Saturday, September 11, 2010

Character Death

Ask anyone who has ever sat in on one of my games and you'll find that I've never had any real trouble with player character death. Generally I stand somewhere -mostly- in the camp of let the results of the dice fall where they may and fudge a little bit to keep the storyline as awesome as possible.

Generally speaking though I'm of the mind that a skillful DM / GM will manage to write encounters and stories that don't drop the party into a total party kill situation in the first place. I've always been hesitant to have an entire party wiped out even when I play classic D&D. The only exception to this rule being a horror campaign where picking off the players one by one to turn them into slavering beasts or zombies is part of the genre experience in the first place.

This being my birthday, this topic brings me around (however briefly) to the topic of real death. I used to have a serious problem with this inevitability but I have to say now that while I plan to avoid the end as much as anyone can that the final result won't necessarily be such a bad thing. I'd like to hold off on going into the beyond until I'm, least sixty if not seventy or so. I think my chances of making it to eighty are pretty low but who knows. Modern medicine seems to keep people alive a lot longer now than back in the day.

As to my funeral. I'd like to have some of the guys put their heads together on how to fashion a viking ship model out of papermache or some such. Something large enough to set one of my game books into it, maybe some dice, sprinkle some of my ashes in there and then launch said viking ship into the sunset on a lake...friends gathered around...the song Ramble On playing on someone's boom box. Then before the darn thing sinks on its own pelt it with volleys of flaming arrows fired from a half dozen toy bows and arrows. I think sticking big marshmellows on the end and lighting them on fire would probably do the trick.

Yep. I think that is probably the send off that would please me and symbolize the goofy side of me which is most of me the very best.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Freaks and Geeks / D&D

Recently I stumbled over some youtube shorts of the television series Freaks and Geeks. In particular the short surrounding the Geeks inviting one of the other characters to their D&D game caught my eye.
This seems to be a great show. I have to say though that I think the writer of the series fell into the Freak crowd way more than the Geek crowd.
Sure. The guy behind the DM screen bears an unsettling resemblance to some of the players I met way back in the day when I was firmly entrenched in the Geek camp. However, the writer(s) constantly pushes the notion that the primary yearning of every single Geek at that D&D table is to somehow fit in and be somehow want to join the throngs of popular kids or at the very least be squarely accepted into the ranks of the beautiful people picked out to play the cast of the "Freak" characters on the show.
From what I recall the reality couldn't be farther from the truth. We played D&D because it was fun and something that served as an excuse for us all to get together and goof around. The stories that would unfold around those early gaming tables were sometimes campy and sometimes strained but they were also occasionally epic and of all they were created by all of us sitting at the table. Secondly and more importantly I don't think a single one of the guys in my old high school D&D group would have wanted to join the ranks of the so called popular kids even if you paid them.
Being part of the D&D playing, Zepplin listening, non-jock, non-madonna listening, non-popular kid crew at school was our own rebellion against everything that just sucked major ass about that group and most (not all) but most of the people in them.
This was especially true being a guy. My experience with the jock crowd in my own school was that they felt that anyone that actually cracked open a book was lame, that the only really important thing was pushing people around, acting out some tiny dick macho bullshit delusion in a lame ass attempt to make themselves feel superior to everyone else...
Yeah. I loathed those guys. I liked to read. I liked history and science. I was glad to be in the circle of kids who understood the value of friendship and who stuck together in the face of all the stupid bullshit thrown at them needlessly by the jock and popular crowd.
To this day whenever I see someone lamely and I think erroneously painting us geeks as oh so desperately and pathetically seeking the approval of the jocks and popular kids I just want to jam one middle finger up each of their nostrils.
The D&D guys...just to set the record straight...were perfectly happy being the D&D guys and most of us had absolutely zero interest in being accepted by anyone other than our own circle of friends.
Friends I'd add that I've retained in large part, close friends, for most of the last thirty years.
D&D geeks of the past I salute you...and fuck being popular.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Making Maps

I've always been a sucker for making maps. Out of all the long list of parts of working on a fantasy campaign or any table top setting I think sitting down and making up my own personal maps for the world, region, city, dungeon, by far the most enjoyable and relaxing.

The one features on the left is done with a variety of fan plug-ins for an open source art program. Its amazing what the community will work hard to put together. In this case its a hex based map program that allows you to create the old hex style wilderness maps and campaign maps that they used to feature right in the beloved TSR modules. How cool is that?

