Nov 262012

This post comes on the back of an entertaining little read that can be found over here by The Warden. I liked it a lot. So much so that I chucked a link to it up on Reddit so a lot more people could take a look at it. The Warden seems unhappy with money in his games, and I can’t really blame him for that. I’ve seen games get bogged down by the time and effort it can take to allocate treasure and wealth, and then sell it off, and spend the profits.

I have also played games with a basic ‘wealth’ mechanic. The World of darkness manages this pretty well, with ‘Resources’ acting very much like a skill; the more points you put into it, the more money you have. It still doesn’t do away with money however, and most GMs (in my experience) just set a minimum level of Resources that are required to buy an item, rather than allowing it to be used as a skill. I think it could instead be rolled, with success granting more than expected, failure meaning possibly losing points in it for the session as you catastrophically mismanage your finances. So, a possible solution is making money a bit of an abstract, but for the most part, I would be happy leaving it as is, or maybe with some kind of middle ground.

It’s quite odd for me to say that, as I usually prefer to keep things abstract and almost movie like in a lot of the games I run. True, I run a realistic combat, but that comes from an appreciation of biology and a rather worrying knowledge about what weapons can do to the human body. For pretty much everything else though, I tend to go with what feels right for the game, and for maintaining the mood my players are comfortable with. As long as they don’t push it too far, I tend to let realism take a back seat, and keep all its charts and modifiers back there, while I take the wheel and have a lot of fun. Money though? I like my players to keep a good track of it.

In a lot of games I run, it can be just as important to the character’s survival as their skills or other equipment, and it’s worth knowing if they only have 25 bucks, or the 30 they’ll need to bribe their way past a guard. I also will admit to being practically unique amongst the gamers I know, and say that I love the bit at the end of character creation where you’re handed a rule book and told to spend your money. Cyberpunk still remains a firm favourite for this, with four Chrome books, and Blackhand’s along with a good few pages of cool stuff in the main book, I can spend longer equipping my character than creating them.

Don’t get me wrong, during game play there are plenty of times when it is unnecessary to keep track of each copper coin; if the players are buying a meal, along with getting rooms for the night, and having some drinks, I find myself often just coming up with an appropriate amount of money, and asking them to pony up a bit more if they’re planning on getting drunker than usual. This kind of thing just makes game play quicker.

It’s the same for reloading a gun. I expect that the characters will know that once a fight is over, they will need to replace spent casings, or replenish the rounds in a magazine/clip. I don’t worry too much that the players might forget, as I have no problem seeing that they have different priorities than their characters. Just like I don’t worry that they haven’t kept me up to date on their latest bowel movements…

So, I love having money to spend as a player, and I like my players to keep track of this when I’m running a game, but I’m not a fan of endless book-keeping. Is there a way to keep  me happy on both fronts? I’m glad you asked, as I think there is. I’ve mentioned on here in the past that a couple of my friends are working on a game of their own. Well, it’s getting remarkably close to completion now, and they’re seriously considering Kickstarting it to get the funding for the first print run. Well, I have no money to invest in such a venture, even though I really wish I could, so I’m doing something a bit different, I’m talking about their game whenever I get the chance, and talking up some of their finer ideas as I do so.

A player character in their game will of course have access to money, and it is expected that they keep track of it throughout the game. But in terms of small purchases like food and drink, as well as keeping a roof over their heads, this is handled differently. At any point during the game, the player can take money from their character’s purse, and put it to one side as a living maintenance. At the end of game month, the GM just checks how much you have in the fund, and checks what standard of living this has afforded you. Too little spent, and you run the risk of contracting a disease due to poor living conditions and a sub-standard diet. Hit the average  an everything is good, but you can spend more than that if you have it, and could end up with a bonus. And all this means that there will be no more tracking every small coin denomination as you buy drinks and meals, leaving you to spend money on interesting things, like weapons and armour. Even the state of repair of your clothing, and how fancy they are is covered by this ”Lifestyle Level”.

