Friday, July 31, 2015

Annihilation Day! (Marvel Heroic Session One)

The Annihilation Wave has struck!

Last night at the FLGS, I began running the Annihilation event for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying.

Eventually we may have five to six players, but tonight we started with just three.  Our starting heroes were the Thing, the Invisible Woman, and Gamora.

Sue and Ben had been captured by the Super-Skrull and brought to the Kyln, along with evidence of their crimes against the Skrull Empire.  Essentially this was a trap being set by K'lrt to lure the two members of the Fantastic Four into his hands after defeating two of the team.

Gamora had been tracking down the former herald of Galactus, the Fallen One, and had turned herself into the authorities of the Omega Corps at the Klyn in an effort to find the Fallen One from within.

As the heroes were being taken to their respective cells, the Kyln was rocked by bombardment, and Sue, Ben, and Gamora could hear murmurings that a fleet larger than a Kree battlegroup had emerged from the Crunch, the natural rift between this universe and the alternate dimension known as the Negative Zone.

The Super-Skrull flew off to his ship immediately, and the members of the Fantastic Four and Gamora were left alone, still infused with nano-wardens that would inhibit them from using their powers.  (Everyone started with a nano-warden complication in place and an extra plot point)

Gamora immediately took off for the nearest hanger, and began to hot wire an Omega Corps patrol ship.  Sue and Ben were at ground zero as a wave of arthrosian drones flooded the hallways.  Sue was badly hurt, and Ben was covered in bugs, slowing down his every move.

While preparing the ship, Gamora overheard Omega Corps conversations that a reinforcement fleet was coming through the Crunch according to the Kyln sensors, so she used the patrol ship's communication gear to transmit Star-Lord's mix tape along the same transmission that one of the queens was using to transmit orders, which caused the reinforcement fleet to fall away for the time being.  (I used a die from the Doom Pool to start a "Reinforcement Fleet" timer, which Gamora acted against to keep from having it go off)

Sue and Ben eventually reached the ship that Gamora had started to prepare, and Ben used his piloting knowledge to make sure the ship was at full power.  Sue slammed a hallway full of Arthrosians into the walls, and cleared the stragglers off of Ben, and Ben used the exhaust of the ship to burn away several of the drones.  When the last of the wave neared the ship and fired, Gamora dropped down from the ship, finished them off, and leaped back to the ship in time for Ben to launch into space.

Ben, emotionally stunned at the size of the fleet and his inability to find a way past it, nearly lost heart.  Gamora plotted a course through the ships, Ben snapped out of his reverie, and the ship jumped into hyperspace.

In hyperspace, the group realized that the Annihilation Fleet was projecting a hyperspace bubble that limited how far they could travel through sub-space, and that the wave would soon hit Xandar, and the edges of the Kree and Skrull empires.  Because it was closer and friendlier, the crew headed to Xandar.  In the meantime, Sue comforted her old friend and helped him shake off his self-doubt, and Gamora used the first aid kit in the ship to help Sue heal from her injuries.  (Recovering from stress for both Sue and Ben, and the nano-warden complication went away at this point)

Upon arriving in Xandar's orbit, the devastation of the planet made Ben mention that it was like coming out of hyperspace and not being able to find Alderaan.  Gamora wanted to know where Alderaan was, and Ben mentioned that it was something out of Star Wars, and that the Death Star destroyed Alderaan, and Gamora was sure that a living malevolent star was going to be the death of Xandar because Ben Grimm had seen it happen before.  (Thus began many XP for Gamora as she continually misunderstood Star Wars references)

The team avoided the bombardment fleet, and zeroed in on a distress call from the Xandarian Worldmind.  Upon finding the resting place for the living computer system, Sue left Ben and Gamora to discuss Star Wars and the ramifications of the film on their current course of action, and she crept up on Hybelea, a warrior of Annihilus, leading a crew of drones and Arthrosian soldiers to sift through the rubble for the entrance to the Worldmind's chambers.

Sue swept aside the drones and slammed Hybelea hard.  Hybelea offered his regrets over the need to destroy their universe to save his own, and Ben was looking forward to a good fight against the Centurion leader, when Gamora lept onto the soldiers and Hybelea, knocking them out of the fight.

The group found the chamber of the Worldmind, and Gamora began to ask it about Alderaan, at which point, the Worldmind began to scan its charts for the possible location of Alderaan, and upon mentioning that it was in a galaxy far, far away, the Worldmind began accessing long range extra-galactic probes, at which point Sue pointed out that they didn't have time for this.  (Gamora's player paid the XP cost to be deputized by the Nova Corps, so she would have access to the Worldmind powerset later, as well as the ability to call in Nova Corp members for some XP in future scenes)

The Worldmind asked for a volunteer to download it into their neural passageways, and Gamora volunteer, if only to prevent what happened to Alderaan and Xandar from happening anywhere else.  Sue helped to regulate the energy flowing in to Gamora, and she successfully emerged from the download, and the Worldmind awarded her with an field promotion into the Nova Corps.

