondingly, thinking levels and stress tolerance levels...start to bottom out. In other words, people start getting grumpy, tired, and make bad decisions after 11. Better to leave the night early, on a high note, than to play "one more game" and risk souring an otherwise-enjoyable evening. And if you are going to stay later than 11, keep it to low-key, casual games and party/social games that don't require too much heavy mental lifting.

I broke both of those rules that night. And by the end, I remembered why I made them rules!

Of the three I had just played with, only one...the winner from the previous game...wanted to return for the second game. So he and I spent about 45 minutes wandering the venue, talking with people and drumming up interest for the game. It was past ten o'clock, and most people seemed pretty leery of playing a brand new, involved-looking card game.

"It's easy!" I told them. "You'll have a blast!"

In addition to last game's winner, I rounded up three more players....let's call them Mark, Jessie, and Rob. Mark and Jessie had just finished a pretty-big game of Lords of Waterdeep where Jessie had won. Rob happened to pass the table as we were setting up and remarked that Thunderstone looked cool, to which I persuaded him to join us. Reluctantly, he sat at the table.

As I explained the rules to the game, I could see by Rob's bloodshot eyes and Mark's scowl at his hand of cards that I probably shouldn't proceed. Jessie looked considerably brighter, but that was probably more due to her unexpected win on Lords of Waterdeep than anything I was saying.

Finally, with the first turn of the game happening at 11:00 P.M., we began.

Rob folded first. He seemed to follow the game well enough, but it was clear that he was just too tired to concentrate. He put his cards down and wandered off.

Mark followed a turn later. Frustrated by the lack of good cards he was drawing (frustration caused partially by his refusal to trash his starter cards, along with what I imagine was a decent case of the Late Night Grumpies), Mark huffed off, muttering the entire time about how Ascension was a better deck-building game (I would not go so far, but have to admit that Ascension is quite good).

This left myself, Jessie, and the winner of the previous game, who's fake name for this blog escapes me, and I'm too lazy to go look it up. Anti-climactically, Jessie folded a few turns later. "I'm sorry," she said. "I'm just too tired to focus. It seems like fun, but I've got to get home."

Truth is, I was the one who should have apologized. I knew full-well this game was too heavy to play so late in the evening, but I pushed, and pushed hard for this second game. What I wanted to be the triumphant arrival of Thunderstone to my gaming group was instead a challenge of endurance that three people tapped out on. I felt ashamed as I continued to play, now a one-on-one game, with the previous winner.

As if out of karma, perhaps, all my incessant pushing was for nought. The previous winner became the two-time winner, beating me by four points.

This Friday, I will bring Thunderstone again. I will NOT push too hard this time, and I definitely will not push beyond 11. Lesson learned...again.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Before I Got Greedy...

Boardgaming post. 

On Friday, Sept. 19th, I went back to the Landing in Crystal City to play some boardgames. I had a clear agenda this particular evening: Thunderstone! The deck-building boardgame had just arrived in the mail the previous night. I had been reading about it all week and by Friday morning was whipped into a fervor over it. I wanted to play nothing but Thunderstone, all evening.

When I arrived, a game of Betrayal at the House on Haunted Hill had just started.

"We've got room for one more," said one of the guys setting up. "Want to join us?"

Ten minutes later, I was exploring the creepy haunted mansion. I was cool with it at first; a little appetizer before the main course. But as the game dragged on, I realized that I don't actually care much for "adventure" boardgames where the point is to uncover unexplored spaces on a board. More to the point, I WASN'T playing Thunderstone!

Thankfully, I got killed. After the mid-game twist revealed that one of us was now an invisible serial killer, we wandered around the mansion some more. The player, who had earlier expressed interest in the magic spear that I found, was now capable of stealing objects from us. So I knew he would be after me. Sure enough, once he successfully took my spear, I gave a good, educated guess as to where he was and found him. In response, he killed me. I later found out that my finding him got him killed in the end, technically meaning I and the other not-psychos won the game. Good news!

