Friday, October 30, 2009

Good Guys

I've always liked playing the good guy.

Nothing surprising about that, I guess; most people want to play the good guy. It's part of what got me into reading fantasy. From my first real fantasy novels, the original Dragonlance trilogy, I wanted to be the guy who beat the bad guy. I never wanted to be a guy like Raistlin, all about the search for personal power at the cost of others - I wanted to be like Sturm, the unfailing knight, who felt so strongly about doing the right thing that he died for it.

So when I started playing D&D, and saw the paladin class, I thought, "This is it." The paladin was a beacon for good in the D&D world; he followed the gods of good, lived by a code, tried to help others, and fought evil even though it hurt him. And so that's the first character I played. For a while, anyway. As things went on, I got sidelined; I played a dual-scimitar-wielding drow ranger for a while, in shameful imitation of Drizz't Do'Urden; when the Dark Sun setting came out, they didn't have paladins, and so I played a hard-bitten gladiator, instead.

After that, I was dragged to the dark side and started playing other games, specifically White Wolf games, and ran a long Werewolf: The Apocalypse game through high school. Even though I was running it, I still kind of ran a character, and my character was the closest I could manage to a paladin, a member of the Silver Fang tribe. He lasted for a long time, fighting a great war against the oncoming Apocalypse along with his packmates. I still use his name as part of my e-mail address.

And then, in college, 3rd Edition D&D came out. It was a revolution to me, and it revolutionaized the way I saw gaming. At college, I had plenty of willing subj...err, new players, and so I ran games there, of several different systems, though D&D was at the forefront. I collected book after book, both of gaming and of fantasy novels. My interest in playing the good guy was reaffirmed - even if the paladin, the ultimate iconic good guy, was based on worship of a god or gods, and I found myself leaning towards the agnostic or atheist, depending on the day.

Even in video games, I find myself playing the good guys. In Knights of the Old Republic, I can't make myself play a Dark Side Jedi; I played a good guy in the Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights games. In the Fallout trilogy, especially in the recent Fallout 3, I still played the nice guy, even when I got screwed because of it. I couldn't seem to make myself play the bastard or the bad guy. I'm not really sure why that is, but all I know is this:

I've always liked playing the good guy.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Whys and Wherefores

It has come to my attention that, even though I have written a lot about what I think about gaming, and tried to share some of my favorite things, I haven't really said much about why I like gaming. Let's see if I can address that without sounding too much like a robot.

I'm normally a very introverted person; I have very few real friends, and I have never been very good at meeting people. I was lucky enough to have the same roommate for all four years of undergraduate college, and we were introverts together, though we certainly met other people along the way. Even though I'm an introvert, though, I still look for the company of others - I'm just not very good at expressing what I want in that area.

Gaming, at a fairly early age, intersected with one of my other big interest - fantasy novels - and became one of my best ways of getting to meet people. I was the kid with the book that explained how my friends and I could pretend to be elves, dwarves, and other fantasy creatures in a world with dragons, demons, and all manner of magic. For a certain group of people, that made me cool, and I enjoyed that. I still have that first gaming book, a no very tattered 2nd Edition AD&D Player's Handbook, somewhere in my basement.

Gaming appeals to me because sometimes I get to play as the hero I read about in novels. Everybody wants to be the hero, right? He swings a big sword, or casts awesome spells, destroys monsters, evades traps, looks cool, and gets the girl. I could be Perseus in Clash of the Titans, or Prince Colwyn in Krull, or Wesley in Princess Bride - though, in all fairness, I was more fond of Inigo Montoya. It is an escape from the inane situations and banal happenings of real life, and lets me just hang out, joke with friends, and pretend to be an elf for a few hours every so often.

It gets me in touch with parts of me that I don't think about very often in day-to-day life. When I play a righteous paladin, I think about how my paladin worships his god, when I am personally agnostic. When I play a terrified monster hunter, I get to feel that fear of what is around every corner, which is refreshing sometimes - though sometimes it just leaves me locking all my doors and checking behind all the furniture before I huddle up in my bed. It lets me feel a sense of wonder I don't seem to feel often, a sense of wonder I had when I was a younger kid getting the chance to wander the castles of England and pretend that I was a knight.

I've since moved on from that first gaming book. I now have a thriving collection, one that bows the shelves of the bookcase I keep most of it on. It spans many genres, from fantasy to horror, from Western to science fiction, but they're all still games that I look at and wish I could put myself into them, to go where they go and see what they see. Gaming has informed my tastes in movies, in TV, in reading, and even in academics - on some level, I think that stories like Beowulf and the Iliad were stories where people could get a sense of what it was to be a hero from reading or hearing about those characters.

It's still good, though, to get a stack of books together, get my assortment of pointy polyhedral dice together, grab a table, and sti around it with a group of friends who, for a time, will become my boon companions on an epic quest to destroy evil.

Or, y'know, just kill things and take their stuff.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Threading the Needle

As a GM, I find that I often have to choose between two things in a game that are fairly incompatible; each choice will radically affect the way the game is run and played, so I can't have both. Part of what I have to do is try and guess, based on what I know about my players, which one to go with in order to run a game that is the most enjoyable for everyone. Ultimately, I'd like to run enough games to be able to get all of my options in play, but it's hard to do, so I think I'll just talk about some of my choices here.

One of the biggest choices when running a game is what to play. Generally, I'll just ask players what kind of game they want to play, and work with that. The choice here is not what to play, really, but rather what kind of system to use to play. There are really two kinds of RPG systems - rules-light and rules-heavy. With rules-light, there are few concrete rules, and the game is fast and loose. This depends a lot on the players, and is often much harder on them than it is on me - if you get to choose, say, five defining characteristics of your character, and use those to resolve things, what do you pick? I've seen a lot of players freeze up when faced with this, though I know some who live for rules-light systems; a system like FATE is a good one for this. Rules-heavy is often what I end up going with, because the greater body of rules helps define and codify a character more easily; a 3rd-level Ranger has a set number of abilities, and can do certain things better than, say, a 3rd-level cleric. D&D is my go-to game for rules-heavy, though there are certainly others with more flexibility - GURPS is an example.