Ben was looking out for any more Arthrosian threats, when a force field encompassed the entire structure and drug it aboard a ship that Sue and Ben recognized as Skrull in design.  On the ship, they ran into K'lrt, who informed them that he had scooped them up from the devastation because he was going to take them with him to help save the Skrull Empire from the approaching Annihilation Wave.  (With the d12s I had left in the Doom Pool, I narrated the end of the scene with Super-Skrull taking them to the Skrull Empire next, taking the Kree destination off the table for now)

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Narrative Generic Trek is Not a (Professionally Produced) Thing

The more I read through RPGs like Marvel Heroic, various Apocalypse World derived games, and Fate games, the more I am convinced that the feel and flow of various properties are definitely encapsulated better by more narrative oriented roleplaying games.

I think Star Wars does well in a more traditional framework, because heroes shoot back or run from danger, use different guns and starships to do so, and fight a wide variety of troops, fighters, interceptors, and capital ships.  While you could make a narrative game that does these things, a more traditional RPG still handles a lot of what makes Star Wars work pretty well.

Now, when you move the lens towards Star Trek, I think you might get a slightly different picture.  The traditional Star Trek  (as shown through a preponderance of television episodes) means of resolving a problem tends to revolve around the following:

  • Coming up with some new way to use existing equipment to do (science ex machina)
  • Talking to the right people at the right time to convince them to change their minds
  • Doing science under pressure
  • Doing diplomacy under pressure
  • Finding out there are new rules to a situation that you didn't know about, then learning how to do something more mundane under those new rules
While there is a good deal of fighting in Star Trek, it's usually something that happens earlier in the show, to let you know there is a problem, rather than the solution to the problem.   Outside of the movies, even ship to ship combat is usually about surviving until one of the above happens, or flexing your own ship's capabilities so you can talk to an opponent as equals.

That means, in a more traditional RPG, when you have different stats for a type II or type II phaser, exact hull points and shield ratings, and single pass fail resolution skills that tell you if you "diplomacied" the alien ambassador, you tend to fast forward through the most Star Trek like aspects of a Trek game and spend a lot more time on combat, which is usually a speed bump to the actual resolution in the television series.

It makes perfect sense in the more action oriented Star Wars to know if your smuggler can fast talk his way past customs with one quick roll to get a head start on his pursuers, or to know if he can bluff some stormtroopers to avoid a fight that will potentially give him a few more injuries going into the big fight, but that's the opposite paradigm we see in more traditional Trek stories.

Cortex Plus, Powered by the Apocalypse games, and Fate all have a lot more space for making random science solutions that aren't defined by the rules before the player came up with the solution, longer diplomatic resolutions, or even that everybody is operation by a set of rules that you weren't aware existed in the first place.

That said, I'm surprised I haven't seen a shot at more traditional trek using one (or all) of these RPG approaches.  I'm not talking about fan made attempts.  There are fan made attempts at nearly everything, some very, very good.  I'm also not talking about actual licensed Star Trek games, because goodness knows licensing is an weird and tempestuous beast.  But I have yet to come across a more generic, yet obviously Star Trek styled sci-fi game for these systems, and that kind of surprises me.  

Friday, July 24, 2015

Climbing on the One Shot Horse

Given my last post, I'm happy to be writing this one.  First off, I'm going to attempt to run the Marvel Heroic Annihilation event, and forgive myself if I end up having to postpone a night or two if things come up.  It's straight forward, and I know how to run the system, so I'm just going to do it.

I'd like to thank everybody that read the blog post and offered support and suggestions, or just the kick in the butt to get out there and GM again and not worry about the starts being perfectly aligned for the Most Amazing Campaign Ever.

All of that out of the way, our regular Werewolf the Forsaken game wasn't going off because 50% of our pack couldn't make it, including our Alpha.  Considering the members of the pack that would be present are much more the "support" characters of the pack, we didn't attempt to press on with pack business.  Thus, I volunteered to run a one shot.

Tangent time:  I've been trying to find an urban fantasy game that I really want to run for a while.  I wanted to like the Dresden Files RPG, but it feels oddly complicated for a Fate based game.  I didn't dislike it, I just wanted it to be different.  I started looking into new World of Darkness once I started playing Werewolf, but while I kind of like the system  (especially with the 2nd edition modifications), there are things I'm not happy with in the overall setting.  I'm not sure I can get completely comfortable with Computer God and the Mecha-Angels being the driving force behind everything.

Recently I've been looking at a lot more Apocalypse World based games, which led me to look at Monster of the Week and Urban Shadows.  Of the two, I think Monster of the Week is a bit more geared towards my sensibilities, so I printed out the play books for Monster of the Week in case I ever got a chance to give the game a run  (I've got all the play material ready for World Wide Wrestling RPG and Soth as well . . . just in case).  Since I had it ready, and it was already an "urban fantasy" night, why not give this a whirl?

