Friday, January 31, 2014

An Engine of Joy

This morning, I got an absolutely delightful little piece of news from Google+. Someone out there on the internet posted about World Gone Mad, and they loved it!

World Gone Mad is my zombie apocalypse hack of Apocalypse World/Dungeon World. I wrote it almost a year ago, when I was madly in love with the whole Apocalypse Engine. I wrote, from the ground up, about a dozen different playbooks that riffed on the zombie survival-horror genre. Then I wrote a bunch of custom moves covering the most prolific actions of a zombie apocalypse, like using shotguns and constructing safehouses. Delusions of grandeur filling my head, I even wrote up a miniature player's handbook and gamemaster (ahem, zombie master's) guide with some of that basic "welcome to RPGs" stuff that most of us hobbyists skip on the way to the rules for character creation. I even stole some art from the internet and splashed it in there!

I learned some very valuable lessons in the process of putting together that hack. Mainly, I learned that I am NOT interested in game design. At ALL. It's hard work. I found myself obsessing over every tiny little detail. I constantly had to stretch my mind to think outside of myself and my own little limited box of experience, because I wanted to create a true, honest-to-zombies RPG that anyone interested in could play. My head was spinning with game design philosophy questions like "is this in the spirit of the game?" "Does this mechanic integrate right with the genre?" Even basic stuff like "Will this be fun?" The entire document, I believe, ended up at about 60 pages, and I had easily three times that in discarded ideas and false starts.

And, girlfriend, don't even get me started on interacting with the community. I made the dreadful mistake of not once, but several times, posting on message boards/social media outlets my ideas. I could practically feel the doubt being poured down my throat as some people suggested "better" ideas, or pointed out problems, legitimate or imagined, with mine. At one point, somebody I hold in very, very high regard in this space even directly questioned one of my game design decisions. That practically broke my spirit to finish the game. But I limped to the finish line.

But when that random someone on the internet posted about my game with such flattering praise, I have to admit, that felt good. In that moment, I understood, for just a fracion of a second perhaps, what it must feel like when those rockstar RPG designers I admire so much hear about how their game works, and the product of their blood, sweat, and tears becomes an engine of joy for so many. That's an awesome feeling. And that was brought on by just a single person saying "we played Ed Gibbs' World Gone Mad last night." No wonder so many people are making RPGs all the time, despite the hard, thankless work involved. I had gone cold to World Gone Mad for many months now, but when I read that little status update, I spent the entire morning pouring over every page that I had written for that game and re-read it all, fixing typos and re-wording stuff that I was too lazy to fix on the last pass.

All feelings of euphoria aside, my stance hasn't changed at all. I am a "career" GM, content to spend my days running games others create, instead of creating my own. But for just a moment today, I got to see another side of the hobby, and it was pretty damn cool.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Uphill, Both Ways

Back when I first started playing RPGs, a little over 25(!) years ago, there was a certain, established order. RPGs were a three-way dance between the players, the GM, and the game.

The players played the game. They had few responsibilities aside from showing up and having a good time.

The GM, oftentimes the sole owner of the gamebook, organized the get-together, learned the rules, studied (or wrote) the adventure, and interpreted the various actions and dice-rolls to put together the world of the game, and to direct the story of the adventure. The GM, contrasted to the players, had a lot of responsibility, but the trade-off was more control over the game. The GM's fun was derived from the players' fun...in other words, if the players were having fun, the GM was having fun.

The game was, naturally, the backbone of the entire get-together. It clearly communicated the rules, oftentimes provided the actual adventure, and created the entire world the players role-played in. The game has the most responsibility, as it dictates literally everything the players and GM can and can't do, not to mention it came to the layout and writing of the game to communicate the rules, and the artwork and stylistic touchers often to inspire or set the stage of the game. In return, though, the game designers are facilitating play across the world with groups of gamers, and even making a little money to boot.

That was how RPGs used to be, and (cue crotchety old coot voice) that's the way we liked it, dangnabit!

Many modern RPGs have altered that order. There's a new balance between the three "factions" in a role-playing game. The players in today's games oftentimes share the burden of telling the story and understanding the rules. Some of today's games, like Fate Core, practically demand the players understand the game as well as the GM in order for the adventure to be run optimally. Today's GM has fewer responsibilites in the rules front, but oftentimes because of the added responsibility to the players, the GM becomes an "ambassador" for the game, helping teach the rules to players so that they understand their part in the game and can contribute properly. Today's games are often written as highly-collaborative affairs, requiring an even give-and-take between players and GM to run optimally. Furthermore, many of the details of modern RPGs have been lessened, removed, or delegated to sourcebooks with the understanding that those missing details will instead be filled in by the players and GM.

