Oct 302013
 

This is the first of my weekly series of in game diaries of the character Kantrel di Gregori. These adventures are set in a game world created by a couple of friends of mine, and you can find out more information about the game and its upcoming Kickstarter campaign by heading over and checking out their Facebook page.

These stories of the beginning of my life as a duelist take place when I was but a young man, before I had bothered to better myself mentally and acquired the ability to write, so they are based on little but memories and shared stories. I will however do my best to present them as accurately as possible, with the bare minimum of hyperbole in there, just to sell myself as the hero of these tales.

By now you will know about my family background, and how mush I railed against it. You also know that I was making my way to the Margomarissi  to gain experience and coin so that when I returned, it would either be as a wealthy professional, or in a wooden box. Life does seem to get in the way though, and due to a series of errors of foresight, and not inconsiderable bad luck, I arrived as the campaign season was beginning to wind down. It had been a deathly hot summer that year and it took its toll on the combatants, meaning hostilities ceased earlier than usual, leaving me at a loose end.

I decided to supplement my income for the winter months by taking on work as body guard for anyone who had the coin and wished to slum it in the low towns with all the rest of us scum. I thought this would be dull work as there were few villains willing to take the risk against someone of my not inconsiderable height, but it turned out to be more fun that I ever imagined. She was named Toanna, or at least that’s what she told me. I think she saw in me a lot more than I ever intended, and might very well have worked out something about my breeding long before I had a chance to tell her the truth. I quickly stopped hiding such things from her th0ugh as our friendship grew into something so much more.

I never knew exactly who she was, but since I kept certain details about myself from her, I couldn’t think any less of my little Doe for her secrets. All I knew was that she was Dummoni, and from a family with money. Maybe they had gotten suspicious about our relationship, and only saw me as I meant them to – a hard up sell sword with barely a tin Parvus to my name – and moved her away before she could say goodbye. Maybe she had just grown bored of me and left? At the time though, I was young and cock-sure, and set about finding her. It took a few weeks, as these things will when you haven’t the money to bribe the right people, but eventually I found out that she had made her way to Tuthom-Pothrie.

It was a dangerous place to be with the war just wrapping up for the Autumn and before the yearly peace talks had even begun. I knew I had to find her though, regardless of the danger. My youthful vigour once again coming to the fore, along with the unshakable belief that I was indestructible, as all young men must feel at one time or an other. My luck had turned though as I easily found out about a caravan team leaving Solius-On-the-Mountain two days from then. It was too early for most of the traders to make such a risky venture, but my employer was without options.

Eduardo Skuza was a man with not an ounce of luck left to him. Once an important trader and Pelosian of note, he had lost almost everything in a very short period of time. With caravans lost to bandits, landslides or just plain vanishing, he was desperate and had just one way to return to his former glory. He would take what little he had managed to secrete away from his creditors, bundle it all into a couple of covered wagons, hire anyone foolish enough to join him in this craziness – with a promise of a share in the profit he would make – and get to Tuthom-Pothrie before any of the other traders. This would allow him to sell his wares at the price of his asking, and hopefully allow him to return to his former glory.

I was quick to accept after talking to his caravan master – a tough Pelosian known as Vitus Leale – as I understood that at least half a dozen men would be on the trip to protect his master. The following morning, as I woke with the dawn, eager to be on our way, I was to be disappointed. With the exception Vitus and myself, there was but one other trained warrior. He looked the part to be sure, with more weapons hanging off him that lice off a doxie’s bush, but just the three of us wouldn’t look enough to deter any sizable group of thugs and cut-throats. Still, if we stuck together and fought well, Caderyn – a Dummoni if the warbow slung over his shoulder was any indication – Vitus and myself might just get through it.

The others were a strange mix of of various races, including a man from New Raphelia, and hardly any of them even had a shared a common tongue with which to talk to each other. But we make do with what we have, and barring a two hour wait whilst our illustrious employer got himself bathed and powdered ready for the road, we were off in fairly good time. Sadly, the rain had started coming down hard as we were stood with  little to do but consider our genitals, and that meant I could barely see more than a dozen yards of clear space in front of the lead wagon as we made our way down the narrow cliff side path, and could hear little but the drops falling on my head and ears.

