Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Road Less Traveled

I never understood dungeons. Why do they exist? Why are monsters just chilling out in them? What's all the treasure for? Why are there so many traps? Over the years, games and gamers alike have tried to give the dungeon relevance. In 13th Age, dungeons are sentient beings, giant creatures that wander the world. In Earthdawn, dungeons were a sort of fantasy fallout shelter from a magic/monster apocalypse. The most definitive (and all-purpose) answer for the significance of the dungeon of course comes from the OSR, gamers who hold the earliest versions of D&D close to their heart. They'll tell you a dungeon isn't literally a dank underground facility, but rather simple lingo for any enclosed area where one could encounter evil beasts and wondrous treasure.

But the even more definitive, meta-answer is this: dungeons, simply, are the field upon which the sport of tabletop roleplaying games are played. We can try and justify them narratively any way we wish, but ultimately the reason they exist is to be nothing more than a playground for our imaginations. They make no more sense outside of a roleplaying game than a football field does outside of a game of football.

This has always rankled me. I don't particularly like sports. Likewise, I don't particularly like the idea of this abstract place existing only for the sensibilities of a game. I need more context. I need a better narrative. This is probably why so few of my roleplaying games over the past several decades have ever prominently featured dungeons.

Still, though, I cannot deny the awesome allure of the dungeon. The thrill of the wandering monster. The promise of a chest full of gold and magic items. The perils of the trapped hallway. The excitement and wonder of the hidden door. I just wish I could find a better way to make it all make sense narratively.

And then I read The One Ring, and it was made clear to me: the journey. A trip through a fantastic land can have everything a dungeon has, and it can make sense narratively, as well.

Older gamers would scoff at this "revelation." The fantasy journey or "hex crawl" has been a part of old-school roleplaying almost as long as the dungeon itself has. Of course the journey is a fine alternative to a dungeon, they'd say. Of course a wander through the wilderness "works" as a suitable fantasy adventure.

However, like many other parts of older roleplaying, this idea tends to be forgotten as we progress onward. The journey isn't as fondly remembered as the dungeon, and so the journey often gets delegated to a preparatory step towards the bigger, sexier part of the adventure. How many modules begin with the arrival to the big, scary dungeon? How many RPGs have short, abstracted rules for travel across the land, and then whole chapters devoted to the various details of dungeon-delving?

Enough, I say! At my table, the journey is the destination, dammit! I am openly declaring that I love me a good travel tale, and I intend to develop this concept of the journey as the adventure in my future GMing efforts.

It starts with the very game I discovered this bit about myself in, The One Ring. TOR is one of the very few fantasy RPGs I've ever come across where the idea of travel is handled every bit as seriously as what's to be done once the traveling is over. The adventure I'm working on for my birthday weekend is going to make prominent use of these mechanics.

Looking further down the road (no pun intended) to my gaming in 2015, I am going to eventually run some Dungeons & Dragons. I intend for any adventure/campaign I DM for that game to be focused on travel, as well. I admit Journeys & Dragons doesn't quite have the alliterative ring to it that Dungeons & Dragons does, but I will not let a catchy title run my game!

I also want to play a lot more Edge of the Empire in 2015. That game lends itself particularly well to travel, what with all its crunchy details on vehicular travel and exotic planets and such. So I'm excited for that game, too.

A few months ago, I wrote a post about how I'd like to run games with a more American-inspired sensibility to them, rather than the European heritage embraced by contemporary fantasy gaming. Journeys and westerns go together like peanut butter and chocolate, and that, combined with a friend's generous Christmas gift of Deadlands Reloaded, adds up to inspiration to run that game in the coming new year, as well.

When I inevitably swing back to the lighter, story-gamier side of the hobby, I look forward to taking those games on the road as well. Fate Core, I think, would be particularly good at handling the journeys of heroes.

Looking back at my own gaming, I can see two common motifs: big problems to be solved, and roads to be traveled. I'll write some other day on the former, but know now that the latter is foremost on my mind.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Eddy's, 2014

With Christmas now behind me and New Years looming ahead, I look back at 2014. I am so happy and fortunate to have a great group of friends to go on tabletop adventures with this past year. We've had a lot of great moments together. 

