Advanced Adventuring & Questing

Welcome Back! I’m going to continue on from the last blog so if you haven’t given that a read I suggest you read through it first.

We’ve gone over the basic quest types, so how do you make your own quests in a simple way? There’s a handy dandy list of questions that you need to run through. These questions are first answered by the DM and then answered by the players.

Who? The persons and parties involved
What? The quest’s objective
When? A sense of time, urgency or expiration
Where? What are the locations involved?
Why? The ‘so what’ part.
Why not you? Your players will ask why the quest giver or some other relevant party isn’t taking care of the issue; have a plausible answer.
What’s the reward? This is what hooks the players into the quest. Get fancy, add some secondary objectives, conditionals, and utilize intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. Does your group haggle? Low ball the initial reward and keep a reward ceiling in mind.
Consequences? What happens if the quest isn’t completed?

Ex. Reggie Needs 10 Wolf Hides
Who: Reggie
What: Needs 10 wolf hides delivered
When: Tuesday EoB
Where: Reggie’s Discount Hide Shack, Nearby over-populated wolf forest
Why: Reggie’s behind on his orders
Why not Reggie: Reggie isn’t a hunter, he’s a tanner. Reggie’s usual guy (his brother) is laid up with an injury.
Reward: 2 gp per hide and good relations with Reggie
Consequences: Reggie falls further behind in his orders, loses money. Someone comes and breaks his legs and he dies penniless in the gutter.

Simple enough to quickly see everything that pertains to a quest. The DM should always be able to answer these questions and the players should be able to answer all or nearly all the questions by the end of the quest. It’s important with this information as a DM to be translucent, not transparent. Give them the dots, but let your players connect them so they fel agency by putting the pieces together.

Speaking of player agency there’s one glaring omission on the question list: How. The players determine how they complete the objective. In the example above the players might want to see if there’s an over supply of wolf hides that can be bought for cheap and delivered to Reggie. Also, take what your players give you. A scrupulous player may want to know how Reggie’s brother got injured. Maybe it was a simple accident or something more deadly awaits the party as they go hunting wolves. It’s always a nice change when a group wants to find a solution not involving indiscriminate bloodshed, so reward that.

Now with the simple things settled you can make some tweaks, changes, and complications. Get inventive. Quest givers don’t have to be people with glowing symbols over their heads. The Mines of Phandelver kicks off its first quest with two dead horses prickled with crudely made arrows barring the road. Environmental quest triggers work really well, because players want to solve puzzles. They will often start theorizing what happened before searching the area. Also, really lean on the intrinsic rewards. Like the real world it’s all about who you know, not what you know. If you want your players to treat your NPCs with respect, give them a reason for it. Letters of introduction, referrals, and social friends trump their weight in gold. Favors and reputation are often more valuable than cold hard GP. You can also transform the objective, Bethesda’s Elder Scroll and Fallout games are good examples. NPCs aren’t omniscient, especially quest givers. They likely only know a facet of the larger issue. PCs can often make matters worse before making them better.

Make connections. Bridge different quests by sharing assets like NPCs, monsters, and rewards. This creates continuity and makes your world feel like it’s connected and alive, not simply a string of episodic adventures.

Then create complications. You can always make a simple thing more convoluted so it’s important your quests start off simple. Then you can drop in problems, roadblocks, and hiccups to make the party’s life difficult. Done badly it ends up feeling like an item trading quest: boring, repetitive, and usually it’s unnecessary to the larger plot. Done well: Bioshock. The original quest of Bioshock is a simple delivery quest to reach Atlas and escape Rapture. But the environment and society is crumbling around you. Passages get blocked and you either have to find a way around or through the roadblock. People with murderous intent keep getting in your way, indicative of the much larger issues plaguing the Randian paradise.

Let’s look at another example.

Ex. Lord of the Rings
Who: Council of Elrond, Sauron, The Fellowship
What: Take ring to mountain, drop in lava to destroy
When: ASAP, before Sauron’s domination of Middle Earth
Where: Middle Earth from The Shire to Mt. Doom
Why: To stop Sauron’s world domination
Why not Council of Elrond: Temptation of the ring and being too conspicuous
Reward: Not living/dying under Sauron’s move for world domination, destruction of The Shire, Fame
Consequences: Sauron’s world domination, destruction of The Shire, being driven mad by The Ring

Pretty simple idea, then you just add complication after complication. The first big obstacle being the blocked pass making the characters go into the Mines of Moria. Really everything from there on is an added complication, mini-quests within the bigger quest.

I could spend a lot of time and words going into the gritty details of this massive subject but I think these two entries give enough of a springboard to get you thinking and planning better adventures. Leave a question or comment if you like what I’m doing. you can also find me on Google+ and Twitter @Redraggedfiend

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Dungeons & Dragons: Free Basic Rules

Lots of people are talking about 5th Edition, D&D Next, or just simply “Dungeons & Dragons” per WoTC, which is utterly confusing for a brand that has put out different editions and variations of the same product. Anyway, if you were somehow unaware, the newest iteration of Dungeons and Dragons is live. The free basic rules are available as a PDF from Wizards of the Coast. The Starter Set is also available for purchase ($20). The perennial triumvirate of core rule books will not start their staggered release until August (PHB).

So I wanted to do the summary first and then speak about the specifics from the free basic rules.

Overall Impression

It’s vanilla ice cream. It’s a solid rules system, but that’s about it. The newest edition will allow you to play enjoyable sessions. It does nothing poorly thus far, but conversely it does nothing great either. In the end I’ll play it, but I’m always going to listen to the full list of rules system alternatives before deciding on it.

We SCREAM!

Trying to describe the new rules I would say it fits somewhere between 2nd & 3rd edition with some retooling of the mechanics with smart RPG design from the last two decades, D&D and otherwise.