And those bandits I had been so worried about, well they obviously had seen that the weather gave them the advantage and decided to take a shot at getting our cargo away from us.

Oct 282013
 

As I prepare to start a brand new campaign, one of the things on my mind is how one goes about introducing their character to the rest of the group. I’m not concerned with where and how this meeting happens, as it is up to the GM to decide the specifics. For the record though, I really don’t mind the old faithful meeting in a tavern start to a game, there’s a reason that cliche has survived for so long.

What makes a character introduction important is that rather odd thing called a first impression. There are exceptions to this, but in most games, the time that you describe your character to the other players will be the first time you meet them. You will want to include the obvious physical description, but should you add more? It’s obvious that anyone meeting you will be able to roughly guess at your height and, unless you’re wearing heavy clothing, your build. They’ll know the colour and style of your clothing, and if you are carrying an obvious weapon, they should be able to guess at where your expertise lies should things get a little bit hairy.

Some other questions to ask yourself before starting this process is how well known your character is, and to whom. Are they a famed gladiator who has won their freedom? A safe cracker with a reputation only known to others in the trade, or  underworld gang leader who has managed to achieve a certain notoriety apart from with others who are in “the game”. Lets say for now that you’re playing a fantasy game though.

Your race will almost certainly be obvious, but your class or profession may not be, but would you want to hide it? True, being a thief is best not advertised to the general populace, but to fellow adventurers, it could be useful to let them know just how you’ll be earning your keep, and that there may be times when they have to watch your back more that if you were a straight up fighter. A magic user of any stripe should be noticeable in traditional games, but not always, and some times it’s a trick worth keeping up your sleeve.

What about your personality? Do you have a reputation around town for being a braggart or someone who is quick with their fists. Are you a Lothario or Don Juan, leaving a trail of broken hearts behind you? Are you fixer in town who is always happy to help if the price is right or a favour can be bartered?  Do you have enemies that are more powerful than you, and have they made it known that they’re willing to pay for your head before you get out of town?

So, now you have a good idea about what you’re going to divulge, but how do you do it? Even a game that takes place regularly around a table, with real dice being rolled and character sheets that are pencil on paper, there may be an element of online interaction that takes place. I have played games that have taken advantage of Obsidian Portal, but even without such a resource there are forums and G+ groups that can be used by players to share extra information or keep a track of In Character diaries and the like.

If you have such a resource, then it should be used. You can write up prose descriptions of your character’s physical description going into the kind of detail that would be problematic to do sat around the table. You can also find an appropriate image to use, or maybe even get an artistic friend to whip something up to share with everyone. The only pitfall to watch out for when introducing your character this way is keeping everything accurate when you then have to repeat stuff when you summarise to the players around the table. Don’t ever think that everyone will have read and digested your online introduction, so be prepared to fill everyone in around the table at the start of the first session.

Other than that, just have fun, and be prepared to have your character totally change by the end of the campaign.

Oct 242013
 

As some of the more astute amongst you may have realised, I haven’t been as active lately as I would like to be, with regard to engaging with people on their own blogs, pimping this one, or writing more than one article a week. There are several reasons for that, some good and some bad, and one that I hope to be able to share with you soon, however doing so prematurely would be a bit silly. This also means that I haven’t had much time to carry on with my own RPG project, Rise of the Automata. I am not giving up on any of these projects, but somethings just need to take priority at the moment.

I do however always make sure I have the time to role play at my local gaming society once a week – I am currently the President, so not turning up would be weird – and today I would like to talk about what I’m currently playing. The game is called Orbis Terrarum – or Orbis for short – and it has been a labour of love for two friends of mine far at least as long as I have known them. This will be the third time I have been lucky enough to play in one of their campaigns, and this time is especially fortuitous as the game is damned near completed, and they will be hopefully launching a Kickstarter project soon to create a hard copy of the game. The link above is to their Facebook page, and if any of the following seems interesting to you, make sure you like the page as they will be announcing all updates on their. And trust me, you’re going to want to keep an eye out for this game, as it is spectacular. Anyway, on with the review.

