Friday, August 27, 2010

Mood Music

The frequency with which I find myself posting is erratic at best, not adhering to any schedule but only when the muse strikes. This is a trait that defines my writing habits in general, in fact. But lightning can apparently strike twice in the same week.

I find that when I'm running a game (or writing), I like mood music. Something instrumental usually, and intended to evoke a certain sense of ambiance. While there are many options out there, ranging from classical to jazz, I'm partial to film scores.

For classic fantasy, the sweeping orchestral scores of film can be handy. The LotR scores are perfect, though I'm sure that most of the nerds in your game will recognize it. The same can be said for the Star Wars scores. But there are others that can be good if used appropriately, and are less recognizable.

I have my laptop loaded up with scores from film, television and video games, as well as some of my favorite classical composers and jazz musicians. I like to be able to pull up a track that will fit the scene, whether they are in a pub, a dance club or a sterile office building. Vigorous music for combat can help liven the pace and ease the distraction during lengthy combat sequences.

Where do my fellow gamers/GMs weigh in on the music subject?

Practice Makes Perfect

I've been contemplating the rules vs. imagination 'conflict' in RPG's and feel the need to weigh in briefly. I think that rules can serve two functions: to define the possibilities of an expansive world (D&D, GURPS, etc...) or to encourage a certain type of play (Asylum, Paranoia!, Vampire, etc...). Which of these do I prefer? Neither, really. As a GM, I use the rules as a guide to help players make decisions, but I'm not often satisfied with them fully. I drop rules out when I need to, ignore things for the sake of cool and make fast calls when I have to. Rules are just another toolset to aid a GM with storytelling, as far as I'm concerned.

And so now I have found myself contemplating the creation of my own RPG, which will in turn lead me to creating a rule set. My goal is to make the rules fun, fast and with minimal complexity. Clearly the details have yet to be carved out. But my thoughts tonight turn towards character creation, always one of my favorite parts in RPG's, and one that is often mishandled.

Though character creation isn't exactly what I mean. More, I mean a leveling system. While skimming RPG Bloggers early, I came across an article that linked to this article: Just One More...

The article itself is a rant about WotC and 4E, which is less pertinent to my topic. But in the article, the author links to another rant of his: Reward Made Easy

The second is an analysis of what video games have done right that tabletop rpg could learn from, and he makes some interesting points. Namely, the "practice makes perfect" mentality present in games like Dungeon Siege and the Elder Scrolls series. The more you use a skill, the better you get with it and the more it helps to increase your attributes.

How can I implement that in my Savage West? I'm tempted to try and heist the mechanics straight out of Elder Scrolls, but that seems an overly complicated conversion. This keys in to character creation though, and a functioning rules system. I need to decide how detailed the skill/attribute list will be.

I'm thinking something like the attribute/skill system from 7th Sea combined with a leveling mechanic akin to the Elder Scrolls, something that will eliminate EXP all together. Mmm. Brain food.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Redesigning the Wild West

My Star Wars game has been on hiatus as of late, due to real-life constraints. So while I haven't had anything new to post on the 'running game' front, I have begun work on the 'designing game' front.

I've had this vision of a savage West, an American frontier that was never tamed. This world has run rampant as technology grew alongside magic. This wouldn't be Deadland's, not nearly so goofy. This is gods and spirits, something of my own devising.

I've already done work rewriting the history, pre-Civil War, thinking about who the powers would have been, halting and redirecting westward expansion. It is a hydra, a problem with constantly sprouting tendrils.

I feel that the potential for story is something to captivate. Already, I have stories of gunslingers and gamblers, witches and arcane scientists, thieves and politicans that are bubbling around my brain.

I can do the legwork, the research, the world-building. The part that sticks on me is the system. I want to work out some sort of class/role system that is more archetype-based. Something to encourage thought in character design, rather than spewing a bunch of numbers to crunch for combat.

These are the things I'm going to be thinking about. And posting about.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Choices

My gaming sessions have gone on a temporary hiatus due to player absence, a reprieve I'm actually somewhat grateful for. Two of my players have run across terrible work schedules, another is in the Army Reserve and is being called on for some yearly training.

All in all, this gives me time to plan, plan, plan. The players, as I may have mentioned in a previous post, chose the action/adventure route for the next chapter of the campaign. Wookiepedia is quickly growing to be my number one resource for campaign planning. I dug around for planets on the Outer Rim that aren't as directly tied into canon, giving me a bit more leeway as to what can be where.