What Once Was Will Be Again

It’s interesting to see the cyclical nature of D&D development reach arguably full circle. The development of third edition was greatly tied to the fan base wanting a more specialized, more intricate game. Enter feats, a robust skill system, and a big jump in rules minutiae. It allowed its players to cover almost any situation that came up. It was also a candy land for power gamers.

I think two major points spurred the development for 4e.

Aging fan base: New blood was absent from the hobby, video games and especially MMOs were/are stealing the young demographic

Time: People did not like how long it took to play a lot of third edition. Fans complained about how long it took to do combat, and that’s without difficult rules quandaries like grappling.

Streamlined: faster to play and lowered the barrier of entry by using mechanics more similar to video games. The classes were also similar so fighters were as interesting to play at level 10 as wizards. In addition the system was designed with DM’s in mind. Often a thankless job, 4e even with all its problems, is a breeze to run behind the screen.

Problems arose with 4e of course and a lot of valid finger pointing can be done to a lot of different responsible parties. Upper tier game play was an absolute mess most easily summed up as option and feature overload.

So 5th edition, D&D Next. Two plus years of R&D, extensive play testing from the public, and now it’s live. It’s a return to roots, a prodigal design that scours through the life of the brand to distil the quintessential when people think of D&D. Unfortunately I think this is an idea borne of the edition wars, that a rules system either can or cannot be D&D enough. But there’s no measuring board and D&D has mutated, changed subjectively for better and worse over four decades. It’s like saying Cherry Coke isn’t Coca-Cola enough. Of course this is the same thinking that upsets people when Final Fantasy games aren’t Final Fantasy enough.

But from the development history of D&D I find myself wondering if there’s not a reason to return to the D&D Basic and AD&D framework. There are two polarizing factions. One faction of the target audience wants simpler rules and fast play. The success of things like Savage Worlds, FATE, OSR, Fate, and others show that pretty clearly. On the other end of the spectrum you still have a significant audience who loves the complexity and ‘crunch’ of 3.X, Pathfinder, and other systems. So why not do that, support two separate lines? Right out of the box you almost double your supplements and thus revenue opportunities as a developer. I think it also may be able to save some of the vitriol that’s so pervasive in the hobby’s community.

But for anything like that to happen WoTC needs to make some changes. First and foremost I feel like they need to find someone with a plan to actually run the brand. Let’s look at their management history real quick:

1997 – Purchases D&D brand

2000 – Releases D&D 3rd Edition w/ OGL

2003 – Releases D&D 3.5

2005 – Begins development of 4e

2008 – Releases 4e, Drops support of all prior editions, no OGL (thanks Pathfinder)

2010 – Releases D&D Essentials

2012 – Begins D&D Next development, Re-releases prior D&D edition materials from the Disney Vault back catalog, Kills all 4e/Essentials future supplements

2014 – Releases D&D (D&D Next, and I believe no OGL)

WoTC does an about-face with the D&D Brand every 2-3 years, hard ones. Like doing a jibe when sailing and not telling your friend and laughing as the boom swings around and violently hits him in the head and knocks him out of the boat. Hard not to be a disgruntled consumer considering the treatment we’ve collectively received.

 

Particulars of Dungeons & Dragons (seriously, it needs some sort of identifier)

Things I Like:

  • Proficiencies, I like the across the board flat bonus.
  • Exploration & Social Interaction Mechanics, Finally some reference on how to run/resolve the other 2/3 of the game that’s not combat.
  • Multiclassing, I like 4e but it’s multiclassing was useless.
  • Gain a Feat OR Ability Increase, Options for how to run your games and how players can develop their characters that actually involves a tradeoff. Also +1 to 2 or +2 to 1 ability makes ability increases always useful.
  • Human Racial Benefit, Viable mechanical benefit to play a human, it even offers a variant!
  • One-Size-Fits-All Shield, Shield or no shield, there is no buckler (…yet)
  • Advantage/Disadvantage, Who doesn’t like to roll more dice?
  • Attack of Opportunity, Only provokes when moving away from an enemy

Things I Dislike:

  • Vancian Casting, It’s improved but you can only varnish a turd so much
  • Too Many Situational and Too Few General Purpose Spells, A cornerstone of Vancian casting systems so you can play the ‘guess what kind of trouble you’ll get into today’ mini game with your DM.
  • Healing Spell Preparation, I think you should always be able to default cast a heal spell without wasting a prepped spell selection on it
  • Sneak Attack, I want one devastating alpha strike, after that leave all the fighting glory to the FIGHTER
  • 3×3 Alignment, Silly vestigial trope. Alignment only matters for divine classes and even then it can be replaced by common sense
  • No Reflex Bonus From Shield!
  • No 4e Disease Framework, Hopefully shows up in the DMG
  • Inspiration, Feels tacked on. I wish it had beneficial options other than just granting advantage

So yeah, it’s good; not great, but good. I think there are better options depending on the specifics of the campaign you’re trying to evoke, but it’s a solid entry for the brand and should be pretty easy for new players and veterans alike to pick up and enjoy.

Enjoy it now, you may only have 2-3 years before WoTC completely ruins it.

Analog Gaming is Retro-Cool AKA People Crave Human Interaction

4.25 Years

Four and a quarter years it took me to get a magic sword in a play by post (PBP) game. I keep looking at that number and try to make sense of it but it refuses to seem real. It took as long for me to get a make believe sword in a make believe RPG game as it takes the average person to acquire an undergraduate degree from a university. The journey took a number of specific ‘adventures’ and required a trio of game masters to complete.