Full disclaimer.  I've "read" the rules, but in that kind of fast way that you do to get a feel for them, rather the in depth way you do when you know you are about to run a game  (at least if you are like me).  I'm sure I did a few things wrong here or there, and adjudicated things the wrong way.

All of that said, it still seemed to go great.

+Kathryn Rumer, our Werewwolf GM, played the Spooky, named Faye, and +Christopher Osmundson played the Expert, named Brandon.  It turns out that Faye once attracted the attention of a monster's minion with her mental powers, and Brandon helped her out of a bind and has been attempting to help her master her powers.

The two of them went to investigate a cluster of murders in a small town in Central Illinois which appeared to be ritual killings.

Right off the bat, were hit the ground running.  Faye could see elemental spirits and demonic imps swirling around the murder site, and the imps attempted to convince her to let them "ride" her so they could help find the killer.  She didn't agree, but she did try to carry a lightning spirit in her phone, and an imp hitched a ride, thus providing her with a demonically possessed phone that texts her very evil advice and critical times.

At the second murder scene, in a farm house, the state police decided to check up on the car packed at the abandoned farm, and Faye attempted to read their minds, only to get her mind entangled with a passing school bus full of kids, and causing her to cry out and cause the cops to call for the two to come out with their hands up.  Thankfully, Brandon just happened to carry his fake FBI credentials with him, and they talked their way out of the jam.

In town, they went to investigate the lat murder scene, when a mysterious stranger left a note on their car.  Faye was smitten with the tall, dark, and handsome stranger.  While waiting for the meeting time, Faye and Brandon went to the local bar, and Faye nearly got into a fight with the mother of one of the children that had caused her telepathic distress earlier.  Thankfully she managed to alter the woman's mind to get out of the situation, and Brandon decided they should leave before they got into any more local altercations.

At the hotel, Faye and Brandon met Alders, whom Brandon could tell was "supernaturally charming."  Faye spent some quality time with Alders, and Alders "nudged" her mind to keep her from allowing Brandon to kill the perpetrator of the crimes, a vampire possessed by the spirit of an ancient wizard, who was attempting to "remake" his vampire body into a living vessel once again.  Alders wanted the amulet, if possible, and for his friend James to survive.

Brandon and Faye set their ambush, and Faye used her powers to convince Brandon not to take a "sunlight grenade" with him to the encounter to keep James safe.  When James arrived with the final victim for the last ritual, Brandon shot him in the face, but was injured by the wizard spirit's "blood magic."  Faye crept up behind James and stole the amulet away, but it was during a flash of lightning, causing Brandon to not see that the amulet had been removed.  Brandon charged James and cut his head off with a silver sword in one mighty swing.

This could have been the end of the story, but it so wasn't. Faye asked her demon phone how to save James, and it answered that it could only be done with a lot of blood.  So Faye pulled her gun on Brandon and decided to bleed out the victim onto James, so that Alders wouldn't be upset.  When Brandon didn't want to go along with this, she "compelled" him to do so.

Thankfully, Brandon managed to keep the last victim alive and stable after the blood letting so that the local ambulance could save him.  Faye and Brandon returned James and the amulet to Alders, Brandon forgot most of Faye's mental tampering, and Faye spent some more quality time with both Alders and James.

It was a whole lot of fun.  I expected it to be fun, in general, but this went really well.  I'm looking forward to running the system again, and I'm very happy that I managed to pull off another very low prep one shot again.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Man of Steel Hindsight

There has been a lot of talk about the Man of Steel movie in light of the trailer for Dawn of Justice.  Lots of talk about expectations that people have for Superman versus people that have no expectations for Superman but have expectations for a particular style of movie, and where those expectations clash and who was let down by what.

The thing that is weird for me is that I didn't dislike Man of Steel.  I liked Henry Cavill as Superman, and I liked Amy Adams as Lois Lane, and Lawrence Fishburne as Perry White.  There were notes I thought it hit too hard or too lightly, but I didn't think that it was a problem of those notes being part of the story, just how much they seemed to resonate.

There were a few things that didn't work for me all that well.

  • Citing Superman's exact age and pegging him in his thirties struck me as odd.  I guess I'm just geared towards the idea that Clark was Superman by his mid twenties, and I figured if they never pinned down his age, once we advanced the timeframe, we didn't need to have a specific age for Clark.
  • I get that Jonathan wasn't the guy urging his son to always do the right thing and be upright and true, and while that didn't work that well for me in general, it really got weird for me when he essentially forced his son to watch him commit suicide to teach him a lesson about hiding his powers.
  • Juxtaposing Jor-El to being the father that expected Superman to be a hero and Jonathan as the father who just wanted his son to be safe could have been interesting, but for the above fanaticism of Jonathan and the fact that Clark puts so much stock in Jor-El's plan for his life the first time he "meets" him.
  • Having evil Kryptonians as the threat right from the beginning just felt wrong, especially when they show up before Clark ever becomes Superman.  Up to this point, Zod has always been a character that was used for contrast after Clark establishes who he is, not as someone that shapes him before he decides who he is.
None of that was really a deal breaker for me. And you know, that scene.  That one.  Snap!  That one really didn't bother me that much.  Superman has killed other versions of Zod before, and he seemed suitably anguished by the decision that I kind of got that it was Snyder's way of saying "he doesn't want to kill people."

