Tuesday, December 20, 2011

I weep for the newbs

One of the people in my group from this year's Cthulhu/Pendragon group is in his mid-20s and came to RPGs via Fourth Edition D&D. Although he is hardly a 4e partisan, it's his "home" system and he has his own 4e group that he runs weekly games for; I don't know any details about his group other than they're fairly into 4e as well.

So this is one of his latest tweets:
Apparently suddenly implementing secret doors in my campaign is infuriating. Need to do stuff like this more often. #dmwoes
This is what it's come to for the latest generation of D&D players? Secret doors are somehow considered "Evil DM tricks"?

I tried Fourth Edition. It wasn't for me, but I ultimately decided I didn't want to engage in any edition wars and just sort of let my reservations about the game's current iteration lie. But when I see stuff like that, I'm reminded of why 4e drove so many older gamers into the arms of the OSR; it just seems to operate in a completely different universe. One where secret doors aren't assumed, but added as a nasty trick. I mean, to me D&D and secret doors go together like chocolate and peanut butter, but a Google search seems to confirm that they're vanishingly rare in 4e; the top two results deal with secret doors in Third Edition, most of the other links on the first page deal with secret doors in old school D&D, and the few 4e-specific links are all about "how to do it" in that edition. Most tellingly, another link is to a forum question asking "what's the point of secret doors?" Fourth Edition isn't just another flavor of D&D; it's mutating the system on a molecular level. I weep.

Monday, December 5, 2011

[Solo GPC] 525: The Goblin Market; or, "Puck You!"

Ever since reading a Dragon magazine article ("Organization Is Everything!") during my formative GM years, my process with running any long-term campaign (GPC included) is to draft a rough outline of where I'd like to see the campaign go over the course of the next half-dozen adventures or so (anything beyond that being almost guaranteed to crumble due to players taking things in unexpected directions). These aren't hard and fast guidelines; I happily amend my plans on the fly if something comes up in play to justify it. But if I don't have something "penciled in," no matter how vague or open-ended, I tend to feel a little lost. Plus knowing what's in the pipeline allows me to drop a bit of foreshadowing into current adventures.

Prior to my break, my outline for the next few years of the GPC was full of lots of question marks and vague statements. I just wasn't sure what to do with Meleri's storyline that would be exciting and different. Coming back from the break, I have a definite plan and can't wait to see how things will play out. It all hinged on this year and the adventure I had lined up. It's one of the few full-length adventures in the GPC, found in an Appendix in the back and meant to be dropped in at pretty much any point. And the best part? The adventure intro noted that the scenario was "easily adapted" to running for a lady character!

And so 525 would find Lady Meleri paying a visit to the Goblin Market...

Art by Charles Vess

Friday, December 2, 2011

Playing the Adversary

"Some days I hate NPCs. But I also love NPCs."


So says Lowell Francis in this recent post on the always-outstanding Age of Ravens blog (and if you're not reading that blog, why the hell not?); I couldn't agree more with the sentiment. NPCs are my Achilles Heel when it comes to running games. They're nigh essential to most any good game, but they present an endless source of headaches (many of which are elucidated in Mr. Francis's post, so I won't repeat them here).

For me, the biggest challenge is making my NPCs unique personas with individualized motivations and keeping them from fading too much into the background. I can usually manage to pull this off with, at best, one NPC per campaign it seems (players in my "Beware the Odd Angles" Cthulhu campaign will well remember the dangerous ingenue Daphne Bell, for example), but I'd like to have my whole cast of NPCs come alive and I really hate it when an NPC who should ostensibly be traveling with the group fades so completely into the background that the players have to remind me they're there.

To that end, I've been thinking about a nearly-forgotten (it seems) section in the old GURPS 3rd Edition Basic Set. On page 180, under the heading "Playing the Adversary", we read:
When the GM plays an NPC who is an enemy of the player characters, he should try to limit his knowledge to those things that the NPCs would really be aware of. The GM knows all about the party's strengths and weaknesses - but the enemies don't. One good way to solve this problem is to have another person play the adversary characters.  
The GM should tell the Adversary as much as possible about the characters he is to play. But the Adversary should know no more than is "realistic" about the overall situation. In particular, he should know very little about the PCs and their abilities - especially at the beginning of an adventure! For total realism, you might even want two Adversary players - one for the knowledgeable enemies who are familiar with the party, and one for stupid cannon fodder. 
The Adversary is like an "assistant GM." His job is to roleplay the foes as well as possible.
The Basic Set was literally the second gaming book I ever bought and read, and I remember that section well. It kind of blew my mind, the idea of this para-GM helping to run the game and constituting a separate brain behind the screen. As I was still very new to gaming, I wasn't sure just how "normal" this Adversary idea was. In the two decades since, however, I've only seen a similar idea expressed in one other place, and that was simply in notes detailing a "deluxe" Cthulhu convention scenario (No Man's Land) that utilized sound effects, mood lighting, and kabuki-esque assistants dressed in black. The Basic Set presented the idea of the Adversary as if it were a perfectly normal aspect of the RPG gaming experience, but I have yet to see that reflected either in real life or in other rulebooks.

Yet the simple idea expressed in the Basic Set has merit, I think. It would certainly take much of the burden of running games off my shoulders. I'd be very interested to hear from any readers who have tried employing an Adversary-style co-GM to play the NPCs or villains of their campaigns. Does anyone do it as a matter of course or is it strictly for deluxe scenarios like No Man's Land?
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