Is this a bad thing? Absolutely not. The players have more creative control, the GMs have less responsibility, and the games don't have to be so meticulously written.

Is it a completely good thing, though? Not necessarily. I am an old-school, fire-and-brimstone GM. I can hang and bang with the new games as well as anyone out there, but if I'm being honest, I am at my best (and having the most fun), when I enter a room and I'm the only person who completely knows how to play the game. I am most comfortable in a game where the players can't spend a My Turn token and take over the story. I am at my best as a GM when facilitating the story falls on me and me alone. It's what I'm used to. It's what I've done for over two decades.

I bring all of this up because I've been thinking a lot about Fate Core recently. I really, really love Fate. Its flexibility and versatility is unmatched in the industry. However, there is one problem I have with the game that I cannot avoid: a good, "legit" game of Fate requires players to know the game as well as I do. I've heard some people call this "metagame," and I would agree. I think about the person who clicks "yes" on my Meetup gathering, having never played a role-playing game before, and think about how it's going to be on me to tell that person how to play, and then expect that person to pull their weight at creating the story at the table. This, as opposed to an older game, like, say, Call of Cthulhu, where the die-hard veteran and the complete newb are both essentially on the same page: the page I tell them they're on!

Not to just pick on Fate Core, but there are many other new-school RPGs that are the same way. Take Dungeon World, for example. I absolutely love Dungeon World. But to really get into DW, the players at the table have to "get it." When the Bard uses Bardic Knowledge and I ask him or her how they know that, they can't just give me the Deer in the Headlights look; the Bard, or someone else at the table, has got to come up with something. If it falls back to me, then much of the magic of DW is lost, and we might as well dust off our old red box edition of D&D, instead.

I guess where I'm going with all of this is here: when one looks at all the hot new RPGs, it's tempting to say that older styles of play are obsolete and the future is "collaborative storytelling" style games. If that is true...and I believe it's not, just look at the ton of OSR games out there...then we are ignoring a very real segment of the RPG community: all the players out there who want to explore a world, not create one.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Embracing the Darkness

There have been, unofficially, two eras that began in this blog. This entry marks the beginning of the third era.

The first era, let's call it "the D&Dsis Era," was my misguided idea of chronicling a year of playing D&D and writing it up as a graduate thesis for my MA program at Johns Hopkins. That period started in May of last year and ended about three months later. It was a good idea, and I'd still love to do it someday, but I probably never will (at least, not unless 5th edition D&D addresses the game-breaking issues I have with the current game, detailed in my post yesterday, "Not My Thing"). The good thing about that period, though, was that it inspired this blog. Even after I decided not to do the D&Dsis, I continued to update the blog with my gaming experiences. This marks the first time I have ever been able to keep up a consistent blog of any kind for any extended length of time!

The second era, the "Wandering Era," was when I embraced the fact that I am essentially an RPG whore, bouncing from one game to the next, running one-shots and shying away from any long-term campaigns or commitments. That era was long and great fun, but I have grown tired of the lack of lasting games, not to mention the potential friendships I have missed out on as a result. That era began around August and ended around December, when I formally expressed my intention to begin a persistent campaign.

Which now brings us to the current era, the "Campaign Era." This past month has been all about my desire to start something epic and substantial. Yesterday, it suffered what appeared to be a serious setback when I had my falling out with D&D. This morning, I canceled not only my D&D campaign, but the concurrent Warhammer campaign I was running, as well. I am burned out on fantasy. This marks two more failures to launch in an embarrsingly long list of false starts.

Is it embarrassing? A little. But this blog is called Failing Forward for a reason. With every failure, I learn something about myself. I try and build on that lesson, and make the next game better. Someone once said "Failure is just an opportunity," or something like that, and though I normally think that person is just trying to make themselves feel better, today, I get it. My failure to carry on in D&D has led to an opportunity to try the next thing. And I gotta say, I'm pretty damn excited about the next thing.

The next thing is Call of Cthulhu. I figure, since D&D didn't work out for me, I'll try out one of the other long-standing dynasties in role-playing. Here's a few reasons why I'm excited:

1. It's Not D&D. That's not meant to be snarky. I literally mean the playstyle of CoC is very different than D&D. D&D is more often than not about combat and exploring dungeons. CoC is about solving mysteries and surviving unspeakable horrors. D&D proved not to be my thing, so maybe CoC, with it's different emphasis, will prove to be more my speed. And there's evidence to back that up...