By the end of the movie, I didn't dislike it, I just felt like I was missing something.  Like there was a half-hour that would have put more texture to everything and made it feel more Superman-like.  Maybe a little more of Jonathan just being a good dad and not a zealot.  Maybe a little more of Clark being Clark as an adult.  Something was missing for me.

Earlier in the movie they do a good job of showing Clark quietly doing good deeds that only he can do.  I didn't want another Superman movie where the most amount of action we got was Superman lifting heavy things or ignoring physical threats to himself.  We have ample examples of those in the previous Superman movies.  But Clark doing good deeds did just kind of feel right.

I didn't dwell on the destruction in Smallville and Metropolis much, other than to agree that a fight between Kryptonians under a yellow sun should probably be pretty devastating to the surrounding terrain.  I didn't entirely jump on the bandwagon when people started mentioning what the assumed body count must have been in the Superman/Zod fight.  I guess I just assumed that if we didn't literally see people dying, its possible people were evacuated, or that we didn't see the efforts made to steer towards buildings already abandoned.

I didn't see it as a given that thousands of people had died, at least not during the fight between Zod and Superman.  I can see Zod's machine killing thousands right off the bat, but he's the villain, he started all the crap.

 I did see that it might be something that I felt was missing.  Not that Superman had let thousands die thoughtlessly as he fought Zod, but that the movie didn't show us him scanning buildings for people before he threw Zod into them, that we didn't see the few seconds he might have taken to fly a few people to safety before Zod pulled him back into the fight.  I didn't assume massive carnage, or a heartless Superman, I just thought that it was perhaps a mistake not to emphasize that those more compassionate things might have taken place.

My hope, before we found out that Man of Steel wouldn't be getting a direct sequel immediately, and that we were instead getting Batman versus Superman, was that we might get some context to the first movie.  We's seem more Clark with his supporting cast, maybe see him agonizing over the fact that he tried to save people but couldn't.  We'd get to see him fight a threat that isn't connected to him at all, so he could be a hero without any reservation, as he saved Earth from someone of something that wasn't connected to his won past.  

But that doesn't appear to be the case.  The trailers we've seen so far seem to indicate that maybe Clark's heart was in the right place, wanting to defeat Zod, but that he wasn't such a great super hero, and probably did let a few thousand people die because he was careless and fixated.  In fact, depending on if the clues line up as they appear to be, with might have another movie that kind of says that Earth may have been better off if Krypton had blown up and taken everybody with it.  

I didn't dislike Man of Steel when I saw it.  Had a sequel framed the first movie in slightly different terms, and filled in the gaps, I may have still had fond memories of the movie.  The problem is, Batman versus Superman seems to be wanting to own the criticism that the internet leveled at Man of Steel, and build their story on that, rather than telling people that maybe they assumed the worst.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Kickstarter Remorse

I am starting to have some serious misgivings about a project that I Kickstarted.  I am almost certain that I didn't misread what the game was suppose to be about, and there was even a game mentioned as a "kind of like this," which gave me a firm mental picture.  Even seeing the creators associated with the project didn't really give me any kind of concern.

Then I started getting updates and hearing news online.  One of the updates really makes me think that this is the kind of game that I'm not going to be running.

I feel bad, because from the general theme and the discussion of the game mechanics, I was really, really interested.  I'm trying to figure out where I misinterpreted just what direction this project was moving.

I don't blame the developer. Most of the people who have backed it, from what I have seen on comments, seem really happy about how the game is progressing.  In general, some of the elements aren't something I'm dead set against, but I'm kind of surprised at how prominent they are.

I know others have run into this situation before, but this is the first Kickstarted that I've backed that really makes me wonder if I should hold off on these and wait to see how the game actually develops, other than trusting the elevator pitch and the list of designers attached to the project.

I'm not planning on mentioning the Kickstarter in question, because, as I've said, most of the people that I've seen discussing the game don't seem to have been surprised at all over the direction the game is going.  I feel as if the fault is in me, but if I can make this kind of mistake about how a game is pitched versus how it develops, I may need to get out of the crowdfunding side of things.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

How We View and Use Lore In RPGs--Maybe We're Doing It Wrong

A comment on one of my recent posts got me thinking about how lore and history are presented in RPGs.  I've run into a lot of people that like to chuck any kind of history and just use what they like.  I've also run into a lot of people that like a particular game or setting exactly because it does have a lot of minutia to it.

This made me wonder about exactly how we present background material, and how useful it is at the game table.  I know even some settings where I like a lot of detail, that detail sometimes makes me feel like I'm a bit lost, and not sure what to do with the information.

How We Learn Game Systems

When we have a lot of rules on how to actually make characters or play the game, we often get a few pages of explanation of the rules and how they work, followed by charts and bullet points that break down what was just said in a more graphical manner.