So, what were some of my favorites? Following are my nominations for several categories. If my friends read this, I'd love to hear their nominations, as well. And if you, Dear Reader, are not one of my regular gaming friends, I'd love to hear your nominations within your own group!

1. Best Adventure: There have been a lot of great sessions this past year. My favorite overall, though, is probably the fourth adventure I ran in my Firefly campaign, Breakout. In this session, the players played two adventures simultaneously: an adventure in the present that involved breaking into a hidden research facility and rescuing one of their friends, and an adventure presented as flashbacks revolving around one of the player's pasts in which she escaped from that very facility. My friend Stephen ran the flashback adventure, and we played off of each other to inform each adventure as they unfolded. It was quite possibly the highlight of that entire campaign!

2. Best Character: This is a really hard one for me. My players have made a lot of really fascinating characters (and, I'll admit, I'm quite enamored with the few I've made for their games, as well). I think the one I keep coming back to, though, is Kit, my friend Leslie's character for that same Firefly campaign. Kit was tough but she had a soft side; cold but had her moments of warmth. She didn't have a fascinating backstory or any crazy gimmicks, but of all the characters I've had the pleasure of playing for (or alongside) this year, Kit seemed the most genuinely human.

3. Best Game (role-playing): I played quite a few RPGs this year, I am happy to report. Obviously, Firefly took up a huge amount of my year. But as much as I loved it, it wasn't my favorite game. My favorite game of the past year was actually a game I didn't play that much of, but I was crazy about it every time it hit the table. That game, and in my humble opinion a sorely underrated one, is tremulus. The little tweaks it makes to the Apocalypse World formula make it a tense, compelling feat of storygaming. 

4. Best Game (boardgame): I have also played more than a few boardgames this year. When I think back on all of them, though, one bizarre little game sticks in my mind: Panic on Wall Street! This is not at all the deepest, most compelling, or even that fun of a game; but what it is, is pure, undistilled chaos in a box. Once "the markets open," the game is a shouting match as players are wheeling and dealing over and on top of one another. My absolute favorite boardgaming moment this year is when those dice hit the table after the trading round is up, the absolute cacophony of cries of anguish and screams of joy when stocks soar to sky-high rates...or plummet right into investment hell.

5. Best Tabletop Moment: Of all the crazy memories and cool stories that came out of gaming in 2014, the one I remember the most vividly and the most fondly is the second-to-last adventure of my Firefly campaign, "The Fourth Wall." In this meta-adventure, the players did not play their regular crew members but instead the actors who played their crew members in the TV show of our Firefly campaign. This wasn't my favorite adventure because there were a lot of things I could have done better, but it was my absolute most-fun session because of the crazy antics we had as the session unfolded. From a game of celebrity charades with the original Firefly cast, to creative meetings with a Hollywood-corrupted Joss Whedon, to a drunken Paul Giamatti's confession that he took a dump in the Rhino costume on the set of The Amazing Spiderman 2, "The Fourth Wall" was not a good roleplaying session; it was a good hanging out with friends session.

So please, let me know what your favorite gaming moments of 2014 were! You can use my categories, or make up your own!


Monday, December 22, 2014

Bow Hunting Skills, Computer Hacking Skills, Numchuk Skills...

I know it's a wee bit early to talk about New Year's Resolutions right now, but this isn't so much a resolution as it is a weak-point in my GMing game that I want to strengthen up. Well, I guess that makes it a resolution, but whatever...

Anyways, I want to up my design skills. Not my game design skills...I'm a game player, not a designer...my layout and production design skills. 

I've said before that I like RPGs with high production value because they're an easier sell to new players. My line throughout the past has always been that I'd rather focus all my free time on refining my GMing techniques and really learning the few games that meet my standards than consuming all that energy producing/designing a game but not actually playing it. However, I think there's a little wiggle room here. I don't have to self-publish my own roleplaying game or anything; I just want to learn how to custom-build a character sheet for a Cortex Plus hack or something. Or maybe make my Apocalypse World Hack not look like it was written in Google Drive, because it was.

