Monday, April 29, 2013

Your Rhetorical GM Style

I came across this tidbit from the always-entertaining You Chose Wrong tumblr and immediately recognized the prose style. Sure enough, the caption credits the passage to Lone Wolf Book 4: Chasm of Doom.

I got my start as a GM around the age of ten by reading aloud from the Lone Wolf books for a friend during lunch breaks. I would read the text, he would make the choices. This was in addition to my devouring the books on my own, time and time again. Reading the books out loud as well as reading them to myself ensured that the way those books were written was indelibly pressed into the soft jelly of my still-developing gray matter.

When I did eventually start running proper RPGs, I stole liberally from the plots, no doubt - but I also took much of my "rhetorical style" as a GM from Joe Dever's prose. Words like "desperate" and "sickening" have always been in my quiver of GM adjectives, as have superfluous modifiers like the "river" in "river boulder". I showed the Chasm of Doom entry to my wife and she agreed that it sounds a lot like how I describe events in-game even to this day.

I wonder if any other GMs reading this can identify a similarly strong influence on their style of narrating game events?

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A GNS Timeline of Gaming

"Oh God, I could go to Hell for this!" - Capt. Lunatic

Bear with me.

For those of you who don't know, The Forge was a locus for high-falutin' gaming theorists to gather and talk about a bunch of academic ideas about the nature of tabletop gaming. The theories generated by Forgites were...polarizing, to the say the least, in the gaming community.

I took a look at The Forge when it was the New Big Thing about 10 years ago, but it didn't do a whole lot for me, as a general rule. But I was grabbed by what is arguably the most memorable theory to emerge out of The Forge: GNS. The acronym stands for Gamist/Narrativist/Simulationist. Again, I didn't really care about how Forgians applied GNS. What I liked was the three-part division. I think it does a nice job of summing up the different facets of the gaming experience, and provides a neat framework of analysis when looking at a set of rules. (Observant readers might have spotted my GNS reference when talking about my three current games of choice in my last post.)

For my purposes and the purposes of this post, I define Gamist as being mostly concerned with the experience of playing a game; rules that don't "make sense" are perfectly acceptable as long as they provide a fun game experience. I define Narrativist as being mostly concerned with crafting a story out of the game experience; rules that don't "make sense" are perfectly acceptable as long as they serve to guide the emerging story created by game play. And I define Simulationist as being mostly concerned with creating a "realistic" game experience; rules that don't "make sense" are to be excised and avoided at all costs.

At any rate, I was thinking the other day about the broad trends in game design that often come to characterize an era, particularly how the 1990s, for example, were largely a Narrativist decade. And then I realized one could break down eras into a GNS (as I define it) framework (again, via looking at the dominant game rules or player preferences at the time):
  • The 1970s/"the Golden Age" of RPGs were a Gamist era. Monsters could see without a light source and freely move through doors that PCs would find stuck or locked. The center of the campaign was the "mythic underworld" of the dungeon, where laws of physics were subservient to what was considered "fun" - dungeons were stocked with strange ecologies of monsters living side by side and DMs could throw in funny tricks like "wild bores" or "disco dragons".
  • The 1980s/"the Silver Age" saw a move away from this style of play into a Simulationist context, I think largely as a reaction against the perceived "unrealistic" nature of D&D and its immediate imitators. Articles in Dragon magazine suddenly became obsessed with calculating "realistic" falling damage and other such "fixes" to the D&D system and great premium was placed on more finely-grained and explicated rules systems. GURPS, that great Simulationist rules set, emerged from this time, as did other systems like Rolemaster or Phoenix Command, that promised gruesomely realistic combat results.
  • The 1990s/"the Goth Age" was in turn a reaction against the Simulationist 80s as much as that decade had been a reaction against the gonzo Gamist 70s. Vampire: the Masquerade, of course, is the most famous example of the Narrativist games that came to dominate the decade. Worth noting, too, is the fact that TSR (or should I style that T$R for a proper 90s flashback?) pivoted AD&D away from dungeoneering and into setting-based adventures. It's no coincidence that even the most avowed 2e haters will concede that 90s-era AD&D produced some of the best fantasy campaign settings ever published.
  • The 2000s/"the Decade I'd Rather Forget" brought things full-circle. With WotC's acquisition of the D&D brand, they announced the game was going "back to the dungeon!" and designed the 3e mechanics accordingly, bringing us back to Gamist gaming of the 70s (albeit with much crunchier mechanics). D20 Dark Ages has a great post on how Diablo II (and other late-90s computer RPGs) influenced Third Edition game design. Even though its philosophies are firmly aligned against post-TSR D&D, the OSR, coming along towards the end of the decade, was simply another facet of this return to the gonzo Gamist play of yesteryear.
  • We're three years into a new decade and I'm not sure I could really say what the zeitgeist is these days. If anything, with the failure of D&D 4e, I'd say this may be the first decade in the history of gaming where there really isn't a dominant trend of game play. One thing that seems fairly certain: I don't think we'll see resurgence of 80s-era Simulationist gaming in the way we saw a resurgence of 70s-era Gamist play. Then again, that may just be lack of hindsight talking. Who knows how I'll view the 2010s ten years from now?