But more importantly, it was Thunderstone time! I got together with three other players (names changed to hide the innocent): Pete, Frank, and Rob.We set up the board (which took considerably less time than usual, thanks to my lunchtime preparation of the game beforehand), and the game was on!

Here's a quick summary of what Thunderstone is (you can safely skip the next paragraph if you know how to play Thunderstone):

In Thunderstone, you construct a deck through purchasing cards with gold pieces from "the village." Once your deck is mighty enough, you enter "the dungeon" and begin slaying monsters. When you slay a monster, that monster's card gets added to your deck, which has a victory point value on it. The game proceeds until the boss monster (who is shuffled into the bottom half of the dungeon deck) shows up. The game then ends when either a player defeats the boss, or the boss makes it to the furthest empty dungeon slot (advancing by taking the spaces of other defeated monsters). At that point, whomever has the most victory points in their deck wins the game.

For those of you familiar with it, Thunderstone is very, very similar to Dominion, but with a more high-fantasy, D&D theme than the more straight-medieval theme of that game.

Sounds awesome, doesn't it? Well, it was! We played, we bought cards, we formed decks, and we slayed monsters.

There were only two problems:

1. Thunderstone's got a fairly steep learning curve, especially for players unfamiliar with the deck-building sub-genre. There are a lot of fine gameplay concepts to understand, plus there's the usual basic strategy common to most deck-building games that needs to be mastered. For example, your deck begins with 12 cards, all of which are pretty weak and actually do more harm than good to your deck later on (because drawing them is less efficient than drawing a better card). So a savvy deck-building gamer knows he or she's got to get rid of those cards as fast as possible. But newer players who's minds are in the "more=better" mentality don't always get that, and are thus much slower to remove cards from their deck. This depth is what attracted me to the game so much, but it proved troblesome for other players (which I'll talk about in a minute).

2. Pete was taking an INCREDIBLY long time on his turns. Like, absurdly long. By design, Thunderstone puts a pretty strong limit on what you can do in a turn (e.g. you can only buy 1 card OR defeat one monster in a turn, not both), the idea being that gameplay will be fast-paced and more fun by keeping between-turn down-time to a minimum. However, Pete is one of those deliberate-thinking type gamers who likes to ponder every possibility before commiting to action. Thunderstone isn't built this way. Of course there's a lot of planning involved, but each individual card is a small part of a bigger plan, so pondering each individual card means you don't have an overall plan; you're just trying to figure out what the best card is. Combine this with the idea that you draw an entirely new hand every turn (thus assuring that even with the right cards, you may not draw them at the right time), and Thunderstone, like many deck-building games, is a game of big-picture thinking, not turn-to-turn pondering. Not only did Pete's pondering suck a lot of fun out of the game for the rest of us, but he also came in dead-last when the game was over.

By contrast, Rob, who seemed to be flying by the seat of his pants the entire game and barely seeming to think about his moves, beat me by a single point to win.

So that's how the first game went. I'll talk about the second game of the night later, since this post is quickly spinning out of control!


Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Boardgames Rising

Boardgames and tabletop RPGs are the two non-wife loves of my life. I often swing like a pendulum from loving one more than the next for whatever reason. A brief glance at this blog will show you that the pendulum's been on the "RPG side" of the clock for the past several months. Now we're finally starting to swing back to Boardgame Land.

Last Saturday, I attended a day-long boardgaming jamboree over at the friendly local library. I played these games:

-Seven Wonders
-King of Tokyo
-City of Horror
-Elder Sign

I loved all four of them. I had a blast. I FINALLY got to be the freak rookie who crushes everyone the first time he learns the game (Seven Wonders)! I'm NEVER that guy!

