Sunday, December 4, 2011

Gaming in the Imperium of Man

I don't know why, but recently I've been looking through the books I own for the three Warhammer 40,000 RPGs I own - Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, and Deathwatch. They're very different games, all taking place in the same universe, and they interact - when they interact at all - on very different wavelengths.

In Dark Heresy - my least favorite of the three - you start out playing as the lowest rung on the totem pole, gofers, errand boys, and expendable help working, indirectly, for one of the powers of the Imperium of Man - an Inquisitor. An Inquisitor is a power unto himself - he ( or she) is empowered to do everything he deems necessary to hunt down heretics, aliens, or Chaos-tainted individuals. There are few people in the Imperium - which spans thousands of worlds - with the power to stand up to an Inquisitor. But they are all very busy, and so they trust their minions to deal with minor issues. This is where a Dark Heresy character comes in - you are the newest recruits, and you get the worst jobs, as you claw your way up the ranks towards the Inquisitor. You deal with the smallest, least dangerous threats - but when you are a minion of an Inquisitor, the smallest threats are still enough to endanger a city - or an entire world. You may end up being why an Inquisitor ends up declaring Exterminatus on a world - being the reason why the Imperium kills all life on an entire planet, billions of people, because some aliens - or ideas - are too dangerous to be allowed to spread to other planets. Working your way up from the lowest of the low to be an Inquisitor's right hand - or even an Inquisitor yourself - sounds like a long, hard slog, but could be fun to try.

Rogue Trader is vastly different in power level and scope. As a Rogue trader and retinue, you are empowered to go beyond the bounds of the Imperium, finding new life and new worlds - and make profit from them. You have your own ship, a vast crew - numbering int he tens of thousands - and you can go where you like and do what you please, as long as you pay lip service to the goals of the Imperium of Man. You are a peer even to an Inquisitor - though your power lays beyond the bounds of the Imperium, while an Inquisitor's is within, and you are both nearly untouchable in your realms of influence. You travel through space, going from planet to planet, finding new routes of trade, new worlds to colonize, and sometimes new threats to fight against. You are not entirely unlike a privateer, but your oceans are exponentially bigger, the riches you seek massively greater, and the things which lurk in the dark far more dangerous. Your freedom is unrivaled in the Imperium, and there are almost no bounds you cannot cross. So, given that - what do you do? The freedom that Rogue Traders have is great - it's a little like Star Trek, but with no humanitarian mandate, no Prime Directive, just picking a star, grabbing the horizon, and making what profit you can.

Deathwatch is probably the RPG with the most familiarity to anyone who has played the Warhammer 40,000 miniatures wargame. In Deathwatch, you play a Space Marine - the most elite fighting force of the Imperium of Man. While the vast legions of the Imperial Guard and the starfleets of the Imperial Navy may guard and serve as the bulk of the Imperium's military, it is the Space Marines that are called when a threat is too great, or too dangerous, for mere men. Space Marines are genetically enhanced, superhuman warrior-monks, trained and altered since puberty to be the greatest fighting force of men. Amongst the billions - perhaps trillions - of humans, there are 1 million Space Marines to serve as protectors. Where a regiment of normal troops, or perhaps even an entire army, might not succeed, 5 Space Marines might. Encased in power armor, armed with great and terrible weaponry, and with the knowledge that you are man's best hope against the aliens and evil gods of Chaos, you devote your life to killing the enemies of man. Space Marines are righteous in their fury, and certain of their cause, and that's something I find fascinating, even when they are tasked with exterminating an alien race that may very well be harmless.

All three games use the same system, but with different power levels - Dark Heresy being the lowest, Deathwatch the highest. And yet, with the same system, these games do vastly different things, all in the same universe - which, granted, is vast; if each game is run in the area the books lay out, the three games will never cross paths - and they seem to do it well. I say seems, becuase I've never played any of them, though I would love to. If you're reading this, and you're interested, let me know - I'll loan you the books.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

4th Edition D&D Design Decisions

This is a few years out of date, but I felt like talking about D&D, and since I'm not currently running game, I thought I'd talk about some of the stuff that changed between 3rd Edition D&D and 4th Edition. While all editions of D&D seem to draw inspiration from a standard set of sources, different editions use different basic ideas when designing the basic parts of the system. 4th Edition was designed to be a more transparent edition, one where players would be able to see the workings of the system as they created their characters, and do the designers looked for inspiration from more modern, popular sources; in some cases, this meant video games.