Another question is how free to let players be when coming up with their characters. I know this sometimes treads on some toes, but sometimes I want to run a game about a group of escape prisoners, or maybe a group of adventurers who also double as a troupe of traveling performers. So the question is, do I let everyone come up with their characters separately, with no input from other players, or do I give them a set of guidelines to create their characters with? One of the best ideas I've seen for something like this is to have all the players get together for a session of nothing but character creation and let them bounce ideas off each other, but since my main gaming venue is online, this can be difficult.

Probably the bigest of the needles I have to thread is on how much to involve the players in what goes on around them. By this, I mean how much of the description of the places they go and the people they see do I do myself, and how much do I leave to them? This is a technique that goes with collaborative campaign-building; if you want the characters to get involved, let them create the situations and people they involve themselves with. If they want to talk to a street urchin, I could say "You see a bunch; describe the one you talk to." The only problem with this is if the players are expecting me, as GM, to provide all the details of the world - in that case, asking them to describe said street urchin might leave me staring at a blank face. So, do I try and get them involved in creating the world around them and risk a total lack of response, or do I just create everything myself and risk the players not being happy and not getting involved?

Being a GM can be a balancing act at times, and on the rare chance I get to be a player, I get to see what another GM chooses to do when faced with these kind of decisions. It makes me wish that I got to be a player more often - and that I could be a better GM.

Monday, October 26, 2009


I feel like crap warmed over today, so this will probably be a short one; my apologies to any readers. Like the title says, sightseeing. As a video gamer, it is one of the reasons I play games - I like to see what kind of interesting places and personalities the developers have put into the game. In games like World of Warcraft, there are all sorts of interesting places to go, from the alien mushroom forests of Zangarmarsh, with its tripod-like creatures and infestation of naga, to the simple wilderness of Elwynn Forest, with its pastoral views and trees inhabited by bandits, to the deadly peaks of Icecrown, with its ongoing war agains the forces of the lich king and the ghosts and undead that haunt its peaks. These are the kind of things I like to see in a game, and what I often look for.

In a tabletop game, it is harder to get across the feeling of being in a specific place. Without a graphical interface, the GM has to actually describe the area around you, and sometimes that is difficult to do or even remember. I am guilty of this as much as anyone; I often presume that players see the same images in their heads as I do, and so forgo the description of what they see, smell, and feel around them. But these things are important to immersion; without a clear idea of where your character is, it becomes that much harder to describe what he or she is doing, and once you lose that, it almost seems like you are playing a violence-oriented game of Pong.

So next time you are designing an encounter, GMs, think about what your players see around them. Tell them what it smells like; this is especially important to characters with enhanced senses. Tell them how the wind feels, or whether the ground is muddy; tell them how the mud squishes around their boots or feet. These details may not seem important to GMs, since we often have a picture of what is going on, but for the players to partake in the picture, they need to see what we see.

And players, if you aren't getting a picture of where you are? Speak up. It does the GM no good if you keep quiet, because he or she will assume you see what the GM sees, and will afterwards be confused when you act like you are in nothing more complicated than a text-based videogame where all you do to move around is choose a direction. The GM has probably put some time into thinking about the world you are in, and it can be hard remembering exactly what to tell players all the time. So if you want to enjoy the game more, ask your GM what your character sees, hears, smells, feels. If they're worth their salt, they'll try and show you the picture they have in their minds, and then everyone can experience it.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Dark World

I think I've talked about the World of Darkness here before, and I thought I'd go over a few things. Specifically, how I view the games in the new World of Darkness, and what they seem to hold in store. This is, of course, only my opinion, and there are two games I won't talk about here (Mage: The Awakening and Vampire: The Requiem, not because I don't like them, but because I haven't read enough about them to really get a handle on them.

First for me is Werewolf: The Forsaken. Forsaken is the spiritual successor to Werewolf: The Apocalypse, from the old World of Darkness line, and that was always my favorite. In this one, you still play werewolves, but the road is nowhere near as clear. Where in Apocalypse the werewolves were righteous warriors fighting off the encroachment of insidious evil, in Forsaken, the PCs have a lot more to learn. First, the Forsaken are only one half of the werewolf equation - the other half, the Pure, are driven by the very forces the Forsaken are supposed to protect against. Then there is the duty of the Forsaken - they are essentially interplanar enforcers, trying to ensure that the spirit world and the physical world don't mix too much. They seem outnumbered and outgunned, each pack controlling its own territory to protect it from evils both physical and spiritual, and the only people a Forsaken can really, truly trust are his fellow pack members. He doesn't have to like them, but they are family, brothers in arms, and an adventuring group all rolled into one. You take your territory, and hold it against all comers, and hope that one day you succeed. It is savage, dark, and at times disturbing, especially reading about some of their enemies, and I love reading about it.

Next up is Changeling: The Lost. A far cry from its predecessor, the lighthearted Changeling: The Dreaming, Lost is about loss. PCs are changleings, normal people abducted, tricked, or voluntarily brought to the realms of the true faeries, who are beings our minsds can't comprehend. They are tortured, molded, and changed, and eventually they manage to escape - or are let go - only to come back to a world that has gone on without them. They find in their place a being called a fetch, living their former life as if nothing went wrong, and so they become strangers in their own lives. They band together for safety and camaraderie, and try not to give in to the urge to become like their tormentors. Lost is a game about suffering from, recovering from, and hopefully overcoming abuse, both physical and mental, and about what you will do and how far you will go to get revenge or relief. Are the powers you gained in your change enough to outweigh what was done to you?