This was my third time playing City of Horror. It's finally clicking into place, and man is it fun! Whenever I go to these boardgaming events, I always want to be at the table that's having the most fun, the one that's hooting and hollering and playing a game that looks utterly fascinating. That was definitely the case with City of Horror. When one of the players played a card that shifted all zombies from the water tower to the church, the collective "OHHHHHH!" from our table drew stares from the entire room! We had two to four people hovering over our table the entire time we played. It was glorious. I had my doubts about City of Horror when I bought it, but now, the game has finally and officially earned it's place on my shelf, next to it's already battle-proven veteran contemporaries Battlestar Galactica, Cosmic Encounter, and Pandemic.

I also finally got a chance to see Elder Sign played in earnest (as opposed to the frustrating spurts of play I have with the app version on my iPhone) and I gotta say, that one's pretty fun, too! I always chafed under the tremendous amount of prep and down-time that goes into a game of Arkham Horror; Elder Sign is a faster alternative that doesn't compromise the immersive (and oppresive) cosmic horror aspects of that classic adventure game.

This Friday, I'll be heading to another boardgame event: the Landing, at Crystal City. I've been to it a few times, but this will be my first time writing about it. I'll be bringing two brand-new games: Mansions of Madness and Thunderstone: Towers of Ruin. Much like City of Horror before it, I am concerned about Mansions of Madness. It's a massive, long, adversial adventure game (think Descent, but with Lovecraftian influence instead of D&D), and I'm just not sure if the game is going to be worth the exobitant price I paid for it. I mean, if I want to play an adventure game spanning well over two hours, why don't I just crack out D&D, right?

I am far more excited to dig into Thunderstone. Thunderstone is a cooperative deck-building game. Cooperative deck-building games are my absolute FAVORITE super sub-niche genre of boardgame! Ever since I played Legendary a few months ago, I've wanted to do it again. I damn-near pulled the trigger on Legendary, too, but Thunderstone looked deeper, and was about ten dollars cheaper and had more expansions, so I went with it, instead. We'll see how it all goes down Friday!

And, this Sunday, I begin my "training campaign" with Numenera for my big con game at DC GameDay. More to follow...


Monday, September 16, 2013

D&D 4E AP Report

Yesterday, Sunday the 15th, I got together with seven other people and played some D&D. I used a little mix of some homebrew ideas and the "random dungeons" rules listed in the DMG to do a procedural, Diablo-style hack-and-slash RPG dungeon crawl!

The characters (listed by their real-life names) were as follows:

-Joey, a human cleric;
-Mary, an elven druid;
-Joe, a dragonborn warlord;
-Rob, a tiefling wizard;
-James, a drow rogue;
-Stephen, a half-elf paladin;
-Elizabeth, a kobold hex-blade.

As stated above, the adventure was a lightly-prepped freestyle dungeon crawl. Before the game, I put every monster I intended to throw at the party in a bag. As I selected monsters, I took notes on how I would portray them, and anything special that would happen with their encounters. I then laid out all my dungeon tiles and again jotted notes on how certain rooms may appear within the dungeon. From there, I simply rolled the dice and consulted the tables.

Here is what I liked about the adventure:

1. I LOVED the low-prep random dungeon rules! It's a revelation to hack-and-slash gaming. I didn't have to draw a bunch of sketches of dungeons; I didn't have to write out how many and what kind of monsters appeared. A few notes, the dungeon tiles, and the handy-dandy monster vault compendium were all I needed. With these tools, I can essentially run D&D like a boardgame, practically on a moment's notice. I know many of 4e's detractors hate the very concepts that allow this to happen, but as a DM who likes having a low-prep option, this is the best.

2.  The "stuff" that I bought to run the game really paid off. I can understand why people who don't want to spend lots of money on D&D would be resentful, but it really is worth the money spent for the convenience, in my mind. The new "Essentials" editions of the DMG and Monster Manual are nice. They are highly portable and easily accessible. I didn't need to write, photocopy, or print monster stats; I could flip to them very quickly. The Dungeon Tiles similarly saved me a lot of time. I laid them all out on a separate table behind me, grabbed the ones I needed to form a room for an encounter, and I had a complete tactical battle-map in moments. The tokens from the Monster Vault, as I said before, I simply threw in a bag and fished out the ones I needed. I also have dozens of tokens for player characters. None of this stuff is necessary, of course; but for those out there looking to get into D&D? I would highly recommend buying the "essentials" collection stuff over the traditional three core books. VERY handy!