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The FATE of Pathfinder

I am inordinately pleased with the awful pun in the title. Apologies. All will be made clear in due course.

Oh, and what follows is generally a bunch of self-reflective waffle about the merits of various game systems, so if that's something you're not interested in, you'd best be movin' along.

At any rate, yes - Pathfinder! Now, when I was musing on finding systems to master last year, I eventually came around to the idea of making Pathfinder one of those systems. This was due mainly to me wanting to engage again with a "mainstream" RPG, to feel a part of a large community, and to plug in to a very well-supported line of products.

I now have three Pathfinder "campaigns" under my belt: two as GM, one as player. I use the irony-quotes because none of these ventures ended up lasting very long. A half-dozen sessions, max. Personally, I was just too put off by the crunchy nature of the rules, even at low levels. And as characters leveled up, it was obvious that the crunch did too. At one point, I found myself thinking that if I wanted to invest in a crunchy system, I might be better off going with GURPS and at least have a generic universal system to show for my efforts. In the end, in my quest to plug in with a community of gamers, I forgot about my issues with crunchy mechanics.

And, unfortunately, I didn't get too much out of the community experience, either. That's mostly down to my own style of online interaction, which is generally pretty laid back. By those standards, though, and although I've got nothing against the Pathfinder community, I'd still have to rate the Savage Worlds online community as both the most welcoming and the most helpful with newbie questions.

There was also a bit of irony that played out in regard to one of my other reasons for giving Pathfinder a spin: the assumption that PF products would be readily available pretty much anywhere. I was in L.A. over the holidays visiting friends and family, and that included a session with my old game group (whom I normally game with via Google+). Since it was that group I was running Pathfinder for, a face-to-face session was in order, and for that I wanted to get a GM screen. Yet I went to three gaming stores in the L.A. area and none of them had a screen! Bizarre.

During my trial PF run I did finally get a chance to experience a taste of the vaunted "adventure path" system. It pretty much met my expectations: extremely railroady, even in the capable hands of the veteran GM running it. Brought back memories of playing Baldur's Gate II, frankly, which in the context of a tabletop RPG is perhaps not the best thing. I'm not against playing Pathfinder again, but I am totally against any more adventure paths.

In the end, all of my old suspicions about Pathfinder (based in large part on my experiences with 3.x from 2000-2004) bore out: I preferred playing the system over running it, but even then it was a bit crunchier than I cared for, and the adventure path is a style of gaming I have about zero interest in. (Nor am I a hardcore sandboxer, but that's a topic for another day). I will say that I was quite impressed with the Pathfinder SRD. Especially with our online gaming, it meant having answers to rules questions just a quick keyword search away. We almost never had to crack open the book during a session, which is nice when you're dealing with such hefty tomes.

The lukewarm failure of Pathfinder has, however, left an open question as to where to go next, system-wise, and that gets us into the punny part of the post's title. (You've been waiting for that, haven't you?) See, I've been thinking a lot over the past few months on what exactly I'm looking for when I say I want to find systems to master. Essentially, (a) I want systems that can tackle multiple genres and (b) I want systems that can deliver different "flavors" of a game experience.

For example, one of my systems of choice is Basic Roleplaying, and that does a great job of delivering fairly gritty, "realistic" games of the sort where combat is a deadly proposition even for old masters. Savage Worlds, my other current system of choice, gives a nice pulpy experience in the action-adventure vein without being too over-the-top cinematic. What's more, it's one of those systems that really encourages engaging with the mechanics; it has lots of "gamey" elements, including several fun sub-systems. Since everything's better in threes, I find myself looking for a third system that can cover that other ground of a more "narrative" experience, something a little closer to story-game territory (without getting too close). And that's where FATE comes in.