Third on my list is Hunter: The Vigil. I'm currently running a small game of this, though we play only every couple of months. In hunter, you are one of the normal people in the World of Darkness until something strange happens. Maybe a child is abducted, or a relative killed, or you just see something terrible, and you decide that finding and killing whatever you saw is what you must do. You band together with other like-minded souls, and without supernatural powers or an action-hero arsenal, you go hunting the creatures of the night. Some become conspiracy nuts; some go rogue and start fighting their fellow hunters. Some join larger compacts and conspiracies and begin to get a bigger picture of the world they live in. They are the bulwark of humanity against the forces of the night, the candle lit to drive back the darkness. The only problem is, candles go out. How long can a hunter hunt the unknowable before it comes back to haunt him? Will you be irrevocably changed, or die a grisly death - or somehow manage to live to retire in old age? How long can you keep the vigil in a war where you don't even know the other side?

Finally, and most recently, is Geist: The Sin-Eaters. This game is still petty new to me, so I'm not sure I have everything down, but bear with me. In Geist, PCs are people who suffered near-death or actual death, but who were chosen by a kind of ghost - a Geist- as a partner, and brought back from the edge. The Geist inhabits your body, and while it may once have been a human ghost, it has been around for so long that it has lost who it was and now seeks only one thing, different for every Geist - though if you have seen or read The Crow, the spirit is not unlike that. Your revived character can help his or her Geist out, but you can also see the spirits of the world now, those who have died and yet not moved on, and you can become a part of that, eaither by helping ghost along, or by destroying them and feasting on their substance. You can even visit the Underworld to find ghosts in between the physical world and their final resting place, but be careful of the guardians, unknowable things that despise Geists. Essentially, your character has been given a second chance at life, and even though you are different, the question is the same - what do you do with a second chance?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Primal Power

So Primal Power is the newest book released for D&D. Like the other Power books, it goes over the classes from a certain power source, this time the Primal power source. This had previously been the power source I understood the least; martial was easy to understand (hit things), Arcane was all about using magic, and Divine was about using power given from the gods. Primal was tricky for me, though; it seemed that its power came from nature itself, but it was kind of vague on how that worked. Primal Power clears that up a bit - it notes that the physical world has spirits that act as kind of protectors, and that they acted as something of a third side in the war between the gods and primordials, trying to keep the world from being destroyed.

That helped me, because it put a face to the power that went to the Primal classes. It also gave me some cool new material to work with, because the primal spirits don't think the way people do - they aren't always interested in keeping everyone or everything alive, and the way their minds work makes them difficult to communicate with, at best. They are the wild card; the gods and primordials had easily discerned goals, but the primal spirits are unpredictable.

On the mechanical side, the new builds for each class fill some holes, including some that I didn't even notice before. For the barbarian, there is the Thunderborn, who knocks people away then beats them - and is noted as having a controller secondary role. Then there is the Whirling Barbarian, who uses two weapons, instead of one two-handed weapon to slaughter his foes. For the Druid, there is the Swarm Druid, who, instead of assuming a single animal form, can shift into a swarm of insects to harass his foes. There is a secondary build which is noted as a partial build, available for any other build to use called the Summoner, to let the Druid summon animal allies. The Shaman gains the Eagle Shaman build, which gives the Shaman a build to assist ranged allies by using his spirit to guide their attacks, and the World Speaker, which lets the Shaman use his spirit companion almost like a defender to shield others. The Warden gains the Life Warden build, making Wisdom important and allowing the Warden some secondary healing powers, and the Storm Warden, which lets the Warden uses his Constitution bonus for AC and lets him slow and slide marked enemies.

Each class is given an assortment of new paragon paths, and at the end of the book are 8 new epic destinies, all of which accentuate the flavor of the Primal power source. Besides those, there are a number of new feats for the Primal classes, including a set fo new feats which I found very neat: Tribal feats. Tribal feats are fun because by taking one, like the Four Winds feat, which gives you a +2 bonus to Athletics, you gain the bonus. But for every ally or party member of yours within a certain area that also takes the feat, you each gain another +1, up to +5. It encourages teamwork even in character building, which is something that has impressed me about 4th Edition.

Aside from that, there are all the little tidbits of information about the implied D&D campaign world throughout the book that we have come to expect. I like those little touches, because they give me insight not only into the implied world, but also into what the designers and developers are thinking. All in all, I really like Primal Power, though I wouldn't recommend it for someone just looking for story -most of the book is lists of new powers that Primal classes can take. But if you are looking to expand on what the Primal classes in the Player's Handbook 2 can do, you should pick this up.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Overused Fantasy Tropes

We've all seen them if we read much fantasy or many RPGs: the tropes that never seem to change, even when the world or author changes. This gives us ideas like elves always being quasi-immortal forest-dwellers, or dwarves always living in mountains and having Scottish accents. Sometimes, these are OK, but sometimes they just get on my nerves, and if I ever get around to trying to create my own gaming world (or entire game), I'll try to avoid or address these.

For one, tropes are the way they are because they worked, at least at first. Tolkien may be the most famous author for elves living in woods and dwarves in mountains, but things like that really seem to come from farther back, in the myths of the Norse gods. They didn't live on earth (or Midgard), but rather on some other world; the elves lived in Alfheim, and the dark elves in Svartalfheim, and neither had much to do with the big stories of Norse myth. The dwarves lived in Nidavellir, and were really only a part of Norse myth in their crafting ability. They only rarely, if ever, interacted with the humans of Midgard, and mostly only saw the gods. Tolkien brought them all together on Middle-earth (which is essentially what Midgard menat, as it was the middle world of the nine worlds of Norse myth). After that, it seerms everyone felt the need to copy him.

That kind of thing bothers me, because when everybody does it, they stop thinking about what it means. They just assign the woods to the elves and the mountains to the dwarves because everyone knows they live there. This is intellectually lazy; I want to know why the dwarves live in the mountains as opposed to elsewhere. I want to know how they survive when not much worth eating lives underground. Sometimes settings come up with interesting ideas and twists on old tropes, and these are things I enjoy. In the Eberron setting for D&D, dwarves live in mountains, but mountains are really just their strongholds; they live outside and around the mountains, too. And their bif claim to fame? Banking. Underground vaults surrounded by nothing but dwarves are hard to steal from. Elves are different, too - while some do in fact live in forests, mostly they are divided into two cultures: the Valenar, a culture of ancestor-worship, who love to fight and are the world's best skirmishers and light cavalry, and the Arenal, who live on a large, jungle-covered island, and who worship the dead, and who have their undead ancestors as leaders.