3. Pacing. As I've said in previous posts, I am a nut for good adventure pacing. Because of the open, modular structure of the adventure, it was extremely easy for me to manage the pace of this game. As a result, this was probably one of the smoothest adventures I've run in a long time. In the "rest" moments, when the players were divying up treasure or discussing tactics, I could plan ahead a little, bookmark a few pages, get my dice ready...when I wanted the action to pick up, I could throw in a bunch of minions that the players would rapidly widdle down; when I wanted something a little more tense, I could throw harder monsters at them...it was great!

Here are some things that I want to work on for the next session:

1. The meta-game of balancing encounters to the party's capabilities is a constant tight-rope walk, one that I floundered on in a few spots. The entire party was inadvertently balanced towards bringing down big monsters. Not realizing this, a few of my encounters, such as a face-off with a gelantinous cube, were easier than expected; a few other encounters, such as fighting off a regenerating swarm of skeletons, were harder than expected. The group also had surprisingly few ranged options. The lesson: 4E requires a much closer, finer eye on the party's capabilities than previous editions.

2. Though I worked hard to bring story and narrative bits in wherever I could, once the momentum got rolling, those details ended up mostly flying out of the window. My next adventure is definitely going to have a lot more story to it, maybe a few planned roleplaying encounters. Now that I've met all the players and their characters, I think I'll send out a few emails and probe their backgrounds a bit. Then I can make the next adventure custom-made to the stories they want to see!

Other interesting little bits about the adventure:

-I accidentially through a Black Pudding monster into the bag, thinking it couldn't be much harder than a gelantinous cube. It ended up almost killing the paladin and greatly endangering several others! Thankfully, I put it in a room where they could climb up some pillars to avoid it (yes, I know black puddings can technically climb, but this one couldn't, dammit!)

-I had the group take my cellphone number and, if they wanted to tell me something discreetly, encouraged them to text me. A few players took advantage of this, and I think it was a lot of fun!

-I'm chafing a little with the experience points system. I don't want certain people to fly ahead of the pack with XP, but at the same time, I don't know how else to reward clever ideas and good roleplaying. I may have to look into some house rules on this...




Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Gearing up for Adventure!

With great, nerdy glee, I clicked the "Place Order" button on Amazon. Within the next 48 hours, I will receive my latest RPG tools...the D&D Monster Vault, and the Dungeon Tiles Master Set. The former is over 200 die-cut cardboard tokens representing the monsters of the D&D world, plus a book with their stats, a double-sided map, and an adventure. The latter is a series of 10 double-sided die-cut cardboard tiles representing various configurations of dungeons. The 10 tiles can interlock with each other and form a nearly limitless variety of dungeons for my players to crawl around in. Combined with the Monster Vault and a few pre-generated characters, I can (in theory, anyway) run D&D on literally a moment's notice.

I am a massive RPG sellout. The indie crowd, who print their minis at home (or, better yet, play games that don't require them) would turn their nose up at the money and effort I've expended to amass my D&D collection. Just this morning, while cruising the new gatherings at Meetup.com, one poster has titled his RPG event "Anything but 4E," referencing the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons. In the RPG community, there is a vast "Old School Renaissance" that has sprung up seemingly around the idea of shunning D&D (or it's current edition, anyway, as a large part of this movement plays earlier editions of the game). I'm sure any OSR officiado would reject that notion, but it does seem odd to me that such a "movement" would happen during this iteration of the World's Oldest Roleplaying Game, kinda like how the Tea Party Movement just happened to spring up under the country's first black president.