One of the key ideas for creating characters in 4th Edition is the choice of role. There are four roles, roles that will likely seem familiar to players, current or former, of games like World of Warcraft: Controller, Defender, Leader, and Striker. These roles, in a very loose sense, correspond to the roles of Crowd Control, Tank, Healer, and DPS. While they appear similar, and their general ideas are similar, they serve different roles.
  • The Controller role (which may be the role with the least, or at least most confusing, definition) is about battlefield control - characters with the Controller role can alter a battlefield, lighting things on fire or freezing them with ice, forcing enemies to face the player characters (PCs) on the Controller's terms. They can also inflict a wide variety of status effects on targets, making enemies more vulnerable to other attacks, stunning them temporarily, or preventing them from moving. the Wizard class falls into this role, using walls of fire and bolts of lighting to redefine the battlefield.
  • The Defender role is about defending the other characters in the party. While there are a number of Defender classes, they accomplish this by generally targeting one (or several) enemies, and making them choose between targeting the Defender (and thus avoiding the other characters) and targeting other characters at a penalty to attack - the Swordmage, for example, can mark an opponent, and if that opponent attacks a character who is not the Swordmage, the Swordmage, regardless of where he is, can either teleport himself to the enemy, or the enemy to him.
  • The Leader fills what is traditionally seen as the healer's role, but healing is only part of what a Leader can do. The Leader can give bonuses to allies, penalties to enemies, let allies take additional actions, heal, and generally do all he or she can to assist the party - while also contributing to defeating enemies. The Cleric has long been a Leader sort in a healing role, though the new Warlord class from 4th Edition tends more towards increasing the combat ability of fellow party members, thus ensuring the party's battles end sooner.
  • The Striker is, like the MMO role of DPS, a damage-dealer. Their job is to inflict as much damage to enemies as possible, whether up close or from a distance. While they can also inflict status effects on enemies, these tend to be things that make inflicting more damage easier, rather than things that stun or immobilize an enemy. The Barbarian is a good example of a Striker; the Barbarian charges into battle, relying on a high amount of hit points to protect her while she rages, causing her to hit enemies harder than normal.
All classes in 4th Edition fall into one of these four roles, though they also tend to have a secondary role, as well; something they are good at, but not as good as their primary role. This gives everyone something to fall back on if they are having difficulty performing their primary role, or just feel like switching things up during battle. Fighters, while primarily Defenders, can also perform adequately in the Striker role, while Warlocks, who are primarily Strikers, can also inflict a number of status effects on enemies, giving them some ability as Controllers.

Each class each has a power source - something that tells you where his or her ability comes from. The power source tends to give some indication of how a character's power will work, and what they might do. A class with the Martial power source, for example, is not a student of the arcane, or a devotee of the divine, but rather gains its ability from intense exercise, practice, and study; there is nothing truly supernatural about Martial characters, they are just near-superhumanly good at their jobs, whether Ranger, Rogue, Fighter, or Warlord.

The current power sources are Martial, Arcane (wizardly magic), Divine (power from the gods), Primal (power coming from spirits of the land), Psionic (power from mentally-derived abilities, like telekinesis), and Shadow (abilities derived from a connection to a shadow plane). The power sources help to differentiate between classes of the same role; the Martial Defender (the Fighter) performs the duties of his role in a different way than an Arcane Defender (Swordmage), Divine Defender (Paladin), Primal Defender (Warden), or Psionic Defender (Battlemind). Almost every power source tends to have at least one - and sometimes several - classes that fall into each of the four roles.