My friend, Boomer? You should see the shit he's done with his Dungeon World campaign. He wrote his own campaign book, with fine layout and pictures, all that good stuff. He drew a goddamn map! I don't necessarily want to go in that direction, but I'd love to have skills like that if I ever wanted to. 

Here's an example of something I'd like to be able to do. I wanted to do a Walking Dead hack of Cortex Plus Dramatic. I'd love it if I could actually use panels from the comic or stills from the TV show, gank all the text from the system reference document in the Hackers Guide, and put together a little corebook for my players. Then I'd like to be able to make character sheets that look like they belong in a game with a Walking Dead theme, perhaps using fonts and graphics taken from the comic. 

Here's another example. I am working on a seven-part Cthulhu adventure for Fate Core. I'd like to do it up in the style of those amazing "Fate Worlds" setting books that have been coming out recently. I'd like to include all my rules for the Lovecraftian horror Fate hack, as well as the entire adventure, in a font/style similar to the rest of Fate Core's products. Again, I'd like to combine this with a custom-made character sheet.

I'm not sure how feasible any of this is. For all I know, the "little projects" I outlined above could require weeks, months, years of layout/design training. I have no experience with this kind of thing. But it would be pretty damn cool if I could do something like that, wouldn't it? 

I originally wanted to post a page of my friend's campaign guide here so you could see how well-done it is, but I lack even the basic skills necessary to do that, so instead, here's a picture of a panda.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The List of Ten

A couple of months ago, I made a list called "The Big & Little Five." These were ten tabletop RPGs I was going to primarily focus all my concentration on. The idea was to narrow my extremely-wide interests on RPGs, but still give me enough room to be flexible and try out different things. 

I still believe this is a good idea, but now I would like to update the list. Yesterday, Geek Native published my latest review of The One Ring Roleplaying Game. As you can see from reading the review, I am quite enamored with the game. Looking ahead to the games I want to run in 2015, I definitely want The One Ring on that list. So now it's time to update the list. I'm also now just calling the list "The List of Ten" because I think Big Five and Little Five is silly and sounds confusing. 

Anyways, as of December 18, 2014, the ten roleplaying games I want to devote most of my time on are:

  1. Dungeons & Dragons (all editions, mainly 5th)
  2. World of Darkness (all sub-worlds, mainly The God Machine Chronicle)
  3. Shadowrun (5th edition)
  4. The One Ring
  5. Star Wars (Edge of the Empire/Age of Rebellion)
  6. Fate Core
  7. Eclipse Phase
  8. Numenera/The Strange
  9. Warhammer Fantasy role-playing (third edition)
  10. Call of Cthulhu (6th edition currently; 7th once it's in print)

So the big heartbreaker: Apocalypse Engine games are off the list. Does this mean I'll never play or run them again? Absolutely not! It just means that my focus is off of them for now. I feel like the real power of the Apocalypse Engine is not in its mechanics but in its design theory (structuring RPGs like a conversation, making moves, agendas and principles, etc.). That design theory, however, can easily be applied to any other game, and so I have taken the games themselves off the list, but know that the philosophies of those games very much guide my GMing technique.

Two notable genres are missing from the list. One of them is superheroes. That's not exactly surprising. I literally cannot remember the last supers game I've run. I've written before about my problems with the genre, and though I have a solution I'd love to explore, that's a full campaign commitment I'm not sure I'm ready to make on an experiment. As for superhero games, there is the all-mighty Marvel Superheroic, but the almost-unforgivable sin of not allowing character creation (except for a tacked-on appendix after the game's publication) is a hard pill for me to swallow. Hero System is a little bit too crunchy for me. Mutants & Masterminds looks like a lot of fun, so I might have to look into that. Anyways, the search for a decent supers game is on.