In other words, you get a lot of information, then that information is broken down into bullet points, and sometimes you retain more than just the bullet points, because the bullet points themselves actually help you to segregate the information and "pin" what you just read to an overall idea.

How We Follow Adventures

Adventures are probably some of the most idiosyncratic of RPG material, as often the personality of the author comes through in how the adventure is structured, what is called out, and what is emphasized.

I have read adventures that have a lot of backstory that you are never quite sure will make it to the players, and I've read adventures that lose me with the plot because I can't figure out how A moves to B and what that means.

On the other hand, there have been many excellent adventures written over the years that break things down into a synopsis of what probably should happen, sidebars on motivations and how they actually come out in the game, and sometimes flow charts showing how encounters move into other encounters.

Once again, we have material that might at first be densely packed, but becomes easier to parse when it is graphically represented and is broken down into smaller headings to understand where and why they fit into the greater whole.

What Does This Mean For the Lore

I really started to love the lore in the Forgotten Realms in the 1st edition days, and some of my fondest memories of 2nd edition products are the Volo's Guides.  Most of the entries were a few paragraphs on what the public things, then a few paragraphs on what Elminster knows about the subject.  In the Volo's Guides, descriptions and histories were often tied specifically to places in a given region, and then various locations were rated either for what they sold or how dangerous they were.

Again, there was a breakdown of the information at the end of a section, with either a summary or a graphical representation, or both, with allowed for a sort of "processing" period to set in, putting the information you just read about an area in order in your mind, and reminding you where to look to find a shorthand on what you just read.

While not quite as useful as the above, many 2nd edition Realms products also had extensive timelines, breaking thousand year histories down by notable years.  While these weren't as immediate as the Elminster's Notes or Volo's ratings, they did put all of that information in a graphical delineation that helped you remember, for example, what came before or after the Illythiiri became the drow.

Possible Best Practices?

Maybe, at the end of a very lore intensive section or chapter of an RPG book, it might not be a bad idea to summarize the ideas, perhaps even by bullet point, of what was just expressed previously.

Lore sections for a lot of RPGs tend to be written in a manner not unlike a history text book.  This section is about this region from this date to this date.  There are discussions of major conflicts, trade, organizations, cultural changes, and personalities of note, in relation to one another, until the section is over.

What if, instead of listing everything lumped together, we figured out what was important for the game, and further divided that into sections?

For example, a section on a given region is broken into, say, Founding, Major Conflicts, Trade, Power Groups, Personalities of Note, and Cultural Trends.  At the end of the section, you have a timeline that meshes the things mentioned in all of those sections together, so that you know that trade in a certain good dried up when this war started and that the generals involved were X and Y, and a few years later this cultural trend started, all reorganized chronologically onto the timeline after being explained separately.

What's the advantage of this?  If you want to find out what kind of goods likely need to be smuggled into the region, you look under trade.  If you want to see if mercenaries would have been active recently, you look under major conflicts.  If you want to know whose likely to be attempting to pull the PCs' strings, you look under power groups.

Taking this one step further, you could explicitly state, from a gaming point of view, what purpose this region serves.  Is this suppose to be the land from which bad guys spring?  Is this the place you find shady employers?  Is this were virtuous types that may not realize how the rest of the world really works spring from?

Interestingly, while the body of a lot of RPG setting material is written like history books, the one history book-like thing that is missing is the end of chapter summaries and quizzes.  Sure, you don't want to make the reader take a test to see what he learned, but summarizing and contextualizing the information just presented is a good idea, if only to allow the reader a chance to "pin" some of the information to his long term memory and to reset the brain to be ready to read the next section without having the information in the previous section bleed into and muddy the next section.

While there are sometimes "meta" discussions on what purpose various regions serve in a setting, those discussions aren't often attached directly to the sections detailing the setting itself. It is almost like the "lore" section is sacred, and has to be treated as a "real world" discourse on the setting, with any kind of analysis of history or setting as it relates to gaming removed from the lore by a few chapters, so as not to spoil the setting information.

I'm not sure that the immersion gained by writing the information in a manner consistent with an in-world history is worth the potential disconnect with the material being presented for the game.  The breakdown doesn't have to club you over the head with "it all make believe!," but it might be helpful to have a few "end of section" reminders about why you would care about this information when running or playing the game.

On top of that, maybe the additional pass to break the information down to make all of it more "game ready" might also give the designers an additional perspective on whether the information really is all that useful to the game they are presenting in the first place.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Looking at the Realms Through Edition Colored Glasses

There is a discussion on Google+ that triggered this post.  As I didn't want to derail that thread (which you can find here), I started this post up here on the blog.  Fred Hicks pointed out that a game system will dramatically alter the feel of a setting, regardless of the details of that setting, so that  you don't really "know" that setting until you experiences it through the lens of a particular game system.

I agree with this in part, and it especially resonated with me when thinking about what bothered me about the massive anti-NPC backlash in the Forgotten Realms going into 4th Edition.