These two things together - the role and power source - help prospective players to determine which class will best fit the sort of character they want to play, and avoid a character choice that will make them unhappy with their character later. And, despite the standard class names, there is no reason why a character could not choose a class - say, the Fighter - and call himself a Ranger, Swashbuckler, Guardian, or something else instead. Essentially, these things help to show the player what the designers of the game intended when they created the class, so that it is easier to find a better fit.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Getting Back Into the Dm's Chair

It's been some time since I've DMed a full game of D&D - that is, a game with a full party, rather than just a couple of people. I started DMing not too long after I started playing D&D, way back in the early 90s; I was 12 or 13 years old, and, if my players from back then remember much about our time playing, they probably remember a lot of power fantasies; vorpal swords and hammers of thunderbolts, fighting dragons and demons, in a group known as the Savage Seven. I still have an illustration of the characters of the group sitting with all my gaming books; it's one of the few stray pieces of paper I have kept since those days.

After playing with that group, I moved to Omaha, Nebraska, and slowly, I found a new group, composed of friends from school and Boy Scouts. We played D&D, for a while, as well as games like Marvel Super Heroes and, for a short time, Rifts. My longest-running game then, though, was as the Storyteller for a game of Werewolf: The Apocalypse that spanned several of my high school years. My character in that game still inspires my e-mail address. I wasn't the only DM for the group, but I was the most constant. At least one of my players in my Werewolf game still considers it one of their favorite games ever.

After that, I moved on to college. For a while, I was just a player with the college's gaming group, even attending a few RPGA events. But when the 3rd Edition of D&D came out, I started DMing again, this time with a group composed, mostly, of the few friends I had at college. Lagos the half-elf ranger, Gr'b Ngk the half-orc barbarian, Braghmin the halfling cleric, Rafe the human thief, Varandel the elven monk, and Kaeiri the elven paladin went on a number of adventures during those years; I still have my notes from some of them. I ran a short-lived Werewolf game, too, though D&D was my game of choice; I was still fascinated by the new 3rd Edition.

After that, I spent several years away from gaming, watching 3rd Edition turn into 3.5. I played little in those years, mostly from lack of players and motivation. Then, in 2008, 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons came out, and I became far more interested in finding games to play in. Mostly, I've played in short-lived games with a few friends, and most recently as a player in a game that lasted about 6 months. And now I'm looking to get back into DMing.

I am hoping to recruit most, if not all, of my players from school, and so I imagine I'll get a mix of players with a variety of skill levels; some will have played D&D, some not, and they may or may not know 4th Edition. I've been trying to bone up on my introductory materials, just in case; thankfully, Wizards of the Coast helpfully provides a set of Quick-Start Rules on their website. 4th Edition is a big change from previous editions, but has made some big, and I think much-needed, steps in balancing things out between classes

My game is going to be pretty simple in concept; while I hope for some experienced players, I'm not assuming anyone has any great deal of knowledge (or experience) with 4th Edition. The game I plan to run is going to be based around a series of modules I've picked up, all of which I've enjoyed reading; I'll start with them, and see where players want to go. I like 4th Edition's combat system, but I'm also a fan of getting the players to develop their own stories, so while I have modules ready to use, I'm ready to run right off the rails if that's the direction they decide to go. No fancy house rules, no themes to complicate things; just a group of 1st-level adventurers, of various races and classes, getting together in a town called Fallcrest in the Nentir Vale to go out in search of fame, fortune and adventure.

Should be a good time.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Why Do I Read Fantasy?

The question of why I read fantasy literature has been on my mind a lot lately. This may have something to do with my curent grad school situation; much of the time I feel like, for whatever reason, I should be reading more of the works in my field of academic interest than fantasy. Why read the new Brandon Sanderson novel when I should be reading Chaucer? Why read A Dance With Dragons when I should be trying to figure out how to get the Song of Roland on my reading list for my exams? Why do I spend so much time on a genre of literature that is only just barely acknowledged by the average English department?

