Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Unabashed Gaming

After a three-episode soft launch, I'd like to formally announce that I've started a gaming podcast with one of the folks from my gaming group. It's the podcast Zak Smith calls "the least annoying RPG podcast I've heard in ages. Maybe ever."

The name of our podcast is Unabashed Gaming, and so far we've covered topics such as: techniques for running horror games, our thoughts on Dungeon World, RPG piledrivers, campaigns that end before their time, and sources of gaming inspiration.

We'd especially like to develop the podcast into a write-in or call-in format, where people can send us questions or issues they have relating to tabletop gaming and we can then discuss the submissions on the podcast. Sort of like a Loveline, but for RPGs. I'll leave it up to the listeners to decide which one of us is Dr. Drew and which one is Adam Corolla.

At any rate, the podcast blog is located here, or you can subscribe directly through iTunes or your subscription service of choice. I hope you check it out and enjoy what you hear!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

My RPG Person Profile, October 2013

It's been kinda quiet here, and a good idea is a good idea. I'm going to copy this post into its own page and try and keep that updated as best I can.

I'm currently running (at home): I just wrapped a Deadlands: Reloaded campaign, and am planning to run "Horror on the Orient Express" starting after the holidays. In the meantime, I'll be running a variety of one-shots and getting some player time in as some of the other group members do the same.

Tabletop RPGs I'm currently playing (at home) include: Whatever one-shots my fellow group members choose to run over the winter. This Sunday I'll be playing in a zombie-themed game (most likely using the Zombi system, although the GM hasn't made up her mind yet).

I'm currently running (online): Dungeon Crawl Classics for my old California group.

Tabletop RPGs I'm currently playing (online) include: None.

I would especially like to play/run: An online game of my Rifts:2112 BRP hack, the Great Pendragon Campaign with my tabletop group, Dungeon World or any of the Apocalypse World Engine games.

...but would also try: Hellfrost, Planet Motherfucker, or Day After Ragnarok for Savage Worlds, Beyond the Wall, AD&D 1e, Palladium Fantasy or TMNT.

I live in: Santa Fe, New Mexico.

2 or 3 well-known RPG products other people made that I like: "Masks of Nyarlathotep" for Call of Cthulhu, the King Arthur Pendragon RPG, the old "Historical Reference" series for AD&D.

2 or 3 novels I like: Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Tales of the Dying Earth, The Sword of Samurai Cat

2 or 3 movies I like: Porco Rosso, Cat People, Army of Darkness

Best place to find me on-line: Right here at this blog; I'm also on Facebook quite a bit.

I will read almost anything on tabletop RPGs if it's: Chock-a-block full of enthusiasm and stealable ideas; bonus points if it's related to Pendragon or BRP.

I think dead orc babies are ( circle one: funny / problematic / ....well, ok, it's complicated because....): I like putting PCs into moral quandries; I've always wanted to try and introduce an arc where the PCs adopt an orc baby after inadvertently wiping out everyone else. But dead orc babies can indeed be problematic, especially if you get a player who takes too much pleasure in being the one to make them dead; as another person said in answering this question, it's the downside of Gygaxian naturalism. There's a strong argument to made in favor of orcs being devil-spawned monstrosities.

Games I'm in are like this.

Free RPG Content I made for Rifts is available here.

Free RPG Content I made for Pendragon is available here and here.

Free RPG Content I crowd-sourced for users of the hallowed d30 is available here.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

New Pages Up

Just a quick organizational note: I've finally gotten around to setting up a couple "Pages" for my most popular series - Rifts:2112 and the Solo GPC. Now you have all the links in one place, arranged into categories and in chronological order.

Monday, October 14, 2013

[Campaign Analysis] Deadlands Reloaded: Lost in the Maze

My Deadlands campaign wrapped up yesterday. As is my wont, with the closure of another campaign it's now time to take a look at "[w]hat worked, what didn't. Expectations going in and how those expectations morphed and changed over the course of the campaign."

This has been a year for laying old ghosts to rest, it seems. Things kicked off with me finally getting a crack at running Cthulhu by Gaslight by way of The Golden Dawn, a campaign framework I'd been wanting to sink my teeth into since sometime in the mid- to late-Nineties. Around the same time as I was first ogling The Golden Dawn, I would've picked up the core rulebook for Deadlands. We're talking first edition, first print run, here. As soon as I heard about the concept behind the game, saw someone on a newsgroup (remember those?) sum it up as "a Spaghetti Western directed by Sam Raimi and scripted by H. P. Lovecraft" could I resist?

The only problem was that one of the people in my group at the time adamantly refused to play the game. I have no idea why; he was a big fan of Western movies, after all. Something about the game just rubbed him the wrong way, I suppose. I tried to get a game going anyway, sans the recalcitrant player, and bought the boxed set describing the shattered West Coast (referred to as "the Maze") with an eye towards locating the campaign in the vicinity of the theocracy of Lost Angels. But things stalled after one session and both the rulebook and the boxed set went into limbo on my gaming shelf and were eventually sold off during one of my periodic purges.