For the decades that I ran games in the Realms, the feeling I always got was that the setting was a slightly more fantastical version of the type of world that Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser inhabited.

For a lot of people that had turned sour on the setting in 3rd edition, it was a setting where 30th level wizards and a few high level NPCs did everything important, and PCs weren't really "needed."

For now I'll not get into the fact that Realm Shaking Events started to play into epic fantasy tropes of heroes that are born to save the world, and thus are "needed," instead of adventurers being people that NEED to adventure and might end up being world saving heroes.

Instead, it's interesting to see how the setting might be perceived differently.

Much of the setting was conceived by Ed Greenwood before there was ever a game system attached to it.  Reading Ed's descriptions in books like the Volo's Guides really seems to create a feeling that mixes the swashbuckling of Fafhrd and Mouser with the love of home and hearth found in Tolkien's works.

Viewed through the lens of 1st and early 2nd edition AD&D, I think you can still maintain that feeling, because there was also a feeling in that edition that even if you adventured for an actual decade in the real world, between training rules and how XP was handed you, your character might never be more than 10th level.

However, and perhaps even more important, from 10th level on, you didn't get all that much more powerful in earlier editions.  Yeah, spellcasters got really nice toys, but they fell down fairly easily if you hit them with a sword, so Meteor Swarm wasn't quite as devastating, since your wizard had to survive to cast it at a safe range.

If you look at the really unique Bloodstone adventures, the final adventure has alternate 100th level characters, which appear to be more of a thought exercise than anything else.  However, the gap between a theoretical 100th level character in 1st and 2nd edition D&D and a 10th level character in that system really isn't as pronounced as you might think.

Character levels in Forgotten Realms books were more or less shorthand for saying someone had been around for a long time or had successfully adventured for a while.  In fact, one of the reasons gods initially didn't have stats in the Forgotten Realms setting is because in 1st and 2nd edition D&D, there was a bit more randomness to how things played out, and your "name" level characters might actually take out Odin if they rolled well and he didn't.

Looking at the Realms through 3rd edition colored glasses alters things quite a bit.  Because in the new edition of the game every level was suppose to yield a progression forward, and there wasn't a "name" level where you didn't get as much return on your investment when you leveled up, all of those 18-30th level NPCs now actually look a lot more powerful than they did in 1st and 2nd edition.

Elminster could stand in the middle of a horde of thousands of orcs and probably survive, statistically speaking, whereas the character, in the fictional setting, would never press his luck in this manner.   No matter how many times you have a character say one stray sword could still end his life, it's really hard to believe when his native game system gives him 300+ hit points.

Add to this the fact that "ancient magic rituals" used to be things that took centuries to learn and weeks to cast, but because of the Epic level rules, you could now start tweaking epic spells that could be used in combat, and you still gaining levels every few weeks of adventuring if you were fighting appropriately powerful foes, and all of those 30th level wizards, instead of being frail bags of hit points that might know a few powerful spells in older editions, were suddenly guys that should never, ever need a 3rd level guy to run an errand for them.

Add to this the very simulationist feel that 3rd edition got, between battle mats and specific feats that let you do very specific things, and any kind of fiat in explaining how something was a threat or how a given NPC could or couldn't do something goes out the window.

Another trend also emerges when you look at the how 3rd edition modeled the world.  For the purposes of this discussion, the game fiction exists to set the "tone" of the world.  I'm not describing how good or bad it might be, just that the function is to tell you what the world is like.

With that in mind, earlier novels set in the Realms, when you had to pin down the levels of the participants, yielded people that weren't "name level" yet.  Alias was a 7th level fighter.  The Knights of Myth Drannor ranged from 3rd to 7th level.  Even Drizzt, the first time he was given a level, was 8th level.  This "pre-name" level was a short hand for saying that the adventurers were competent, but not quite world class movers and shakers.

But as the fiction moved towards 3rd edition, characters often clearly had prestige classes or used certain classes signature abilities, and if you knew even a little about the setting, suddenly that was signaling that the heroes of the latest books were 12th to 15th level, and 12th to 15th level looked more impressive these days than it used to look.

On top of that, lowly 7th level characters would, through luck, skill, and perseverance, might survive a mass of goblins or a dragon.  You know the dragon was scary, but you also know it's possible that they could survive, from a game perspective.

But once 3rd edition hit, there was no "7th level character takes on an ancient red dragon."  Even in the novels, it seemed as if characters were starting to take on "level appropriate" bad guys, further making 1st level starting adventurers look like really sad little guys that had to kill 3,782 boars before they could level up and be useful.

The other day on my blog I wrote about how D&D was the "only" RPG lens to view fantasy through in the beginning, and being the grandfather of the industry, was the default defining set of rules for most people.  That definition is often "upgraded" as grandad goes through edition changes.

Time and perspective have helped me to understand why other people didn't see my then favorite setting the same way that I did, but they have also helped me to see why the long view gave me a different perspective as well.