I think a lot of it has to do with my personality and the way that I grew up. When I was a young boy, my family moved around a lot; by the time I was 13, I had lived in 3 U.S. states and 3 European countries. This sounds great, for those of you who envy my European travels, but when I first moved to England, I was all of 8 years old, and we lived no more than a year or so per country. By age 11, I had moved four times, and would move again in two years. Now, many readers know me (yes, it is foolish to hope that I have many readers, but I can hope), but if you don't know me, I am quiet, bookish, and painfully shy. I've lived in St. Louis for almost ten years now, and I don't think I have done anything with fellow grad students that was not part of a school activity. Now, imagine someone that shy at 8 years old, knowing nobody in a new country, then repeating the process for several years.

For a lot of that time, books were my only friends - sadly, there was no internet yet in 1987, at least not for the general public. I think my first fantasy novels were the original Dragonlance trilogy, and for a long time, those characters felt like close friends. I felt a kinship with lonely Tanis, sickly Raistlin, the honorable Sturm. Their successes and failures were real to me, moreso than most real people were. I felt proud whe they did well, sad when they failed, pain when they hurt.

A few years and moves later, there were the Dark Elf book by R.A. Salvatore, with Drizzt the loner elf, outcast from his people, alone in a world that hated him. I identified with him, because I felt the same; I was a smart kid just hitting that time when smart kids become the enemy in school, when more assertive boys pick on nerds to show how cool they are. Sooner or later, I read the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and wondered how we could make a world where evil no longer existed.

Now, years later, I have a small, close circle of friends, but I live near none of them. I try to get close to my felow grad students, but I have never been very good at it, so I find myself turning to old friends in the form of books. Not the books I read for class, but the fantasy and science fiction books I read to relax and enjoy myself. I no longer read Salvatore, but now I read Brandon Sanderson, John Scalzi, Steven Erikson and Jim Butcher, but the idea is the same; each good book is a new old friend, one I can unshelf when I feel lonely, stressed, depressed, or just out of sorts.

I wish sometimes that I could make fantasy literature a greater part of my academic career, but that seems unlikely to happen, so it will remain a guilty pleasure amidst discussions of Old English verse, Greek epics, and other medieval literature.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Star Trek: The Dark Beyond

I've been a Star Trek fan since high school, when I watched much of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I was never a big fan of the original Trek series, but TNG really appealed to me. So I watched TNG eagerly, and as much of DS9 as I could, though sadly a missed a lot of it. I was disappointed in Voyager, and thought Enterprise had a lot of promise that was squandered by poor management. The most recent Star Trek movie was one I found myself very interested in. So when I watched all of Enterprise recently on Netflix, I looked to the Star Trek RPG books on my shelf and wondered what a Star Trek game would be like. I'm still not quite sure I'm ready to run a Star Trek game, but I do have a pitch, at least. I'll put it below.

Star Trek: The Dark Beyond

The year is 2155. The newly founded coalition of planets, including Earth, Vulcan, Andoria, Tellar, Rigel, and a few others is in its infancy, but they have all proved willing to contribute members to Starfleet - and the first ship to accept members from all the members of the coalition, should they wish to join, is the NX-03, the Challenger. Its mission is to seek out new life and new civilizations, new allies to expand the coalition, and above all, to explore, to gain new knowledge of the universe.

But unbeknownst to the crew of the Challenger and the members of the coalition, an enemy lurks beyond their borders, and sees the newborn alliance as a threat to its growing power, and seeks to destroy it. This power lurks in the dark, striking from the shadows, concealing its identity as it tries to weaken its foe. The crew of the Challenger will face many obstacles on its mission of exploration - and may find itself unknowingly on the front lines of a shadow war.

You have been assigned as part of the command crew of the Challenger. Starship officer, soldier, diplomat, scientist, human, Andorian, Vulcan, Tellarite - you are a member of the first true coalition crew, boldly going into the unknown, challenging the known universe. What will you make of your mission?

System: The CODA Star Trek RPG, made by Decipher; it is out of print, but it is the most recent iteration of a Star Trek RPG.

Character Creation: Standard for the CODA system; the Starship Officer, Soldier, Diplomat, and Scientist professions are preferred, but others will be allowed with justification. Allowed species for this game will be Human, Vulcan, Andorian, Tellarite, Denobulan, and Rigellian, though as with professions, other species might be allowed within reason. Regardless of profession, each player will start at the rank of Lieutenant, though higher rank can be gained in creation. Characters are intended to be bridge crew.