There are a few things about character generation in Orbis that stand out, and make you realise just how well thought out the game this. Rather than cherry pick the cool bits though, I’m going to go through the whole process for you. I do have a copy of the character generation rules, but since they are a beta copy, I am not at liberty to share them just yet.

To start with, the Orbis Master (OM) asks you to think about a few things that might define the character you want to play. This known as the metier, and is a three word description of the character summing up their most obvious personality trait, their country of birth, and the word that best describes their profession. I went for an Impetuous Raphelian Duelist. The country of your birth – or at least where you grew up – is very important in this gritty realistic fantasy game, as you will only be playing as humans. Their are beings from another plane, but they are not playable characters, and the writers have eschewed the Tolkienistic elves and dwarves that are common in other fantasy settings.

To set things off after this, with nothing more than a basic concept in mind, you roll a D20 to randomly determine the state of your life as a young person. I was pretty damned lucky in that I ended up coming from a wealthy family. Not only did this mean a bit of extra starting cash to buy gear with, but it was also a perfect fit for the back story I had in mind. Even if I had rolled something different though, I would have just made some last minute changes and moved on. A second D20 roll gives you something unusual about yourself. I have seen some pretty bad ones in my past experience of playing this game, but once again luck was on my side, and all I ended up with was being a bloody big fella. It means I’ll have a hard time sneaking around, but the word “Large” is now a permanent extra part of my metier that also gives me a few extra points of wound capacity. There is one more roll like this to make, but that comes right at the end, and for now we’re looking at what it means to be from certain places on the world of Uma.

Where you are from determines your starting options for skills, some cultural advantages, but first, the amount of dice you will roll to generate your primary attributes, of which they are seven. The player rolls a number of D20 for each attribute based on their culture, from 3-6 D20, taking the three results they prefer and adding them together, discarding the rest. This gives a pretty good balance with the stronger, hardier cultures more likely to survive their environments, and the more learned cultures more likely to thrive in a social and intellectual melting pot. These numbers are used to work out certain derived attributes, but this just comes down to maths, and although well worked out, is nothing that unusual for experienced gamers.

At this point, due to the random nature of the dice rolls, it is possible that you have a set of attributes that make your original character concept unworkable. If this is because all of your physical/mental attributes are astonishingly low, you do get a slight advantage in the form of two free talents, but if you’ve just been let down just a little, there are ways to change things later. As a quick example, due to the nature of the games’ setting, males are expected to be more physically able, and so you can instantly raise a physical attribute by five points. Females are much less likely too be pushed into such areas, so instead they can raise a mental attribute by the same amount.

Before people start making claims of sexism against the game, it is set in a cross between a medieval and Renaissance world, and it makes sense that cultural expectations would shape the lives of those who grew up surrounded by them. Plus, there is nothing negative about either bonus, as although combat does break out in this game, it is lethal enough that thinking your way around it, or applying magic to the problem is often favourable.

Once this bit’s done, we get onto skills and talents. Each character gets ten points to spend on cultural skills and talents, and then an additional ten to spend elsewhere. Each culture has a choice of ten skills, but not all of them will be relevant to each character. As an example, I was playing a duelist not a drunken sailor, so I could skip at least three of these cultural skills in favour of things that better suited me. There are also four cultural advantages, and you can buy as many of them as you want. I took two, the first giving me an advantage when dealing with other adventurers, and the second allowing me to raise my Agility attribute by a further ten points to suit my (hopefully high) skill with a sword. Each culture has one attribute that they can raise in this way, and this is a great little touch. As mentioned earlier, you could end up wanting to play a Raphelian swordsman and then roll appallingly for your Agility. Because Raphelians prize dexterity and showmanship though, it is more than likely that you have spent time in your formative years increasing your ability in such things, so get a nice boost.

The other ten points can be spent on any skills or on a few other things if you have the skills you need. Each attribute can be raised an additional ten points by spending one Talent point per attribute. This means once again that you can boost something that you were unlucky with in the early stages. You can also boost your wound capacity if you feel like your character is likely to be in life threatening situations with any kind of regularity. If it wasn’t for that fact that I also took a smattering of magic ability I would have picked up a fair few extra hit points, but there’s only so many points to go around.