So there are a lot of things in fantasy that bother me, and if I ever use them, it'll be with a twist, or completely reworked. What kind of things?

  • Good and evil civilizations living directly adjacent to one another, when one is murderous and expansionist and the other is peaceful and sedate.
  • All the world's best stuff comes only from old, lost civilizations; nothing new is worth having.
  • Racial monocultures. Not every dwarf and elf will be the same; similarly, not every dwarf town and elf village will be the same. the USA is culturally different from Mexico, and we're both human - how come fantasy races are monolithic?
  • If the fantasy setting is medieval, almost all nations will resemble medieval England.
  • Almost all fantasy governments will be benevolent kingdoms. What, no dictatorships or republics? There are other governmental types, you know.
  • Abundance of magic. if there is a lot of magic, it would change the world. Surely some wizard ould think of magical street lighting? If magic is great and powerful, but it doesn't seem to affect the world, then I want to know why.
This and other things are things we shoudl look at when creating new worlds; fantasy author China mieville has somethign to say abotu this in his essay On World Building.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Different Strokes

No, not the TV show. What I'm talking about, at least today, is the different ways people see and enjoy the RPG hobby, and how hard it can often be to bring people with differing viewpoints together. Most RPGs I know of tend to involve two important parts in their production - the 'fluff', or writing about background, setting, characters, and such, and the mechanics, the rules that make the system work.

Fluff is very important for some people. I would imagine it is important to most RPG players to some degree, but some people find a lack of compelling story a game-breaker. I have at least one friend who likes to play RPGs, but she is really turned off by games centered on mechanical ideas, and I don't mean robots. She understands, at least on some level, that some games, like 4th edition D&D, are balanced specifically on mechanical concepts, so no one character or class is severely overpowered compared to another. But that doesn't really interest her; she loves to read, and knows that in lots of traditional fantasy, you have characters of differing power levels. she likes the story-telling portion of the RPG, and prefers games that can kind of leave the mechanical aspects in the background.

Mechanics, however, are what get other people up in the morning. They want an internally consistent rules system, one that makes sense and tries to balance out the levels of power that various players have in play. These people understand that while traditional fantasy can be about the untrained farmboy who rises to become a great warrior or wizard, that having one character in a group wildly overpower the other PCs can make the game very boring and unenjoyable for the players who don't have great powers. I think this is a category I tend to fall into, because I love reading fantasy, but in a game, I tend to feel that balance among characters makes for a more fun game, and I see story-telling as a separate, though also important, concern. For people like this, it is the game aspects that are important.

This is actually two branches of a popular gaming theory - the GNS idea, of Gamist, Narrativist, Simulationist. The first I described is Narrativist, the second Gamist, and Simulationist players are those who feel that accurate simulation of a fantasy world in both mechanics and story are ore important than the mechanics or storytelling alone. They would feel that having hobbits in a Middle-Earth game be low-powered would be OK, as it fits the setting, while their cousins, halflings, in the D&D setting of Eberron are more suited to a nomadic, almost barbarian level of living. Despite the two being similar in appearance, the fact that they come from two parts of the fantasy genre means, for the simulationist, that the mechanical and story changes are fine as long as they don't affect the simulation of that particular world.

As a guy with Gamist tendencies, I find that the easiest way to try and work things out and be cool with players of other interests is too not take things too seriously. It is, after all, a game, and arguments over how to play the game should never get so heated as to make people refuse to play with each other. The three ideas aren't so unbending that they can't accommodate people of other playstyles, so if I have to move the mechanics into the background a bit more to help someone become immersed in a game, that's what I try to do. I just find it is helpful to try and identify the concerns that players have and address them before a game is driven off the track.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

In-Game in the Membrane

So I play a lot of video games. This is probably not a big shock, since this blog has mentioned quite a few, and they are the easiest thing to play when tabletop gaming is not readily available. I have subscriptions to both World of Warcraft and Champions Online, and a friend has just introduced me to Dungeons & Dragons Online, which is now free. I look forward to the Star Wars MMO by Bioware, too, even though it will likely eat my soul. These games all fill a specific role that I enjoy, and recently (like, yesterday), I found a small quiz that helps to quantify what kind of gamer you are.

The quiz is found at BrainHex, and divides gamers up into seven distinct categories - Socializer, Seeker, Conqueror, Survivor, Mastermind, Achiever, and Daredevil. Socializers place being able to interact with others int their games highly, and this is what I ended up as, which is odd considering I'm pretty introverted in real life. But MMO and other multiplayer games, especially those where you cooperate with others rather than play against them, are where I seem to get most of my enjoyment these days. Seeker was my secondary category, because I like to explore and find out new things in my games - I was one of those guys who has to find every location in Fallout, or explore every zone completely in WoW. New sights and experiences are one of my big things.

The others are not too tough to decipher - Conquerors like to defeat everything that gets in their way, whether a computer-controlled creature or other players in PvP. Survivors tend to be people who really enjoy horror games like Resident Evil or Silent Hill - they get a kick out of just managing to survive horrible things in games. Masterminds like to solve puzzles, and they come in all shapes and sizes - they probably enjoyed old games like Myst or Riven a great deal. Achievers just like to do everything - they're the people you see on X-box Live who have obsessively completed every achievement in their games. Daredevils just like doing crazy things and taking crazy risks - hey, it's a video game, so why not? They probably get a kick out of games like Mirror's Edge.

I'm not sure if this is terribly useful, but it kind of goes hand-in-hand with the various tests that tell you what kind of RPG player you are (here's one). It helps to try and figure out what kind of game you might find most fun, and what kind of people might be the easiest to play with. Though conflict among players is always interesting...

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Playing the Game

So, as I've noted before, I usually tend to GM the games I play. Mostly this is because I tend to be the person who introduced my players to the game, and so I am more familiar with it than they are, plus I have all the books. Therefore, I get a lot of experience running games, though not as much as I would like actually playing.