I like to give my players choice in how things play out, rather than just the illusion choice. They found intel leading them to various nefarious deeds. I'm working on three paths for them: a slave market, a slaving outfit that is actively recruiting and a Czerka facility that is purchasing labor for mines. Which will they choose? How will they approach the situation? I never know until the moment of decision.

I've been playing through Alpha Protocol recently, and I find myself quite impressed with it despite the negative reviews. As an espionage rpg, it is unique. It evokes the original Deus Ex and Mass Effect more than D&D or Elder Scrolls. The combat and stat management is interesting enough to keep you attached. The part that really speaks to me as a GM though is the complex layers weaved through the game. How you approach each NPC, the dialogue choices given and the actions you take in the game all effect your reputation and how others treat you. If you are trigger happy and have a complete disregard for human life, it will effect how others treat you. Same as if you are stealthy and rely on non-lethal tactics. All of these things tie into an interesting and well-crafted story. These are all elements we try and slip into our games, directly or indirectly.

And as a final note, this marks my inaugural post as part of the RPG Bloggers network. Hurrah for the blog!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Here Comes The Story Train...

A busy week outside of the gaming life, though things have been going well.

Saturday's session wound up with some railroading. We all know that sometimes it can't be avoided. Sometimes, as a GM, you just need to push the story forward. This was the third session of the Ascendance campaign, and was in most ways, a conclusion to the first chapter. The characters managed to free themselves from the grasp of the Exchange, if temporarily, and have gained a worthwhile ally. They also managed to create a rather personal antagonist, after blowing the leg off of a crime boss.

They have commandeered a ship and are setting off into the Outer Rim to end a slaving ring that seems to have connections with a nefarious galactic corporation. And it was their decision.

I think that railroading because you want to tell a specific story should be avoided as much as possible. I want my player's to have as much control over the narrative as possible, even if it means that I have to make changes on the fly during the session to accommodate them.

As this was the final part of the arc, there was a fair amount of resolution. They were introduced to one of the primary antagonists, witnessed a bizarre ritual, and then fled with the girl they were trying to rescue. And then there was the showdown between the local government and the local faction of the Exchange, where the characters sold the criminals up the river and fled with their lives. They had in the process uncovered some information about some shady goings-on: the aforementioned slavery.

And so I gave them the choice: pursue the slavers in the Outer Rim and try and save some troubled souls, or head into the Core Worlds to investigate the dirty dealings and low morals of the Czerka corporation. In terms of story and what I would have to prepare, it boils down to an action-adventure story or intrigue and diplomacy. My players, bless their hearts, opted for the action-adventure this time around.

So how do you keep the players involved when you have to railroad the story along? Well in this case, much of the railroading was in response to their previous actions. And I gave them skill-checks to pull of some fancy maneuvers, etc...

They told me that they enjoyed it, and I honestly believe them. I hope they'd tell me if something sucked.

I put this to the two people that read this. Is there a situation where you feel railroading is absolutely necessary?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Saturday Recap

So Saturday's game session went quite well. A friend of mine from work joined the group, playing a Kel Dor scout working as a hired gun with the Exchange, sent along with the other players as back-up for their second foray into the droid-controlled mine.

In an effort to maintain choice, I had planned the two major encounters for the session to be combat-free. That is to say, they characters could have most certainly talked their way through them. They didn't though. And this led to some rather cinematic moments.

The first battle, against the droids that were blocking off the entrance to the mine, was quite epic. There were several minion-like repair/construction droids, a prototype HK unit and a gargantuan spider mining droid. The players (all 4 of them) had managed to recruit several redshirts to accompany them, also employed by the Exchange. I think one of the moments I was most proud of was when one of the players, the Mandalorian, jetpacked onto the weakened spider droid, firing into its hull and then dropping a homemade explosive onto it before jetpacking away again. Very reminiscent of Starship Troopers.

After that, they found their way deeper into the mine, searching for a crate full of evidence for the Exchange, and the lead security officer's missing daughter, or evidence of her. What they encountered in the bizarre tunnel system under the mine, illuminated by the phosphorescent lichen lining the cave walls, was a bizarre ritual being conducted by a strange race of aliens never before seen. This situation too could have been talked through with a positive end. But diplomacy was never on the table for the characters, and they went in guns blazing.