So what could I possibly learn from such an experience? Perseverance, dedication, patience, and how to take initiative. Worthy qualities surely and some that are by many accounts lacking in our modern age. As a society we’re all about the instant gratification. Don’t think that’s true? All you need to do is look at the rampant success of Free-to-Play games. These games are structured to make the player wait to play for free or pay to play now. Streaming television on demand, public wifi, texting, the world is all about the now.

But you know what’s not now? Table top games.

The resurgence of social, “face time” gaming shouldn’t really be all that surprising. In a world that continues to grow smaller but isolates our interactions more through technology people, especially younger generations, are starving for human companionship. Table top games thus are having a resurgence as are things like bowling and shuffleboard. Yes, shuffleboard, the game old ladies play on cruise ships. Who knows, Bridge clubs may be next.

So why are these things becoming popular again?

Well, I think we’re still too close to the now of the event to objectively examine. But, I think the popularity is due to a few, specific factors as far as I can tell

Time & Duration

Individual games have a short duration. You can have a fulfilling afternoon or evening of fun by completing 2 – 10 games. As long as people spend more time doing than it takes for them to travel to and from the location, it’s a win. Even better if the time can be spent completing multiple games/sessions. More completions = better use of time, we ‘accomplished’ more with our time.

Social & Attendance

As I touched on earlier, we crave human interaction. Humans are social animals, no man is an island… yada yada yada. The nice thing about table top games and social games like bowling is they rarely require more than three people to play, and many require only two players. We don’t feel bad if we’re not able to meet up with a group because they are still able to play and enjoy their evening. Likewise I miss nothing but a good time by skipping, there is no penalty for missing. There are also a good number of cooperative games for those people who dislike being competitive with friends and loved ones.

Low Barrier to entrance, Minimal learning curve

These games are simple to learn. They generally have few rules and can be taught in just a few minutes to someone with no prior experience. Scoring is usually straightforward and easy to understand. Of course there are stupidly complex games, but generally these aren’t the sort of games that only take 20-60 minutes to play anyhow.

Requires attention but not concentration

These games do require attention, but they almost exclusively turn-based. Unless you are playing an in-depth game or a game that has liberal use of interrupt mechanics there is nothing for you to do between individual turns. For a modern world where most people have a tech device on-hand people are checking email, social media, texts, Youtube, news, and everything else in the world, this meshes nicely with the games.

You know what isn’t getting a real resurgence though? Pen and Paper RPGs.

Wait, I imagine you say. There was an uptick in interest in analog RPGs over the past few years. Things like 4e, and Acquisition Incorporated podcasts and video plays of RPGs by some celebrities opened the hobby up to some new audiences, garnered some new interest. But a seven year run was all the tenure 4e received, mix that with multiple brand managers going in different directions, unbalanced power creep and options, Pathfinder being born, and the excessive vitriol of edition wars that something can or cannot be D&D, as though its some binary criteria. Some R&D people leaving WoTC and the creation of things like 13th Age and Numenera. Not to mention WoTC refused OGL for 4e and refused to support prior editions of D&D.

TL:DR version: Because a sequence of crappy decisions and poor attitudes by developers/publishers and the community at large.

Why mess with all that when I can go back to Steam and load up Child of Light, Paper Sorcerer, Legend of Grimrock, or Skyrim, to get my RPG fix?

But specifically the reasons social gaming is getting bigger are the exact reasons RPGs are not.

Time & Duration

It takes time to play RPGs, like a lot of time. Sessions I’ve played have been anywhere from 2 – 12+ hours. Personally I find the sweet spot clocks in at about six hours. Nonetheless each session of an RPG is a segment, of a chapter, of a larger adventure path. You have to meet regularly. How often have you sat down at a table with friends after missing a game session or two and people have a difficult time remembering where the game left off? Full adventures often take years to complete.

Social & Attendance

RPGs are definitely social games, they’re cooperative games after all. But they require taking on a role, a persona. Adventures generally require problem solving and teamwork towards some specific end. You can’t just interrupt the process to tell a ten minute anecdote about your cat because it came to your mind. Attendance is also mandatory. If you have a party of four PCs and a Gamemaster, every one is critical to what is going on. If one person has a scheduling conflict everyone misses a session. In the cluttered schedules of the modern world, finding a time for everyone to play at all can be difficult.

Low barrier to entrance, Minimal learning curve

This is a mixed bag. There are some pretty simple to learn and play rules systems out there. But sticking with the two biggest names in the hobby? The free barebones basic rules for the newest edition of D&D has over 100 pages. The Pathfinder Core Rulebook? 576 pages. Someone shows interest in RPGs and you hand them a novel to read before they can play? I know what Sweet Brown has to say about that. And with a community who showed plenty of hate for how the previous edition of D&D ‘dumbed it down’ for the video game/MMO crowd we really shouldn’t be surprised the younger demographics aren’t filling the hobby’s ranks and publishers’ coffers.

Requires attention but not concentration

One of the most aggravating aspects of RPGs is choice. If you can imagine it you can try to do it in an RPG. That’s part of the big selling point but also one of its most aggravating aspects in the microcosm of individual sessions and encounters. It’s someone’s turn and they have no clue what they are going to do, worse yet they ask you what’s happening because they spent the last 5-10 minutes flipping through the newsfeed on their phone. Now you get to wait 5-10 minutes to figure out what this person is going to do, meanwhile the others at the table begin looking at their technology devices and that’s really why it seems to take forever to get through most combat encounters in a game like 4e.

People complain about how boring fighters and clerics can be because every turn is heal or hit the monster with your weapon, but abolishing that simplicity doesn’t help the person playing the game who probably has ADD, because everyone has ADD these days, and can’t sit still for five minutes without being actively entertained.

This I think is the unfortunate state of affairs of the hobby. An old guard filled with grognards who need something to be dissatisfied with, publishers who don’t seem to be confident in their target audience and their ability to make money with an iconic product lines.