The other notably-absent genre is post-apocalyptic. Numenera can do in a pinch, but it's a little weirder than most conventional post-apocalyptic settings. Eclipse Phase is technically post-apocalyptic, too, but not earth-bound. There are a few interesting ones out there, but nothing that's really got me excited to play in a world like that. This is going to have to change soon...with the new Mad Max movie on the horizon, and the ever-present popularity of the Fallout videogames, and of course The Walking Dead, this is a big deficiency on my List!

Most of the games on my List are very thematic. For whatever reason, theme enhanced by gameplay (or vice versa) is a big Thing with me right now. The One Ring showed this clearly, but even before that game, I was ranting and raving about Edge of the Empire and how its mechanics complement the themes of its source material, as well. 

There are two exceptions to that currently on my List. One is Fate Core. Being a universal system (I hate the term "generic"), Fate Core is a game designed to be customized for whatever genre/setting one can imagine. The other exception, Eclipse Phase, is one of the greatest settings for a game I've ever read, but it's saddled with a fairly crunchy, detail-driven system that I'm not too big on. For that reason, both of these games may fall off the List very soon. In the case of the former, I'm not too keen on making my own setting when I have these other games that have fleshed-out, detailed settings for me, ready to run great games in. In the case of the latter, I have little desire to refine or hack a clunky system when I could just play something else, even if I loved the setting.

Another common theme on this List are high production values. Each one of the games on the List looks great, with professional layout and high-quality art. As I've said before, my focus as a GM is on bringing new players to the hobby, and that's much easier to do with pretty pictures and flashy production values over a scrappy indie game that looks like it was thrown together on MS Word. I have all the respect in the world for the indie scene, and I fully recognize that they play an important part in the hobby, but my mission as a GM unfortunately takes me away from the indie scene, not closer.

So as 2015 begins and I return to GMing a weekly game, look to this List for possibilities on what I will run!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Hope in a Godless World

As I continue to read The One Ring, I am struck (as many tend to be) by the depth and detail of Tolkien's world. It seems like every facet of Middle Earth has been well thought out, except one: Gods. There does not appear to be any religion in Tolkien's world.

(Let me preface the rest of this blog by saying my knowledge of Middle Earth is pretty basic. I've seen the movies a few times, I read the Hobbit in fourth grade, and I read Fellowship about a month or two before the first movie came out. That is the extent of my knowledge, so I may be completely off-base here. If there are any Middle Earth scholars reading this and want to correct me on my notions of spirituality in Middle Earth, I am all ears.)

That's not too unusual, of course. I just wrote a blog entry a few days ago about the god-less religious system in my childhood homebrew world. I just find it interesting that Tolkien, a scholar who undoubtably understood the influence of religion in politics and conflict, would not include such an analog in his own world. Is it because he thought of Middle Earth as some kind of atheistic utopia? Considering how dark many parts of the story are, that seems doubtable. 

What then struck me as I read closely about the setting within the pages of The One Ring is that there is a sort of morality/spirituality in Middle Earth. The difference though, unlike our world, is that morality in Middle Earth has hard, established borders. The Shadow is everywhere in Middle Earth, and amoral things such as greed and murder can increase one's vulnerability to the Enemy's influence. So in Middle Earth, there's no need for a church to tell you stealing is wrong; you can see it yourself, right there in the world, the actual, literal corruption of those who steal (just ask Golum). Evil is not a subjective thing in Middle Earth; there really are right and wrong answers to questions of morality.

Maybe this is also why love and lust play such muted roles in Middle Earth, as well. In real history, wars were fought over women. Rape and pillage and all that. Prostitution, the "world's oldest profession," seems nonexistent in Middle Earth. Again, I propose that this isn't necessarily because Middle Earth is some utopian world, or even because Tolkien was some prude who didn't want to deal with yucky sex stuff in his elfbooks; it's because on Middle Earth, rape and prostitution are undeniably evil, and to indulge in them is a one-way ticket to becoming a mindless puppet of the Shadow.