Now, don't get me wrong; it's not like D&D is hurting because of it. It's still one of the best-selling RPGs out there. It's still the only tabletop RPG you can buy at most bookstores. I've heard rumors that D&D is even available at Wal-Mart now. So it's not like the game has been hurting because of the backlash. But no other game faces the kind of direct animosity it does. Heavy wears the crown, I suppose.

Why so much resentment? Though any of the game's detractors will come up with dozens of legitimate-sounding grievances, I personally think it comes down to one thing: money. See, the 4th edition of D&D is the most "boardgame" like version of the RPG since it first came out in the 70s. Most of the special abilities in the game are measured not in real-life units like yards or meters, but 1-inch squares. Furthermore, virtually every class in the game is built around battlefield balance; the fighter, for example, has abilities to "mark" monsters so they get an attack penalty when trying to hit anything other than the fighter who marked it. The rogue has a number of abilities to allow him to dance around the battlefield not getting hit. The wizard has powers that allow him to control the battlefield from afar, and so on. All of this means the game is built around tactical combat. All of that means you need tokens, battlemaps, and power cards to keep track of your various abilties. All of that costs money.

Now enter D&D's previous editions. All you needed were in the core rulebooks. Back when we were kids playing D&D, we didn't need fancy minis or colorful battlemaps; everything happened up here! *pointing to brain* You could pull that stuff out of it you wanted to, but the important thing was that you were having fun! Because somehow, buying all this stuff isn't fun. It's just a waste of money, right?

I sympathize with the OSR movement, really I do. Plus, I'll be the first to admit that some truly amazing RPGs have come from it. Dungeon World, one of the most prolific RPGs today, takes it's cue from old-school roleplaying. Dungeon Crawl Classics, a game so rooted in old-school gaming that it borders on parody, is a fantastic "reboot" of the genre. But the hatred over good ol' D&D is, as most hatred tends to be, unwarranted. The game is fun. Even if you get a cheap ten-dollar dry erase board and just mark everyone's place with pennies, D&D 4th edition is a fun game. No, I would not recommend it if you want to do a role-play intensive "story-based" game, but for what it does do, it does do well.

And, if you've got a few dollars to spare, the game will put that money to use! The options available to "pimp your game" are astounding. These dungeon tiles and monster tokens I just bought are only the tip of the D&D iceburg.


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Power of Prep

One important aspect to the fun factor of Sunday's Fate game was my level of prep. Normally, I'm a "Freestyle" GM who likes to make stuff up on the fly and roll with whatever my players give me. Recently, I've grown tired of that approach and wanted to broaden my horizons a little. So I decided, for this Fate Cthulhu game, to do some meticulous, old-school prep.

I basically pretended that I was writing the adventure for someone else. I did a "scene map" where I mapped out every scene like it was a room in a dungeon. For every scene, I wrote down every skill that could be relevant, and the kinds of clues that could be found. I even wrote flavor text to read aloud to players when they first enter a scene.  I think at a few points, I even write in the text about "the GM" as if somebody other than me was going to read it!

But it worked, beautifully. I had a nice, steady stream of material I could feed to the players, and when they improvised or leapt off the page, I would go into my normal freestyle mode, then gently guide them back to the prep. There were two major benefits to the prep. First, it gave my storytelling confidence. Because I knew exactly where I intended the story to go, I could think about the future, not worry about stalling for time, and otherwise just focus my attention on where it needed to be at that point in the game. The other major benefit is that I had a lot of control over pace. I'm always obsessing over pace in my RPGs, because I've seen too many games ruined due to dragging on to long. On the other hand, though, I do this once a week and I respect and appreciate the effort that a lot of people (many of whom are complete strangers until they walk in the door and introduce themselves) take in showing up and chancing an afternoon with me. So I don't want the adventure to slip by too quickly.

Anyways, having a prepped, fully-written adventure allowed me to look at the entire story from a bird's eye view and instantly gauge where we were and where I thought they should be. When we were moving too fast, I would linger on a scene. When we were going to slow, I would start dropping hints about where to go next. This is not something I can do as effectively in a freestyle game, because I often don't know where the story is going.