Am I critical? Yes, but not because I’m bitter, because I know the hobby can be really popular and great. I know these games can create memories we will cherish for years. Perhaps I am overly critical of modern society, but in a world where people have to be told to take ‘tech sabbaths’ it would be difficult not to be.

I should be getting back to a more regular blog schedule. In the future I should have a supplement review and I’ll speak a little about the new D&D rules… which will likely be different than what most people are focusing.

Funnin’ Around

Quick Breakdown:

I have been absent and I will continue to be so for the next few months. I will resume regular posting later this summer but right now I have other demands on my time and energy. And considering what I do here does not pay me in cold hard cash it falls towards the bottom of my to-do pile. But I will return, it has not fallen off my radar.

Also, March marks the one year anniversary of this blog. So go me, and thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read my articles and found enough substance to subscribe. I promise more content will be coming in the future, just hang on a bit. I have to say a year passed almost in the blink of an eye. As I think back to what March 2013 looked like a year has shown a considerable improvement in almost every facet of my life. Hopefully my karma holds for the next year -fingers crossed-.

So again to all the supporters and followers of this blog, a hearty thank you, now on to the article. 

Is it the GM’s job to make sure players have fun in his game?

This seems to be a well-debated subject. I wish I had some stellar insight into it but I really, probably, don’t. I do find the whole concept a bit strange. Why do publishers even feel compelled to add to their products a reminder that RPGs should be utilized for fun? I’ve played my share of board games, video games, card games, even tag, and hide-and-go seek. I don’t recall ever needing to be reminded in any of these activities/games that I should have fun while doing so. The only other example I can think of this creeping up is in something like organized sports.

But is that really the GM’s job? Conventional wisdom states the GM has 3 primary functions when running the game. He is interpreter of the rules, he assumes the role of any and all NPCs, and he is responsible for describing the imaginary world and the PC’s interactions in it. None of the three core functions insinuate fun.

Is it OK to not have fun?

So I don’t always have fun when I play RPGs. It’s a full gamut of emotions and thought processes, not just fun. When my PC takes a crit, or has his mind invaded by deep sea, psionic squids, that’s not fun. Is it the game master’s fault that bad stuff happened to my PC, which my mood soured? No, barring any extreme and obvious malice. In fact a case can be made by, fudging a crit to a normal hit or miss the GM has failed in his role to arbitrate the rules. A judge exists to interpret the grey area, not override the system’s rules because enforcing it would make someone have not… Happy Happy, Joy Joy fun. happy-happy-1

Let me put this another way, this is the list of AFI’s top 5 movies: Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Casablanca, Raging Bull, and Singin’ in the Rain. I would describe only number five as fun. Entertainment can be good without being fun. If you enjoy good movies you have probably sat through all of these movies, probably more than once without having ‘fun’. I think probably a better interpretation is a GM’s game should be enjoyable, and worth playing.

 So then, is it a GM’s job to make sure his game is enjoyable?

Absolutely. Notice I said the game is enjoyable, not that the player’s enjoy is game. Enjoyment is derived by different things for different people. If I as a GM spend all my time juggling the different ways the players derive enjoyment I’m not really focusing on the game itself; forest for the trees and such. Focus on providing a good story and fulfilling your three primary roles to the utmost and good things will follow.

The Player’s Role

A movie’s job is to entertain its audience. It is a passive medium, audience participant cannot change the fabric of the narrative. Thus all the responsibility of entertainment falls to the film. RPGs however are active, and are either plot or character driven. This is not a passive medium. The responsibility for your enjoyment as a player rests on the table and its dynamic. I don’t think I can say I’ve ever played in a campaign that I did not enjoy. But I have played in campaigns I did not particularly like. What’s the difference? I refuse to spend hours at a gaming table being actively miserable. That sort of attitude is selfish, silly, and ultimately petulant. Find a way to have fun. Is your PC little better than a pincushion for baddies? Well, focus your efforts on something else. The game is comprised of combat, exploration, and social encounters so choose one of the other spots to derive your fun. Conversely you can derive your fun from combat.

I suck at FPS video games. I do play them on occasion however; even online multiplayer matches where I struggle to keep an even K/D ratio. One of my favorite memories was playing a match that the opposing team needed to bazooka a pair of tanks to win the round. I was actually able to jump in front of an incoming rocket to save a tank. Stupid, yes; hilarious, definitely. More importantly it provided enjoyment and a memory that stuck with me.

Here are the Dragon Age directions for GMs. It was actually important enough for them to stick right on the center of the GM screen.

Dragon Age GM Advice

Focus On The Characters

As stated RPGs are an active media, it takes cooperation and that means putting the PCs at the forefront. They either need to be primary agents in moving the plot, or the game is campaign on their own personal struggles.

Where this can get sticky for a lot of GM’s is their personal game world. Crafted year by year, almost entirely in sterile isolation, they can spend more time telling you about their world and what’s going on in it than letting the players interact with what’s going on and driving the plot. The big important things are what the players hear about but not generally don’t engage the things during the campaign.

Work with your players to stitch their characters into being organic pieces of the game world. Mutually developed backstory is key. Some players however are wholly unconcerned with this bit of immersive gameplay. Encourage heartily, but don’t demand it of the players.

Push The Heroes To Make Tough Moral Choices

Sometimes things go sideways, there’s no absolute right way to go about things or correct decision. There are some situations not even the greatest string of crit rolls will allow the characters to come out unscathed.

It’s OK to beat up the PCs a little, make the players sweat, even maim and kill the PCs. The important thing is to make those tough situations meaningful. Tough choices are meaningful choices. This isn’t the Coke vs. Pepsi taste test it’s do you take the red pill or the blue pill. The best way to use this is to place the players in a sacrifice situation, where one PC must sacrifice something incredibly important for the benefit of the group. If your players are being proactive for their fun they will only momentarily pout over the situation before running with it.