I've poked around the margins of FATE, but I've yet to really dive in. But with the FATE Core kickstarter successfully funding earlier this year, I can look forward to a single universal reference volume coming out on the market in the near future. And what I've heard and seen of FATE I quite like. Reading up on Legends of Anglerre, it looks like FATE might be a perfect system fit for my beloved Uresia: Grave of Heaven setting - unlike when I tried running it with Pathfinder, which, despite a promising start, turned out not to be so much of a good idea (at least for a novice PF GM like myself) - in much the same way that Savage Worlds is perfect for running fantasy campaigns set in Magnamund and BRP is perfect for running Rifts:2112 adventures. Although I missed out on the FATE Core Kickstarter, I did back the Achtung! Cthulhu KS - and it looks like that's getting a core release for BRP, Savage Worlds, and FATE. Such synchronicity means I must be doing something right...right? At the very least, I suppose I could run the same A!C scenario three times using each of the three systems and then see how the play experience compares. Hmmm...

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

[Solo GPC] 539: The Runaway Squires

Last time we left off with a bit of a cliffhanger. At the beginning of this session, I handed back Graid's character sheet to Des. We had left off with the eager squire going quite mad with bloodlust, years of repressed anger and frustration bubbling over as he rode to the defense of Guenevere's court. The last any had seen of Graid, he had been riding off, holding aloft the severed head of his enemy.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Why I Don't Use Miniatures in My RPG Gaming...And What I'm Gonna Do About It

Now this is just ridiculous.
In my earlier post I talked about using miniatures to inspire character and campaign concepts in RPGs. I also mused on why my group and I only did that once, despite the successful outing. Our lack of action, as I indicated in that post, was due to a lifelong resistance towards integrating miniatures into my RPG gaming. The campaign in question is illustrative of the issues I have with using miniatures. Here are the main points:
  • Painting miniatures adds another task to the GM's already full plate of responsibilities. I recall a session or two of that 1997 campaign getting postponed a few hours as the GM furiously worked to finish painting figures for that session. I know a lot of folks bypass this problem by using unpainted or partially-painted figures, but that's not really how I (or the people I game with) prefer to do things. The way I look at it (and this goes for miniatures wargaming, too) is that if you're going to half-ass it, you might as well save yourself a lot of time and money and just use cardboard counters instead. (Of course, the 1997 campaign took place in the days before pre-painted figures, so this issue is not quite as critical as it once was, at least as long as your genre of choice happens to correspond to a well-supported pre-painted line of figures like D&D-style fantasy or supers.)
  • In a similar vein, because of my reluctance to use proxies, I find that, as much as miniatures can be an excellent aid to visualization (if a picture's worth a thousand words, then surely a three-dimensional figure is least 6,500?) and creative conceptualizing, they can also impose limits both on the GM's vision and the players' imagination. For example, in the 1997 campaign there was an NPC ally of the party whom we all quite liked and respected - until the GM put the NPC's miniature out during combat, at which point we all burst into uncontrolled fits of the giggles. There was just something about the way the figure was sculpted that looked a bit off, and our collective view of the NPC took a nosedive, causing him to become a figure of ridicule for the remainder of the time he was with the party.
  • On a related note, using miniatures can also impose limits on what the GM feels he can present in an adventure. A more recent example: I'm currently running Deadlands: Reloaded for my tabletop group. For those of you who don't know, Savage Worlds (which powers D:R) is extremely miniatures-focused, as much as Fourth Edition D&D. It's quite possible to play SW without miniatures (as we are currently doing), but some of the advantages of the system are lost in the process. I've considered once again attempting to integrate miniatures - lord knows there are plenty of awesome Old West/Steampunk figures available these days - but the adventure I ran last week reminded me of the limits of using miniatures. There was to be a rolling battle sequence along the lines of The Road Warrior featuring two steam wagons loaded with Chinese bandits (and an ogre!) supplemented by a steam-powered gyrocopter attacking a train the PCs were aboard. Had I wanted to run this with miniatures, I would have had the choice of tracking down and procuring a number of appropriate figures plus finding or (more likely) building my own steam wagons and gyrocopter. Just not worth it, especially for a one-off combat. Yet I can't help but think that the encounter would have indeed been greatly enhanced by the use of figures.
  • Of course, many of these issues become obviated over time if one builds up a large collection of RPG minis - "Ah! I can use that old Orc Battlewagon as a Steamwagon! And these Shaolin monks will suffice for the bandits. Etc." - but that kind of requires sticking to a single genre for the vast majority of one's gaming. I can see the logic of building an RPG miniatures collection for people who play D&D pretty much exclusively, but would I really want to go through the trouble and expense of building up a "Weird West" collection if I don't intend on playing Deadlands more than, say, a handful of times?
I think, in the end, the best solution, for me at least, would be to use paper flats if I want to use figures in my RPG gaming. There are tons of good ones available nowadays, both for free or for a nominal fee, and the magic of computers even allows me to make my own if need be. Paper flats can serve as a nice visual aide, too. Maybe not as nice as a figure, of course, and therein lies the continuing attraction of using actual figures, but clearly, with my admittedly self-imposed requirements, that option is just too logistically fraught to consider at this time.