Identifying myself as a Freestyle GM, I think it's obvious that I have nothing wrong with running a game like that. However, by embracing the prep work, I had a lot of narrative tools at my disposal during the game that provided for a rich, amazing experience. Moving forward, I'm definitely going to pay a lot more attention to my prep process and try and come to the table with a little bit more than my own brain from now on.

This coming Sunday, I'm playing D&D, a game that thrives especially well on DM prep. I'm using a published adventure, so I can just do all the reading, learn a couple of rules, and print-out a couple of cheat sheets and be ready to go. It's a trade-off, though. I really like running my own adventures. Not only do I get to put the kinds of encounters I want to see in them, and tell the stories I want to tell, but there's no better way to understand the source material than to write it myself! On the other hand, it's a LOT of work. As I look on to the next semester of grad school, and my day job, I can definitely see the appeal in taking a lower-prep shortcut to a good game.

In the end, I think prepping/writing adventures for RPGs is, to me, the ultimate example of a "labor of love." It is hard work at times, but the satisfaction and fun that come from it is, to me, unparrelled. My wife, who does not play RPGs, often asks me why anyone would want to do all that work instead of just letting someone else do it and just play. I'm hard-pressed to give her an answer, so I usually just go with the smart-ass "Well, being married is hard work, too!"


Monday, September 9, 2013

Call of Cthulhu: Fate Edition AP Report

Yesterday (Sunday, Sept. 8th), I kicked off a Call of Cthulhu campaign, adapting the venerable RPG to Fate Core. I had three players and ran an adventure I wrote from scratch. 

First of all, here are the links for the stuff I wrote up:



We started a little after 1 P.M. My players were:

Chris Welles: an abrasive Med student who's only real friend was Jennifer Solomon (the missing girl at the heart of the adventure)

Dr. James Wolfson: Erudite professor who was also Jennifer's thesis advisor

Rick Spencer: A hot-headed friend of Jennifer's family.

Observations on character creation


-I am VERY glad I listened to the Fate community and kept Trouble Aspects in the game. They made for some excellent drama during the adventure's climax!

-The "Dramatic Hook" Aspect had some unforeseen ramifications...namely, when I was expecting the investigators to be more assertive and combative with Jennifer, they tried a lot harder to reason with her. I was expecting Jenny to be either arrested or killed. Instead, the investigators agreed to work WITH her to gather the other tomes! I didn't see that one coming. Overall, I do think the Dramatic Hook was a good idea, but I am going to have to keep in mind about how it can affect gameplay next time!

-Instead of leaving the 5th Aspect slot blank for everyone, I should have had each player tie themselves to each other with that 5th Aspect. That could have planted some more seeds for interpersonal conflict and drama. Originally, I had intended the Dramatic Hook Aspect to be all the reason necessary to get the investigators together, and relationships with each other could develop over the course of the investigation. However, as the players discussed, debated, and dissented on what direction they should take, having an Aspect to compel or invoke could have made things a lot more interesting.

-Stunts, as always, are the stickiest part of character creation from my experience with Fate. Chris ended up making too powerful of a stunt: a +2 to Will when resisting fear. This kept him stable as a table throughout the adventure while the other two were very close to taking Consequences early on (more on that below). I am going to change that stunt to an Aspect on Chris' character for the next session, then give him a new stunt to replace it (or give him the chocie to leave it blank for +1 refresh).

Observations on the Call of Cthulhu Fate hack:


-The Horror "attacks" worked beautifully. There were three checks in this adventure (one when the notes in Jennifer's apartment were translated, one when the investigator discovered Kevin and what Jennifer had done to him, and one more when Dr. Wolfson found the actual, authentic tome in Jennifer's bag). All of them were only +1 (I intend on the insanity/horror theme to be a slow burn, so I started small). Still, two of the three investigators had full-up mental stress boxes during the big Conflict at the end. At first I thought it was a little too light, and I could have leaned a little harder with the Terror attacks (or maybe even add an Insanity rating), but in retrospect it was just right for an intro adventure. Like I said before, I didn't want to hit them with the full force of the Mythos in the first adventure; I just wanted to give them a taste, and I think the rules I whipped up to cover sanity worked well enough.

