Sunday, June 7, 2015

Continuing Adventures In Darkness

I've mentioned before that I'm new to any version of the World of Darkness. Because I'm new, but having fun, I'm almost hesitant to voice my opinions. I worry a bit that criticisms will be met with, "but you are new, and maybe this stuff isn't for you" as an answer.  To a certain extent, that may be true. There is an established fan base that likes what they like, and obviously Onyx Path will be shooting to have a finger on that pulse.



However, the above also presupposes two things:   that the way they have done things in the past is the best way to do things for all of their current fans, and that making current fans outstrips concerns about garnering new customers. Since I'm not sure that both of these are true, I thought I might go ahead and lay out what I've been thinking here.  Granted, even when looking for new fans, the target demographic may not be a 40 year old guy that's been gaming for decades, so in the end, take my opinions for what they are worth.  I'm not saying my preferences are better than anyone else's opinions.

I can't claim to have read everything new World of Darkness. My primary points of reference here are the World of Darkness core rulebook, the Werewolf the Forsaken book, the God Machine Chronicles update, and the Beast the Primordial "beta" that is available at the Kickstarter at the moment. It's a cross section, but I can't claim that it's representative.

The Good



I wouldn't have been drawn to this line if there wasn't a lot to like. The concepts of the game are really interesting. There is a lot of thought provoking material for roleplaying in these concepts, while still striking a chord by invoking very iconic images that most of us already have in our minds.  You can say werewolf, and most people have an image immediately, and you can keep their interest not by restating the obvious, but by telling them how you diverge from the core concept they already know.

When you get to them, the game mechanics are pretty simple as well.  Even the multiple sub-systems tend to all work the same way, so as long as you remember that that sub-system is there, you can usually figure out how it works, because everything is working on the same dice pool mechanic.  My personal preference is for the updated version of the rules that appears in the God Machine Chronicles, because it seems to have addressed those things that, in my mind, did move away from a more intuitive functioning of the rules.

So the setting is good, the concepts are good for roleplaying, and the mechanics are solid and easy to resolve at the table.



Less than Good  (For Me)

I love setting information.  I love atmosphere.  I'm a fan of Fantasy Flight's Star Wars and Warhammer 40K RPGs, and the Iron Kingdoms RPGs.  Those are huge books that take up a lot of space explaining the setting and the expected campaigns on top of the actual rules of the game.  So I get the concept of a large book that has a lot in it other than the actual game in question.

The problem is, those books seem to follow a different pattern than World of Darkness books.  There is introductory fiction, then there is an explanation of rules, there are examples to show you how it works in play, but once the mechanical discussion starts, the fiction largely subsides, and there seems to be a progression from making a character to resolving character actions and how character options work.

In the World of Darkness books, you might get a few paragraphs that seem to introduce a game mechanic, way before you know what the terms actually mean, and at the end of the paragraphs, there is a dice pool that you would roll to resolve that game mechanic . . . in a vacuum, with no idea where those dice came from.

For the most part, there is generally a summary of how to create a character that outlines all of that stuff and ropes it together a little bit better, but to see how things actually work, you still have to sift through a lot of flavor text and fiction to find where those dice pools where seeded earlier in the book.



It's almost like there is a fear that if all of the mechanics are thrown together in one area, that people will forget that this book is suppose to be about a roleplaying game that puts a high emphasis on storytelling, so mechanics have to be tucked away and almost hidden in fiction and flavor text to remind you why you are using those dice in the first place.

There are also a few places where concepts are very obliquely defined.  It might be broadly introduced in one place.  Parts might be touched upon elsewhere, and how the concept interacts with other concepts in the universe are in another sections.  Together, you start to get an idea of how it all works, but you are never quite sure, because you had to "construct" that definition from multiple descriptions.

To be fair, the above is something I've run into a lot when it comes to Powered by the Apocalypse games.  Concepts are mentioned, definitions are implied, but never plainly stated, and game mechanics are named in a manner that is atmospheric rather than clear, from a game standpoint.  It almost feels like there is a concern that if game mechanics are too clearly game mechanics instead of story tropes, that people will think of games first and stories second, if at all.

A Recurring Theme



Some of my consternation with the presentation of the World of Darkness games is a variation on a theme of something I've pondered before on the blog.  Rulebooks serve multiple masters in teaching the game and being a reference book in play.  Additionally, game books that are also setting books also need to set the stage and explain the history.  It's a difficult juggling act which makes me lament that the industry isn't better able to separate "teaching the game" books from "running the game" books.