Paint The World With 5 Senses

Remember one of the main roles of the GM is to be the players’ window into the game world. It is also the role that is most likely to fall to the wayside as the other two roles flex. When we think of imagery we assume image, so sight. Vision is our most acute sense, but it is only one. If you struggle with this try creating an area without sight. Most recently I was able to paint a character investigating a cave in the pitch black. The sound of echoing water, cold and stagnant air, wet stone under touch and poor footing all became far more important.

Maybe you’re not so good with the descriptions. Augment what you’re doing with a map, an image to show the table, pick up a scented candle, change the room lighting, or add a low volume background track. For a ship voyage consider a labeled cross section diagram of the ship, a seaside scented candle, and find a white noise track featuring repetitive waves. You can easily transmit the imagery of the setting without actually saying a word.

Be Flexible

Like I stated under the first point, the idea of actually letting players interact with your creation is what allows the game to move. The truth is that players are rarely going to follow the trail you’ve dutifully laid out for them with single file Reese’s Pieces. They are going to be odd and different and difficult. It’s not a bad thing, but it is a thing. Improvisation is a highly regarded skill for GMs and it is difficult to hone without, well… improvising.

You’re going to screw up, get your facts mixed up, and probably do/not do something in a humongous blunder. It happens to everyone and that’s part of what makes going off-script work so well. Unfortunately there’s not a lot you can do to prepare for it other than just do it over and over again. Give the PCs the opportunity to be at the forefront and to drive what happens, even if it means not doing exactly what you planned out. A sneaky GM secret is to use these offshoot tangents as the plot hooks by improvising a way to curve it naturally right back into your script.

Be Exciting

Now at first you might think this means to always be doing combat, but that’s not really it. Exciting is probably less appropriate than enthralling. No matter the situation you should have the player’s attention focused in on you. Especially in 4e this where solo monsters fall short. At a certain point you tip the scales in the encounter and it becomes very obvious which side will win. Unfortunately 4e solo monsters have a truckload of HP, so it becomes a very boring waiting game until the creature dies. Unless there is some reason to do this, like whittling down HP resources or rolling for potential reinforcements to arrive and angle the combat back to being open-ended you may as well kill the encounter early.

Not everything has to fight to the death. Rarely do real fights end with one side at not least attempting to escape or surrender. However this tactic does make sense for things like automatons, and undead. Unthinking creatures not concerned with self-preservation, just following commands, will fight until they cannot or their task is accomplished.

Speed is not everything. If your players are engaged, and you’re holding their attention with a social scene that you know leads nowhere, don’t cut it short. As long as the PCs are at least attempting to be on task, be flexible and entertaining. Think of this time as a chance for your players to develop a rapport between the PCs. In one of my regular games it is standard for the party to split into pairs or go solo while in town to talk to different people and gather supplies. At first this seems the exact opposite of what you should do to hold everybody’s attention, dealing with one player at a time. But really it allows for a few short vignettes where every player gets to be center stage and be productive. This is a great way to build PC/NPC relationships. Maybe some NPCs like some PCs more than others so it’s more productive to keep PC/NPCs who don’t get along away from each other.

I think if you keep these five ideas present in mind you will run enjoyable games. If you run enjoyable games you can be guaranteed at least one point everyone at the table will have fun. The games that leave me with longstanding memories are the ones I value the most.

Power of Choice

First off I would like to apologize for the lack of update last week. The time I had slated to sit down and write ended up vaporized by the unruly and downright rude demands of mundane life. Knock off a day for American Thanksgiving and next thing you know here we are. If the fates allow I’ll try to sneak in a catch up, so be on the look out for that. Without further ado let’s into the breach once more.

“What do you do?” One of the oldest bits of Pen & Paper RPG lore out there. I can only glint the periphery of how this has effected my gaming and my time behind the screen. With four short words the burden of what comes next is lifted from the game master and place squarely on the shoulders of the players. The field is open, your decision may spell certain victory or certain doom for not only your character but the entire party. And that decision, well it can be just about anything you want. Magic and future tech in settings means we are not even relegated in our decisions to even make choices that would work in reality.

The good of it? Well it seems to be one of the largest draws of the medium itself, anything you can imagine goes. The limitation is the limitation of your mind. This seems to be the same underlying concept that has made the video game Scribblenauts so successful. When the limitation is your mind you can play however you want.

Can I make a Kraft 'Salad' check? Ha... puns.

Can I make a Kraft ‘Salad’ check? Ha… puns.

The bad? Analysis Paralysis. It’s an actual a thing, go look it up if you haven’t heard it before. Understanding this concept will actually help you have a better role playing experience. Some times our vision gets so fixated on how we try to accomplish something the actual accomplishing becomes secondary. If you have ever been shopping and stared down a wall of salad dressing, peanut butter, soft drinks, snack foods, and so on, you understand this concept. We trick ourselves into thinking there is a definitive right way, or right’er way, and that is how you win. Make the wrong choice and you’ll regret that peanut butter for the rest of your life. We push to the side the actual goal of it all, say making a PB&J. This is the specific and official reason why my wife does not enjoy tabletop games (there is of course the whole geeky fantasy/sci fi thing as well). That infinite solutions exist to a problem and each is roughly as valid is the next if agonizing for her. She needs a defined and obvious right’er way to measure her success. It’s not bad some people are just like that.