House Rules: The Fit trait is unavailable. Also, players will be asked, when Away Team missions are occurring, to temporarily play the 'Red Shirts' if their main characters are not on the mission; this is similar to Grog rules from the Ars Magica RPG. This is to give those players whose main characters are not on the mission some way to contribute (and so I don't have to come up with justification to send the senior crew on every away mission), and also to help flesh out the remaining crew members.

Themes: The themes to this series will be exploration and intrigue, though these may change during play. The crew will explore unknown space, while dealing with intrigue between coalition members and those outside who wish to destroy the coalition.

Media For Play: To be determined. Either chat-based or VOIP.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Captain America

Captain America is a personal favorite as far as comic book heroes go, so I thought that he would make a good test character for this. First, a little history. Captain America, as a character, was created in 1941 for Timely Comics, by Joe Simon and comic legend Jack Kirby. It's somewhat ironic that Captain America, a tall, muscular, blond-haired, blue-eyed ubermensch, was created as a character that fought Nazis - and one of his creators, Jack Kirby, was Jewish. Captain America's kid sidekick, Bucky, was named after a childhood friend of Joe Simon. For a gallery of many people's favorite images of Captain America, you can go here. And now, the character.

Steve Rogers, in the Marvel Universe, was born on July 4th, 1917. He was born in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and his parents were Irish immigrants; after his father died when Steve was a child, he was raised by his mother. Steve's mother would later die of pneumonia when he was a teen, leaving him basically alone in the world. By the time World War 2 was starting, Steve was in his early 20s, working as an illustrator. He was a tall, skinny, not terribly healthy young man, but he was a patriot, and believed in the United States - so much so that he tried to enlist. He was rejected, though, on grounds of his poor physical fitness - but seeing the degree of commitment in this young man, General Chester Philips offered Steve a chance at a secret project called Operation: Rebirth. Rebirth was tasked with the creation of super-soldiers, and Steve was an ideal test subject - both because of his patriotism, and also because his condition as unfit for regular duty meant there would be no real loss to the military if the project went wrong.

After a rigorous selection process, Steve was chosen as the first test subject for the Super-Soldier serum by Dr. Abraham Erskine. The process involved injections, drinking of some part of the serum, and exposure to something called Vita-Rays, but at the end of the treatment, Steve Rogers had gone from being a scrawny, sickly young man to a man in the absolute peak of physical fitness. Despite the success, though, it was followed immediately by tragedy - a Nazi sleeper agent, seeing the serum's success, shot and killed Dr. Erskine, who had committed key parts of the serum's creation to his memory, meaning it could not be reproduced. Rogers chased the Nazi spy, but the Nazi died in the chase. With only Steve Rogers to show as a success of the project, the military decided to use Steve as a propaganda and counterintelligence agent - and so Steve is given a new uniform (designed from his own sketches), a shield, his new identity as Captain America, and a cover story as a clumsy private at Camp Lehigh in Virginia - which is where he first meets his sidekick, James Buchanan 'Bucky' Barnes, the camp's teenage mascot.

Bucky discovers Steve's secret identity, and offers to keep it secret if he can work as his sidekick, which Steve agrees to (though, depending on version of the story, Bucky may have been paired with Steve on purpose, to do the dirty work that Steve couldn't). Soon after, Steve meets President Roosevelt, who gives him a different shield, made of a light, nearly indestructible new alloy of steel and vibranium - his iconic circular shield, that he often uses as a thrown weapon. Captain America and Bucky then go overseas to fight the Nazis, teaming up with other superheroes (forming the original Invaders) and fighting a number of Nazi villains such as the Black Talon, Hangman, White Death, Baron Zemo - and his greatest foe, the Red Skull. It is on one such mission to destroy an experimental drone, armed with large amounts of explosives by Baron Zemo, that Captain America and Bucky are lost - as they hung on as the drone lifted off, they tried to defuse the explosives, and they managed to cause it to explode prematurely - blowing both off, and causing the world to assume they were dead.