Each point you put into a skill using talents gives you a rank. Each rank not only increases the score by five points – the base of each skill is equal to the attribute that makes the most sense – but the more ranks you have in each skill, the less you will need to make skill checks, and the more likely you are to critically succeed in a challenge. On top of this, you also get fifty advancement points – basically experience points – that are added to the skills of your choosing on a one-for-one basis. All this means that you have a whole bunch of control over the character that you want to play, while still having that element of chance that keeps things interesting.

After all that’s done we get onto the final touches such as height and weight, as well as money to spend on equipment. Since my family background was wealthy, I had double starting money, so actually managed to buy both a decent weapon and a bit of armour too, rather than having to choose. On one occasion in the past I ended up getting mugged right at the start of the game, and was left with nothing but some blood stained clothes. Orbis is a harsh game indeed. How did I end up getting mugged you ask? Well that’s down to one last D20 roll that follows on from my past as mentioned above. This is to determine something that has happened in the very recent past, and with my luck so far, I felt certain that a mugging would be the least of my problems. But once again, I was favoured by fortune, and my recent past involved a romantic entanglement of some kind. I never expected that, and will have to work it into my back story somehow.

So there we have it in a rather large nutshell. I did skip over a few details that aren’t worth dwelling on as anyone who has created a character for an RPG will know what the score is. There is one last thing to note though, and for me I’m 50/50 on whether or not I like it. You see, each nation has their own currency – as one would expect – and this means that buying things can get a bit complicated, as not every item is available in every country, and the prices vary too. This means that the equipment list has prices and availability of each item, but not in game effects. This isn’t a big deal for things like a razor or a scabbard which don’t need that much extra information, but when you’re looking at knives, daggers, and dirks, it’d be nice to know what kind of damage each would do compared to cost and weight. I like that the cultures are so well defined, and that the relationships are so well thought out, but it does add some extra time and page turns to what is an otherwise very fluid and intuitive character generation method.

So far then, it’s all fantastic, and I have a character I’m very happy with. I will carry on this review sporadically as and when different situations present themselves. What I’ll be spending more time doing though is writing an in game diary. I have done this before and had a great time doing it. It will motivate me to get more writing done too, which is never a bad thing. My question though is where to put it. I never wanted this blog to be an in game fiction kind of thing, so I thought about reviving my old page to keep things separate. But would people be happier to just come here to read about the continuing exploits of Kantrel di Gregori? Sound off below with any thoughts and if you have any interest in reading my game write ups here.

Oct 212013
 

7203642580_30aee2d0d7So I have recently started playing the Chronicles of Riddick on the Xbox 360 – I know, how current am I? – and it had me thinking about difficulty levels in console games and how they might translate to traditional table top RPGs. Basically because it’s a bloody hard game, and I’m not that great at first person shooters anyway. I have in fact come upon an impasse fairly early on in the game, and before I continue I’m going to have to lower the difficulty. To sum up, I am trying to break out of a prison, but there are guards and turret guns, and I’m at a point where I’m struggling to find cover while being shot at from three directions, by two turrets and one guard. I can take out one enemy, but then die before I can make it to cover.

This is not a complaint about the game, which I think is actually pretty damned good, in fact the way the level has been designed reminds me a lot of the way that a Games Master would approach a problem. What both the GM and the Games Designer (GD) want is to make the level feel as realistic and challenging to the player/s as possible. If it was me designing the level, I would almost certainly have done the same thing. The guards seem to have some kind of radio transmitter that means the turret guns don’t target them, but prisoners are fair game. They have also covered all corridors with fields of fire, and then had guards around too, just to make sure. What I wouldn’t do was drop a few convenient chest high walls into the place to offer some cover. I’m sorry to all level designers out there, but it doesn’t matter if they’re collapsed bits of rubble, fallen trees or the corpses of my enemies, they all look out of place and just serve to warn you that a gun fight is about to break out. So thank you to whoever rocked this level design for not making lazy choices and keeping the game challenging.