All of this "morality has a real effect on a person" stuff swings the other way, too. While fear and greed can corrupt a person, hope and courage can strengthen the soul, too. Tolkien's world is a world where not only doing the wrong thing can corrupt you; doing the right thing can strengthen you. This, after all, is how Frodo managed to destroy the One Ring. It wasn't with badass swordfighting skills or a pet panther or superpowers: it was with hope and courage, kindness and companionship.

In a world like this, where morality is as real as physics, the idea of a divine being guiding our behavior does seem a little unneccessary. Throw in some of the more fantastic elements like the Wizards and other magical stuff, and yes, I can see how Tolkien's Middle Earth has little need for a god. 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Franchise Play

For my reviewing gig on Geek Native, I am currently reading through The One Ring. I haven't finished it yet, but so far, it is AWESOME. One of the most amazing marriages of theme and gameplay mechanics I've ever seen. I found myself thinking, "Wow, how great is it that a Lord of the Rings RPG turned out being this good?"

And then, I realized something: a whole ton of licensed tabletop RPGs have turned out fantastic. This was a little mindblowing to me. Videogames, you see, don't have that kind of distinction. Sure, there are some great licensed videogames, but there are some awful stinkers, too, enough to give most gamers a bit of apprehension whenever they see the next Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, or Harry Potter game coming down the pipe.

But that's not the case with tabletop RPGs. As far as I can remember, most all of them have been good at the very least, innovative and award-winning at their best. Why is that? Why do licensed RPGs tend to end up so good when other kinds of licensed games do not?

The first theory that comes to mind is a simple one: economics. The RPG industry is not exactly a gold mine. So when a game developer manages to get a license for a game, that publisher probably has enough cash to give the licensed game some high-end treatment. That is certainly the case for Fantasy Flight Games' very successful Star Wars RPGs. Judging by the lavish production value seen in The One Ring, it looks like Cubicle 7's got some money to throw around, too. Unlike the videogame industry, where there are numerous nooks and crannies that money can disappear into, a tabletop RPG can almost always benefit from cash flow: more editors, more playtesters, more designers, more artists, a stronger product line, etc.

Another theory I have also has to do with economics, but not literal, money-economics: the economics of creative energy. A brand-new setting can require a lot of work and creative vision to bring to life, to the point where there might not be enough gas in the tank for a decent game system after the world's been made. That can go the other way, as well: a game can spend so much time having it's numbers crunched and mechanics tooled with that there's just nothing left for a campaign setting. Licensed games take out half of the equation, leaving the game developers to focus solely on the mechanical bits without sacrificing a quality setting. Sure, there are still consultants that need to work on making sure the right company gets credit for designing the X-Wing, or that the population of Laketown is consistent to how its presented in The Hobbit, but I imagine that kind of research is at least somewhat easier than completely making those details up! Those details don't necessarily help a videogame suck less, but those little touches can and do matter in a tabletop RPG.

Regardless of the reasons, it is a great luxury to us RPG enthusiasts that we do not need to look down disdainfully at licensed RPGs. To the contrary; a licensed RPG gives us gamers a great opportunity to bring non-roleplaying fans of those franchises into the hobby. There are so, so many great licensed RPGs out there. Now following are my top five. Be sure to let me know if you've got one you want to give some love too, as well!

1. The One Ring: Seeing as how this is the game that inspired this blog post, it seems only appropriate to list it here. I'm not going to go into the reasons this game is great (read my upcoming review for that!) but I can comfortably tell you this game is easily the best iteration of a Lord of the Rings RPG yet, better than the Last Unicorn Games one, and better than the Rolemaster one.

2. Star Wars: Edge of the Empire/Age of Rebellion: I've already written repeatedly about how great this game is, but just so we're clear: the innovative, narrative-driven mechanics, combined with some of the best production value in the hobby, makes these roleplaying games incredibly fun and solid fan service, as well.

3. Marvel Superheroic/Firefly RPG: I'm going to lump these two properties together into one entry and also give a shoutout to Smallville and Leverage as well. The Cortex Plus engine is fast, fun, and flexible, and in all of these games the system is meticulously crafted to emulate the emotional core of each franchise.