2. Love the Lovecraft. Outside of RPGs, I have had a slow-burning, high-duration/low intensity obsession with Lovecraft and the very ideas of Cosmic/Supernatural Horror for a very, very long time. CoC, obviously, is based on Lovecraftian horror. D&D, on the other hand, has its narrative roots in pulp fantasy fiction. Though the genres definitely share some roots, I have an affinity for the former, and decidely not so for the latter. I have read tons of Lovecraft & Poe, and loved it. I get a huge kick out of watching shows like The X-Files, Fringe, and most recently, True Detective. Even the bordering mystery/suspence genre is something I have a lot of fun involving myself with. Meanwhile, the only fantasy series I've ever been interested in is Game of Thrones, which has very little to do with the kind of high-fantasy embraced by D&D. Looking back, this probably should have been a very big red flag as to where my interests really lie.

3. Combat is not very important. Throughout my GMing "career", combat has often been my least favorite part of the game. Why? I like my action gaming to exist in those really intense, make-it-or-break-it moments. Combat, by necessity, has lots of buildup to those moments, but few of the actual moments themselves. As a result, I love Brockheimer-esque action sequences in my game, but a simple sword/fist fight is usually boring to me. I also love scenes of high tension, like, for example, the end of the film Seven. Combat is rarely that ambigous. Combat in RPGs, even horror RPGs, rarely leads to that kind of doubt, dread, or tension. Chaosium (publishers of CoC) gets that, and so CoC does not have the same kind of emphasis on combat that most RPGs do. Sure, there are detailed rules for when it does happen, but it's not meant to happen often. Put another way, combat in CoC are like skill challenges in D&D; an important enough part of the game to have rules, but clearly not the emphasis.

4. Survival is not a given; it's the reward. The drama inherent in the struggle to survive is extremely rewarding and fascinating to play out. To me, it's far more exciting and interesting than the struggle for power, which is often the emphasis of later editions of D&D and many of its contemporaries. In CoC, higher-level powers and magic items aren't the reward. Living to discover the truth is the reward. That, to me, is awesome. Again, moving outward from RPGs, I guess this is what my problem has always been with The Walking Dead. Despite my love for all things zombie, I haven't been able to get past the first few episodes of the show. The show (and the comics, kinda) have always been more about the people and their relationships, not necessarily on the struggle to survive.

An so, this Sunday, the third era continues, stronger and stranger than before. Will it work out? Or will this be the next "opportunity?" I guess we'll play to find out!







Monday, January 27, 2014

Not My Thing

When I say something is "Not My Thing," it's usually the ultimate dismissal from me. Everything is my thing. I like trying stuff all the time. I have, over the past year, built a gathering of people focused almost completely around my obsessive need to try new things, week after week. So when something manages not to be my thing, it's usually a pretty powerful and profound personal statement about my tastes.

Yesterday, I ran a game of D&D with a group of great, enthusiastic gamers. And ironically, on the 40th birthday of this very game, I discovered a heartbreaking truth: D&D 4th Edition is Not My Thing.

This is tragic news to me. As I've stated many times in the past, I want to be an ambassador to role-playing games. It's always been an overarching goal of mine to attract new players to the hobby. A vital tool to that has been this game, which carries enough name and brand recognition to help me sell the hobby. With yesterday's discovery of D&D 4E not being my thing, this job just got a lot harder. Hell, after this revelation, it might even be time for a new job, as it were.

How did I discover this? Put simply, the game went as smoothly as it could, and yet I didn't have fun. I had four players: a Warrior, a Wizard, a Ranger, and a Bard. Only the Wizard had any experience with D&D; the other three were complete newbs. The adventure, Keep on the Shadowfell, was written more or less specifically with introducing players to the game in mind. In theory, this is exactly the setup I want: new, enthusiastic players; one of the most polished, prized RPGs in the hobby; and an adventure written from the ground up to maximize the potential of both.

The players had a blast. I, however, kept staring at the clock and getting a pitch ready for the game I wanted to play after the session was over.

This is hardly an unusual experience. Time and again, I've sacrificied my own interest in a game in favor of bringing others in. I do it all the time, and I recognize it as a cost sometimes necessary to achieve my goal. "Taking one for the team," as it were. Usually, though, achieving my goal makes the sacrifice worthwhile. This was not the case yesterday. Yesterday, looking back at everything, I think I would have rather just cancelled the game, stayed in, and played Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag all day.