Captain America, though, was blown into the freezing water, and due to his enhanced systems, survives to be frozen in a block of ice - and remains that way for decades, until he is eventually discovered floating in the North Atlantic by the group that would become the original Avengers. Once he is thawed out, his experience in combat and his leadership skills help him to become the leader of the Avengers, but he feels like a man out of his time - everyone he knew is either dead or decades older than he is, and he is wracked with guilt over the perceived death of his young sidekick. Still, though, he takes it upon himself to act as the leader and the conscience of the Avengers, and is a mentor and friend to many of the heroes of the Marvel Universe. Most recently, he discovered that Bucky didn't die, but had been recovered by Russians - and programmed to become a sleeper assassin, who had only recently begun to break from his programming.

After reuniting with his former sidekick, Captain America faced off against some of his oldest compatriots in the big Marvel event, Civil War - Captain America championed the heroes who felt that they should not be forced by the government to register and give up their secret identities, and had to oppose the leader of the pro-registration forces, his old friend Tony Stark - Iron Man. He fought the good fight, but eventually Captain America surrendered, and was being brought to trial for his actions when he was apparently assassinated. In reality, he was shunted out of step with time, so that his old foe, Red Skull, who had survived in one form or another, could transfer his consciousness into Steve Rogers' body. Steve Rogers was eventually brought back into regular time, his consciousness overpowering the Red Skull's, and he returned - to find out that, inspired by how his former partner had gone to such lengths to save him, Bucky had taken up the mantle of Captain America. After going on to help a coalition of heroes save Asgard - and possibly the world - from destruction at the hands of Norman Osborn, Steve Rogers is appointed to the position once occupied by old companion Nick Fury, and leaves Bucky with the mantle of Captain America.

Much of this is easily found out by looking up a history of Captain America online. So why is Captain America so important? In the Marvel Universe, he was one of the first heroes written, though others are placed earlier in the timeline of the universe. He is a charismatic leader, one who makes friends of virtually every hero he meets - he does, after all, become leader of the Avengers after being frozen for decades. He walks among heroes who can shake the earth, and at least one constant friend - Thor - is a god. Even though Captain America has no truly superhuman powers, though, he is seen as an equal, if not more. Why? Because, I think, he is a symbol. He wears the flag of the US, and champions the ideals of America, but seems called to something higher - as he says at one point, "I'm loyal to nothing, General...except the [American] Dream." He is loyal to his friends, and merciful to his enemies, and always tries to help those around him be better. He rises from essentially nothing - a poor son of immigrants - to become one fo the greatest names in the Marvel universe, fighting for truth, justice, and the American way.

One of my personal favorite Captain America stories takes place out of continuity, in a trade called Captain America: The Chosen. In it, it is revealed that, for whatever reason, the Super-Solder serum is failing, and rapidly, and so Captain America is dying. Even without his physical abilities, he wants to help, so he joins a remote-viewing project, using his background as an illustrator to help him visualize and draw targets and locations of terrorists and other villains. While doing so, he finds that he can actually project an image of himself - which at first he uses to try and confuse enemies, but then decides, as his condition progresses more rapidly, to appear to normal Americans - doctors, firefighters, and in particular, a soldier stationed in Afghanistan. It seems that Captain America's simple presence, even as a projection, makes people push themselves harder, and Captain America follows this soldier - and, when the soldier and his unit are trapped inside a cave with no easy way out and several injuries, Cap helps this soldier find a way out, using reserves of strength and will he didn't know he had. Meanwhile, in the lab where Captain America is dying, the President, hearing that one of the nation's greatest heroes is dying, comes to visit him on his deathbed - and is attacked by a terrorist agent lurking in the lab as part of the cleaning staff. With his last strength, Captain America throws his body between the terrorist and the President, and dies - but not before one last push through the project, causing people across the world to see him, inspiring them in a time of need.