Flash forward circa 15 years.

Last year I resolved to give Savage Worlds a serious try as one of my go-to systems. My first two attempts fell flat, largely due to the fact that I was being too ambitious with an untested system, starting off with major setting conversions that I had no business attempting. I developed serious doubts about the system, but resolved to give it one more try. I figured that if I used a setting and adventures designed specifically for SW, I'd get an honest idea of the system in action.

For those of you who don't know, SW had its genesis in the system originally presented in Deadlands. The "classic" version of Deadlands still has its adherents, but nowadays Pinnacle Entertainment Group is focused exclusively on its flagship system and has put out a "Reloaded" version of Deadlands that brings the setting in line with Savage Worlds. I picked up the two core books for DL:R and also a PDF of one of those Plot Point Campaigns I'd heard so much about. In honor of my abortive campaign of yesteryear, I chose "The Flood".

So with that lengthy pre-amble out of the way, here's the meat of the analysis: we had an awesome campaign. Not only am I personally sold on Savage Worlds, but every player in my group has endorsed it to some degree or another - my wife going so far as to say it may well be her favorite system right now. We all particularly enjoyed the Adventure Deck, and the play of those cards often took the campaign in interesting directions, forcing me to think on my feet, which I absolutely love doing. This is a campaign that ultimately produced music mixes, commissioned artwork, extensive fictive interludes, and a 24-episode actual play recording.

And yet...

The system passed with flying colors, yes. I'm not so sure about the Plot Point Campaign format. My difficulties with "The Flood" could have arisen from the fact that I've never run a PPC before, but I've certainly tackled large campaigns for other systems, so I'm hardly a newb in that regard. Part of the problem, I think, is that the campaign lasted about twice as long as I'd initially anticipated. We blitzed through the first three Plot Points in the first two sessions and I thought we were looking at maybe 15 sessions max, but then things started getting really slowed down and drawn out by activities undertaken in between the plot points - activities that are necessary to allow the PCs to get powerful enough for the final act. And this was even with clever play allowing the party to skip over big chunks of this extracurricular activity!

The extended play isn't such a bad thing in the end, of course - it made for some wonderfully epic character arcs, with the PCs going from Novice to Heroic level - but about half the group (myself included) were definitely feeling like we were ready to move on even as far back as session 12 or so. We hadn't gone into the campaign with the mindset that this would be THE big campaign of the year and that different mindset took its toll over time.

From the GM's perspective, I also found "The Flood" to be woefully sketchy in places I really could've used more details, and then bizarrely railroady at other points, oftentimes basing an entire scenario off of one assumed course of PC action. At other times, adventures bottlenecked into a single roll, and not even one that any given group could be assured of being able to do. Here's the most egregious example:
Asking around about what happened nets nothing—in fact, the locals shy away from the subject very quickly. 
If someone asks in Chinese (any dialect) and makes a Streetwise roll at –4, they run into Willy Long Tam, who quietly whispers that the Society ran afoul of the real law in Shan Fan...
Okay. So what if no one in the group speaks Chinese? (That was certainly the case with my group.) What if they fail that steeply-penalized Streetwise roll? That's an important lead, one that the rest of the adventure evolves from. That's just sloppy adventure writing.

I was able to re-write around stuff like that, but the other thing I found vexing was the lack of maps. The campaign centers around Lost Angels, but we're given no map of the greater L.A. area, showing where important suburbs are located in relation to the city. The map we are given doesn't really match up with portions of the text. Some location maps are provided for select other sites, but they're of dubious utility, or else overdetailed where they needn't be. (And for a game that assumes the use of miniatures as the default mode of play, I found it especially strange that we weren't provided with any tactical maps for some of the set-piece encounters.)

So much for the structural issues of the book. How did it all play out? Some mild spoilers will no doubt follow, but I'll try and keep them as light as possible.

As I mentioned, this was my first PPC, so it took me a little while to cotton on to the layout - it's very much a toolkit design (as opposed to, say, a Pathfinder Adventure Path) that requires a thorough read-through and careful note taking, much like The Great Pendragon Campaign. There are a lot of NPCs to keep track of and a ton of locations. ("The Flood" would actually function better, I think, as a framework for a sandbox campaign, ditching the actual PPC entirely. ) Even after 23 sessions of play, there's still plenty of material that went completely untouched. There's enough material in "The Flood" to fuel tons of sandboxy explorations.