One of the things that tends to happen to me is that I tend to end up with two types of players. These aren't the kind of players talked about in the Dungeon Master's Guide, or on various DMing advice sites - I wish it were that easy. No, these are the kinds of players that drive me up the wall.

First, there is the type of player who is terrified of big, open, sandbox-type games. If you put their character in a world that is wide open, with plenty of stuff to do, they will look around like a deer caught in the headlights. They won't be able to do or say anything. This is the type of player I run into most frequently, since after some experiences early on in my gaming career, I started running more open games, or trying to. These players need to be given a direction, and then they're OK, but give them more than 2-3 options and they just can't seem to deal with it.

Then there is the polar opposite of those players - the ones who want to go everywhere and do everything. Now, at least to start, this is a fun kind of player to have, because they will go create their own adventures, and they will go off on tangents that you mention just to see what there is to do. The problem is, they won't stay on any one path long enough for anything significant to happen. With these players, I end up feeling like a quest provider in World of Warcraft, providing random quests that go random places, because the players don't want to work on any kind of story for longer than a session or two. This makes it very hard to develop a world around them, or for them to really develop their characters.

I don't play with these types exclusively - usually only one or two of any given group will end up like either of these two types of player. But that means that the player who fits either description will probably receive less attention than others, because either they can't make decisions or they try and take every decision. I prefer players who will try and follow some sort of pattern or path to develop their character, because it is something I can understand. I have never understood how, faced with a fantastic world with tons of options, you could fail to choose anything, or try and do everything at once. Kind of like life, I guess - pick something and stick to it, and you'll likely be rewarded.

Edit: This has nothing to do with tabletop RPGs, but I found an interesting test for videogames that attempts to tell you what kind of gamer you are at BrainHex. I ended up being a Socializer-Seeker. What are you?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Encyclopedia Graphica

So, I read a number of comics. not as many as I used to, but a fair number, and every now and then I'll pick something up that interests me. I find that, unlike my early teens where I just picked up everything that had big guns, scantily-clad women, and explosions (Rob Liefeld, I'm looking at you), I tend to look more at the authors of a particular series when I consider picking it up. Warren Ellis, Joss Whedon, and Robert Kirkman are the kinds of writers I like to read; they tend to put out interesting material, no matter what character they are writing for.

Guys like Mark Millar, however, I try to avoid. He tends to take things that I like and make them into something else entirely. When he took over the comic book The Authority from Warren Ellis, the characters stopped really being interested in trying to be the most powerful super-beings on the planet and really seemed to be concerned with becoming slutty rock stars. His comic book Wanted was similar; the main character was so unlikeable that the transition to the big screen, and the resulting complete rewrite, made it a much more interesting story, a rarity in comic-to-movie transitions.

So, since I read a lot of comics, I am often interested in running or playing in various kinds of superhero games. My current favorite at the moment is Mutants & Masterminds, by Green Ronin; it is based on the d20 system that D&D 3rd Edition utilized, but it takes that and makes something much more flexible out of it. It makes it fairly easy to create most kinds of superhero, and to emulate most popular heroes, and the Power Level structure tries to keep all the PCs around the same level, so the Batman gadgeteering detective can be somewhat similar to the Superman-alike.

Superhero games are less about character advancement and more about the character stories. Unlike in D&D, new items and gadgets don't show up for the PCs all the time, except as plot devices; you aren't constantly upgrading your gear, but refining your use and control of your powers. Not to say that superhero games will necessarily be deeper - supers games tend to involve a fair amount of corniness, especially when supervillains get involved.

Superheroes are not the only kind of comic I read, though. I've been a big fan of Mike Mignola's Hellboy and BPRD comics for a while, and Robert Kirkman's Walking Dead comic series is one of the best, if most depressing, series I read on a regular basis. There's games for that, too; I know of several zombie (or survival horror) games, but my personal favorite is All Flesh Must Be Eaten by Eden Studios. It tries to handle basically every kind of zombie movie or story, from the silly to the serious, and it, plus the various published supplements, handle this pretty well.

There are probably other comics I read, but I can't think of them at the moment, and I'm beginning to get long-winded here, so I'll leave it where it is, though I welcome comments and questions.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Divine Divinity?

Well, I'm not really sure how this relates to gaming, but I'm sure some enterprising mind will find some way to work it into a game. As I have an interest in both Greek and Norse mythologies, I sometimes think about what the two seem to have in common. One of the things that interests me is that both pantheons seem to have a tendency towards the mortal - at least, in their ability to die and their tendency towards emotional outbreaks. Both Norse and Greek pantheons have gods with very human features, which I find interesting.

In fact, from what I know of other mythologies, most cultures of the world tended towards having deities that had distinctly human characteristics. They were mortal in the sense that they could die - it seems only later religions used a deity or deities that were immortal and eternal. Why did these cultures have gods that could die? Did it mean that mortals who acquired sufficient power could ascend to the realm of the gods, if they could only destroy those who came before them?

I suppose that if you combine this with my previous entry, you could come up with an interesting story. What if the stories of our current deities, the immortal, eternal, unchanging powers who live in the heavens, aren't true? What if people of ancient cultures had gods that seemed mortal because they had once been mortal, and had proved themselves somehow, or gathered enough power to displace the previous occupants of the home of the gods?

Now, that knowledge is closely guarded, by secret societies and groups that come from both where you'd expect (like the typical Illuminati) and where you wouldn't (various churches - who wouldn't want this known because their churches would then lose power). Every now and then, someone finds out, and tries to gather the amount of power from the secret places of the world that is needed to ascend to godhood, and these societies either help or hinder them, fighting a secretive war for the path to deific power.

I'm not really sure where this idea came from, but then it is an idea I am coming up with as I write this, on too little sleep and too much caffeine. So take it or leave it, as you will.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Dark Reign of Urban Horror

In the last decade or so, it has become a staple of both science fiction/fantasy writing and horror sections of many bookstores: the urban horror/fantasy novel. Characters like Anita Blake, Harry Dresden, Mercy Thompson, and many more have become common in the shelves of bookstores. With it has come a resurgence of urban horror gaming, and White Wolf has long been the king of that particular niche.