And I could see collecting miniatures for certain special projects anyway, as much for its own sake as anything else. For example, I'm constantly on the hunt for the old Lone Wolf line of miniatures put out by Games Workshop in the mid-80s and I have a small collection of compatible Ral Partha and Grenadier figures, all with an eye towards running a Savage Worlds Magnamund campaign some day. And I've recently been toying with the idea of collecting some suitable 15mm sci-fi miniatures to represent my vision of Rifts. But for the most part, I think paper flats are the way to go.

On Using Miniatures to Kick Off a Campaign

Utgar Skullcleaver: professional barbarian
I love miniatures. I'll never forget the first time I went into Wargames West, looking for a copy of the Basic boxed set so that I could see for myself what this whole "D&D" thing was all about. The store's racks of miniatures, the cabinets full of painted figures - it all blew me away and was a visual trapping that sold me as much on the gaming hobby as all those funny-shaped dice and the iconic Larry Elmore art. Yet I've never been able to mix my minis with my RPGs. For me, miniatures have always been a separate hobby. (The whys and the wherefores are a topic for another post.)

I've taken stabs in the past at integrating miniatures into my RPG gaming. I was musing recently on what was probably the most successful outing in this regard, one of the greatest D&D campaigns I've participated in. It took place over summer break between my freshman and sophomore years of college (back when we could fill a whole day with gaming, so it probably was the equivalent of about a six-month campaign nowadays). We had had a couple would-be campaigns fizzle on the launchpad and, as we kicked around ideas on how to get back on the horse, we came up with an interesting gimmick: we would, as a group, go to the local game store and pick out miniatures. The players (myself included that time) would pick out a miniature and then make a character to match what they had gotten (my own choice is pictured above), while the DM would pick out some monster minis and design the first adventure around what he had gotten.

It worked a treat and set the campaign off to a great start. The funny thing is that we still failed to gel with the idea of using miniatures in a tactical way. After the first adventure ran its course, the tactical combats sort of petered out and our PC minis, although still present at the table, served more as mascots than as playing pieces. Nevertheless, I really think the strange alchemy produced by conceptualizing a campaign by choosing from the game store's available stock is really what produced such a successful campaign, and I'd love to give it another try. It's strange to me that we didn't really understand that at the time and never tried the same gimmick again, even though it was so successful. It's a shame, really, because I'm not currently located near any well-stocked game stores (which are rarer and rarer these days anyway) and I don't think one could really replicate the gimmick with online shopping.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Cthulhu Effect

Anyone who has run Call of Cthulhu for any great length of time will no doubt be familiar with the "D&D Effect" - the phenomenon that occurs when you get someone at your table who is used to D&D-style gaming that tries to play CoC for the first time. Weaned on a steady diet of beneficial magic items and cool powers, they tend to approach CoC in a very headstrong fashion, assuming that the combat system is there to help them solve their problems or get them out of trouble (hah!) and that moldering tomes and eldritch artifacts can be harnessed to their benefit (double hah!). Watching someone suffer from the D&D Effect can actually be fairly entertaining from the Keeper's side of the screen, especially when the headstrong player starts fiddling with Things that veteran players wouldn't touch with a ten-foot science pole.

The funny thing is that my current face-to-face group is made up of just such a group of veteran investigators who much prefer to solve mysteries than to throw down with fisticuffs (or worse). I'm currently running Deadlands: Reloaded for the group and, two sessions in, I've noticed a curious phenomenon, the reverse of the D&D Effect, in fact. Call it the Cthulhu Effect; it's what happens when you put veteran CoC players into a campaign that assumes a high level of rock 'em, sock 'em, two-fisted action. So far, both sessions have concluded with opportunities for epic combats. The first one kicked off with the group hiding under a (stationary) train until they were eventually compelled to act (and proceeded to kick ass, much to their surprise). The second session saw them fleeing for their lives from a fanatical, angry mob. (Granted, that decision was probably the better part of valor, but they didn't even try to fight before legging it.)

They're cottoning on that Deadlands demands a somewhat more proactive approach than CoC, but it's been an amusing process to watch. I feel like saying, "Guys, you're armed with Gatling shotguns and mad science tech - you're not neurasthenic New England professors anymore!"

(One last semantic note: I realized as I wrote this that the "best practices" of a group of Cthulhu investigators apply equally to a group of old school D&D adventurers: treat everything as if it is cursed, a mimic, or otherwise out to get you. But saying "the post-3e era D&D effect" doesn't have quite the same ring to it. Apologies to all you old school D&Ders out there for lumping you in.)
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