If anyone else has their own ways of handling in game finances, then I’d love to hear about them; post below as always.

Nov 122012

I almost didn’t write about this topic because of some slightly flawed logic. I reasoned that if this was a good idea, someone else must have had it already. So either the work had already been done by someone else, or it just wasn’t a good idea. In the end though I figured that even if it had been touched on in the past, other writers could have gotten to this point by following a different path. Also, if there are people who don’t like the idea, then at the least, I should explain to them why I like it based on my own experience.

This comes on the back of the first couple of sessions of my current campaign. The characters were all created in a vacuum because of the way the game was going to start. Details are through the previous link, but short story is that the characters don’t have a clue about the world they exist in. This meant that it was totally possible for someone to lovingly craft a character, and after two sessions realise that it is almost totally untenable based on the world they now find themselves in. I knew this could be an issue so I have offered everyone the option for a bit of a rebuild after the next game, just in case they’re unhappy.

I know from reading other blogs and opinions that there are people out there who might think I’m being a bit soft on my players. I’ve created “3d6 in order” characters in the past and had to struggle through with crappy stats. I know that sometimes these can be the most fun characters, but they can also be a total pain if you really don’t want to play a certain type of character. It’s why I always prefer the point build to the dice rolled character. My reasons for offering this concession are simple; running this game the way I am doing is a bit of an experiment for me, and if bits of it don’t go the way I want them to, then there’s no reason that the players should suffer. I want them to have fun, and if shunting a skill point or two round is going to help that happen, and as long as it does nothing to mess with the game for anyone else, then I say go for it.

The other way I could have done it, and this idea sadly came to me a week and a half too late, was to let them play the first game with just a character idea, and a few notes about what they would like to be. Any dice rolls would be random ways of determining things where a cut and dried yes or no wouldn’t make much sense, or I just didn’t want to assume automatic success on something plot related. Everything else would be up to the story each person wanted to tell about who their character was. The next week they turn up and we start putting points down for stats and skills, but would almost certainly carry on some light role playing as we did this to give everyone more chance to decide what direction they wanted their character build to go in. I would like to think that my players wouldn’t push their luck on this, and would see it as a fun way to end up with a character they were happy with.

Now, a few weeks back I said that this blog wouldn’t become just a vehicle to talk about my Cyberpunk campaign, so I thought I would try and apply this to a game I’m thinking about running in the future. Deadlands. If that word means nothing to you, click this link and read all about it. The time will not be wasted, trust me.

The plan is to run a military style campaign, with the player characters on one side of the civil war, fighting against the other. I’m not going to decide which side they’re on, as I think they should be able to pick that for themselves as a group. The game would start a little in the thick of it. The players’ unit already in trouble, in the middle of a fight, either trying to break through to an objective, or fleeing as their own lines have been shattered. Everyone would have a rough idea of the type of character they would like to play, but have no character sheets in front of them. Taking it a little for granted that they all survive – and since dice rolling will be to a minimum and the action more story based, it shouldn’t be too much a problem – then the week after, we start character creation. This has several positives; for the players it means they won’t be screwed by a character build that they loved before the campaign started but has no where to go in-game. There is even a bonus for me; in a military game, the chain of command will be important, and if I choose to let someone have an NCO rank, I will be able to pick that character after watching them in action. It’s much easier to asses who has any leadership ability after you’ve seen them under fire.

So, that’s the basic idea. Have any of my readers tried this? Did it work? Am I taking a huge risk? Do you think I’m an idiot? All comments welcomed, but keep the name calling to a minimum.

Nov 022012


I love a good blog carnival, and with the nights drawing in here it seems fitting to join in with this one, hosted by the lovely people at Dice Monkey. The premise is a simple one, just something that can be used in RPG with a winter theme. With that in mind, I have decided to explore some of the perils of winter in a Neo-Victorian horror setting: one of my favourites. Although I’m sure there’s plenty of fun to be had as the nights draw in, my mind turns to the things take advantage of the shadows.