What the GD didn’t do though was give the player/s a chance to come up with different ways to approach the problem. I know that by now a lot of readers will be thinking that this is just another part of the continuing story of why table top RPGs will also be better than computer games. Although this is certainly true, I think it’s worth saying again, and looking at what we can learn from computer games about things that we shouldn’t do as GMs. The biggest of these is limiting the choices of your players.

If I was a player for instance, I would be doing my damnedest to drag a dead guard into cover somewhere to see if I could figure out why they weren’t getting peppered with holes from the sentry guns. There may very well be a reason why I couldn’t just rip it off the corpse and make myself a tiny bit less killable, but I would like to know that and have a chance to examine things and find a way round that wasn’t just about shooty death and his less popular cousin stabby death.

This to me is why no table top RPG ever needs a difficulty level. No matter how dangerous you make a scene or encounter, the players will have near limitless options in how they approach and deal with any problems you put in front of them. Quite often they will work ways round your little obstacles that you would never have thought of, and the game is richer for it. They also – in almost every game – have real reasons to fear death for more than the slight inconvenience of having to replay a few minutes of a level to get to the point that they perished. Dying in an RPG should mean something more than a slight pain in the rear, and that means players have even more reason to think about different ways to solve a problem other than the all guns blazing approach.

Oct 142013
 

This is very much a part two, so please check out part one then head right back here. And now that we’re all caught up, lets take a look at some of the ways that it is possible to claim some small victory whilst role playing. Once more though, I must remind you that none of these wins will come at the expense of your fellow players or the person running the game. While it is certainly true that some games are designed to be played in such way, I’m not talking about them. I also know that some gamers like that style of play – sometimes in games not designed for it – but they have their own victory conditions to worry about.

What I’m talking about are the things that happen during a gaming session that just make it all so very worth while; the moments that you’re going to remember, and wax lyrical about in pubs and at gaming conventions whenever that group comes together again. A great example of this is when you break your GM. Not literally, and not in any way that should cause lasting damage to their ability to run a game, but just enough that they struggle to breathe for a moment or two while trying to call you all bastards. This is usually achieved through making the GM laugh so much that getting air back into their lungs becomes a struggle.

I know not every game should be a laugh riot, and sometimes it’s massively disruptive to try and make people chortle and guffaw in the face of a setting and genre that’s aimed more at quiet political scheming or gut wrenching horror. Every once in a while even those kind of games can end up with people chuckling a little bit though, but when your GM goes red faced, slamming his fists onto the table as everyone laughs along, it’s great. When they’re still laughing a minute later, when everyone else has stopped, you know you’ve done something special. And then, when all the players start laughing again, this time at the GM, and this makes them laugh even more in a continuing cycle of hilarity, then you’ve won.

It’s not all fun and games though, and sometimes I’ve managed a win without knowing about it for months. Imagine yourself playing a game where you and all the players are part of a thieves guild, and during the course of play while on a sanctioned job you come across a perfect mark for a short but profitable confidence scam. It looks so good that you all just assume that the GM has set it up for you and you go along with it. You plan roles for each of the characters, work out what can go wrong, cover as many variables as possible, and then spend several sessions just pulling the con off. Dealing with every problem as and when it occurs, thinking on your feet and getting a pay off that ends up being worth even more than you thought.

After all that, two months after that in fact, the GM lets you all know that they had no idea you were all going to attempt such a thing, and struggled to keep up with the pace that everyone was thinking at, but was so impressed that they let it happen, holding off on their own plot for almost two whole months. Not only is this a great win for all the players who showed a great deal of inventiveness, but also being in a game with a GM who rewards such play. Most importantly, you get to live with the consequences of your actions, and this has to be one of the best things about role playing in a well run game.

If you can deal with the negative consequences of you actions too, then that is also a win, and possibly the biggest one worth mentioning. I’m not saying that you cannot lament the results of a poor dice, cursing the Gods of poor fortune of you happen to believe in such things. What I’m talking about here is when you make decisions that affect the game world, and the consequences of these actions come back to bite you in arse. Railing against these things is to me a sign of a bad role player. If you think you have been wronged, then deal with it away from the table and nine times out of ten you will likely find out that GM was acting perfectly fairly. Quite often they have information about the game world that you don’t and will have used that info to come to decision about how an NPC would act.