So what, exactly, about D&D's 4th edition is turning me off so much? I'll rattle off a few of the fatal grievances here:

1. The Math is Too High. I heard a variation on this sentence at least a hundred times yesterday: "I rolled a 14...6, 7, 8...-2...25, total, and 6...9...12 damage." I wrote in my last entry that in my ideal RPG, you know whether an action succeeds or fails as soon as the dice hit the table. After many sessions of D&D, I can now say in all confidence that nothing could be further from that ideal than this game.

2. Disconnect Between Players and DM. Another teeth-grinding experience that was part of yesterday's game was the constant flipping through the Player's Handbook looking for specifics on abilities the players have. I was almost completely useless in this, because I spent all my prep time studying the adventure, not studying character creation. In D&D, making a character and running the game are almost two completely different experiences, and being proficient at one doesn't mean a thing about the other. When you add in classes from multiple handbooks and internet resources, it makes knowing everything about character creation and character capabilities nearly impossible. It could take years to become an expert on just one class, let alone the 14 or so I allowed in my game. Many players probably love this level of depth on their side of the mechanics, but to me, that just means less stuff I can know and help smooth over.

3. Disconnect Between Encounters and Role-playing. Yesterday's session was three scenes: a battle, exploring a small town and gathering information from NPCs, and another battle. Guess which scene was the shortest? Guess which one required the least amount of dice rolling and rules consulting? And, finally, guess which one I had the most fun with? Yes, D&D can handle role-playing and puzzle solving and all that stuff as well as nearly any other RPG out there. But that is clearly not the focus of D&D, and it shows in the gameplay.

4. Too Much To Keep Track Of. I absolutely despise stopping the action to write something down. The way I see it, if I or my players can't remember it accurately, then it probably wasn't important in the first place. That simply is not the case in D&D. In the second battle of the afternoon, I had five monsters battling the PCs, and each of them had various conditions and afflictions on them, on top of keeping track of the damage the PCs heaped onto them. The players were routinely confusing one monster with another, further compounding the headache. Then I started doing it, forgetting which kobold was asleep, which one was taking ongoing damage, which one was getting a flanking bonus, and which one couldn't move. I was so close to just saying "fuck it; YOU KILL THEM ALL!" I take full responsibility for this lack of organization. But I also say that this isn't what I want to do in an RPG. A boardgame? A wargame? Sure, fine, whatever. But an RPG? No.

I've spent a long time defending D&D. And I will continue to do so. It's a great game. But it's just Not My Thing.


Friday, January 24, 2014

One Game to Rule Them All

One false idea I have subscribed to over the years as a gamemaster is the idea that there is, out there somewhere, one universal game system that can handle every genre I would ever dream of playing. Logically, I do believe this is a false idea because of course no one game can do that. Even so-called "generic systems" such as GURPS, or even Fate Core are pre-disposed to run one kind of game or another. Running, say, a tactical wargame with Fate would require so many adjustments to the rules that you might as well play something else. Likewise, a narratively-focused storygame using GURPS would require leaving out so many hundreds of pages of material that you might as well play something lighter and more suitable.

However, the idea always lingers in my mind. Maybe I haven't found that game yet. Maybe if I just commit to one system, I can bend it to my will and that will somehow be better than learning a new system. I am constantly impressed with the two big universal systems out there, Hero and GURPS, and would love to have a collection of their stuff on hand. GURPS, in particular, writes some of the best sourcebooks in the industry, so meticulously researched that even people with no interest at all in role-playing games could pick them up and learn a lot about whatever the subject matter of the book is.

As mentioned above, Fate Core is a great new universal system, too. It's lighter structure and emphasis on collaborative storytelling make it particularly appealing. Furthermore, what I like about Fate is that it's rules are logically consistent across genres. For example, let's say you want to run a sci-fi world where the internet is a living, virtual-reality, like the Matrix. GURPS and other older systems like that would have whole books full of rules for handling that. Fate, however, would run it like it runs everything else; the only change would be in the scope of the story. Here's another one: underwater combat. GURPS would have all kinds of rules for how to do stuff underwater. Fate would run the same way, with only the particular details of the story changing. I'm not going to go more specific than that since you can look up these games yourself, but trust me when I say that Fate is truly universal, in a way that "universal" games before it could only dream.