This has really been dragged up to the forefront in my weekly gaming group since one of the players is a young boy. While others think and mince over how, he does. Granted this is not always the best idea but everyone has probably been in a group where everyone is paralyzed with how to proceed next. Usually it is because they don’t know enough about the upcoming trials to determine one course of action from another as better. Our youngest player with all the subtlety of the battleaxe takes things straight ahead. Perhaps the most brilliant twist of whimsy is in an adventure all about kobolds he plays the only character able to understand and converse in their native language. He has then proceeded to put the entire party’s feet in his mouth at every diplomatic opportunity. I continue to give him rope to hang himself with in these situations because it is entertaining for everyone and tends to resolve the situations much more succinctly and with more participation than they might otherwise.

Often times it seems like we get hung up as adults on failing. But with RPGs failing does not always mean losing. If your PC dies does that mean you lost? Does getting beat in a fight mean you lost? Life in general is just a series of failures strung together. Experience is the positive result of failure. It’s granulated in RPGs. And while it is an abstract concept it is hard to say it doesn’t do its job. If you’re smash mouth fighter who always goes toe to toe and generally you win encounters some might say you don’t particularly learn anything from it. But at level up the PC earns feats, powers, abilities, stunts, more HP, better gear to do the things he already does. We attune the PC to accentuate our play style. It’s a natural thing to do. But within the narrative you can say the PC got better at what he does by doing it over and over again. I have said it before but I think Green Ronin’s pen and paper RPG, Dragon Age, has the most novel approach to experience. You gain XP determined by how difficult the situation was to overcome. If XP equals learning it is easy to see how you might not learn anything from a low level encounter the party steamrolls. The point is success and failure each hold beneficial effects and that unless a PC actually dies you didn’t particularly lose. At worst the situation’s goal changes. Heck, it might be more interesting and fun than the previous situation. Defusing a bomb with four hours left on the timer isn’t as thrilling as four seconds.

My advice is to not get lost in the how. The best way in my experience is to keep presence of mind to the goal of the situation. What you are trying to accomplish should dictate your strategy and tactics pretty easily. Unless you’re goal is butcher every sentient being in a dungeon fighting room to room is just as valid as negotiating or infiltrating. Seriously, next time you run a dungeon try not to fight anything. ANYTHING. If you really want to play the role of an adventurer remember people have a general aversion to getting dead. Drawing weapons is generally a last resort and even then the result 90% of the time would be one side fleeing. It doesn’t mean your PC is a coward, just that he enjoys living and not being beaten, stabbed, and flayed open within an inch of his life on a regular basis. Pfft, ridiculous right? How dare we desire imaginary people to think and act like not-imaginary people.

Two bits I also try to remember personally when adventuring.

1. A Wrong Decision Is Worse Than Indecision

2. Fortune Favors The Bold

Number one basically boils down to this. If you feel a lull of indecision in the party and analyzing no longer seems to be productive just do something. It’s what our battleaxe wielding PC would do. If it doesn’t seem obviously stupid and suicidal, do it. Experience shows this fairs surprisingly better than I usually imagine. At least by doing something you will get new information that if nothing else will help you analyze the situation better. Generally though you will begin its resolution with that single step forward. Otherwise you might waste another 10 – 30 minutes over maybes.

Number two, you get nothing from doing nothing. Notice it says favors the BOLD, not the STUPID. Be brave, not reckless. Make your PC the next spokesperson for Nike and just do it. Nothing gets your DM/GM’s blood pumping like a character stepping up to the challenge and being genuinely heroic. It happens less than you realize, until it actually happens. The downside is occasionally this is going to blow up in your face. But that’s all right, you know why? -points to number one- And never, ever underestimate the significance of going first. Doing so means you set the tempo and situation. It allows you to be active and not just reactive. It’s maybe a little meta, but so is any actual discussion of tactics during play.

So just make a choice and do something. The truth is you’re going to pick the wrong thing a lot of the time. From behind the screen I feel like any time I give players and option they take the most obtuse and roundabout way possible. That’s just how things are I guess. Luckily most RPGs are created with a mind to make PCs especially resilient. A single mistake is rarely ever going to get you killed in an RPG assuming your DM/GM isn’t actively trying to exterminate you. And if so, well it’s going to happen no matter what you do. So if you can’t go with your head go with your gut. Or just leave it to chance and roll a die to make the decision, who cares as long as you’re playing instead of talking about playing.

Water Wings

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I assume most people interested in RPGs have probably played a video game RPG at one point or another. During this time you might have come across some off occurrences. Things like locks that cannot be picked despite having lock picking and NPCs that cannot be killed. At least in my experience the former situation is usually relayed by the game in obvious terms. The latter, not so much. Really the only way to find out if an NPC is immortal is to attack them and savagely cut them to ribbons. If they are immortal they might drop to a knee and breathe heavily for a minute as though they just completed a moderately intense run. They will then stand up no worse the wear. But your avatar is, because modern games have fun reactive temperament they program for NPCs. So now the immortal NPC is angry at you and with all his friends will attempt to murder you if you come within their line of sight… FOREVER. Great, you incurred the ire of an NPC you cannot kill. Eventually those dagger stabs will kill your epic champion PC; eventually. And until then you’ll be damned if the shopkeeper will stop frothing at the mouth with blood lust long enough to process your transaction.

You expect some of this chicanery from video games. They have to be programmed for all events to happen. If an NPC is going to be and important link in the game’s narrative you can’t have some level one PC break into their house in the night and murder them, unaware the later plot hinges on that NPC you know… being alive and stuff. It’s a necessary evil. The super-locked door is a bit more irksome when lock picking is a thing in games. There are some coy ways of sidestepping the issue. The door is sealed in some other way, barred from the other side, stuck in a way that would require two people to open, etc. The problem is it rips the player out of the immersion. If the PC’s skills at thievery are so high people commonly refer to him as the ‘Tumbler Whisperer’ this door with the same lock on it as every other door being somehow beyond your bountiful knowledge of locking mechanisms seems well, stupid.