Captain America is a man who gives everything for what he believes in. He inspires those around him through his actions, and even though he wears the flag, his sense of right and wrong knows no borders; even those of other nationalities, creeds, and faiths seem to feel the power of his beliefs. As Hercules says in Captain America #444, "On Olympus, we measure wisdom against Athena...speed against Hermes...power against Zeus. But we measure courage...against Captain America." He fights against impossible odds, at times; even as a man with no superpowers, he has fought against universe-threatening foes like Thanos, Kang the Conqueror, and Ultron. In a time where America is often seen as a bully, or worse, Captain America is a symbol of everything that America should be, and should work towards being. In short, Captain America is the ultimate symbol of hope - and the American Dream.

“Doesn't matter what the press says. Doesn't matter what the politicians or the mobs say. Doesn't matter if the whole COUNTRY decides that something WRONG is something RIGHT. This nation was founded on one principle above all else: The requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or consequences. When the mob and the press and the WORLD tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole WORLD -- 'No, YOU move."”- Captain America

Saturday, January 22, 2011


Until further notice, I won't be adding to this blog due to lack of interest.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Big Chair

It's been a long time since I actually ran a game for a group. So long, in fact, that I have trouble remembering exactly when the last time was. I remember doing so for years in middle school, then in high school, and on into my undergrad years, but after that, things get a little fuzzy. And I know my head has often been in a bad place in the years since I got out of undergrad, and I even have a reasonable excuse for that. But I've got all these games that I have that I haven't played, and probably won't get a chance to play, unless I decide to try and make them happen. So I'm thinking that I should get back into the game.

The problem is, I want to try something new, and that has traditionally been a problem. The old favorite games - D&D and the various Storyteller games White Wolf makes - are old favorites for a reason; they're reasonably easy to grasp, and a lot of people know how to play them already. with something new, different, and possibly unusual, I have to not only come at the game with new ideas, but I also have to explain to whatever group I have what the system is, why it is cool and fun, and how to play with it.

Also, most of the people I know who I have gamed with in the past are people who live nowhere near me. While face-to-face gaming is vastly preferable in general (in large part because it becomes much easier to flake out on a meeting you don't have to physically attend), I'm not averse to online gaming; I've put various chat programs to good use in the past, and I'm fairly certain it can continue to work in the future, especially with all the advancements that keep happening. AIM chat is no longer the big thing in online gaming chat; now we have Skype, and virtual tabletops, and wikis, and Facebook. So I think that, since online gaming is possibly the easiest way to assemble a group of players who I know, have met, and have spoken to, even if it requires some scheduling to make happen.

The challenge, then, is finding people to subject themselves to such a game. I'm out of practice running games; like I said, I can't remember when the last one I actually got up and running happened, and while I used to be considered good, I don't know where my lack of practice and other problems have left me. Also, I want to try something new - new to me, that is; some people might have more experience in whatever I end up going with than others. I don't want to play D&D, in any iteration, or any of White Wolf's Storyteller games, however interesting. I'm looking for something I haven't done before, something that does something new.

Some of my more current ideas would be something along the lines of a FATE game, like the Dresden Files or Legends of Anglerre; the FATE system is one I like the look of, and seems to have a lot of potential. Eclipse Phase is high on the list, currently, as a game of futuristic transhuman conspiracy and horror; a bonus is that it was written under the Creative Commons license, so it is legal to download for free. Other games that have been going around in my head are things like Hellas; Rogue Trader; Shadowrun; something using the Cinematic Unisystem, like Buffy or Angel; some kind of superhero game; something in the Mass Effect universe, though likely not my own version, since it strays a bit too close to D&D; games using the One Roll Engine, like Reign or a version of Fallout I'm reading through; and I'm open to other suggestions.

If you have any interest in something like this, let me know, by whatever means you feel like; comment here, send me an e-mail, leave a note on my Facebook page, send me an IM, give me a call, hell, even tweet at me (my Twitter handle is, unsurprisingly, knightveritas). I have no interest in forcing people into playing a strange new game, but I am open to suggestion, discussion, and ideas, so please, let me know what you're thinking.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Simplifying the Buy-In

So, as it may be obvious to anyone who has read a fair part of this blog, I have a lot of RPGs. Most of them, I have never played, and will probably never have a chance to play. Sometimes, this is just because of lack of players, or lack of interest on the part of players I do have, but sometimes it is something I think I can possibly do something about - the complications of the game itself. Some RPGs have these great ideas, that sound like a lot of fun to play with - but when you get into the system, especially the key part for new players - character creation - it becomes kind of a mess. That's where you lose people.