So what's stopping me from declaring Fate Core the One Game to Rule Them All? Not a whole lot, really. But there are a few things that I'm looking for, a wishlist, if you will:

1. Judicious, quality support. Since Fate is a relatively new RPG, this is the big thing it lacks right now. You could buy a GURPS book once per month and have new content for YEARS. Fate right now encompasses just three books, not counting the core book itself and its abridged cousin, Fate Accelerated. There is a strong, diverse fan community for Fate, but call me old-school; I am a sucker for good, old-fashioned, published work. Stuff that's been seen by an editor. Stuff that's been playtested by dozens of people over hundreds of hours. Content that's tried and true, and not something somebody wrote up right off the top of their head while bored in class or at work or something. I've said before that I have little interested in playtesting or designing games; I want to play them, and show them off to the world, and for that, I need polish!

2. Popular, accessible, and preferably still in print. This one seems trivial, but remember my overall goal as a GM: get more people playing RPGs, especially people who haven't played them before. This is tougher to do if we're playing some dusty, out-of-print game that no one's ever heard of. The goal is to make the hobby as accessible to others as possible, not to force them to go on some scavenger hunt across the internet to find that cool game they were playing last weekend.

3. Logical, intuitive rules. This one's a little trickier than it sounds. In Fate, you roll four funky Fate dice, apply the net roll to a skill, and compare that to a difficulty set by the GM. If you need a higher roll, or want to re-roll, you invoke an Aspect, costing you a Fate Point. That's not bad, but there's a bit of learning required by the player, like knowing what an Aspect is, knowing how to manage Fate Points, and so on. GURPS is slightly more intuitive: roll 3 six-sided dice. Add 'em up. If it's lower than your relevant skill or attribute or whatever, you succeed. Problem there is, the dice are counter-intuitive; the player wants to roll low, not high. It can be surprising how mind-blowing this concept can be, especially to new players. Perhaps the most-intutive mechanic is the d20 system, where all the player needs to know is this: pick up a 20-sided die. Roll it. Higher=better. However, the problem with d20 is...

4. Math-light. It's surprising how just basic addition and subtraction can slow a game down. When you throw in an exciting scene where stuff is happening very fast, suddenly even adding basic numbers can suck the excitement right off the table. In my ideal system, you know as soon as the dice hit the table if you fail or succeed, and by how much. This is certainly not the case with most d20-based systems.

5. Genre and playstyle neutral. By this point, you can probably think of several systems that can fit the above criteria. Chances are, though, the problem with those systems is they're custom-built to run whatever setting they're running. How silly would it be to bust out Warhammer's narrative dice in a game about a first date (though I guess the "hammer" symbols would mean something else entirely...)? I would want this magical system to handle anything....anything...and handle it without any serious adjustments to the mechanics, terminology, or meta-game.

Does all of this sound too picky? Too trite? That's probably because it is. I understand this. As I said at the beginning of this post, this game does not exist, at least not without compromising at least one of these five criteria.

Or maybe it does exist, and I just haven't found it yet...

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Long Game

So the current plan for my RPG Sundays is this: I alternate between D&D and Warhammer. The D&D campaign has six new players in it, while Warhammer is with my old group. The D&D campaign is expected to go all year, while the Warhammer game will go at least several months. I have settled into a pair of long-term campaigns.

I'm happy about that...for the most part. It's what I've wanted for awhile. I've never even seen what high-level D&D play looks like. I've never done a long-term campaign for any RPG, really, not beyond three or four sessions.

I'm also a little panicky at the thought of a long-term game, though. I'm constantly digging through RPGs, new and old. I'm constantly looking forward to exploring a new game. I like having games open to the public, to bring new people into the hobby. I've helped people meet other people. Whole groups of friends have formed from games that I ran. I'm proud of that. I'm happy It's an honor I can take with me beyond just the game itself.

So I'm conflicted. I do want to do some long-term play, but I also was in a really comfortable niche with all my public one-shot adventures. The original idea was to have only D&D be my long-term game. That way I could have my cake and eat it, too. But I know the other group is craving some long-term play, as well. And they've stuck with me through so much, I think they deserve a shot at what they want.

Another concern I have for these long-term games is whether a bi-weekly session will even cut it. I think of an RPG campaign like a TV show. Would I be able to follow a TV show that only aired every other week? Would I even want to bother? Obviously RPGs and TV shows aren't quite the same thing, but both things do tell stories, and the question becomes how much time can I put between episodes of a particular story before that time becomes a liability to the story? Now, to me, since I'm running two games on alternating weekends, I of course am unaffected. But what about my players?

