Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Keeping Character Sheets in Play - What's the GM's Responsibility?


A recent event in my Pendragon game has brought up an issue for me, one that I haven't normally had to deal with until recently.

See, for many, many years, and with very few exceptions, if I wasn't running some sort of outright one-shot, I would typically run campaigns consisting of perhaps a dozen sessions at the most. Its only in the last couple years that I've started consistently running campaigns of considerably longer duration. My Deadlands: Reloaded campaign of last year ran for about two-dozen sessions. The ongoing Great Pendragon Campaign is clocking somewhere in the neighborhood of three-dozen and counting - by the time we're done, we'll be somewhere around the 80-session mark.

And in both those campaigns, I have run into an interesting and, to me, unfamiliar problem.

I'm sure you fellow GMs out there would agree without a moment's hesitation that gamers come in a variety of different variations of how much they enjoy the "bookkeeping" element of the hobby. Some players simply want to show up to a session and be told when they need to roll the dice, while others are almost quasi-GMs themselves, spending a fair amount of downtime between sessions charting their level progressions or detailing their holdings or backstories or what-have-you. I've found that these differences during a short-form campaign, such as I've been used to, are largely cosmetic. My attitude has traditionally been one of trust - trust that the players are keeping an adequate record of their character and maintaining their character sheets accordingly.

But what I'm finding with these longer-form campaigns is that with the former type of player, the one who doesn't enjoy the record-keeping aspect (or is simply not engaged with that aspect), cracks will inevitably start to show on their character sheet, despite their best intentions:

  • Advancement restrictions or prerequisites will be missed.
  • Derived values will not be recalculated.
  • Stats in need of updating will not get updated.

I've found that as often as not, this hurts the player more than anyone else, but sometimes it works in the PC's favor. Pendragon, for example, has rules for degeneration due to aging, which affects important derived stats like Hit Points and Damage. If those stats aren't being recalculated, the PC will enjoy an artificially-inflated advantage in combat.

Normally, this sort of thing doesn't really bother me. What are a few extra Hit Points between friends, after all? But it gets tough when one has a mix of players (like I do) at the table. Because then I start to worry that the players who are performing due diligence on their sheets, carefully making sure to deduct lost HPs or reminding themselves that they can't boost a Statistic again until they reach Veteran level, are getting rather the short end of the stick. Also, it tends to create more work for me as GM, since I find I have to step in and help unstick a problem that shouldn't have been an issue in the first place. ("What do you mean you haven't been keeping track of that?" is a phrase I've uttered more than once over the past couple years.)

The matter came to a head a couple sessions back, when one of the less bookkeeping-oriented players had to admit that their character sheet had gotten so disorganized they could no longer read some of the Trait values. I asked to borrow the sheet after the session to help sort things out, and discovered a laundry list of mistakes on virtually every part of the sheet. In the end, it was simpler to print out a fresh sheet and transfer everything over, making corrections as we went.

The obvious solution to this, of course, is for me as the GM to head off the problem by periodically stepping in and doing an "audit" of everyone's character sheets, much like how old-school D&D DMs will do encumbrance audits from time to time. But I'm trying to weigh the hassle factor involved with that. I mean, as a GM I'm already shouldering 90 percent of the workload involved in running a game, and with the GPC I'm going a bit further than that via our Obsidian Portal website. Do I really want to add one more task to the pile? An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, of course, but sometimes that extra ounce can seem like a lot.

The crux of the question, then, is this: to what extent is it my responsibility as GM to police players' sheets? What about other players at the table policing each other? If they see something wrong on someone else's sheet, should they speak up? The character sheet is a physical specimen of player agency, and folks get rightfully protective of their copies.

To what extent do you, gentle reader, allow for error-riddled sheets at your table, both as player and as GM? To what extent are erroneous sheets a problem for you, personally? Is this a matter of player agency, or something that affects everyone at the table?