Now if you play table top RPGs these sort of things seem like a non-issue. Some of it is because a human behind the screen running the game can handle things not going according to plan. The other bit is group dynamics and the lack of anonymity. In video games people there is a GTA syndrome. By that I mean, without having to adhere to any morals and their consequences or the disapproval of peers, players are free to exert their will and desire in its entirety. Do some of those same, socioopathic Id-driven behaviors in a table top game and you are bound to catch a few looks across the table at the least.

Still you would be surprised how much of this still leaks into table top RPGs. Have you ever played a JRPG? If you have you are probably no stranger to the no-win battle. This is an event that usually occurs early in a game where the protagonist and allies are dragged into a battle with a clearly superior foe. The battle typically lasts one to two exchanges and ends with the protagonist being shown in-game just how outclassed he is by the bad guy. Why this is a thing is beyond me, it’s a waste of time and my input as a player is irrelevant as the conclusion has been clearly scripted. Just show me a cut scene of the protagonist getting slapped with the back of a hand and trying not to cry. The exercise itself is silly but I find it only more aggravating later when fighting the bad guy, this time with the ability to actually defeat him. All I can think of is my protagonist’s journey, the hundreds of animals, monsters, and people he’s ruthlessly murdered as sacks of XP to get to this point. The Big Bad Evil Guy has instead of doing anything productive, spent the last 100 in-game hours playing Candy Crush on Facebook.

I have actually had the displeasure of being a player in the aforementioned scenario in a table top session. The frustration and futility of rolling attacks and damage knowing it was meaningless because the encounter starting with the first enemy action was clearly designed for party to be run over roughshod. What was the point? It is possible to have fulfilling combat encounters where the PCs cannot win. But the goal of the scene needs to be established. Suffering a technical TPK is not an acceptable goal. Did I have fun, no. I actually had anti-fun, the opposite of fun, which if you were wondering is not boredom. Did I gain more insight by combat than I would have by a simple narration of the events, no. It wasted time for a scene that ended in trite fade-to-black fashion of everyone in the party passing out.

An extreme example perhaps. What about NPCs working with the party. We have all encountered helper NPCs serving as guides and allies. Or even in the worst cases to be the moral compass of the group. When the occasion happens the helper does not suddenly but inevitably betray the party at a crucial moment they come off strange. When running a game behind the screen you may know the death of the guide NPC will leave the party lost. So you avoid it, make sure he doesn’t get attacked as often or mitigate his damage so he’s still around. You certainly can’t trust that rabid pack of wolves masquerading as heroes to protect the NPC’s well being. They will fall on a weak link like a stuffed turkey. Instead we put water wings on the NPCs because they’re integral to the story. An invisible, yet perceivable, safety net to make sure nothing too bad happens to the NPC and wrecks the whole progression of the story.

When we build worlds we write stories. We write stories about characters and plots before and beyond the scope of the actual game we will run. By the virtue of what makes the world special, us breathing creative life into it, we also hinder it. To us these worlds are precarious matchstick structures. A slight bump by a clumsy, idiotic player in the wrong way and it all falls apart. So we put up the velvet ropes and clearly mark the intended paths and how to interact with the world and before you know it the world we built to be used as a setting for the players to interact with has become a museum for the players to experience passively. We want them to pass by with their helicoptering NPC tour guide and say ‘that’s a lovely piece’, take a few photographs (don’t worry no flash), and move forward to the next delight provided for their gawking and praise. Somewhere along the line our design superseded the function.

Perfection is not the goal. A perfect world is a boring world and it feels plastic. Because perfection is unachievable. Any time people get involved nothing goes according to plan. Instead of being frustrated by it try to embrace it. Being behind the screen gives us all a unique perspective. It’s not so much a failing of our plan as an opportunity to do something new and exciting. Which, if you’re anything like me is good. Don’t throw all your plans away preemptively but do go off script. That precious NPC guide for the party, the one they would be hopelessly lost without? Throw the enemies at him with reckless abandon. From behind the screen I know this NPC is important but often enough parties will completely ignore the NPC. The NPC regularly escaping unavoidable harm by the invisible intercession of god does not endear the NPC to the party. If you want to have the things in your world be meaningful it means they have to be vulnerable to being obliterated. No Mary Sue characters and no untouchables. To make the setting seem real and dangerous we have to cock the hammer and sometimes squeeze the trigger. NPCs and PCs have to be able to die or the threat of death is meaningless.

We must however apply some elasticity because this is a game not a straight simulation. If you kill the NPC guide let the party be lost for a time. But no one is going to enjoy becoming the lost party who died because of a few bad forage rolls and eventually ate each other. That’s not a good ending as there’s no resolution to the plot or even a failing at the main plot. They just died in the wilderness somewhere. Conversely such an idea can be a great start to a campaign if the group was carrying an item of importance and some PCs need to be hired to retrieve the item.

We create game settings to be interactive, not to be coddled with gloves and then stowed away in a climate controlled vault. Everyone is done a disservice when we force the hand to keep things from going off the rails. The worst part is when we do this behind the screen we are unintentionally, subversively telling our players they have no impact on the plot and the greater world. It steals agency from the player and as I can say from the perspective of a player it becomes very difficult to care about a campaign setting when my actions and decisions are inconsequential. It acutely makes me feel I am not the real protagonist. Like playing LOTR: War in the North; it’s a fine game, slicing up orcs and goblins in story mode with local multiplayer is killer fun, but you always know there is this Fellowship to the south on the real adventure.

As an exercise to help remove the sacredness of our own creations try this. Write something about your campaign setting. Seriously, write it by hand, no typing. Pull out the spiral notebook and pen. It can be a prominent location, an influential NPC, a full adventure plot. Brainstorm until you find that mote of inspiration and follow it to its natural conclusion. Read back through it noting the good bits and the parts lacking. Pull out your red pen for corrections. Throw your red pen in the trash. Then throw your new idea in the trash. Now light the trash on fire and make this face.