I do think that the World of Darkness books could stand a wee bit less fiction, and a bit more centralization of game mechanics.  Don't get me wrong.  I really like the fiction.  I actually purchased the Werewolf short story anthology, because I wanted more in setting fiction to get me in the mood and set the tone.  But I don't want that fiction to get in the way of me learning the game.

Trust me to use the rules to tell a story, and know that if someone isn't going to run the game the way you envision it, no amount of thematic reinforcement is going to stop that from happening.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Thoughts on Watching A Reality TV Show With Costumes and Makeup

Finished watching The Quest with my daughter today.  Interesting premise, and I think it worked better than I thought it would when I first heard about it.

 The Quest on ABC (Website)


You don't want to go in thinking you are going to see an epic fantasy story you have never seen before, or even something with clever twists, from a narrative standpoint.  The purpose was to do a Survivor-lite series with Lord of the Rings sets and makeup to appear to the folks that like that sort of thing.  Personally, I thought it was kind of fun.

It did put me in mind of the gamer lessons to be learned from the show.

1.  Having important things for the PCs to do that aren't always combat. 

There were a lot of challenges that amounted to preparing for war, training, and building defenses, that if done right, could be fun to do and don't involve direct combat.

That said, I think in some cases, it would be very important to come up with desirable outcomes and let the PCs figure out how to achieve them would be important, to avoid some of the worst variations of WOTC's 4th edition skill challenge missteps.

That said, I love a good in-game tournament.

2.  Dealing with monsters way above your normal abilities without fighting them.

There are a couple of challenges where the contestants had to keep monsters from getting out.  Giving PCs information on the only place monsters could attack from, at least for a while, and letting them figure out how to seal up or collapse a cavern, for example, seems like a much more satisfying way of letting them take on something outside of their abilities than giving them the "Thing of Slaying" that gives them an excuse to be more powerful than they should be.

Additionally, it keeps them scared of the monster.  If they don't seal it up or delay it, they don't have much of a chance to survive it.  Giving them enough information to help them outsmart the monster, but also enough to let them know how boned they would be if they tried to stick it with the pointy end would be key.

It also seems like this is a better option to introducing them to the threat of a dragon than, for example, the scenario in Hoard of the Dragon Queen, that gives you conditions for a dragon that should own them running off if they do X in combat.



3.  Fallen Heroes in Avalon or Somesuch.

I really kind of like the idea that your fallen companions end up waiting in some version of Avalon, and if the last person standing ends up being "the one," all of your buddies come back and join your army again for the final fight.

Not sure how to pull this off in game, and still have a sense of risk, or so as to avoid handing someone that "lost" a character their old character on top of a presumed new character.  Perhaps just some kind of bonus  (such as constant Advantage in 5e) that represents them charging in beside you to help.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

What's Wrong With Me (A Statement, Not A Question)

For the last year and a half, the amount of time I've spent GMing has dwindled.  I used to run weekly games, one shots, and run events all weekend at a convention at least once a year.  This past year and a half, I've wrapped up an every other week game, run a few sessions online, and canceled another campaign two sessions in.

Since I returned to gaming over 10 years ago, I've been fortunate to have some of the best gaming times of my life.  Sure, gaming in high school and just after was great, but I didn't appreciate it nearly the way I have over the last decade of returning to the hobby.

The Dark Times

I had at least two other times when I had to curtail my GMing, one lasting about three months, and the other around that same amount of time, but leading into my running the Marvel Heroic game that I ran online via Hangouts.

Real life got hectic.  Work became a huge mess.  Because of a lot of stuff we'll just lump together and call Impending Doom, overtime picked up, and was unpredictable, meaning that I might have to cancel a game night here or there, and on top of that, I wouldn't have the time I like to have when it comes to preparing for a game.

I made a conscious effort to keep playing games with my friends, at least every other week, because I didn't want to quit gaming, and I didn't want to lose track of them.  I love getting a chance to be on the other side of the screen for a while, if only for the perspective that it brings to someone that has spent most of their gaming career running a game.

In the mean time, I quit the job of Impending Doom, took another job too quickly that I should not have jumped into, and then left that job as well, in part because I was literally sitting around waiting for them to figure out what I was suppose to be doing for a few weeks at a time.  I made the decision to at least finish my associates degree  (long story, left school for management job in retail, because I wanted to be important and set for life before getting married, etc.).

For the last few months, I've had moments I quite honestly felt like I was going insane.  I question every decision.  I have to mentally scream at myself to get going day after day.  Two or three extra responsibilities or surprises make me want to completely shut down because I want to deal with everything in easy mode, one small thing at a time.  Then I get even more frustrated, because I know I used to juggle a lot more than this, and I feel as if I have become fragile and weak, and I wonder how I used to manage.