To my mind something like this little mapping tool is -very- cool. Not just because its easy and makes a nice looking and practical map for the game it also makes the exact same sorts of maps TSR used to pay big bucks to artists to create for their modules in something like a tenth of the time or less. Ain't technology grand?

I am also a fan of freehand maps although my hand drawn maps tend to be too big to put through a normal sized scanner. I have to haul them down to Kinko's to use their big oversize scanner and that costs a little bit of coin.

Heres a way old enormous map done on parchment. An early effort on my ultimate goal to create a really cool classic swords and sorcery / Conan style setting.

Doing a great big enormous hand drawn map makes for a fun prop for the game table or to hang on the wall during play. Doing it with ink on parchment makes it that much more fun to pass around. I think the players enjoy having this sort of prop as well although I am sure I get a bigger kick out of making it than anyone does mucking around with it at the game table.
Today I nearly finished a Campaign Cartographer 3 overland map for my latest project. I mostly like the finished result. I have to add location labels and decided that instead of importing it into photoshop I wanted to learn to do everything in CC3. More of as a learning experience than anything practical.
As a side note. I love doing all the old school DM work in creating a campaign. Lots of guys I know abandoned all the work and process involved years ago because honestly the vast majority of it never sees the light of day in any game.
After I work up some maps I put together a history, calendar, pantheon, work out information about how magic works, etc... I really enjoy fleshing all of this out. I know for a fact that having done all that work helps me write a better story and come up with better adventure ideas as well. Which is good but on the down side means I need a lot more writing and prior to play creation and writing time than the vast majority of Dungeon Masters need for running their stuff.
Thats all for tonight.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

What makes a great game system.

I've been playing table top RPG's for about three decades now. Over the years I have probably purchased, playtested and poked around at more system than the average devoted RPG fan by about a factor of two.

Remember Teenagers from Outer Space? Metamorphisis Alpha? Gamma World? Traveller? Traveller 2100? Kult? Nephilim? Chill? The Fantasy Trip? Traveller "The New Era"? Serenity the RPG? Battlestar Galactica the RPG? Cyberpunk? Cyberpunk 2010? That Teen Cyberpunk game? These are only a small sampling and the list kind of goes on and on and on...

My interest in table top RPG systems and wanting to see how the imaginations and minds of other creative GM's worked, how they approached the notion of running a cool game in a new way always pulled me into investigating each new game system as it hit the market. Not always to the delight of my local crew of players who would roll their eyes at me as our horror campaign transitioned from Chill to the Hero System to a bastardization of the White Wolf rules mixed with elements from Nephilim to Kult...poor bastards.

What's the point of this rambling? Well...I think I can say that, at least for me, I now have a pretty good grasp of what makes a great table top roleplaying system. I am now in the process of writing my very own. I think that ultimately every die hard table top RPG game master will walk down this path sooner or later. I am taking a little break from that to share my point of view and why I am approaching the creation of my own game system the way that I am...

Dice / Physical Playing Pieces

I think the dice you use in a table top RPG and the physical playing pieces necessary for play are part of what makes a table top roleplaying game get its "Game-y-ness" for lack of a better made up word. From my perspective a certain amount of game-y-ness is good. The funny shaped dice of good old Dungeons and Dragons along with the little metal figures and later the cool battle maps and dungeon tiles, etc...all contributed to giving the game a certain fun a predictable look and feel.

I think the dice and playing pieces in a table top RPG even went so far as to contribute to the element of suspension of disbelief that can be an important element to certain styles of RPG player. "I stab him with my dagger..." Only feels "right" in the context of a D&D game by reaching for that sharp and pointy four sided die.

Now I admit there is a certain creative elegance to a minimalist approach. I certainly tend to be more of a minimalist when it comes to rules and game mechanics than a traditionalist. More on that in a moment. For my part though I know I have more fun at a game where a collection of dice and tokens and various "board game" style paraphenalia litter the table surface like some game of Monopoly gone horribly wrong.

Keep it Simple

The bottom line for me as both a player and as the GM stuck building the adventures and monster encounters and treasure and so forth is "keep it simple". From my perspective Dungeons and Dragons (1st Edition) almost had this exactly right in that a four or five hour investment of time by the DM would pay off with a pretty good amount of fairly detailed adventure / play time for the group as a whole.

Combat was fun but also progressed relatively quickly in the old version of the game. A group could plow through a half dozen encounters during the course of a game without much trouble. I like this style of play a LOT both as a player and as a DM. The more modern versions of the game and more modern table top RPG's in general have over all greatly increased the amount of time necessary for combats and even more so increased the time necessar for the poor DM to write the adventure up in the first place.