The Nights are Getting Longer. That means that there’s more time for skulking nocturnal predators to hunt. Feral vampires that stalk the Underground for victims are seen more and more on the streets. The chittering and howling that warns that they are close all the more prevalent, as well to do folks hide inside with a roaring fire. The man of the house leaning forward to increase the gramophone volume to better drown out the screams of pain.

Even more worrying is the threat of the cognisant leeches  They know how to blend in with polite society, and can been seen at early evening gatherings instead of only turning up late at the Gentleman’s club. The long dark helping to protect their identity as mass murderers and agents of corruption.

Snow Mixed with Smog. Pollution is what London breathes as it pumps through the engines and industry of this Modern age. Walking out without a full face respirator is a sure way to enter the grave early, and in considerable pain. But as the toxic filth in the air, solid as soot, mixes with the icy precipitation, it enters the water table. Gets in the eyes. Covers the homeless as they lay sleeping in dark alleys… Come the morning it looks almost beautiful, as it settles white with no pollutants to stain it. Within hours though, it is a grey sludge, covering everyone who walks through it, seeping into clothing through the smallest of gaps, and melting to reveal the corpses of those who met their ends during the night…

Hunger. With winter shutdown for most factories, and the spirit of giving and philanthropy put on hold for a season of indulgent excess, those on the lowest rungs of the social ladder find it the hardest to keep their families fed. At night, in the pitch darkness, the Ghouls hold their meat markets. For a few coins, a bag of greying flesh can be purchased, taken from hands that more resemble claws. It’s probably a bad idea to question its providence. At this time of year, you’re lucky to get hold of horse meat, but somehow the Ghouls can always provide. And next winter, there will likely be a few more of their number, though they cannot reproduce…

Silence. The snow and the fog muffle all noises in the city. For those in the west end, with manor houses and high walls topped by barbed fences, this is a luxury. The sounds of industry hidden from their delicate ears. For others, it allows the predators of the city to move unheard. To get right up behind you, so the first things you notice are the breathe at the nape of your neck, and the cold steal tickling your Adam’s apple. And with footsteps muffled by fresh snow fall – your sight and hearing hindered by thick fog – you get no warning at all as hands more bone than flesh take you firmly by the collar, and teeth close around your skin with inhuman strength….

Winter is coming, it’s going to be a dark one.

Nov 012012

I have a seen a lot Kickstarters recently, some that work, some that don’t, some that never had a chance to fail, some that staggered belief in their far reaching goals. This week though, the crowd funding platform went live this side of the pond, and a lot of gamers I know, myself included, are looking at it as a way of getting our ideas into other people’s hands. Come the end of NaGa DeMon I will hopefully have something ready to get play tested, and start thinking about doing some real formatting and art for it.

The ground is currently being tested by the great chaps at 6D6 who have launched their Kickstarter as soon as they were able to. I imagine a load of people will be keeping a very close eye on this to see how it goes for them. I wish I could do more than just watch from the sidelines, and if you have the cash, I advise you take a swing on this one. The offers they have are fantastic, with a whole bunch of stuff available for very little expenditure. And the six month offer is frankly inspired. Get on over there now, and check them out.

Now, I don’t usually do this kind of blog post, and please don’t get cross me with me. I am getting nothing for doing this apart from a nice warm feeling that one of my readers might put some money their way, and when they fund – and I get a real job – I will be able to find this awesome product in my FLGS. Just for the record, i would totally go for the Zombie pack…

Oct 222012

I’m going to be running a longish campaign again soon, for the first time in over a year, and as such it’s been on my mind quite a lot (for other things that have been occupying mental space, take a look at some thoughts on a card game I’m designing).When deciding on how I will GM the game, I tend to take quite a few cues from the type of game I would like to play. This is tempered somewhat by the players’ expectations and the fact that I’m running the game for people I may not know very well, but it’s more about what I enjoy as a  player. So, what do I like, and what don’t I like?