Monday, July 6, 2015

D&D Is Not A High Fantasy Simulation Game

D&D is a melting pot of various fantasy tropes.  D&D's parents include Tolkien  (honestly, I don't care to argue about to what degree or how much Gygax did or didn't like LOTR), Conan, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Elric, Vance's stories, weird sword and planet stories, Lovecraft and other horror as well as folklore and mythology.

When D&D was being assembled, there wasn't much thought about narrowing down influences to make sure a "pure" theme could be distilled.  It was the first, so it's pretty much got a bit of everything within it.  That said, having influences that range that far does not mean that it doesn't have recurring themes that are native to the game itself.

When I was young, reading through settings like Greyhawk, Mystara, and the Forgotten Realms, I got a very specific narrative.  That narrative was not "the adventuring company are people from all walks of life that have arisen to take on a great evil."  The narrative that was most consistent was "adventurers are a known thing in society; sometimes people want to hire on as mercenaries, bodyguards, or try their hand at tomb robbing in order to make their way in life, and sometimes those folks turn out to be heroes the save the world, sometimes they die young, and sometimes they retire rich and famous."

One of the reasons that the Forgotten Realms is often a contentious setting is that the best selling, longest running books of the setting, the Drizzt novels, are at odds with this basic principle.  Drizzt and his companions are much more epic fantasy types that just happened to rise to defeat great evil, and then great evil keeps presenting itself to them.  They didn't become adventurers to stave off boredom, to get away from a peasant's life, to shirk responsibility, or to forge their own destiny.  They all had settled in Icewind Dale and were friends that banded together to fight the menace of the Crystal Shard.

That's all well and good, but it seemed like most of the rest of the adventurers in the Realms were people looking for fame, fortune, and a life free of the expectations of more constrained society.  They gained patrons in the nobility or various clandestine power groups, might be manipulated into doing one thing or another, but overall, it wasn't about the One Evil that Arises Every Generation.  It was about surviving and maybe dealing with local evils once in a while.

I am certainly not a gamer that thinks Dragonlance ruined D&D with it's vile storylines and metaplot, but I do think it was a departure, and it was an intentional departure from standard D&D tropes.  Even then, the Heroes of the Lance were originally . . . mercenaries.  Even the noble future knight.  They were actually adventurers before the Great Evil returned to the world,

The main reason this strikes me is that no matter what D&D has done right over the years, when it comes to advice on how to run D&D campaigns, whomever is at the helm of D&D tends to be reluctant to flat out explain the fact that D&D mainly assumes that you are probably selfish, rebellious ruffians.  D&D is not really a game about noble knights defending their home kingdom, nor is it a game about religious orders making the world safe for the adherents of their faith.  Its not even a game about navigating a city as a member of the thieves guild.

It's become a joke, and people talk about it like it's a bad thing, but do you know why so many D&D adventures start in a bar?  Because adventurers go to bars for work, and to meet other adventurers.  People on a grand quest may be assembled by a meeting of the great powers of the world, or in a temple to the great god of light, but adventurers find job postings and hear rumors and rub shoulders with other adventurers, and there is nothing really wrong with that.

A lot of angst over how character classes and alignments work in a party might actually be avoided if we took a moment to consider that some things exist in the game not expressly for player use.  I know, even with the idea that adventurers were kind of outlier ruffians from earlier source material, I felt like people should at least try to be "good."  But that's not really true of adventurers.  Adventurers don't need to be bloodthirsty killers, and in fact I hate the term "murder hobo," but they do tend very much to be neutral in their outlook.  Sure, you have things you love and would sacrifice for, but you probably also want to be rich, famous, and at the very least to live your life on your own terms.

Even when somebody wants to play a lawful good paladin in a "traditional" D&D game, the obvious choices for gods really aren't the best choices for adventurers.  Tyr, god of justice?  Torm, god of duty?  What are you doing wandering around the countryside poking into tombs?  But maybe with a little guidance, a paladin of Lathander can justify being there to heal his friends, and potentially shape them into heroes and nudge them in the right direction if they do happen to trip over that Great Evil that sometimes shows up and needs to be put down.

In the earlier days, when D&D was the beginning of the RPG industry, it may have been hard not to see it as the tool to emulate fantasy across the board.  Now that there are more games that are much more aware of what they are actually modelling, and not trying to paint on too broad a canvas, perhaps it's time to realize that D&D may not be the "everything high fantasy" RPG, and might be more rewarding if it's focus was expressly narrowed to "adventurers that may or may not become great heroes."

I'm not saying you cannot make D&D work to emulate the Lord of the Rings or your epic fantasy of choice, I'm just saying that you need to make sure you know this isn't really the default setting of the game, and that everybody needs to be onboard, so that you don't have half the party comprised of LOTR style heroes and the other half comprised of Fafhrd, Mouser, and Conan, and everyone ends up disappointed.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Mutants and Masterminds, Hero Points, and Fate

Disclaimer:  It's been a while since I've run Mutants and Masterminds.  Since then I've played at a convention, and I've made characters, but I have at least kept up a bit with M&M 3rd edition, and I've even made up a character that I've yet to play in a friend's campaign, because life is a complicated thing when it comes to adult schedules.