Revelation

Oddly, it's starting to dawn on me that how I used to manage was that I was a GM.  I ran games.  I managed campaigns.  I could vent my creative juices.  I could celebrate little victories when I was ready for a game and then again when the game went off fairly well as I was running it.  I could practice, bit by bit, for dealing with the unexpected when I was dealing with the off the wall things my players would throw at me.

Work was frustrating.  I often found myself at one job knowing what would fix a situation, but not having the authority to implement that fix, and at another job being told I had the authority to fix it, but not enough time or actual knowledge to know how to fix it.  But there was a time when I would take a breath, look at the tools I had available, and I'd dig back in.  And at the very least, I would say, "hey, Thursday night is coming up, I just need to make it to Thursday."

I know it's going to sound very sad and possibly unhinged to say this, but I think I need my gaming, and not just gaming, but GMing, to balance myself.  To have something I am in control of, to have something that gives immediate rewards for the work I put in, and to have something that lets me practice quick thinking and adaption on a small scale.

I thought I was being a responsible adult so that I wouldn't need to cancel on my friends when they were counting on me.  While that's important, I looked for the one, big, obvious solution, which was to back away completely.  Never let it be said I'm smart enough to see where the compromises might lie.

I should have done more of the following:


  • Run systems that require less prep time
  • Continue to run one shots from time to time to keep in the habit
  • Realize that an infrequent call off isn't so bad, as long as you give people plenty of time and recognize when it's getting out of hand
I'm sure other humans have other coping mechanisms, and I'm sure in time that I could develop other coping mechanisms, but I think the fact that I attempted to do this cold turkey, while still gaming, without GMing, didn't lend itself to filling the gap particularly well.

The First Step Is Admitting You Have A Problem

I know to most non-gamers and a lot of gamers, my realization that I need to run games to help cope with the stress of my everyday life is probably going to sound pretty sad and pathetic.  It will probably make games sound as if they have far too important a part in my life.  As a flawed human being, I'll admit I probably should have learned to do a lot of things differently over the years.  That said, I think this is who I am.

I have to think there are people outside of gaming that have to do things like this to keep their head on straight though, right?  People writing short stories and even novels they never really intend on publishing, people performing in local theater with no real professional aspirations, or even people just trying to make their golf game better by pushing themselves.  Aren't all of those things a matter of trying to make some small aspect of your life with fewer ramifications line up right so that you feel like you can make the big things line up just as well?

Digging Yourself In The Hole

The problem, when you have a great group of friends that you game with, who have been great and kept the group together by running games for you to play in, is that you don't want to quit playing in their games to run yours, and you don't want to compete against their games even if you were willing to leave. 

Compound this with the fact that the FLGS has kind of multiplied the number of things going on any given night, so there isn't much wiggle room for actually running games most nights, and you start to realize that you may have dug yourself in a bit too well.

So trying to ramp back up to GMing, while trying to learn the lessons above, might be more challenging than it first appears.  

Sunday, May 17, 2015

My Life on the Other Side of the Screen--I'm Playing a Character Hairier Than I Am (Werewolf the Forsaken)

I was at ground zero when the original World of Darkness hit.  Well, sort of.  I was playing 2nd edition D&D at the time, and I saw all of the ads and all of the products, and I saw this kind of weird segregation that immediately happened at the local convention all of the sudden between the World of Darkness players and people playing the more traditional roleplaying games.



I think this bit of anecdotal gaming evidence made a bad impression on me.  Everything about World of Darkness seemed to be adversarial towards a game that I liked, and I was getting the feeling that I was being looked down on by a segment of the gaming community for not being "hip."  It was weird, since the gaming community was where I went to not give a damn about being hip.

None of that has anything to do with the games, the settings, or whether they were good.  There was a weird zeitgeist and I probably read too much into it, but because of that early exposure to World of Darkness, I was never overly keen to jump into any version of the setting over the years.



Upon returning to regular gaming after years away, I eventually started frequenting the FLGS that I most often visit now.  There was a regular World of Darkness semi-LARP that went on once a month or so, usually involving more than one version of the new World of Darkness settings.  Because I knew several of the people participating, it felt a lot less like something "the cool kids" were doing and more something I was kind of starting to be interested in.

That said, the game was invitation only, and I didn't want to be a boor and ask about joining.  Eventually it dissolved.

Because the last year has been tricky for me, personal time wise, I ended up bringing my Dark Heresy game to a sad close after only two sessions.  One of my players graciously volunteered to run a game on the night when I had been running, and she offered to run Werewolf the Forsaken.



