Thursday, November 29, 2012

On the Value of Visuals

I'm a visually-oriented guy. Some of my earliest inspirations in the realms of fantasy and fantasy gaming came courtesy of eye candy. The works of Alan Lee, Gary Chalk, and Larry Elmore are every bit as responsible for my love of gaming - if not moreso - than the contributions of any fiction or rules author.

I'm a firm believer that RPGs, particularly those of the fantastic variety that exist only in our collective imaginations, can benefit immeasurably from even minor artistic touches to an extent much greater than the sum of those touches' individual contributions. Likewise, an otherwise fantastic concept can be seriously harmed by poorly- or lazily-executed visuals.

Kelvin Green seems to share my sentiments. He posted today on Google Plus that his contribution to the LotFP IndieGoGo adventure project has been delayed by his insistance on drawing up a visual random loot table. The art is an absolute knockout, and in the comments Kelvin specifically cites the old Lone Wolf books as inspiration for his idea:

Art by Gary Chalk
Stuart Robinson responds with this observation: "The style of the items does a lot to give you the feel for the game world that just 'Sword d8' doesn't." I really couldn't have said it better. I remember that Lone Wolf chart making such a huge impression on my young mind for that very reason - it made the abstract real. Not only are these sorts of pictures worth their usual 1,000 words, but they help create a shared imaginative space for players to dwell in, and convey an almost real sense of place in a way that mere verbal descriptions can't.

I was already thinking about all this recently as, after reading Grognardia's ongoing retrospective of Imagine magazine, I found a PDF collection of that magazine's articles covering their "house setting" of Pelinore. The setting is your typical Silver Age D&D fare with one exception: the floor plans. Every single floor plan includes an elevation. Check out some examples:

Tons more floor plans of this style appeared throughout the Pelinore articles. Basically, any building got an accompanying illustration. Why isn't this standard practice for fantasy RPGs? The little individual details allowed by those elevations turn a run-of-the-mill fantasy world into a living, breathing creation. As a GM, I would gladly pay for a supplement that included this style of mapping, happily trading text for the extra space the illustrations take up. Why? Because with that sort of visual inspiration, I hardly need text. Indeed, the Pelinore articles featuring these floor plans have very sparse additional text, mostly focused around presenting abbreviated stat blocks and descriptions of special items or areas in the buildings. It's an ideal model on how to present a fantasy settlement and, like I said, I really wish it was an industry standard. Along with visual random loot tables.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

[Solo GPC] 535: Heavy Weighs the Crown

Because we started Loholt out as a wet-behind-the-ears squire, I sometimes forget how young he is. I've been waiting to see him come into his own; this was the year, as it turned out. And in true Pendragon fashion, it came about in a way neither one of us saw coming.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

[Solo GPC] 534: Roses and Thorns

This year's session was, for the most part, a "solo" Pendragon game in name only, as we were joined by two guest players! D. and S. are from our regular weekly group, and as that week's regular game was cancelled, we decided to run Pendragon instead. The players both had characters from a campaign Des had run last year that ended, coincidentally enough, right around the same time as the current GPC continuity, so we did our own version of FLAILSNAILS and brought in Sir Blaine and Sir Madog for a guest appearance for the main portion of this year's events.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

System Mastery: The Final Plan

Well, it's been an interesting few months' journey, but for those of you who have been following along at home, I've finally settled on an approach for where I'm going to focus my gaming attention and interest for the foreseeable future. Because, ultimately, that's what this has been about: focus. Not only is Gamer ADD annoying as hell, I just don't have the time for it.

And yet, despite my strong intention, I was having the most difficult time settling on a plan of action. There seemed to be something more than just rules preference at work; after all, each of the systems I was taking a look at offered many attractive features, and none left me totally turned off. In the end, it took some in-person and email discussions with some of my current players to reach two key insights:
  • I was never going to be a single-system gamer.
  • I needed something more than just a good system; I was missing the days of being plugged in to an active, "mainstream" game line.
This second revelation came as something of a surprise to me, but once I saw it clearly it made total sense. Once upon a time, in addition to following and playing more esoteric RPG lines, I was an active participant in what one could relatively call the mainstream of gaming; I played AD&D, I subscribed to Dragon. I was never as heavily into Third Edition as I was into AD&D, but since leaving 3.x and d20 completely behind circa 2005, I had been almost entirely out of that mainstream. The way I've characterized it is that it's been years since I've played an RPG that is likely to have product for sale in the Games section of a large chain bookstore - or likely to be played by the average gamer on the street.