-Dr. Wolfson got +1 Mythos Lore for reading Jennifer's notes. He hasn't gotten a chance to use it yet. I think I am going to expand the rules on Mythos Lore and also include "Mythos Stunts," which are specific applications of Mythos Lore. I already mention this in the hack document, but I want to flesh it out more. Spells are basically going to be Mythos Stunts, using the Mythos Lore skill, and have a mandatory Insanity rating of at least 1. 

-The exclusion of Provoke was, in retrospect, a mistake that I will correct on the next pass of the document. Spencer, as kind of a rough-and-tumble type, used Provoke frequently, and Rapport (at least within the context of this game) was getting over-used for social interactions (of which there were surprisingly many). I am going to re-instate Provoke and have it not only cover "taunting," but any kind of assertive argument to get someone to do or feel something you want them to. That may be how Provoke was supposed to work originally, but I was fixated on the "Taunt/Intimidate" idea of a Provoke skill, and so wanted to strike it from the list as not being very practical for investigators of the Mythos. As befits a Call of Cthulhu game, the Research skill was used heavily, and the new Logic skill I made got used a couple of times, as well.


General Critique of how Fate Core played:


I am getting better and better at Fate Core the more I play it, which in turn makes me like it more, which in turn makes the players like it more. This was by far the best Fate Core adventure I've run yet, head and shoulders above my more awkward attempts with the zombie apocalypse game I ran earlier this year. The system really is brilliant in ways both great and small, and though I've found the learning curve a little high, I welcome the challenge to be a better storyteller and role-playing gamer.
 
The single biggest lesson I have learned about running Fate Core effectively is this: The mechanics are part of the story. I've said this before, and in the past, it's been a sore spot with me. I'm used to hiding the mechanics "under the hood," sometimes going so far as to do all the rolling myself, just to keep the players immersed in the story and to keep the fiction in the fore-front. But that's not how it works in Fate, and this session, I finally let go of that idea, and the result was fantastic. During the climax, with Jenny holding a knife to Kevin's throat and Josh sticking a gun into the back of Chris' head, the players discussed how they were going to convince Jenny to put the knife down and not have the situation become a blood-bath. On each player's turn, they engaged in social combat with Jenny, creating advantages like "There's a Better Way" or "Put the Knife Down and We'll Help You." Jenny got Consequences like "I'm Listening..." Meanwhile, Jenny was invoking Spencer's "Friend of the Family" Aspect to make him help her torture Kevin. It was an intense, exiciting scene, and all the while, the players are thinking of ways to create advantages, ration their Fate points for when they REALLY needed them, and watching out for compels that could make things worse. It was, in a word, awesome.

So in future adventures, I'm really looking forward to exploring how all the rules work in various situations. Instead of trying to sweep them under a rug, I'm going to put them in the spotlight and let the players work with me to interpret the dice. I'm looking forward to what happens next!

So, overall, I had a great time yesterday, probably one of the best sessions I've had in a long time. I have a few more thoughts on the game that I'll write about later so this post doesn't get too long. In the meantime, I better get crackin' on the next adventure...

Friday, September 6, 2013

Something Wicked This Way Comes

I have been working obsessively on my upcoming Call of Cthulhu adventure. As of Friday morning, I've got the entire adventure planned, and a broad outline of the entire campaign (which would span at least eight sessions, but probably much more than that).

I've said in previous posts that I want to "settle down" and focus on one game, one campaign. I want to have a meaningful, deep role-playing experience, and I'm tired of the rather hollow (albeit fun) of the casual, open-ended sessions I normally run. I didn't know at the time that the creative inspiration would drive me to Cthulhu, but here I am.