I was unable to join the first few sessions, but I have been there for the last three, and it has given me an excuse to finally dive into more than the periphery of the new World of Darkness games.   I have to admit, it's something I wouldn't mind running myself, someday.  The new information is daunting, but from what I understand, far less so than the metaplot of the Old World of Darkness.

The mechanics seem to be pretty simple, in the core book, although it seems like things get a lot more complicated when dealing with spirits or the add on material from some of the splat books for a given setting.  



Also, I have to say that while I like having some kind of narrative guide to the feel of the setting, the placement of the fiction in the books almost feels like saturation bombing.  I get an initial story, then maybe a few paragraphs here or there to reinforce mechanical descriptions.  I'm still suffering a bit from whiplash from the chain multiple stories that I was jumping through between the World of Darkness core book and the Werewolf the Forsaken core book.

I'm having fun, but I am having the same issue I tend to have when I play games set in the modern era, that being, I'm afraid I'm either making a character that is way over the top, or I'm playing somebody that is "just some guy," and isn't really that interesting, because I'm trying not to be over the top.

As per my usual, I went with over the top, and I worry that that it either breaks the horror aspect of the setting or it undermines anyone's trust that the character can be counted on to do something useful in the session.  Call it Jar Jar syndrome.  Hopefully I'll strike a balance, but I'm still a bit concerned that I haven't do so very well at the moment.



Long story short--enjoying the game and the setting, could use a little less random short stories saturating the text, enjoying the game, wish I could be sure I wasn't being "that guy" when it comes to my portrayal of a distinctive personality type.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

My Life On The Other Side of the Screen--D&D 5th Edition Organized Play

I've been playing D&D 5th edition for a while now in WOTC's Encounters format on Wednesday nights.  I've missed one week so far, but other than that, I've been doing this for a while now, and my goliath monk is up to 3rd level.



WOTC's organized play feels a little loose.  It's not quite as loose as 13th Age's organized play, but I keep feeling like I'm doing something wrong, organized play wise, because it feels like I'm just showing up to play a regular game of D&D.

Don't get me wrong.  I don't want the complicated hassle of charting every little thing that happens and having to check errata every other day to see how my character actually works this week and if I have to rebuild or if I even can rebuild or whatever.  I think Pathfinder Society just burned me enough that I'm paranoid that if I took my character to another store or a convention, the guy running it there would say "I'm sorry, you've been doing this wrong, you shouldn't have had this much fun."



The adventures seem fun, and classically D&D, but I really don't know why they are set in the Realms, or why they had to rip planets apart and bring gods back to life to present uber generic D&D adventures in the setting.  Again, I like the adventures thus far, but they really don't do much to really use the setting, other than to give you a faraway big city to namedrop, so Waterdeep could be Greyhawk, or Palanthus or Lankhmar for that matter.

But the system is so much fun!

I don't remember D&Ding like this since we were in the pre-kit days of 2nd edition, and my ranger was jumping off of towers to stab fire giants outside of Geoff.



We have used tactical maps, and we have not used tactical maps, and I've never felt like the maps were nearly the constraint that they were in 3rd or 4th edition.  Instead of providing some kind of tactical puzzle where people looked for where to place their five foot step or their flanking or their persistent spells, and having a player agonize over said puzzle for hours, they have mainly just been there to help us visualize where we are in relation to what's going on in the encounter, and we've had several encounters that worked just fine without them.

Indeed, most of the time the tactical maps come out, it has to do with a major, pivotal fight, whereas random encounters are handled "theater of the mind."

My monk started out a level lower than the rest of the group, but he was effective right off the bat.  While I was more fragile if I got hit, I could actually hit and deal out damage as well as anybody in the group right from the start, which made me feel less like a burden to the rest of the party.  Last session, we revisited this idea as we had a couple of 1st level characters with our 3rd level party, and again, they contributed just as well, even if they were a bit more prone to drop when directly engaged.



I enjoyed 4th when I played it, but there were elements that felt very much like they were game constructs, and tended to pull you out of any flow you might have had with the narrative.  I'm not sure I can put my finger on it, but the tweaking of some of the abilities to recharge after an hour instead of a five minute rest, and what exactly recharges and what doesn't, feels a lot more like previous editions of the game.

The game is just open ended enough that if I want to describe my monk bouncing off walls and performing Spartacus style over the top killer finishers, I can do so, and nothing in the rules tells me that I'm wrong for doing so.  I love it.



While I'm not thrilled with the setting support thus far, I'm really loathe to tell WOTC to do much different, because I love the game itself more than I have for a really long time, and I don't want them to screw it up.  Perhaps the best advice I could give them is to keep pumping out older edition PDFs, make them print on demand, and maybe come up with a semi-official "this edition to 5th" conversion guide?