Well, I dislike a railroaded game any longer than a simple adventure that lasts one or two sessions. If you’re working on a narrow time frame – and I have for games that have been run at events etc – then those confines mean that you will have to keep your players on the straight and narrow. One good trick for this, and it works if you totally commit to the pretense, is to keep them going where you want them, but fake a little bit of despair. As if the group has pushed you off plot and then you have to come up with something killer to bring it all back together. I know it’s a bit dishonest, but the players will love thinking that in a short game, that’s probably been played with other groups in the past, they’ve broken the boundaries and made the game their own.

Just enough to point them in right direction…

For a longer game, what I love is a sense of a huge open world. Actually, that’s not quite right; the sense of a huge open adventure comes a little closer. I’ve played games where we’ve barely left one or two city districts, and been very happy knowing that there was still countless things to do, people to interact with, and places we could go. This feeling was helped by a GM who made it clear that player actions would guide the plot to a conclusion. So this is what I want to do in my next game, a sprawling adventure where consequences of actions will drive the plot forward. However, I’m running for a gaming society that meets one night a week, and the game will be finished by the next summer; that means that a pure sandbox is out of the question.

That’s not a bad thing, as I think that sandbox games aren’t always the best way to run games. Sure they offer a world of possibilities, but they can also mean a lack of resolution or an ending that fits with the expectations of the players who have had an awesome adventure. Not everyone wants to carry on playing until they become a warlord, ruling the local area with a band of mercenaries at their disposal. Some people just want to know that the threat to their way of life has been dealt with and that they can now reap the rewards for dealing with the problem. To make this work for me, I draw your attention back to the header at the top of this article.

My game will be set in a huge and sprawling metropolis, and after the first couple of sessions – during which I will be leading the players a little, just to get them used to the setting and system – I hope that my players will take advantage and explore The City. They will find plenty to do, and an awful lot of places to go and people to talk to. As they’re walking around they will stumble across a few hooks and seeds that I’ve planted around the place. Which ones they take a swipe at will let me know the way they expect the story to go, and from there I will be able to see a way to get them moving towards the end.

What I don’t want is for the players to see what’s that far ahead of them. Instead I want them to enjoy the freedom to make decisions and live with the consequences. My solution is make sure that the players know that just over there, whenever they’re ready to take a look, there’s something cool that should help them out. As long as it’s done with a hint of subtlety, there should be no feeling of railroading, instead just the plot moving forward. As an example – and not one I will be doing, in case any of players end up reading this – the characters could be quite happily planning a job of their own, researching how to use explosives maybe? They get put in contact with a guy, who likes where they’re coming from, but needs a little something doing before he’s free to lend a hand. It’s nothing major, but for the sake of them helping him out, he’ll waive his usual fee. This job could easily lead onto the main plot, giving plenty of opportunities to drop in other important NPCs and give the players a heads up on larger developments.

If that seems to obvious, then who’s to say that the job they’re planning won’t have it’s own seeds littered about it. With a well planned plot, and a setting you know inside and out, there are many ways to let the players know where they could go next. After all, it’s fun to play in a sandbox, but if you see a sign that promises  some great toys to make the playing even more fun, you’d take a look at where it was pointing, wouldn’t you?

Oct 202012

As my readers probably know, I’ve recently hit a big milestone, and offered something to the whole gaming community online. For anyone who asked, I would write a background and description of one NPC of their choice. So far I’ve had a great response, but I could’t have done it without the support of a few other RPG bloggers. They will be listed below in no particular order, but you should all go over and pay them a visit.

G*M*S magazine, my site’s sponsor, has been good enough to tweet to his whole audience about the offer, so you should all go over there right now, and thank him by downloading his podcast. They’re always golden, and worth listening to if you have any interest in RPGs, board games, or how to make them.

Tenkar’s Tavern took the time (apologies for the heavy alliteration there) to promote my idea too. They’re one of the best known, and in my opinion, consistently  awesome OSR blogs out there. Sure, there are others, but this is the one you should be checking out. And I say this as someone who makes no claim to be part of the OSR movement, but loves awesome blogs.