I'm fairly certain I've discussed this before, but one of the things that never quite went right for me with my group was using hero points as a GM to just explain how a scene resolved.  The first time I tried to do it, I just had players say "we don't want the hero points, so the bad guy doesn't escape."

Now, that's not really covered in the rules, but I'm fairly certain the assumed way this is suppose to work is that you trust the GM enough to just fork over the hero points for you, and the bad guy escapes, your weakness incapacitates you for a few rounds, etc.  Nobody has to jump through hoops to look up rules to make the scene work the way it would in the comics, because it's not a back and forth combat round or skill challenge that is going on.

Similarly, it just always felt a little loose to hand a player a hero point so that my bad guy could re-roll to hit that hero, or to resist the hero's attacks.  On top of that, handing a player a hero point when you know the night is almost over just kind of feels wrong, like paying them with currency that won't be valid in a few minutes.

After having played a lot of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying and having read and played a little bit of Fate, I have to agree that there is something a bit more "cooperative" in the way that those systems handle "GM edits," situations where the GM pretty much just throws the player's agency out the window.  You can do anything you want with your 2d12 in Marvel Heroic, but you have to wait until you have "earned" those d12s in your Doom Pool.  In Fate, the players have the option of spending their fate points to cancel out the things that you want to do, so that it becomes more of a discussion about how the scene should play out, and even if there is still a hint of the adversarial in paying the GM to cancel out his "gotcha" moment, there is an economy involved that means the player isn't completely without some say in what's going on.

So with all of that in place, if I were running Mutants and Masterminds again, here is my spin on what I would do with hero points.

How Many Hero Points Can I Have?

Default Mutants and Masterminds 3rd Edition assumes that you can have any number of hero points per session, but that they always reset to 1 hero point at the beginning of the next session.  This means that handing out a hero point at the end of the night towards the climax of the big fight, when your character might not even get another turn, is kind of a let down.

Under this system, you can bank your hero points, but not indefinitely.  The game really wants you using those hero points, so you lose 1 hero point each session, until you reach a minimum of 1 at the beginning of the next session.

It still means that you might get a little bit of a lackluster extra hero point at the end of the session  (hooray, I have two, and we're 10 minutes from the game being over), but it does mean that those nights where the GM put you through Hell  (perhaps literally) and you earned 6 hero points that you never got to spend, because you were rolling phenomenally well for once, won't hurt quite so bad, because next session you start with 5.

The GM Wants to Do What Now?

Any game system will ask you to have a certain amount of trust in the GM.  If the GM always intended the bad guy to have backup showing up in 10 minutes, you have to trust that the GM had that planned.  On the other hand, the GM has to own up to the idea that he wants his bad guy to escape without giving the players a chance to catch him, or that he wants to use one of the PC's weakness against them but not stat out that weakness in game terms, and just describe what happens.

In addition to the above "GM shortcuts," the core Mutants and Masterminds rules assume that you can have your bad guy essentially get the effect of a hero point by paying a hero point to the hero effected by that decisions.  So if the bad guy is re-rolling his attack on a PC, or re-rolling his check to resist the PC's attack, stand M&M logic would be to hand that player a hero point.

Taking a page from Fate, if the GM wants to introduce one of the above complications, the GM offers the player a hero point  (if the complication effects multiple players, he offers each of them a hero point).  If the players do not want to accept the GM's complication, they can instead hand over a hero point to the GM to cancel out the complication  (if the complication effects all of the PCs equally, each player has to hand over a hero point).

Now, this does mean that once you don't have a hero point to pay the GM, he can introduce a complication with impunity, but then you have a hero point again, and on top of that, it gives you incentive to earn a second hero point just in case you want one to cancel a GM complication in addition to being able to do more of the player facing things a hero point allows you to do.

All New #1 Issues!

Sometimes, the GM wants to assume some time has passed.  It's been a year since the alien invasion, or six months have gone by since the first super hero on the planet died saving his home city.  You want to refocus, ask the players what they did in all of that downtime, and start from a fresh new point for the next phase of the campaign.

Whenever that happens, all hero points reset to 1.  In comic book terms, it's great for for the hero points you built up to carry over from one issue to another when you in the same "story arc," but remembering how warm and fuzzy saving that kind from the apartment fire six months ago when you and your team have ended up traveling to an alien world in order to stop a planetary civil war probably doesn't make much sense.

As the GM, you shouldn't be doing this every game session if you are using the above rules.  Try to think of it in terms of comic books.  If it's been a month or less since the heroes did what they did last session, they should probably still have all of their hero points intact, unless there was some dramatic events that changed the whole feel of the campaign over that month's time.

When in doubt, bring the player's in on your decision making.  Tell them that the next story arc is removed from the previous one by a good space of time and you think it makes sense to reset your hero points.  Most of the time, the group is probably not going to have a hard time with this.