Everybody had fun, combat ran smooth and the plot moved forward in an interesting direction.

And I've been asked to run a second game for one of my coworkers and her boyfriend, and I'm to choose the system. She's pretty new to gaming, but he's got some experience. I'm going to try and convince them to play Earthdawn, or possibly Deadlands.

As a minor note, I managed to write a draft of the first chapter of my weird western tonight, which pleases me greatly.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

For the sake of it...

Ah Wednesday. With the weather, it should be more like Thor's Day. Bah, who am I kidding, this is San Francisco. There is no weather. There is only Schroedinger's Weather.

Wednesday has called upon me to be a posting day. A day in which I discuss things.

I'm working on planning the next Star Wars session. We may or may not be getting a new player this week, though I'm sure he'll fit very nicely into the group. And when last we left, my players were trapped between a Droid Rebellion and a very hard place. Intrigue wheels will spin, new details will be provided, and my players must determine how to get out of the ghost rock mines alive.

I'm getting ever closer to beginning actual work on the novel. That is, the actual writing part. I've nailed down most of the setting details at this point, and from there can move on to characters. In the meantime, I'm attempting to finish a sci-fi story that also threatens to turn itself into a novella. Whatever shall I do?

Monday, July 12, 2010

OSR

I've been reading all this business on the Old School Renaissance. What is the OSR?

I understand that there is no formal organization. From what I understand, it is a collective of people revolved around playing a certain style of game. And being nerds on the internet, they seem rather vocal about it. So what else is new?

Nerds bitch on the internet. PS3 sucks. 360 rocks. The Wii is for children (and I still giggle every time I hear someone say "I'm playing with my Wii"). Everyone everywhere has an opinion and will most likely share it with you gladly, whether you'd like to hear it or not. Isn't this why we blog? Because we have thoughts to share?

Internet drama is for plebs.

That is all. And Twilight sucks.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Encounter balance...

The current trend in game design from Wizards seems to lean towards a balanced, fun-for-everyone, GMing is easy sort of thing. So encounters are intended to scale with your PCs. Is this actually fun?

Sure you'll get some tough fights, but for the most part, you know that your PCs will win unless they roll shitty or do something stupid. Sure, some of this tags back to "I don't want to kill a PC."
Most of the D&D games I've been have ended with TPK. It sucks.

But sometimes real heroes run away. And the real world isn't balanced in our favor. Real world challenges don't scale to our age/experience. Nor should they for a PC, or a party. I feel like adding real threat, an insurmountable foe, can add necessary pathos.

The villain who can't be fought, because his army is too large, he is unreachable. He taunts the characters, hovering just out of reach. They have to plan his downfall, arrange it neatly, think carefully. The players have to be clever. Or at least a facsimile of it.

These are my random gaming thoughts of the day.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Layout

Forgive the layout change, just tinkering. Please feel free to share an opinion. I'm open to suggestions on making the blog look better, yet I have no webskills.

That which doesn't kill us...

There are moments, as a storyteller, that I doubt the necessity of threats to the lives of the PCs. Yes, it is a very easy way to add a palpable sense of terror to a story, to have your protagonists in fear of their lives. But aren't there better ways to create pathos in a game? Or better yet, manifest a sense of ethos amongst passionate PCs.

As a gamer, I crave story and plot. I love clever intrigues, mysteries and hidden secrets. I love to puzzle things out, logically or socially. I love the game of diplomacy, and talking my way out of trouble that my mouth got me into. Now don't get me wrong, I do love to walk into a room with pistols drawn, or beat information out of a witness if the moment strikes and it fits both character and situation. But I think that the threat of PC death can be overused. I never played a lot of D&D, so I really had the experience of multi-character death. Playing WoD, I had a few different characters that lasted through several generations of campaigns, so that was the norm for me.

In the campaign I'm working on now, I find myself leaning away from combat and more towards story. Making the players work together to piece together a mystery, puzzle out the lies from the truth. They have to figure out who their allies really are in a situation where they might be over their heads and caught between the rock and the durasteel.

In counterpoint, I should mention that my plot wedge - that force which pushes the players in the initial direction, involved a rather overt death threat by a criminal empire.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Wiki Wiki!

Oddly quiet, these last few days. I've been a bit crazy, between happenings at work, friends visiting town and planning my next game session. Oh yeah, and in theory, writing a few short stories and a novel.