4. The Dresden Files: I have only read this RPG; I've never played it. I've also not read more than a few dozen pages of the first novel. I can say, however, that this Fate-powered RPG is fantastic work. Flipping through it is an absolute delight (I loved the meta-touches throughout). The Dresden Files RPG represents the potential of the Fate RPG unleashed to its fullest. No lengthy design talks about technique or hacks here; just a solid, highly-playable, and very enjoyable role-playing game.

5. A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: Another game I haven't actually played yet, but reading through it I've been thouroughly impressed with the production value and attention to detail given in Green Ronin Games' treatment of George R.R. Martin's work. Of all the games on this list, this is probably the most valuable game for a non-RPG fan to pick up, as the extensive history of Westeros included make this a handy guide to the books/TV show, even if you never play a single adventure.

Now that I've given my top five existing RPGs, let me give you my top five most wanted licensed RPGs:

1. Harry Potter: I'd venture to say this is at the top of almost any RPG fan's list of most-wanted games. A simple Google search will yield about a thousand or so hacks and homebrews of Harry Potter RPGs. But I would love to see one of the big boys like Fantasy Flight or Cubicle 7 get their hands on the license and see what they could do with it!

2. Fallout: The post-apocalyptic world of the Fallout series is so full of flavor and detail it's practically begging to have a nice, high-quality RPG corebook made out of it.

3. ANY Blizzard franchise: World of Warcraft, Starcraft, Diablo...three of the coolest game worlds ever created, and I'd kill for a tabletop equivalent of any of them. I know there are D20 WoW and Diablo games, and a Starcraft campaign setting using the out-of-print Alternity system...but none of those games actually captured the feelings of either the world or the videogames, in my mind. I particularly think Fate or Cortex could handle any of these game worlds well.

4. Law & Order: A weird one, I know, but hear me out, here. Despite its runaway popularity on TV, the police procedural has had a hard time crossing over to gaming success. But I don't think that needs to be the case. I think a police procedural drama could do very well as a tabletop RPG. A slightly crunchier system, like GURPS, I think, could handle Law & Order well. The important thing is, like the TV show, the game must give equal footing to both the police who investigate crimes, and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders. Duh-duh!

5. Terminator: Three movies, a fourth on the way, and a TV show (albeit short-lived) and NO game yet? Come on! Only a slight stretch of the imagination is needed to allow players to travel into the past and battle the machines to save the future. And imagine being able play as one of those machines! I think it'd be awesome.
In finding this picture, I discovered that the new movie is supposed to be the first of a three-part "reboot" trilogy. So, seriously, this NEEDS a tabletop game.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Returning to Darkwood

With my copy of the Dungeon Master's Guide arriving in the mail today, it may be time for me to dust off an old blast from the past...my campaign setting, Darkwood.

I invented Darkwood back in middle school. It started as a copycat work. As a young teenager, I was enthralled by the worldbooks of old-school RPGs, particularly the ones for Rifts, Shadowrun, the boxed campaign sets for AD&D, and, later on, Earthdawn. I read them voraciously, the way others probably read the Wheel of Time or Forgotten Realms books (though I read a reasonable amount of those, too). I wanted to create a worldbook just like Rifts: Vampire Kingdoms, or Earthdawn's Barsaive!

The original world of Darkwood was drawn shoddily on a single piece of graph paper. The document itself, written on WordPerfect, was over 60 pages of what basically amounted to Palladium Games fan fiction, minus the kick-ass art and all the typos (OHHH!!!!!). The book was written from the perspective of Woodrick Brownbeard, famous explorer. There were no gnomes in my world, because I thought gnomes were stupid. I did allow gnolls as a playable race, but in my world they were more like wolf-people than hyena-people. I had this massive stone wall that separated Darkwood from it's feral, untamed neighbor, Wildwood (of course I plan on suing George R.R. Martin for stealing this particular idea).

All of that, looking back, sounds completely awful, as most teenage ideas do. There were some keepers in there, though, that I'd love to come back to in an adult, 5E version of this world. The main concept I'd like to revisit was the religious system I made for Darkwood.