White Wolf started the old World of Darkness back in 1991 when it released Vampire: The Masquerade, where players took the roles of vampires hiding from human society and carrying on their own culture, (un)lives, and conflicts away from mortal eyes. It was hugely popular, and several more games in the World of Darkness were released; Werewolf: the Apocalypse, Make: The Ascension, Changeling: The Dreaming, and Wraith: The Oblivion, among others. In each, you played a member of the titular group, hiding from humanity and trying to accomplsih your goals without ever revealign yourself to a world like ours, but much darker. In time, the games interacted with each other, with consequences both cool and disastrous, and eventually, in 2004, they came to an end with a huge, climactic finish.

That same year, the World of Darkness was reborn, darker than before. It started with the World of Darkness core book, which allowed you to play a normal human with some vague inkling of the horrible things going on, trying to survive in a world of supernatural creatures and terrible things. Then came Vampire: The Requiem, Werewolf: The Forsaken, Mage: The Awakening, Changeling: The Lost, Hunter: The Vigil, and most recently, Geist: The Sin-Eaters. As before, you play a member of the titular group, but this time, the creatures are less organized, their opponents worse, and overall, the horror theme has become more important for every game. It is an interesting exercise finding out what a werewolf is afraid of.

I've been a fan of the World of Darkness games for a long time, though Vampire has never been a favorite; I leaned more towards the visceral nature of Werewolf. I have run several successful games in the World of Darkness, and I am starting to do that again, albeit with fewer players this time. So I thought I'd share a few of my favorite resources for a game of urban horror.

Wikipedia: Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, is a great source of information. If you want to check the population or big businesses of a city, or look up an obscure entry on a historical figure, here is always a good place to start. Be warned, though; the entries can be altered by almost anyone, and while the Wikipedia people make efforts to try and keep things correct, they can't fix everything.

Fortean Times: A magazine published and devoted to events referred to as Fortean, this publication tracks down and finds all sorts of weird and interesting events, which are great to use as fodder for urban horror games.

Weird Science: No, not the old TV show or movie; this is a site devoted to discussing odd happenings in science, and has some really great information and links. I don't understand a lot of it, but it still makes for interesting material.

TV: TV has some great shows that are goldmines for urban horror games, though some are likely more useful than others. For an investigation game, you can try the X-Files or the more recent Fringe; for a Vampire game, think about looking up the Vampire Diaries or True Blood. A light-hearted take on Wraith? Try Dead Like Me. There was even a short-lived Dresden Files TV series from the Sci-Fi Channel.

Books: Obviously, there are plenty of these. Go look in a bookstore like Borders and you will find numerous urban fantasy/horror series; the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, the early Anita Blake books by Laurell K. Hamilton, the Felix Castor books by Mike Carey, the Weather Warden series by Rachel Caine, and any number of others. They vary in quality and in amount of fantastical elements they bring to the picture, but they are porbably one of the best places to mine for good material - and some of them are just damn good books, period.

Want more information? Feel free to ask.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Devil in the Details

Lately, I've been playing Diablo 2 again online with a friend, and I have been remembering how much I like the game. It's not a terribly complicated game; you make a character, and then just wander around and click on things to kill them in various ways. But I have always loved the setting and the ambiance of the game. I have thought at numerous times about using D&D to run a game in the world of Diablo 2, and I think it could be pretty easily done, especially with 4th edition.

For one, all the characters available in Diablo 2 are human; while there has been some evidence of intelligent non-human beings in the world of Sanctuary (where Diablo games take place), they are always portrayed as evil. So humans all 'round, though you could probably reskin some of the D&D races to be different human groups.

Second come the classes that characters play. In the original Diablo, the classes available (including the Hellfire expansion) were Warrior, Rogue, Sorcerer, Monk, Bard, and Barbarian. Warrior could pretty easily be a fighter, and a sorcerer from Diablo could easily be either a Wizard or Sorcerer in D&D. The Rogue could be kind of a D&D Rogue, but was really more like a ranger, and they were female, members of a women-only group called the Sisters of the Sightless Eye. The monk (who apparently will also appear in Diablo 3) seems like it could be used with the relatively new Monk class, and the bard in Diablo could be subbed in by the D&D bard. The barbarian gets covered in Diablo 2.

In Diablo 2, there were more classes available: the Amazon, the Assassin, the Barbarian, the Druid, the Necromancer, the Paladin, and the Sorceress. The Amazon is much like the Rogue in Diablo 1, and would most likely fit in as a ranger in D&D. The Assassin, luckily, could be covered by the new Assassin class released to D&D Insider subscribers - not terribly tough, but deadly in a fight. The Barbarian fits very well with the new D&D Barbarian, a damage-focussed combat machine willing to take damage to give more out. The Druid, with its shapeshifting and summoning skills, fits in with the D&D Druid, while the Paladin fits in as a D&D Paladin, though he doesn't receive auras, sadly. The Sorceress, like the Sorcerer in Diablo 1, could be covered by a Wizard or Sorcerer in D&D. The Necromancer has yet to find a place in D&D, but hopes are high that it will become a new class in the future.

Diablo 3, while unreleased, has shown several classes from the game. Two are old favorites, the Monk and Barbarian, while two are new, the Wizard and Witch Doctor. Wizard is an obvious use in D&D, and Witch Doctor, while a difficult fit, might be best served by the Shaman class, though until the game comes out it will be difficult to say.

The setting might be one of the easiest ports to D&D. With access to the Diablo wiki, and possibly either some of the novels or the manuals from the games, you've got most of the outline for a decent setting. The demon-beset kingdom of Khanduras, the desert port of Lut Gholein, the jungles to the east where the corrupt Zakarum religion holds sway, these are all great area for players to adventure in. With the cool thematic information for the various places, but few specifics, it leaves most of the world for a DM to create. The variety of monsters in the world of Sanctuary make monster use easy, though many of the typical D&D monsters will have to be renamed or fit into Sanctuary thematically.