But then, perhaps I have no excuse. I'll never be taken seriously as a blogger if I can't even update my blog. But then, do I really want to be taken seriously? I blog about gaming, writing and random other strangeness.

But I digress. What I have been working on, if slowly, is my Obsidian Portal wiki for the campaign. Which can be found here: http://www.obsidianportal.com/campaigns/the-ascendance

I've read quite a few articles regarding Obsidian Portal and its worthiness as a GM tool. And while I agree, there are two distinct downsides to it. One, that the coolest stuff costs money. And two, that I often find myself too lazy properly devote the time to building the wiki.

But it is a fine way to keep track of towns, taverns, continents and planets, as well as keep a log of your sessions. Plus all those pesky NPCs that you make up on the fly, only to have become important later. So that is what I'm working on, because I think my players will appreciate it. And so that I can keep all my notes in one place.

Monday, June 28, 2010

And so it begins...

Our group plays on Sundays, when most of us have the time to do it. So we met today to discuss the new campaign, the switch to Star Wars and who is involved. My plan seems solid, and at least of those players that were around today, we are excited.

We spent most of the time talking shop, talking about tweaks to Saga Edition and my tendency to run rules-light systems. And we talked about the advantages to the Era of the Sith Wars, the possibilities for playing in that era versus the Expanded Universe. And the three players that are there began the character creation process, picking a species and the initial class. All in all, a productive session even if there was very little playing.

I've begun work on the campaign page on Obsidian Portal, and it mostly contains GM-only information. Having never played with a wiki before, it is proving rather tedious.

Friday, June 25, 2010

To Pre- or not to Pre-Gen

Forgive the horrible pun of the title.

I find myself subject to an internal debate at the moment. Should I make pre-gen characters for this one-shot? Or should I have the players create their own and adjust the level accordingly?

In this Star Wars adventure, the PCs are investigating a string of disappearances involving Force-users in several systems along the Outer Rim. If I make pre-gens, its ultimately to send those particular characters to an unpleasant fate. And yet, that might deter the players if I don't handle the story right.

Perhaps I doubt my own skills as a storyteller, but I'm also of the idea that allowing the players to make their own characters, to have them taking their first steps as Jedi Knights or some such would involve them more in the story. Maybe this is their first mission unescorted, they have passed their proving.

And in other, yet related, thoughts. I had originally thought that the players would be investigating a colony amidst a large asteroid field. Now though, I'm thinking that it is actually a planet, albeit a hazardous and ill-tempered one. Harsh and unforgiving, but with evidence of an old civilization. The only commerce and life that remain on the planet mine for gasses and minerals underground, living in shielded colonies. A greater potential for story, I feel.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Hack'n'Slash

Sometimes playing D&D reminds me too much of playing Diablo and not enough of Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. There are times that the amount of combat in 4E seems more akin to the Baldur's Gate games that were released for the consoles in early 2000. Maybe its that we've been playing in Faerun instead of a homebrew. Or maybe it was our first DM, who was new to the whole situation, and so didn't really have a story to tell in her mind. But I've noticed lately that, as a player, my game has been lacking in plot. I don't see other players really fleshing out their characters beyond stats on a page. But why do I feel like an ass for wanting character backgrounds and roleplaying?

Maybe I'm just cranky today.

Going to try to write a Star Wars one-shot for our game on Sunday. Trying to decide if I want it to be Exar Kun-era or pre-Saga.

And I'm pretty sure that I'm going to run it in 3.x, maybe with some house rules. Thinking pre-gens with a few Jedi, their pilot, maybe a droid. Something to tease a possible campaign.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Introducing a New System

When introducing a new system to your regular group, how do you go about it?

Do you spend weeks ahead of time coaching your players on rules? Do you do a print-up with the basics of the rules, and prepare yourself to answer a thousand questions during game?

And what about character creation? Do you let the players make characters on their own? Or do you walk them through it?

My plan is to write up a few one-shots, including some pre-gen characters to let the players choose from. Give them each a plot hook, some interesting skills and light background. Maybe make them a little more powerful than a starting character, just to give them an idea of what they could do eventually. Run an adventure that only lasts a session or two, maybe as an introduction to a longer campaign involving new characters.

I feel that this could help pique interest in something unfamiliar, or where the rules system drastically varies. For example, switching from a d20-based system such as 4E to the d10 Roll-and-Keep system of 7th Sea.