Thursday, October 9, 2014

More (Much More) on the History of Women in Tabletop Gaming

“I asked Gary what women’s libbers think of the situation, and he told me that he will bend to their demands when a member of the opposite sex buys a copy of Dungeons & Dragons!”
A couple weeks ago I bloviated a few lines about insights gained into the appearance of women in wargaming, courtesy of Jon Peterson's Playing at the World. The author was kind enough to leave a comment on my pseudo-academic ramblings, and promised a more thorough article on the subject in the near-future.

Well, that time has arrived. In Peterson's typical style, it is exhaustively researched yet fascinating to read. So go check it out!

Although we all know the real reason D&D appealed to the female demographic...

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

[Solo GPC] 546: Hunting the Troit Boar


Although the Christmas Court had been fraught with an ill omen, the winter season in Salisbury, and at Du Plain castle in particular, passed by with relative ease. Graid, now a widower, took on a second squire, and the granaries and cellars were filled to bursting with provisions for the cold months.

All the talk around the winter hearths, of course, was about Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight.

"It's too bad we'll be losing Gawaine this year."

"Don't be so sure! Remember when he defeated the Grey Knight?"

"Only with Herringdale's help, and he's not around anymore."

Most agreed that Gawaine had redeemed the honor of the Orkney clan after what Gaheris did. Graid remained skeptical; Gawaine had ever been the hero, but this did not mean the other brothers are worth a damn.

It was late in winter that the monstrous boar, who bards were calling the Troit boar, awoke from its slumber deep in the Morgaine Forest and came forth to ravage Graid's lands once again. This time, it tore through the village of Broughton, destroying one quarter of the buildings there! Over 100 peasants were displaced, and Graid was obliged to lay out 30 Libra to aid in recovery from the disaster.

It was time to do something once and for all about that troublesome boar. He had an enchanted blade and instructions on who to give it to. Then it would just be a matter of mounting a grand hunt and introducing the blade and its wielder to the monster.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Female Gamers Go Back a Ways

[Since this has something to do with RPGs and something to do with miniatures gaming, I'm cross-posting it to both my gaming blogs.]

I've been slowly making my way through Jon Peterson's magnificent Playing at the World, a deep and scholarly (yet readable) account of the origins of role-playing games that goes all the way back to 18th-century chess variants and the emergence of genre literature and then traces things up through to the publication of the original boxed set of Dungeons & Dragons. It's a gaming nerd's dream, frankly.

One thing I've been taking away from my readings so far (I'm about halfway through) is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Back during the whole "Consultancygate" brouhaha in July, for example, I just happened to be reading a section that touched on some of the infighting in the nascent gaming community following the publication of D&D, wherein two camps emerged, divided between the old guard wargamers and the more counterculture-inspired RPGers, both of whom claimed the other was "doing it wrong" and that they themselves had the moral high ground. It was certainly illustrative of the fact that the gaming community has always been subject to passionate debates on perceptions of who or what should and shouldn't be allowed in the hobby.

More recently, of course, there's been a much more widely-reported controversy surrounding the acceptance (or lack thereof) of women in the larger video-gaming community. I'm not a video gamer by any stretch of the imagination, but over the years I've witnessed similar prejudices being expressed in the RPG hobby as well. Once again, Playing at the World has provided an interesting and timely point-of-view.

In my latest reading, the book is discussing a game called Fletcher Pratt's Naval War Game. Published in 1943, the game was developed from soirees Pratt (a pulp fiction writer) would hold at his Manhattan apartment (and later, when attendance got up to around 50 people, at a nearby hall) in which attendees would engage in a wargame featuring model ships, played out using the floor as the game space.