When people ask me how to run a good RPG, I tell them to master the Three Knows: Know Your Game, Know Your Players, and Know Yourself. I guess the fundamental problem I'm having right now is I have a direct conflict between what I know about myself (I tend to run one-shot, short term games with new players), and what I know about my players (they want a long-term campaign where they can develop their characters and the story). It would be easy to tell my players "Hey, that's just not what I do," but I don't want to lose them! But if I give them what they want, how long will I be able to keep it up before I inevitably lose interest, or want to play something else?

Going into 2014, these are the big questions I want to answer. 2013 was all about getting back into the hobby, meeting new people, and playing a bunch of great games. Now I want to refine that experience, get right to the core of what it is about this hobby that drives me, and I want to really get to know the people who choose to go on this ride with me. So I guess the answer is right there, isn't it? Time to buckle down and play through a campaign!

Still, I'll just keep all these other games over here, and maybe flip through the pages every once and awhile...

Monday, January 13, 2014

Play Report: DCC (and a little tremulous)

Today, I got together with J, J2, B, and L and played some Dungeon Crawl Classics (DCC). We were supposed to play Warhammer, but with one guy home sick and another guy out of town, I decided to take the opportunity to play something new, rather than leaving our missing guys behind.

Character creation, as it commonly is in a new RPG, was a little clunky but we figured it out. In DCC, oyu make several level-0 characters. As they die in the first few dungeons, the survivors level up and become your "real" characters. Since there were four players, they each made four level zero characters. My insistence on witnessing rolls slowed progress considerably. I'll definitely just trust everyone next time!

The point, as I understand it as written in DCC, is to create normal people who make that choice to become adventurers. The first adventure, or the "funnel", filters out the fat, leaving the best characters behind as your heroes. By then, those little level-0 nobodys have earned the right to live. They really are heroes. So that first dungeon is really like an introduction to your character and the game world as a whole. This works great with more old-school, traditional players, who are used to rolling dice, writing down numbers, and jumping right into the dungeon. However, a few of my players are more new-school and used to a game where lots of thought and emotional investment goes into them from the beginning. The idea of holding back on that creative energy and letting a few of those characters die was a rough adjustment. Again, I can see this system working fabulously for a bunch of grognards who just want to get to the monster-slaying, but it's definitely old school, and those accustomed to a more modern RPG sensibility may not "get it."

This extended into the adventure itself. We played the adventure in the book, the Something-Something Under the Stars (I'm writing this on my phone as I watch the Golden Globes, so I'm not going to look it up right now). The adventure, as written, is clearly designed for archetypical adventurers...brave to the point of foolishness, greedy to the point of madness, kicking in doors and killing anything that isn't a PC. After the first couple of PCs died in the first two rooms, everyone was playing very conservatively. B and L were so concerned about losing more characters that they left the dungeon before finishing, only returning when J and J2 found a way to safely defeat the monsters in the last room. Again, I don't fault the players for their mentality. It's the way they were "raised" on RPGs. Again, I could see some grizzled old grognards really embracing this style of play and having a hoot with it. But not everyone!

So overall, it looks like DCC absolutely is what it is: an homage to old-school retro role-playing, one that people who played back then will love, and players who didn't will scratch their heads and wonder what the fuss is all about. I'm still glad I've got the game, and I do look forward to playing it again, but next time I'll probably pitch DCC purely to old-school gamers!

After DCC wrapped up, we switched to something much more our group's typical speed: tremulous! We returned to Ebon Eaves, this time envisioned as a sun-drenched Georgia town in the late depression-era instead of its typical dark, New England incarnation. J was a Handyman. B was a Doctor. L was a Diletante (again, though this one was a young, naive southern belle while her previous one was an old lady). J2 made an Adventurer.

The results the players came up with on their survey lead me in some bizarre directions. Unlike the last story where everything clicked, I had to think fast on my feet to try and tie all of the odd little story bits together into something cohesive. I kept it up for a little over an hour, and then, creatively exhausted, I ended the session. The real horror has not revealed itself yet, but here's what's happened so far:

The Diletante's sister, Molly, is a morose and severely withdrawn young girl. Her parents, increasingly concerned about Molly, have decided to commit her to an asylum. As the Diletante overhears her parents argue, she discovers that her sister was adopted. This doesn't matter to her, however; she still loves her sister. And so the next morning, before her parents can do anything, she takes her sister and leaves the house.