Hero Press also gave me great coverage. This a perfect example of a catch all blog, with cool video links and trailers, some great inspirational images, and some top notch RPG commentary too. Add it to your reader, you won’t want to miss a thing that gets posted on this site.

Cirsova was nice enough to talk about me too, and even share the NPC that I created for them. The blog is one built around world design, and not only is it a great read, but contains some lovely inspiration for any other people out there wanting to do the same.

I hope my readers take the time to explore those sites, and if any other bloggers out there want an NPC, I will happily link to your site.

Oct 152012

Today I’m going to talk about the new game that I’ve been working on recently. This is me trying to give something back to the awesome RPG community and it will take the shape of a card game about Steampunk explorers, searching for fame and riches in a Neo-Victorian world. In the past I have talked about writing up an adventure, and although this is ongoing it is very much on the back-burner right now. the problem comes from the style that I use to run games, and how hard it is to translate that to a written adventure that can be used by others. It’s a bit complicated, and is probably deserving of its own blog at some point in the future. The short story is that it’s very hard to write down an adventure when nine out ten events that happened in it were because of player choices that I had did nothing to create or influence.

So, instead I thought I’d try my hand at another thing I love: card games. To be specific, card games with a board game feel. Think Elder Sign, or the new Blood Bowl game, both by Fantasy Flight. What else do I like? Steampunk! It has long been a fascination for me, going back many years. If I was any good at crafting clothes and items, I would have made so many that you would never have seen me not wearing a Steampunk inspired outfit. Sadly, I’m rubbish at such things, so instead I created fiction, in the style of role playing games and adventures, and occasional short prose pieces. When I was thinking about what I wanted in a card game, Steampunk jumped straight to my mind.

I also love horror, but if I want those two things to cross paths, I already have my favourite RPG, Unhallowed Metropolis by Atomic Overmind, if I want to play a game like that. So to do attempt something different, I went for the Victorian theme of exploration and adventure. This was heavily inspired by Mark Hodder’s books, where he takes a Steampunk look at one the period’s greatest explorers, Sir Richard Burton. So, I knew what I wanted from a game, the next problem was to make it happen.

I suppose I had better explain the blog title a bit, before we go any further. I saw the deck of cards having too components, one of which would be the explorations and adventures that the characters would go on. My first thought was to have them in one deck, along with the other card, and when played, the explorer leaves London and goes off around the world. This was quickly dismissed as the random element of card draw could leave someone with no adventures for an entire game. Thus was born the ‘Adventure’ deck. A bunch of cool things to do, such as be the first to find the Source of the Nile, or to venture into Macedonia, and meet the Metal Men that reside there. At this point I knew I would need two decks, so the only option was to give the second deck the working title of ‘Excitement’. I’m sure all the geeks out there have spotted where I got that nugget of inspiration from. [Link NSFW]

Next came a few weeks of card design, and thinking of what to put on the cards. The lovely people at Reddit helped out with some basic character ideas, more than a couple of which made it into the six I’m currently using for play-testing. There were also gadgets galore to help out the intrepid Explorers in the field, Retainers with their own skills to accompany them, and even an occasional Valet; something no self respecting gentle-person should be seen without. I didn’t like the idea of exploring in a vacuum though, so as well as extra cards to help out an Explorer – finding a ancient map, or having a rare beast just walk into camp one morning – there are plenty of cards that can be played to derail a fellow Explorer’s quest. Sending in a mob of angry natives, or just having the weather turn against you at an inopportune moment.

With all that sorted, and some basic cards formatted – including having them backed with an ‘E’ or ‘A’ respectively, it was time to play test. At point of writing, I have only had one opportunity to do so, and big thanks go out to my very good friend Gav. He invited me around to his house, I got to meet his daughter for the first time since she acquired the power of speech, and was given a couple of snifters of very fine rum indeed. And we also got to play the game, tentatively entitled ‘Excitement and Adventure’.