A D&d game set in Sanctuary shouldn't be just about killing monsters, but about the perils of evil, and how it is very easy to lose your way. Many of the greatest heroes of Sanctuary end up corrupted by the Burning Hells; the great mage Tal Rasha took the soulstone of Baal into his body, and lost the fight with the demon lord's spirit. The Dark Wanderer, the victor of Diabo 1, defeats Diablo only to later become his reincarnation. The path is long and dark, and there are many dangers on it, but if you remain true, you can triumph.

At least, that's how I see it.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Finding a Game

I've always been pretty much an introvert, so I have trouble finding games. Traditionally, my best games have come from getting my friends to try out a game I'm interested in, and running with that; it has ended up in some very memorable games, though sadly, those times are beyond me at the moment.

In my time in St. Louis, I have had at least two total failures in finding a game; I'll try and relate them with as little vitriol as possible. First, we have a game whose participants I met through a fairly big gaming website. We set up a meet at a local bookstore to confirm none of us were crazed killers, then we set about getting together for a game. Initially, I was told that we would be playing Everquest d20; this is a game I had never played, but that I picked up and made a pretty cool character for. Unfortunately, when I got there on game night, one of the players was missing, and the other players declined to start without him; instead they introduced me to the Illuminati card game.

I like Illuminati, but after three meetings of nothing but this while we waited for the final player, I was getting discouraged. Then when he finally showed up, he decided he didn't like Everquest, that it was too computer-gamey. So he demanded that we play something more 'old school', and so TORG was decided on. Another new system for me, but it looked cool, so I rolled with it. Sadly, after the missing player's initial appearance, he spent another 3 weeks not showing up, and apparently, when missing another session, called the DM to say that after thinking about it, TORG wasn't what he wanted to play. I decided that this was a bad fit for me, because one player who was absent most of the time was dictating what we played and whether we played, so I bowed out.

I spent a couple years out of gaming after that; I made some attempts at online games that didn't get off the ground, and was otherwise indisposed. Last year, though, something came up again; I was contacted through a gaming network at my university to maybe play a game of Mutants & Masterminds, a superhero game run using the d20 system. I responded enthusiastically, and tried to set up a meeting with the prospective DM, but after a couple of cancelled meetings, he e-mailed me and told me he didn't think things would get together.

Currently, I'm in something like gaming limbo. I play a couple MMOs, but they really don't get me the involvement I am looking for, and I haven't been able to drum up the support in my MMO guilds for an online chat-based game that I would like. I'm a member of several online gaming communities, but none of them have really proved very helpful in this regard, at least not lately. My locan gaming stores are good places, but most of the frequent customers are comic buyers, not gamers, so it's a bit hard to get a game going from there, and in general, I tend towards the introverted. So my gaming life is pretty stagnant; I guess I should just be glad that there is plenty of good gaming material to read.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Just Relax

As a guy who has spent a lot of his gaming time GMing, or preparing for GMing, I know how much stress it can induce. You don't want to have your players walk away at the end of the night thinking the game sucked, and so you want to do everything you can to make the experience fun. The key to this?

Just relax.

There are some easy tools you can use to make your workload much smaller, and to make it seem like you spent days or weeks preparing for a game you whipped up in a few hours - if not less.

One of my favorites is simple - a name generator. I keep a short list of names I've pre-generated in the notebook where I keep my campaign notes, and if the players meet an NPC, I just make a note of that by the name I use. Using a variety of names helps, because humans and elves and dwarves and such don't all have similar-sounding names. This can go for taverns, shops, or other businesses, too - I have a half-dozen or so names to use for inns, merchant stores, or even temples.

Also, learn to keep a game face. This sounds silly, but it helps. You need to be able to react to things your players do the way you want to, not they way they expect. If you react predictably all the time, they will catch on, and it will be hard to surprise them. The caveat to this is, of course, the fake-out - react just the way they expect until the very last minute, and then fake it. You lead them along and surprise them at the last minute, and if you pull it off you will earn both their hatred (not really, of course) and respect.

Be willing to be flexible with the rules. I've been guilty of problems like this many times, but while the rules are written out for a reason, they are not the final arbiter of the game - you are, especially in tense situations. Nobody wants the GM to start looking through a rulebook when their PC is trying to launch himself off an ogre to stab the giant in the face.

To go along with flexibility, improvisation. With games like D&D, it can be easy to get bogged down with tiny details, but some things can just be hand-waved. When you throw the PCs against a group of standard human cultists, you don't need a precise total for hit points - they are just cannon fodder. In one game recently, the first fight I threw in was against cultists who were minions (a special designation in D&D, where one hit will kill a minion), and I did it just to make the players feel cool. With the big bad guys, you may want to have a bit more info, but with lower-tier guys, you can wing it for a turn or two while you find the right info - or, you could just put it all in your notes.

Above all, remember - RPG means role-playing GAME, and you play games to have fun. As a GM, you shouldn't be killing yourself or driving yourself nuts to try and provide an absolutely perfect gaming experience; you should be having fun. If it isn't fun anymore, take a step back and re-evaluate, or let someone else take a turn at the wheel.

Friday, October 2, 2009

5 Games That Will Change The Way You Play

As I have noted before, I've been playing for a long time; I'm 30 now, and I've been at it since I was 13. I think dumb luck is all that holds my old AD&D 2nd Edition Player's Handbook together. And I have a fairly extensive collection, both actual and PDF games. I could probably hold a fairly decent sale out of just my personal collection, though I wouldn't do that - I collect stuff almost compulsively.

I picked the five games from the title out of fairly recent games, all within the last year or two. They're games I thought were the most likely to get people, players of GMs, to change the ay they played - or at least see things differently.

Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition: This is certainly not a new game; if anything, D&D is the granddaddy of RPGs. But 4th edition is something new, and it does not pretend otherwise. It is the first edition I have seen to try and equalize the power level between the classes, and the way they have set up encounter creation is a DM's dream. But most of all, I think this is a great edition because it is the first edition that makes me want to play every class.