The people of Darkwood did not worship gods; they worshipped Passions. The system went through several iterations, but in its last form, there were eight "Prime" Passions: four "good" (Love, Honor, Hope, and Courage); four "evil" (Hate, Greed, Fear, and Lust). There were also numerous "Lesser" Passions, such as Happiness, Humor, Revenge, and Loyalty. Each Passion had its own church with its own doctrines, philosophies, and customs. Though Passions were primarily based on a single emotion, several Passions were not; they were just ideas powerful enough to inspire emotion, such as the aforementioned Honor, Greed, or Loyalty.

In Darkwood, anyone who felt these Passions strongly channeled mana, the raw power of creation and destruction. Mana, except in its most concentrated, powerful form, is invisible to mortal eyes, and the vast majority of Darkfolk couldn't manipulate or control it. Clerics of my world, however, were living conduits of their chosen Passion. They were able to fill their hearts with their "patron" Passion on a moment's notice, and use that energy to power their spells. High-level clerics, collectively known as "Embodiments" (their exact name varied per Passion) were considered some of the most powerful and influential people in my world.

Mages in Darkwood channeled mana, too, but they did it the opposite way: by purging themselves of all emotion. By keeping their hearts and minds a blank slate to the influence of the Passions, mages could manipulate the latent energies of mana found all around the world, using a complex language known as Draconic. High-level wizards, so used to not feeling emotion, were cold, emotionless machines, and were often treated with great suspicion in my world.

When D&D's third edition came out and the sorceror suddenly became a thing, I revisted Darkwood and added them to the world. Their philosophy was the polar opposite of the mages; they embraced all Passions simultaneously, reveling in the chaos of mana, and through an intuitive understanding of Draconic, they conjured their magic that way. High-level sorcerors (very rare) were emotionally unstable, borderline insane individuals who's mere presence could cause random magical effects to happen all around them.

I never went back to Darkwood after third edition. Now, with fifth edition upon us (and it's being awesome and all), maybe I'll consider dusting off the old world and modernizing it for a new audience.

Earthdawn was a huge influence on Darkwood.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Getting to the Apollo, Pt. II

RPGs, from a pure reading perspective, are funny things. They can read one way but play out another. The theory that you read on the page and the practice as the game plays out can sometimes be wildly different experiences.

This struck me when I read someone's post on G+ about how complicated they thought Star Wars: Edge of the Empire looked. I'll admit: it looked that way to me, at first, too. But my stubborn refusal to hack stuff (I really hate monkeying with mechanics; I'd rather throw away a good campaign setting attached to a bad system than convert to a different system), plus the fact I had already thrown down a big chunk of money on the corebook, meant I was bound and determined to try it. Although the first session was a little clunky, by the second session, it all just clicked perfectly. Now I couldn't imagine playing a Star Wars RPG with any system other than the "narrative dice" system of Edge of the Empire. I think that G+ poster would be doing himself a disservice by hacking the game before he even tried it out.

As is inevitably the case these days when someone asks "what could I use to hack this game?", the first two suggestions thrown to him by the community were Fate and the Apocalypse Engine. Both systems are great, but in my mind both systems are just as complex. Fate, I'd argue, may even be moreso. First of all, hacking every bit of Star Wars...every iconic alien species, stats for all the iconic technology, and of course rules for the Force...is going to be a bit of work, at least as much work as simply learning the system you're leaving behind. This is especially the case with the Apocalypse Engine, which essentially is nothing but a vast collection of micro-games, every move needing to be individually crafted for a situation. Yes, you could go the World of Dungeons route, but you could also just flip a damn coin whenever a player wants to do something. You start spinning out of the realms of gaming and into the existential areas of "what is a game?" Whenever I find myself going that far out, it's usually time to go do something else, because I'm way overthinking this.