The Diletante brings Molly to the Doctor's home. The Doctor has known the Diletante and her family for many years, and the Diletante, not knowing where else to go, turned to him for help. The Doctor has his own problems, though; the previous day, he was called by the police to examine an odd male they found walking around aimlessly in the woods. The Doctor suspects inbreeding; the man is freakishly strong, with an elongated, ridged forehead. After a day of unsuccessfully getting the mutant man to speak, the Doctor sets him free, then follows him into the woods. There, the Doctor discovers the mutant is living in the middle of the woods with a number of other mutants, perhaps his family. One of them attempts to attack the Doctor, but the others, at the behest of the one the Doctor was kind to, protected him.

Meanwhile, the Handyman, a trusted retainer of the Diletante's family, is approached by the father. He speaks openly about his problems with Molly, and conversationally asks the Handyman's advice. When the father reveals that Molly is adopted, the Handyman decides to ask his father about the family. The Handyman's father, who has lived in Ebon Eaves his entire life and for some reason is highly distrustful of the Diletante's family, finally tells his son what he knows: that Molly's mother was commited to a mental institution after Molly's father was found with his heart missing from his chest. The first night Molly's mother was committed, she went on a murderous rampage in the asylum, slaying five other patients. She was sentenced to death by hanging, and Molly was brought by the mayor of the city to the Diletante's family. The Handyman's father is not aware of what deals and cohoots the Diletante's family may be involved in, or why the mayor suddenly had a hand in all of this, but he distrusts the entire lot of them, and only wants to live out the rest of his days in peace, far from the comings and goings of Ebon Eaves' upper crust.

Across town, the Adventurer has been hired by a shadowy patron to recover an ancient tome that used to belong to Old Man Skitter, who has mysteriously disappeared. The Adventurer broke into Skitter's home and discovered that he had been killed. A man-thing (later revealed to be one of the mutants in the woods) was feasting on Old Man Skitter's corpse. He/it ran off after the Adventurer threatened it with his machete.

The book now in his possession, the patron asked the Adventurer to help him round up "volunteers" for a ceremony he is planning. The Adventurer is unsure of why, and the patron will not provide answers yet, but for the moment he's working on it. Currently, he is heading to the Diletante's family home and having a word with the plantation workers there about a rally happening up on Precision Point. Meanwhile, the Handyman is sent by the Diletante's father to go into town and find his daughter and Molly. He finds out where Molly is from the Diletante, heads to the Doctor's house, only to discover that Molly fled the house overnight.

The session ended with the Doctor and the Handyman working together to find Molly. It has begun innocously enough, but I know where it's headed, and things are going to get weird in due time...

...if we ever get back to it. I've got two other sessions with two other groups before I get back to these four, and when we do get back, it will probably be to Warhammer. So this particular session of tremulus may enter the Void of Unanswered Questions. Time, as always, will tell.


Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Eight-Way Plan for 2014

Okay, so I know I've got some play reports to post...tremulus, D&D...and I'll get to them, honest! But for right now, I want to write about my plans for roleplaying in 2014.

So, here's the rundown...I've got EIGHT separate roleplaying games I want to either start running or continue running through 2014. They are as follows:

1. Dungeons & Dragons: The Big One. With my overarching agenda of bringing new players into the hobby and appealing to as wide an audience as possible, D&D will be a big focal point of 2014. The previous year marked my return to role-playing, and so I dipped my toes into a wide pool of water, and learned alot about myself, my players, and the various games out there. But this year, it's time to refine my game. So D&D, for better or for worse, will be a part of that. I plan on primarily sticking with 4th edition until 5th edition comes out. Then I'll switch to 5th. I'm really excited to be on the ground floor of a new edition of D&D. I was late to the 4e party, so I'm pumped to be at the beginning of 5th!

2. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay: My allegiance to D&D is mainly ideological in nature: it's a brand-name, and I'm looking for new players, so we fit. But when we get into actual gaming practice, D&D and I don't actually see eye-to-eye as much. The 4th edition's focus on tactical play does not mesh well with the more narrative style of GMing I specialize in. That's where the other fantasy RPGs on this list come in, especially Warhammer. This game is fantastic. It's all the depth and detail of D&D, but with an equal emphasis on narrative and storytelling, as well. It's a gorgeous, slickly-produced game that is well-poised to seduce players away from D&D and into the larger world of roleplaying games. The plan is to bring them in with D&D, get them hooked, then ramp them up to "the harder stuff." If I sound a lot like a drug dealer to you...well, call me your pusher!