Hunter: The Vigil: A game in White Wolf's New World of Darkness line, Hunter is different from the others because you don't play one of the monsters in the night - you play a normal person who belongs to a group who hunts monsters. This game is unique because of the Tier system it sets up; it gives three separate tiers to play at, depending on how far-reaching you want your conspiracies to go. Unlike Hunter: the Reckoning from the old WoD, you actually are essentially a normal human, and this does a lot to help out the feel of the game.

Greg Stolze's Reign: This game, written by Greg Stolze, is run using the ORE, or One Roll Engine, where one roll can tell you everything about whatever action you take. It is a fantasy game set in a very unusual world, and it takes some very interesting ideas and assumptions and runs with them, making for a very extraordinary world. One of the best features of the game, though, is the Company rules system; essentially it allows the PCs to be part of a group, whether a small group like a neighborhood watch or a massive group like a kingdom. Even if you don't play Reign, it is worth picking up just for the Company rules.

Hellas: Worlds of Sun and Stone
: I'm a big fan of greek mythology, and as a typically geeky guy, I love Star Wars for its space opera qualities. Hellas manages to combine the two, and do it beautifully. Essentially, the setting is what would result if every faction and sub-group in ancient Greece were, instead of a small area, a planet, group of planets, or entire solar system. The Pan-Hellenic League covers not a country, but most of a galaxy. Greeks fight with powered armor and laser spears now, and follow the gods, and the game is assumed to be generational - that being multiple characters, presumably related to one another. I loved the idea, and I wish I could run it.

3:16: No, it isn't a Bible verse, it is an RPG by Gregor Hutton. In its simplest form, you play a space marine in the elite human 3:16 Division, going from planet to planet, kicking alien ass and taking names. Well, probably nto from the dead ones, but they're dead, so who cares? The game is very simple, but it doesn't try to be anything else - which is why it is so cool. I could probably talk about this for pages, but really, if you want to know more, head to the website and check it out.

Thursday, October 1, 2009


As a long-time DM, I've amassed a fair amount of resources that I find useful for when running a game. Some of them are very game-specific, but many are not, and that's what I thought I'd try and share today.

Obsidian Portal: Wikis are a new big thing, and the ability to have a source of information that people can alter if they note an omission or a mistake is great. Whether it is for a favorite RPG or a video game, they can be very handy, since they are most often created by fans who tend to provide more useful information than not. Obsidian Portal provides the ability to make your own personal game wiki, and let your players alter it as they want. How cool is that?

Encyclopedia Mythica: I have a fascination with mythology, and I like to make use of it in my games. My knowledge of mythology is mostly limited to Western mythologies, and the Encyclopedia Mythica expands my available knowledge by a great deal. Fun to use for modern games, like those taking place in White Wolf's World of Darkness.

Roleplaying Tips: Johnn Four has an immense amount of knowledge, and he sends out some of it, on various topics, on a weekly basis - and his archive goes back almost 9 years. If you're looking for some advice on a particular topic, you could do worse than checking the archive here for help.

Greg Stolze's Reign
: While I love Greg Stolze's work in general, Reign is a great game in particular. But why I provide this link is because, while the main book is for sale, all the supplements are available for free from his website, and they have some great and unusual ideas that make great places to grab some new ideas.

Name Generator: When running a game, thinking up decent names for NPCs is something I often find to be a pain, which is why I keep this link around. This site has general, specific, theme, and location-based name generaotrs, making it easy to come up with names that won't throw your players for a loop. I like to keep a short list of names around just in case PCs talk to people whose names I haven't plotted out.

Treasure Generator: I have trouble sometimes in D&D thinking up interesting treasure to provide for the PCs; magic items are OK, but items like art and created valuables aren't easy for me; I also like to use Bad Axe Games' Book of Unusual Treasures.

4E Tools for DMs: This link is to the storage area of a Google group that provides a number of useful files for DMs of 4th Edition D&D; initiative cards, condition cards, and power cards, all available for free.

Gametable: A tool for running RPGs online; it has the ability to roll dice, a map to see character movement, and a chat function. I was going to run my own game with this when complications came up, but ti still makes a good, and fairly uncomplicated, way to run a game online. If you want voce chat, I would suggest Ventrilo or Skype.

Critical Hits: A blog with a number of contributors that is devoted to trying to inform other gamers about what they see as big successes in not only RPGs, but also video games, movies, books, and other things related to geek culture. There are some great articles here; I've been trying to comment on some of the newer ones.

Dungeon's Master: Another blog devoted to gaming, while this one says it is for both players and DMs, it seems much of the advice and articles are meant to be useful for DMs, which makes them particularly helpful for me - especially when they go over parts of 4th Edition that remain unclear to me, like skill challenges.

Gnome Stew: "Written by nine veteran GMs, Gnome Stew is the most widely read game mastering blog in the world." That is how Gnome Stew describes itself, and who am I to argue? Good GMing advice, though you have to register to comment on anything.

Chasing the DM: This blog is a chronicle of a 4th Edition game in progress, and is interesting to read through just to see the kinds of situations and problems that both players and DMs can find themselves in.

At-Will: This blog says it provides inspiration, techniques, and other helpful stuff for 4th edition, and it also goes over the events of each week as they relate to D&D. If you want to keep up-to-date on what is happening in D&D, you should check here.

Have Dice Will Travel: This is the chronicle of the adventures of Keith Baker, the man who won the setting creation contest for D&D and gave us Eberron as a new setting. It's a travelogue of his travels around the world playing D&D, which makes for an interesting read - and lets me keep up on how he's doing with his latest works.

James Wyatt's Musings
: James Wyatt is the Design Manager for D&D, which means he has a fair hand into how things work, and does his fair amount of writing for the line. This is his personal blog, and while it is a bit behind on entries, it does provide some interesting insight on what he has brought to the game.

The Keep on the Gaming Lands: This is the blog of Mike Mearls, who is one of, if not the, chief designer for D&D currently. Considering his work on both 4th Edition and the work he did previous to it, I find his ideas very informative and often helpful.