Once you get passed the actual hacking process, then you have play itself. This is where I'd argue Fate Core gets even more complicated than Edge of the Empire. When are you creating an advantage, or just overcoming an obstacle? What is an aspect, or a boost, and when do you compel it? Where are your campaign's milestones? What are the established "ground rules" of the table? What is the reality of the fiction? All of this stuff, for me at least, can be serious headache material. And God help you if you try and go to the community about any of those questions...you'll get about ten responses, each of them completely different from one another. Several of them will ask you to go out and read other books, watch other sessions, read other community threads, and consult blogs on how to do whatever you're doing. Even once you've got the theory nailed down, the practice will be a constant point of contention.

You could, then, use any of the many available hacks out there already done by members of those respective communities. Sure, that's an option...but now you've switched from a lavishly-produced, meticulousy play-tested and widely supported game system to something some random dude on the Internet slapped together on a rainy afternoon. Is that really better?

Listen...I love Fate Core, and I of course love the Apocalypse Engine. But I'm getting a little tired of those games getting thrown around as the default, do-anything RPGs. If you're a big fan of either of those systems and you're deeply emotionally/intellectually entangled with them, great. I can certainly understand the desire to stick to what you know. But I do openly question the efficiency of hacking an existing game to those systems. I once even saw someone converting Numenera to the Apocalypse Engine. Numenera? Really?

The bottom line, as I've written before, is that tabletop RPGs are a labor of love. You can try and hack and sleaze and sidestep your way to a great game, but the best, most direct, most effective way to have the gaming experience you're craving is to get out there and practice. Don't be afraid of learning something new. Don't be afraid of sucking. Don't be afraid of not getting it. Crack open that book, study those rules, prep for the game, and run that sumbitch! After you've put the game through the paces, gotten it to the table a couple of times, collected some experiences and feedback from your players, then you can decide if a game isn't right for your needs. Before then, you're just speculating, and you could end up speculating yourself out of a fantastic game.

It's easy to stick with what you know. But the payoff for trying something new can be immense. Don't let a roleplaying game turn you off by merely thumbing through the pages. Get out there and play it!
It's not that hard, seriously.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Lunchtime D&D: 12/2/14

This afternoon, I got together three of my coworkers and continued our lunchtime Dungeons & Dragons game. We continued playing through "The Lost Mines of Phandelver," the adventure that forms the backbone of the D&D Starter Set. This was our second session. The halfling thief from the last session couldn't make it, but the two warriors returned, and a new player, taking control as the dwarven cleric, joined us.

Progress has been, understandably, pretty slow these two sessions. An hour is not a whole lot of time to work with, and when you chop off minutes for getting food, using the bathroom, and various other sundry office work things before you're ready to sit and play, you've got even less than that. Then there's the issue of timing to consider. I don't want to stop the game right in the middle of a combat or an interesting situation and kill the tempo, so I pretty much need to end the game at the first slow moment we come across. We made it through two more encounters before I called it for this week.

Luckily, the competition for these coworkers' time is not much of an issue. Most of these guys would just sit at their desks and look up shit on the internet anyway, so I've got a pretty low bar to meet each week. The bigger problem for me is my own boredom level. "The Lost Mines of Phandelver," much like many other RPG starter sets out there, can be pretty boring for veteran players to play through (or run, in my case). The early parts of this adventure are basically one fight after another. The new rules play fast and smooth, so this isn't quite as horrific as it sounds, but it still devolves into several rounds of "I swing my sword at the goblin," followed by the clatter of a 20-sided across the conference room table.

I beef it up where I can, of course, but as we push through the adventure, I've begun to think about my own diversions from the Starter Set into more interesting territory. Once I get the Dungeon Master's Guide next week, I look forward to mining it for ideas and stringing together a starter adventure of my own to unleash on a group of gamers when I return to regular GMing next month.

That is, of course, assuming I even stick with D&D. I've been thinking a lot about the great game of Star Wars: Edge of the Empire I ran a couple of weeks ago, and how much I'd love to go back to that...

My Own Loser Path

"If you're a Sym main, please exit the stream," was the description yesterday of one of the Overwatch Twitch streams I follow....