Mechanical Anomalies

I find myself leaning towards Rules-Light type games. One of my foremost beliefs in gaming is that if it is within the nature/sphere of the character, and it isn't too over the top, they can do it. I've never been one to haggle the rules, quoting x book or y piece of errata. The Rule of Cool, as it were.

Probably why I lean more towards a system like 7th Sea. Built around being fun, exciting and cinematic. Instead of rolling dice against a stat block, you often roll dice against each other. The roll and keep system lends itself to the gamble of the mechanics.

That being said, playing 4E often leaves me confounded. So many stats, so many different powers to keep track of, all the species and their individual quirks, be they monster or PC. And sometimes I find unnecessary complications, like the component requirement for ritual casters. Having the appropriate components, taking into account their weight and relative size inside one frail wizard's pack.

Each magic user or ritual caster is almost bound to possess several bags of holding to accommodate any quantity of ritual minutiae. And some of the minor rituals are incredibly useful, but you don't know if those specific circumstances will happen in any given game. How often does your magic user get a chance to stop in town and pick up those components, or even happen upon them growing wild?

Instead, what we've done is tie them to healing surges. My sorcerer typically stays to the back of combat, avoiding damage as only the most wily of chaos priests can do. But I still need those healing surges. And so it not only simplifies ritual use, but it makes it something precious. We can assume that the components are correct and accounted for, or the words are spoken. But it implies that it still draws from the magic users own inner reserves of Will.

I think that tweaking the rules is sometimes necessary, but only if it enhances gameplay. And that is my rather abrupt summation. Or rather, this is. I feel that in any given game, the rules should only exist to the enjoyment of the group.

What I'm Doing Now

I play in a gaming group that meets once a week. We met over the internet, all searching for a D&D4E group in San Francisco. And as it turned out, we all liked each other pretty okay. Our game has gone on for a few months, but a few of us have switched characters and we found ourselves switching up our DM.

The mantle of DM has now fallen on me. Well, not fallen. But I find myself in the mood to tell stories, and to lead that shared experience that captured me as a kid. I've been writing short stories lately, and I keep switching genres and styles. Trying on new outfits, see what works for different tales. And I want to do that with gaming too. Play with different systems, in one shots. See if something catches the rest of the groups attention.

So my plan is to write one-shots or a few miniseries for various systems. I'm looking at 4E, Fading Suns, Star Wars Saga Edition or d20, and 7th Sea. I have a few ideas, I'll roll them all together and I'll ask the group what they feel like doing.

Do I do an introduction?

I feel like some background might be required to assure what readers I may acquire in the future of my credentials to discuss these things. To be frank, I have none.

I've loved to tell stories since I was a tiny child writing crayon stories about dragon knights. I would create vast landscapes and tell stories involving all of my toys. I would make up my own Star Wars stories out of the old toys. I used to build expansive LEGO empires, with multiple cities and spaceports, with sweeping wars and intrigue, and a plucky band of heroes.

My dad got me started gaming, playing OD&D with me when I was 8. By the time I was twelve, I played in his regular Vampire: The Masquerade game. I didn't really know the depths of it, just that I got to be a street punk vampire kid in London. He was a pickpocket, I thought it was cool. He may have been loosely based on Richie Ryan from Highlander: The Series. I don't know.

I loved being a part of that shared story experience. I loved the adventures, and I don't remember ever slogging through combat the way I do in some games these days. It was about imagining the characters and the world they lived in, the stories we were involved in. I remember tracking the Prince of Chicago to an abandoned amusement park outside the town I actually grew up in. As a kid, it thrilled me to pretend that these things could actually happen in the world I knew. As I recall, that kid smuggled himself in a shipping crate to the US. I also recall him dying a rather grim death. The next character I rolled for the game was a feral, shape-shifting Gangrel that wished he was either Wolverine or a werewolf.

I played original World of Darkness. I loved Werewolf and Mage, and I was also an avid LARPer. I just can't do that anymore. I can't even get interested in World of Darkness. The stories that I've wanted to tell as I grow up have changed. I've more a mind to write gritty shorts on alien planets, or the myths of magic-wielding gunslingers in a strange, savage Old West. And the games that I want to play have changed. I game to get a break from reality, rather than escape it. I want an interesting story, sure, but with themes that compel me as an adult.