Where D&D turned left when it should have turned right is in utterly botching the concept of skills and character abilities. These were made needlessly complex in my view and in many cases a character might have a core ability related to their class...take thief skills as a whole...and not be able to succeed at any single one of these core class abilities until many levels of advancement down the road.

To my mind this is bad game design. A character class needs to be fun to play and that means reasonably useful and successful right out of the box. The other cutting edge of this sword is that at later levels the D&D and most other game models that followed made high level characters godlike in that rolling to see if they succeeded at something was largely pointless. To me this should -never- happen in a game system. Rolling the dice and pushing the tokens around to make things happen should -always- retain a certain element of risk otherwise the game looses its edge very quickly...


So. Some of my goals in working on my own system have been greatly influenced by my own personal likes and dislikes about various table top RPG's. Some of these goals include making a game where the rules are customized to support the genre being played. I feel that generic rules systems while flexible and cool in a certain way often become exactly what they set out to be...generic. Generic to me = boring. Its like eating the unseasoned food at the nursing home. Sure its food. Sure it won't make my ulcer scream at me later in the evening but for my time and money I'd much rather eat a plate of awesome Thai or Indian food.

Another goal is to support the efforts of the GM in making the adventures detailed, fun and easy to put together. One major goal I've had in this project is allowing a GM to invest about two hours of time to sit down and put together a four to five hour game session for his or her players.

These days I have kids. I know -I- as a DM have a whole lot less time to sit around writing up adventures. The more straight forward and plug it all in and go the thing is the better. This means a system where there is no figuring out xp values for encounters or treasure. An easy way to balance encounters to insure that they remain a challenge but don't become a slaughterhouse for the players unless the DM deliberately makes them that way.

Well that's enough blogging / ranting / blathering for one evening.

Have a good night folks and you gamers roll some funny shaped dice for me!


Sunday - Birthday T-Minus 6 Days and Counting

Sometimes I just like to roll into the bathroom for a little break and flip through the pages of Dragon Magazine.
Now that I am closing in on 45 years of age and I just spent the morning helping one of my two five year olds deal with puking out one end and going potty out the other...poor sick kid (just the flu), I kind of like to continue this tradition.
I am always a little sad that I have to be satisfied with the mere hundred or so copies of Dragon magazine I have on my book shelf. I'd pay good money for this beloved rag if it ever went into print again. Anyone reading this probably already knows that the magazine has been out of print for several years now.
Anyway. I flip open the random edition I've picked up to check the inside date. This is a new habit. I can never remember when these things fell in the timeline of my life any more and I can of like to recall when it was I picked that particular issue up.
This particular issue (not the one shown here) was printed in 1996. There I sit and I say to myself. Wow. 1996. This is a fairly recent edition and then I have to stop myself. 1996. Dude. That was FOURTEEN freakin years ago. Not three or five or even ten. Fourteen!
I sigh and realize that I am not just getting to be a little older. I am getting -old-. Let's face it. You can kind of fake yourself into thinking you are still climbing up the very last upswing of the middle age curve as you arrive at 45. Once you hit 45 though you are clearly...clearly past the middle of middle age and heading on the downhill towards old.
Oh well. At least my chosen beloved hobby was written by those good old souls that came before me. Most of the vanguard of the hobby is pretty up there in years. Lately it seems they have been dropping like flies.
For me, my gaming experience began as a sort of happy accident. I was just entering Junior High School so I was just a kid but I managed to discover the game around 1977 - just a few short years after Dungeons and Dragons hit the shelves in the first place. Add to this the availability of the Junior College just a mile up the street from home. My friend and I could ride our bikes up there and watch the college guys run their games. Which was really cool. They had miniatures...lots of dice...all kinds of cool maps and the best worlds and games. Most of them had been running D&D for a few years which made them experts to us.
A few of the nicer DM's even let us sit in and play the henchmen from time to time as long as we acted cool (didn't freak out over a bad dice roll or whine).
By 1979 I was able to find a local D&D group run by a high school guy named Phil who turned out to be an awesome DM.
I sometimes wonder if the stars had not been lined up just right...if I'd never stumbled into the college gaming club or into Phil and Andy's game whether my deep love for the hobby would have gained roots.
Enough for now. I have to work a little today but I plan to get my ass back home as soon as possible so I can work on terrain, paint a couple of miniatures and work on the next episode of my own home RPG game.