I take a lot of systems for granted, and most times, it's because I have a fair degree of familiarity with them. I've been playing D&D for almost 20 years now, in various incarnations, so I've got a pretty good idea on how it works (though 2nd Edition's THAC0 system still mystifies me at times). I've been using White Wolf's Storyteller System for quite a long time now, too, and so even the tougher games that use it have a fair degree of ease to me. But since I've used these systems, and many others, for so long, it's all become old hat to me. This makes me tend to often assume facts that are not in evidence when it comes to gaming - namely, that other people will see the systems the way I do.

The problem is, though, at least with trying to bring in new players - especially new players who are basically entirely new to the idea of tabletop RPGs - is that they aren't familiar with the system, and sometimes the most complex parts of the system are right up front in the character generation process. It's easy enough to say, for example, that D&D is essentially a d20-based system; it uses a 20-sided die for most conflict resolution, whether skill- or combat-based. But with character generation, you have to distribute points (or roll randomly) for attributes; pick skills; choose a class; choose feats that work, either mechanically or story-wise, with your character; choose powers for you character; choose equipment. Similarly, with the Storyteller System, most things are accomplished in-system by adding a stat + ability, rolling a number of 10-sided dice, and seeing how many reach or exceed the target number. But for character creation, first you need to pick a concept; then a Nature; then determine which type of supernatural/superpowered being you are; then often faction within that character type; then you have a pool of points for attributes, then another for abilities, then backgrounds, then powers, and finally, an entirely separate pool of points that can be used to add to just about anything.

Now, with a lot of practice, a good GM can guide a player through this, but it's still intimidating and sometimes difficult to work through. Even if you guide a new player through the process, there's a fair chance they won't really know what exactly happened. You can always create a pre-generated character for a new player, to use until they get used to the system, but then they aren't getting their character. So the ideal system to bring in new players, players who are unfamiliar with tabletop RPGs, is one that doesn't use a confusing character generation system - or thinking up some way to describe the system, and how to build a character, that breaks everything down into more digestible parts.

Personally, I could go for both solutions, but I often find that using simpler systems makes me a bit crazy, because I'm used to more complex systems - for gaming purposes, anyway. So I think I prefer method 2 - breaking down a more complex system into more manageable pieces, easier to explain. So, in at least a couple of instances, I have written out basic primers for games. Most recently was for a D&D game I was thinking about running (that never got off the ground because I am bad with scheduling); I tried to simplify the core ideas of 4th Edition D&D character generation to about 8 pages , typed out as a Word document. It needs a bit of updating, since some things have been added since then, but shrinking the basics of a 200+ page book down to about 10 pages seems like a pretty good job to me. I did something similar with the previous edition of D&D, too, though probably not as succinctly, and I'm thinking about doing this for the Storyteller System - though something like that would probably have to be modified for each specific Storyteller game.

I'm not exactly sure why this idea came to me when it did; maybe I was just looking for something to say about gaming and my personal experience. I don't claim any great expertise, but it's my blog, so I'll share what I know (or think I know) and what I'm thinking. After writing a long paper about complexity in academic writing, I felt this was something interesting, and something that bothered me; I've never liked the idea of losing a prospective new player, especially one who I know is very interested, enthusiastic, and creative, just because the character creation and general system introduction was too complex. So, if you're looking for something like this for a game you want to run, but think might be too big a buy-in for new players, feel free to ask me - I have a fair amount of free time, I'm familiar with virtually every system of every game I've gone through over the last year, and I can always use the practice. I'm not looking to break copyrights or infringe on trademarks, just try to make it easier to bring some new blood into the hobby.

(I take requests for blog topics, too, especially if it's something I think is cool, so suggestions, and comments, are always welcome.)