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But in all seriousness, rip up whatever you just spent time meticulously crafting and toss it. Our ideas are not sacrosanct, they’re not even original.

Think about it, try it out, let me know how it goes. A dozen decent, unblemished ideas locked away in cabinet is worth less than one raw, mediocre idea run its course completely at the table.

RPG… ish, Or Not

Recently I finished playing through Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch on PS3. For those of you unfamiliar with the title it is a JRPG produced by Level 5 in coordination with Studio Ghibli. The former responsible for titles such as Dark Cloud and Professor Layton. The latter is arguably the pinnacle producer of anime cinema in Japan; producing such works as Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and Howl’s Moving Castle.

Needless to say as a fan of RPGs and Studio Ghibli’s trademark style and storytelling I was highly anticipating a chance to play the game. Not to worry though, I am not about to turn the blog into a review platform for video games. This is the internet after all, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a fledgling video game reviewer or critic. What I want to speak about is not the merits and flaws of the video game itself but in the thought it sparked in my mind after the credits rolled.

I had just completed 65+ hours of a game under false pretenses. I was sold a lie and gobbled it up like full size candy bars on Halloween. Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch was billed and reviewed by multiple sources as an RPG. But looking back on my experience as the credits rolled and by a cruel twist of fate subsequently watching Idea Channel’s ‘Controlling Vs. ‘Being’ Your Video Game Avatar’.

The game I just sank hours into under the illusion of an RPG was in fact not an RPG. To state then what a role-playing game is let’s use this definition from Wikipedia:

A role-playing game is a game in which players assume the roles of characters in a fictional setting. Players take responsibility for acting out these roles within a narrative, either through literal acting or through a process of structured decision-making or character development.Actions taken within many games succeed or fail according to a formal system of rules and guidelines

I reviewed the time spent playing Ni No Kuni and realized at no point, not one singular instance, did I make a decision that led to character development or impacted the narrative. The only decisions available to me as a player was choosing my stable of monsters (absolutely in no way… or absolutely like Pokemon), equipped gear and items, and which if any of the side errands I completed. None of the side errands impact the game’s narrative. It would be difficult to call the plot linear because it not just resembles a line, it is a line. Point A to Point B and you’re just along for the ride. Awkward tactical time, strategic combat and ‘quests’ don’t make a game an RPG, though apparently people think that now. If I as the player have no agency in the plot and its outcome other than binary success or failure to complete the game it is not an RPG. This game then is no more an RPG than the average shooter or fighting game.

Upon further reflection I came to a strange epiphany, did I now take part in a culture of video games where sports games where actually more RPG-like than the games being billed as RPGs. Recently in addition to Ni No Kuni I have been playing MLB The Show. Playing the Road To The Show mode the player creates and controls one player from the draft, AA & AAA minor leagues, and MLB career to the All Star Game, and Hall of Fame. Every choice and action during and in between games has the possibility to advance the player’s career or penalize him. The character has to deal with the whims of the manager, fighting for a place in the starting lineup (or losing it), negotiating contracts and dealing with being traded to another team. Each facet of the RTTS career mode gives me agency. I determine the strengths and weaknesses of the character, how well he performs in clutch situations, whether he goes to free agency. And unlike many RPGs where losing a battle just means try again or reload the latest save file to make a second attempt in an identical battle sports games are never the same. If my pitcher blows a save opportunity and loses the game I don’t get prompted to retry the event, I live with the results and try not to suck at the next game (one nice thing about having over a hundred games in a season). Even reloading the latest save won’t prompt you with the same situation. Replaying an individual game is always different.

There’s no grand storyline in sports games. It’s a character driven story. I create my own thrilling victories with walk off home runs and crushing despair by striking out the last out of the 9th inning at home with the bases loaded. Even XCOM: Enemy Unknown, is more an RPG than some recent RPG titles. At least in it I have to determine which country I ignore alien abductions within. There is a difference between an RPG and interactive storytelling. Perhaps Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation in his review of Beyond Two Souls stated it most poignantly when referring to interactive storytelling video games as watching a movie you have to pause every few minutes. That’s a frustrating movie experience and an even worse gaming experience. I should not have to feel like I’m doing busywork to watch a predetermined story unfold.

http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/zero-punctuation/8298-Beyond-Two-Souls

I guess for me an RPG must consist of controlling an avatar that must make a difficult choices, often moral in nature, and live with the consequences of such decisions. The decisions and their consequences then coalesce to define the development of the character. At least for me this is something I try to bring to the forefront in my games from behind the screen. To watch characters and their associated players chew through difficult decisions to which there is no singular, sterling plan of action with no consequences.

In a recent game the party invaded a camp of dwarf workers in the beginning of an underground construction. The camp and its construction site had been overtaken by kobolds. In the fledgling beginnings of a great hall the adventurers battle through the last of the kobolds. The final kobold surrenders begging the party, and freed dwarf workers, to spare the two white dragon wyrmlings. The party found themselves in a dilemma. They might butcher innocent, infantile creatures or allow them to escape and grow up and potentially ravage the countryside one day. Half the party was for slaughter and the others had moral hangups with the murder of majestic wild animals on a ‘what if’ situation. In the end the party decided to let the kobold and the two wyrmlings free. Will it come back to haunt them, or perhaps pay unexpected dividends? Maybe, maybe not.

What do you think? Some people enjoy the beer and pretzel games of slaying monsters, gain loot, and never going beyond that. But at least from my own personal experience and most other people I have seen weigh in on complementing issues is that the nature of those who play RPGs is to delve in and develop characters. That means making difficult decisions and of course making mistakes and living with the consequences of a PC’s actions.