Even if it was a slight error on the GM’s part, then you win nothing by drawing attention to it at the table in front of other players. So instead of making a big deal out of, act with decency and decorum and focus on what you could have done to be affected by such consequences. Handling a situation like a grown up is great for everyone around the table, and makes you look awesome. If that isn’t a victory, I don’t know what is!

As with the last part of this little ramble, these are just my ways of getting a victory out of a role playing session. Feel free to drop a comment below and share with everyone else.

Oct 072013
 

There are several types of games that exist under the umbrella that term ‘Gaming’. I myself, although much more of a role player than anything else, also board game a hell of a lot, and have spent many an hour – and far too much money – on both war gaming and card gaming. For the most part, role playing is the only one of these games that doesn’t really have winners and losers in any traditional sense. Of course there are exceptions, such as the rather wonderful Baron Munchausen game, but in almost every other way, it’s pretty impossible to be thought of as a winner or a loser whilst role playing.

You’re probably wondering why I’m devoting an article to such a proposition then, but I think there is nothing wrong with trying to achieve a win, and if nothing else, this could be an interesting thought experiment. Before we get into the meat of it though, there is a good reason why I’m not talking about losing at role playing. Every time I personally have had a bad game, it has been because of circumstances beyond my control. This not to say that I’m a perfect gamer – history will decide that – but that when I wasn’t enjoying games, it wasn’t down to what I was doing, rather that I wasn’t enjoying the setting, GMing style or interacting with some other gamers. I’m also highly aware that other players and GMs will certainly have looked at me in the same light. We are none of us perfect, but we should seek to change our behaviors for the better so that everyone can enjoy the game, not just ourselves.

I hope that makes sense, so lets get to the good stuff. Some of this will be personal taste, so please, as always, feel free to chime in with your ideas and thoughts in the comments section below.

For me, the most fun I ever have as a GM is when I get to sit back in near silence for minutes at a time. This might seem like an odd thing to enjoy, but it is for very good reasons, and I think they all sum up what I mean when I say it is possible to win at GMing. The times when I get to keep my trap shut are when my players are taking the lead. Not just in planning things out, although I do love that, but sometimes just sitting and talking things out in character. This means that they have allowed themselves to get so immersed in the world that a conversation in character without any clear need, just comes naturally to them.

I understand that a lot of this is down to having some great players who love to role play their characters, but making the setting seem as real as possible to them certainly helps, and that is something I feel I can take some small amount of pride in. But lets just say that they’re not talking in character – or at least not constantly – but still chatting away without really needing me. For a start, this will be game related chatter, as too much out of character banter can easily derail a game. What they are often doing is planning for something, or arguing amongst themselves about the best course of action.

If all they are doing is planning, I still put this in the “win” column. It shows that I haven’t just laid out a linear path for them, when all they need to do is follow my instructions and clues to progress to the next scene. Instead they need to engage their minds, and hammer out a whole bunch of possibilities before they feel they are ready to act. It’s even better if they manage to see a way through an obstacle that I’ve created in a way that I never imagined, as this stretches me a little as I have to think on the fly and run the game without letting them know that I was taken by complete surprise.

The simple fact that they are spending a considerable amount of time thinking about a course of action adds another victory condition for the person wearing the GM hat too; the players have become so attached to the characters that they’re playing, that they’re not being foolish enough to throw themselves into trouble and risk losing said characters. You don’t even need to be playing a system with a brutal combat mechanic for this to be true, as I find that spelling out just how much one successful hit affects them is often enough to have them thinking twice before stomping into a fight. And if they’re listening and paying attention, well that’s just another win for me.

You may have noticed throughout this post that not one of my victory conditions involves “beating” the players at anything. Whilst I am sure that there are games and gamers out there that make this the whole point of the experience, for me role playing is all about co-operative story telling. It doesn’t really matter which system or setting I’m using, I will be trying to get all of the players involved in creating an interesting narrative. If i manage to succeed, then that’s the biggest way to win.