The OSR provided semblance of a community experience, but it's been exclusively an online community (and not one that I've been terribly active in even then). Even in fully-stocked game stores, OSR products are thin on the ground. And online wasn't really scratching the itch, it seemed. Plus, although I'm a great lover of old school game design, the OSR's primary focus is on a style of gameplay I never employed or engaged in; over the last few years, I've experimented with sandbox-style, high character mortality-type games and haven't found much to keep my long-term interest. I've found I'm more comfortable with a sort of hybrid sandbox-linear plot approach, what Savage Worlds calls a "plot point campaign."

I'll return to the second point shortly, but the first point needs addressing too. I realized that although I still wanted to develop a sort of "go-to" system, I will always be a wanderer. As one of my players pointed out, "being able to play many different games is, in itself, a form of mastery." Too true. In the end, though, I only have time for one crunchy system in my life right now; the other systems will have to be fairly light and easy to run. But if I'm going to be investing time into a crunchy system, it may as well be my "go-to" system as well.

With my second revelation also in mind, I realized I had to make my go-to system something D&D-related, a system that was currently and widely supported no less. Right now, that pretty much means either 4e or Pathfinder. Version IV has never held any appeal for me. I've tried, but it's left me cold each time, both as player and GM. And it's effectively a dead system now that Version V is in playtest, making it even less appealing by my current standards. This leaves Pathfinder, and it's Pathfinder that I've decided to make my go-to system. I'll keep an eye on Version V as it develops in playtest. If it turns out to be a system I can get behind, I'll make the jump when it comes out. In the meantime, much as I did with GURPS, I'm going to rehabilitate my relationship with d20.

Pathfinder's making this pretty easy, as it turns out. I picked up the core book about a week ago and have been really digging the changes Paizo made. I have to say, at least, that (perhaps surprisingly) I'm getting that good old D&D vibe from the game, despite all its new school mechanical and aesthetic trappings. It feels good to feel like I'm back in the fold, even if the name of the pasture has changed and the grass tastes just a little different. Plus, it feels good to be supporting a company made up of fellow gamers, like the folks at Paizo.

Speaking of GURPS, Pathfinder offers a similar level of tasty crunch as well as tons of product for me to ogle and covet (although I intend to keep my purchases to a minimum as I become comfortable with the core system, so as not to overwhelm myself)...but Pathfinder also boasts a community whole orders of magnitude greater, both online and in-person. It's perhaps no coincidence that I've suddenly found myself with two Pathfinder campaigns to plan by popular demand, and a handful of other possible side ventures in the works as well. Nothing beats jumping in the deep end!

Pursuant to my first point of keeping a couple other systems up my sleeve, I've decided to retain Call of Cthulhu and Savage Worlds in active rotation. These both have the benefit of being simple systems that are easy to prep for and run. The former has the advantage of plenty of published scenarios (including the recently Kickstarter'd "Horror on the Orient Express" boxed set, which I'll be receiving in a year or less) and enthusiastic interest among my player base; the latter has the advantage of being a generic system, allowing me to run a wide variety of "other" campaigns that don't fit under the "heroic fantasy" or "cosmic horror" umbrellas.

Once I feel like I've achieved a certain level of comfort with Pathfinder, I'll start folding in other systems. GURPS and BRP remain high on my list for differing shades "realistic" campaign concepts, and I've got lots of other fun systems on my shelf that will need some love and attention before long. Hell, maybe I'll even give Palladium another look (but not before donning my heavy haz-mat suit of house rules). But for now, it'll be mostly heroic fantasy leavened by the occassional foray into mind-bending terror and two-fisted pulp adventure. Sounds a lot like the sort of gaming I used to do back in the good old days, and that's fine with me.

Forward to adventure!
Post-Script: "But what of Pendragon?" I hear you cry. Throughout this whole process, Pendragon has been a sort of given. The Solo GPC will carry on until it's finished, no matter how long it takes. But the conclusion of the GPC will probably herald the semi-retirement of Pendragon for a while, and I certainly have no plans to run anything Pendragon-related for any other groups as long as Des and I have our thing going on. Even if I break this rule, I'm comfortable enough with Pendragon that it constitutes a sort of silent "third choice" among my secondary systems.
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