I certainly could've integrated some of the key NPCs a little better, but then again, the PCs had a real knack for not going anywhere near where those key NPCs were located, or, when they did, unintentionally avoiding them. On the other hand, the group was quite good about taking the main hook of going after Reverend Grimme even without having any personal run-ins with him. What I find most amusing, in retrospect, is that the meat of the PPC basically guarantees a classic D&D-style framework: the last half of the campaign was almost entirely made up of the adventurers, er, posse going from one dungeon, er, underground complex (mine, sea cave, etc.) to the next in the course of pursuing their quest, er, mission to take down Grimme. I think that, if and when I run Deadlands again, I'll definitely want to either design my own material or pick adventures that have a distinctly less D&D-ish feel.

I say "if and when" because I feel like this campaign pretty much really did put that old Deadlands ghost to rest. We had mad science, steam tech, huckster magic, a PC that became Harrowed during the course of the game, gyrocopter dogfights versus angel-demons, Native gunslingers facing off against Shaolin monks, Lovecraftian overtones in spades, climactic gun duels - in short, everything one could ask of a Deadlands campaign. Maybe I'll come back to it, but if I never do, I can still die happy knowing we played the hell out of one of the most gamable settings ever published.

One final note on Savage Worlds as a system: the climactic battle featured no fewer than 25 combatants on each side. Since I wasn't using miniatures, I hand-waved a lot of the background, extra-versus-extra action, but I was definitely thankful for the system's built-in method of foisting Allies off onto players to control, and especially grateful for the time I'd taken to transcribe stats onto easy-to-reference cards. The fact that I was even able to run such a huge dust-up and not have it take 8 hours is testament to SW's excellent design.

Nonetheless, running Reverend Grimme reminded me of how much I loathe higher level play in "advantage-based" systems. Be it SW, GURPS, or Pathfinder, if the rules have any sort of system that uses things like Edges, Advantages, or Feats, you inevitably end up with powerful NPCs boasting a raft of them, and all the concomitant bonuses and special moves that come along. That sort of thing is terrific fun when you're a player, but as a GM it absolutely does my head in. I did my best running Grimme, but I know I forgot to add a bonus here and a bonus there at certain times, busy as I was juggling all the other antagonists' abilities. With any sort of "advantage-based" system, you just have to figure that those sorts of piledrivers are just naturally going to occur and be okay with it. Still, at the end of the day I find I actually prefer games that stat NPCs and monsters with different, simpler mechanics - but that's a topic for another day.

For now, I can say with total confidence that Savage Worlds has won its place as one of my tabletop group's go-to systems.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A Kickstarter Success Story

The advent of crowd-sourced funding has, by most accounts, been an interestingly mixed bag of both great promise for the tabletop gaming industry and tremendous frustration for many backers. Personally, I started backing Kickstarter/Indie-Go-Go projects last year. I did so judiciously, and always with the maxim that I wasn't willing to spend more money than I'd feel comfortable never seeing a return on, and knowing full well that it would be awhile before I saw any product.

I have yet to get involved with any disastrous crowd-sourced projects (I almost backed Myth & Magic - dodged a bullet there!), but most are late to some degree or another. I threw some money at a couple of Raggi's adventures (Kelvin Green's "Horror Among Thieves" and Dave Brockie's "Towers Two") and those are both ridiculously overdue, as is a collection of Risus adventures from a Kickstarter run by S. John Ross - but none of that bothers me. It was a few bucks out of pocket, and I have every faith they'll show up eventually. The two Chaosium Kickstarters I backed, Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition and "Horror on the Orient Express", as well as Modiphius's Achtung Cthulhu, have all been pushed back a bit, but updates have been frequent and the delays have been due to final layout and printing taking longer than anticipated and/or stretch goals, rather than any issues with writing, editing, or art, so that's fine. (In fact, it seems that, in most cases, delays are caused by stretch goals adding tons of extra complexities to the production process.)

But in amongst these delays, both short and long, has been a little engine that could in the form of Golden Goblin Press. This is a new venture headed by Oscar Rios, current golden boy of Cthulhu scenario authors. The Kickstarter was for their first-ever project, a collection of articles and scenarios entitled Island of Ignorance: The Third Cthulhu Companion (a hat-tip to the two earlier and similarly-formatted companions put out by Chaosium back in the 80s). I'm a little more wary of backing Kickstarters from startup companies like this, but I decided to take a risk, and it has really paid off.

The project funded and even managed to rack up a couple stretch goals. And last night I received my PDF copy of the book, with shipment of the print version due by the end of the month. Take a look at the date on that Kickstarter. It wrapped on May 29th of this year. Updates from Oscar Rios were frequent (47 in all!); all the stretch goals were met, including a totally new scenario to be included in the book. This is how you do it, folks. Golden Goblin is already gearing up for another Kickstarter, and I will happily send some money their direction again.

One final note: when I went to download my PDF copy, I got a receipt informing me I was order number 23. Do I get some sort of Discordian prize for that, Mr. Rios?

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