The game was significant to the later evolution of RPGs because it influenced the development of mechanics like Armor Class and Hit Points. But it was also significant for being the first time female gamers got a mention in a published wargame, previously perceived as the exclusive domain of men. Quoted from the rulebook itself:
"[Once Pratt's group had embraced the system] the sweethearts-and-wives influence became manifest. One of the latter appeared as a spectator of what was originally intended to be a purely stag game. In the midst of the ensuing red-hot engagement she was discovered flat on her stomach, aiming the guns of a cruiser and muttering something like, 'I'll get the so-and-so this time.' From that date on there was no checking the rising tide of feminism. Today there are nearly as many players of one sex as of the other; and one of the feminine delegation has been praised by a naval officer as the most competent tactician of the group."

Playing at the World goes on to feature an illustration from the book in which "a skirted woman, alongside her male counterparts, is shown kneeling on the floor, angling a cardboard arrow to fire at her target."

It also discusses how this inclusion represented an evolution from H.G. Wells' Little Wars (1911), the first wargame marketed to casual gamers; although the book subtitles itself as a "game for boys from twelve years of age to one hundred and fifty and for that more intelligent sort of girl who likes boys' games and books", Wells also complains within the pages of his rules of being interrupted "by a great rustle and chattering of lady visitors" who "regarded the [game] with the empty disdain of their sex for all imaginative things."

In my 25-plus years of tabletop gaming, I've gamed with at least as many women as men. My current weekly face-to-face group is comprised of a majority of women, and has been all-woman (save for yours truly) at times in the past. I've also gamed with women who were flat-out denied the opportunity to join other groups because of their gender.

I've written about this before, but I just want to reiterate that, of the women I've gamed with, some have sucked at math and others have loved crunch; some have been totally story-oriented and others have been violent and bloodthirsty. In other words, they've been just like all the male gamers I've played with.

I wanted to post this little piece of history simply because it shows that women's interest in the tradition of gaming from which RPGs, wargaming, and video games grew out of goes back a long ways. If this sort of history was better-known...well, we'd still probably have lots of stupid trolls out there spewing misogyny in-person and online, but knowing about stuff like this puts their ridiculous appeals to the "tradition" of an all-male hobby in an even weaker light, I think.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Hey, There's A New Edition of D&D Out - So Of Course I'm Running ACKS...

I run two weekly games. One is currently slogging its way through the Great Pendragon Campaign. The other found itself, a couple weeks back, "in between campaigns" after a couple false starts (first RIFTS and then a Savage Worlds space opera campaign that ended in a TPK).

The fact of the matter is that we had given the new D&D Starter Set a spin and quite liked it, but none of us quite wanted to pull the trigger on starting a 5e campaign until the full set of core books has been rolled out. So I figured I'd offer to run a little short campaign arc of something else to fill the gap until November rolls around.

I guess we were all in a fantasy mood still from all that D&D talk, because we ended up settling on the Adventurer, Conqueror, King System. This came as a real surprise to me, as I didn't even own ACKS at the time of discussion. I was only aware of it by reputation. But we were talking about the old 2e Birthright setting, and one of my players in particular expressed a fondness for that setting's attempt at bringing domain-level play back into the game, and I mentioned ACKS and that was that.

Here's the thing, though: I am now seriously in love with this system.

It's really inspired me to just jump in and start designing my own sandbox. Of course, I'm stealing liberally from a bunch of different sources, from GURPS Tales of the Solar Patrol to Vornheim to bits of the Wilderlands to Ralph Bakshi's Wizards to a variety of Appendix N authors (Vance and Burroughs in particular), all in the service of creating a sort of science-fantasy mishmash that's maybe a bit reminiscent of JRPGs like Phantasy Star.


And after I'm done setting up this sandbox, I want to take a crack at adapting the old AD&D HR1 Vikings supplement into an ACKS historical fantasy sandbox. The combination of the system's toolkit approach and support for world-building has proven an unexpectedly heady brew for me, such that I'm going to be focusing all my FRPG efforts for the short-term in that direction.

In the meantime, we're still planning on playing 5e starting sometime this winter. One of the other folks in my group is going to run Hoard of the Dragon Queen, so I get to get some actual time in as a player after running ACKS for a couple months. Win-win!

Incidentally, here is the precis for my current setting, if you're curious...


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