3. The Burning Wheel: Luke Crane's indie classic wasn't originally on my agenda for the year, but an incredibly thoughtful and totally unexpected birthday gift from a new friend has amended my course. The Burning Wheel is legendary for its elegant mechanics, and so I look forward to studying the book and "burning" up my table in 2014. This also gives me the point of reference I wanted to branch out into the other games that use the engine...Mouse Guard, Burning Empires, and the recent Torchbearer.

4. Dungeon Crawl Classics: I was vehemently against the so-called "Old School Renaissance" movement...and then I happened to pick up Mr. Goodman's 500-page homage to late 70s/early 80s fantasy roleplaying. I was stunned by how goddamn good it is! Truth be told, DCC is not an "old-school" roleplaying game. It has very new-school mechanics in it, but integrated into an old-school theme, so well-done that it really does feel like this game came out the year I was born, instead of last year. This is the first OSR-style game I have had any emotions other than contempt for. It's just too cool of a game to not bring to the table at least a few times...especially for my older gamers!

5. Numenera: I have struggled with bringing Monte Cook's masterpiece any justice at the table. It's such a beautifully-bizarre world, and I feel like I haven't done it or the excellent game system its due. That will change in 2014. With my abrupt about-face on running published adventures, I'm charging right back into the Ninth World, armed with adventures bound to become modern classics..."The Nightmare Switch" and the epic "The Devil's Spine." These adventures will give me the context and confidence necessary to really sink my teeth into this incredible game.

6. A Post-Apocalyptic RPG to be Named Later: I, as a GM, have two preferred genres: fantasy, and post-apocalypse sci-fi. I have had plenty of fun with the former, and in 2014, I intend to indulge the latter. I have not decided on the game yet. Other Dust, a companion game to the indie darling Stars Without Number, is immediately up for consideration. Hell on Earth, the post-apocalyptic version of Deadlands, is also up there. And, of course, Vincent Baker's masterpiece Apocalypse World is way, way up there. Hell, I'm even considering the game of my youth that probably turned me on to the entire genre: Kevin Siembieda's classic Rifts. And, of course, we can't forget zombie apocalypses, which totally count and are totally awesome, as well. That puts Rotworld, All Flesh Must be Eaten, Outbreak: Undead, and my own full-on AW hack World Gone Mad all on the radar, too. So, yeah...lots of thinking to do there!

7. The Right to Know: This isn't an RPG par se; it's the name of my Cthulhu mini-campaign. I ran the first of the eight planned episodes, "The Digital Tome," twice last year, and both times it went extremely well. I just finished the first playable draft of the second episode, "The Sudden Knife," and look forward to getting some playthroughs of that in, as well. I hope, by the end of this year, I've got at least playable drafts of episodes three, four, and five. Ideally, I'd have the whole eight-part series done, but let's be realistic, here! Though I played "The Digital Tome" as a Fate Core game (and it went very well), I'm still looking for an RPG that'll do it right. I have a lot of crazy, microscopic-level detailed thoughts about the system and the adventure, which I'll get into in a later entry.

8. 13th Age: Finally, getting back to my nefarious scheme of using D&D as a gateway drug, 13th Age is practically built to be an off-ramp from the D&D highway. It uses many of the same ideas and mechanics as D&D, but tweaked in just the right ways to make gameplay faster and more narrative-focused. In fact, many of 13th Age's coolest innovations, like the Escalation Die and character Uniques, can be ported directly into D&D without breaking anything! The dream is to take a D&D group and gradually introduce 13th Age concepts to them, so that after a few sessions, we're actually just playing 13th Age! Sneaky, huh?

Well, there's my master plan. We of course know what happens to the best laid plans, and given my absolute fascination and short attention span with RPGs, it'll be interesting to see how the year plays out as opposed to this list. However, for now, if I can at least stick to some of this plan, 2014 is going to be an awesome year for RPGs.

Update One: January 13

After my first play session with DCC yesterday, I'm pretty certain that game is going to drop from the year's agenda. It is a great game, but it's appeal to the old-school is much more exclusively-focused than I originally thought. In other words, I thought anyone would love DCC. Turns out the whole "old-school" theme only really resonates with people into that kinda thing! So my Eight-Way Plan may in fact become a Seven-Way Plan.

Also, after some extensive thought, I'm quite certain I'm going to stick to Fate Core for my Cthulhu campaign. I will replay the first episode a few more times and continue to tweak my hack to get it just right, but I think that will be easier (and more fun) than trying to discover and learn a Cthulhu-themed RPG that does exactly what I want it to do.