What's even more surprising is that I'm not just running Cthulhu...I'm running my own Fate Core hack of Cthulhu. That, to me, is just weird. I hate hacking systems. I would typically rather play another game than a game that gets jury-rigged into something else. I have neither the motivation nor the confidence to take a system that's been vigorously tested and analyzed and then start fiddling with the dials.

By extension, I also tend to dislike "generic" RPG systems. I've always believed an RPG system is as much a part of the story as the setting. The dice used, the terminology used...it all contributes to the experience of the game. What a film-maker may call Mise-en-scène, the "art" of the story. I always thought generic systems were for people who don't care about that kind of stuff and just want to toss dice. No disrespect to people like that, but that's not the game I run.

All I can say is, Fate is somehow different. There is something...for lack of a better word, organic...about the way the game is built, that lends itself well to the storytelling/game hybrid that I seek in RPGs. The system, as written, seems to imply a message that if you bring your game to Fate, Fate will help you make it better, not hold you back or make it worse. And so here I am, taking one of the oldest and most-loved RPGs of all time and hacking it into a system that, although it carries a strong pedigree, is itself not even a year old.

Will it all work out? Or will it be a disaster, another disappointment in what I've determined is a "cold streak" in my GMing? We will find out Sunday...

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Dictatorships and Democracies

To me, being a GM means I tell the story the players' characters are in. I get the ball rolling, I set the plot in motion, I depict the various bystanders, antagonists, and supporting characters for the players, and I interpret what happens when the dice hit the table, or if they should hit the table at all, depending on the needs of the story.

I have never considered this a position of power. I have never considered myself some kind of god of an imaginary world. From the first moment I ran an RPG when I was six years old, my goal as a GM has always been to tell a good story and make sure the players are having fun. If there is any ego to running an RPG at all for me, it's in taking pride in the fact that the players around the table enjoyed the story I told them. I very much consider GMing a performance art.

The problem I'm running into, and why I write this blog today, is this: RPGs are changing, and with it, I'm afraid GMs are losing a lot of what used to make them GMs. I am proud of the hobby for its ability to continually evolve, but a part of me regrets that the "old school" of GMing may be over as I know it.

Modern role-playing games are beginning to monkey with the responsibilities inherent to the role of GM. Back in the day, it was the GM who said what happened, determined why it happened, and, with the input of the dice, the rulebook, and player decision, what happened next. Nowadays, things have changed. In some games, players can dominate whole regions of an RPG world simply by stating a thing as being true. In other games, a player's past can crop up at nearly any given moment and demand the spotlight during the adventure. In still other games, players actually have abilities that let them become the GM for a brief moment and establish details or alter the flow of the story. The appeal of this is quite obvious; players in modern RPGs have more control over the story than they ever did back in the days of the Big Red Box. RPGs have evolved into a process of collaborative storytelling.

Is that a bad thing? Of course not. Has it always been like this, to a certain degree? Yes, of course. But back in the day, there was a certain understanding: everything outside the players' characters was the domain of the GM. The GM was free to collaborate with the players, or not, as he or she so determined. Nowadays, there are role-playing games...very, very good roleplaying games...that actively tell the GM that the players get to say what certain things are or aren't true. In these games, the GM is becoming less of a storyteller and more of a referee. Hell; in some of these games, the GM isn't even supposed to roll dice!

I know many GMs must appreciate the help. Back in the day, the GM was sort of expected to be the one and only authority on any given subject within the game, rules or story-wise. I remember spending hours locked away in my bedroom, sorting through the boxed sets of AD&D's various campaign settings like a detective studying pictures of a crime scene. And, at the risk of sounding like a grandpa, that's the way we liked it, dangnabit!

I cannot stress enough how awesome I think some of today's modern, more-collaboratively-oriented RPGs are. Games like 13th Age, Numenera, FATE, Dungeon World...all amazing. But in virtually all of those games, the world is built upon the stories told together by the GM and the players. There is very little for the players to truly explore that's completely out of their hands. This of course is not a completely bad thing...it's just a sign of the times.