The game basically works with each player taking on the role of an Explorer, and investing their time and money into winning a wager about who can get the most ‘Renown’ by going off and having grand adventures, and living to tell the tale. The characters all being members of an Explorers society who agreed the terms of the wager, then went at it with gusto. I will spend more time later discussing the mechanics in detail, but for now, there’s a few things I learnt from this one and only play test.

  1. The game takes too long. We were playing for well over two hours before I called it on account of the lateness of the hour. For the record, Gav kicked my ass.
  2. One entire mechanic needed to be ditched. It never came up, and if it it had, would have made the game even more drawn out.
  3. I need to think of new adventures for the characters to go on. The Adventure deck needs bulking up after the rule change.
  4. It’s totally possible to go off on an adventure with far too many Retainers and Gadgets. This needed changing.
  5. I need a few more play tests before I release this into the wilds of an open play test.

So that’s where I am at the moment. I’m hoping to rope a few more friends into playing the game with me over the coming days and weeks, and will occasionally update on here, if anything interesting enough happens. If any of my readers has any cool suggestions of adventures for the Explorers to go and have, the comments box is just below here.

Oct 092012

Today my gaming society gets together and each GM gives a pitch for a full academic year long game that they want to run, and hope to get enough interest to make it happen. We’ve sadly had a body drop out for personal reasons, so with the field shrunk I should be fine to run my post-cyberpunk game set in Warren EllisTransmetropolitan universe, using the Cyberpunk 2020 rules. below is a little bit of prose that I’ve been working on as a teaser for prospective players. It basically gives a tiny bit of background about the characters’ origins and the world they will be playing in. What I haven’t done is go into detail about the style of game play – as I want that to be decided upon by the players as a committee - and the types of character they can play. The beauty of starting a campaign this way is that the players will be every-man characters, meaning they will get the chance to play pretty much anything they want, within the scope of the game. Which basically limits them to ‘human’.

I know most of you won’t be at the meeting tonight, but feel free to read it anyway, and as always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments box below.

You all had your reasons to take a spin on the roulette wheel of cryogenics. Those reasons are your own, but with the money out of your account and a detailed form filled in you were hopeful for what the future would hold. In the future, they would rebuild you. they could even make you a better you. Never liked the way your chin looked? Fine, take that picture of the person you always wished you would be and clip it to the form. Maybe even just a younger version of yourself, giving you the chance to live your life again, to avoid some mistakes, or just make sure that this time, your youth wasn’t wasted on someone young.

And then it happened. Your clock ran out. Luckily you were close enough to a hospital and had your will prepared, and after the postmortem was carried out, your head was detached and inexpertly flash frozen and sealed in its container, your paperwork stuck to the side in a clear plastic envelope. Your hopes and dreams, and your brain, thoroughly damaged by the flawed freezing procedure was placed on a shelf with dozens, hundreds of others. People like you, who threw a coin into the wishing well that is the future.

And then the day came. A day of wonder that could only happen in a future so far removed from what you could understand of the present, that to you it was just so much science fiction. They rebuild you, all of you, from the flawed respiratory system that has been the cause of countless childhood deaths by choking on food, to the human eye, a camera so complex as to stagger belief, yet made out of such simple materials as jelly and water. And as the last layers of epidermis form, and hair – wet from the chemical solution your second birth takes place in – starts to colour, the signals are bundled up from your old brain, and prepared to jump start your new head meat. You come around in fear for your life, already starting to swallow the liquid as the glass fronted door of the chamber opens automatically. Your body is unceremoniously dropped to the floor. A cold floor. hard tiles with someone else’s biological matter still staining them.

You enter the future alone, unsure what you’re doing there, and within seconds you’re vomiting onto the tiles like so many before you. It takes the assistant five minutes to notice the process has been completed, and by the time he walks into the room to look down at your naked vomit stained form – thinking about what he would do to you if the activities in this room weren’t recorded – you’ve gone into a mild shock. A grey and brown dressing gown is dropped around your shoulders as you’re asked questions to jog your memory. You answer as well as you can whilst pulling it around yourself, using the edges to wipe yourself clean as you speak, your mind beginning to come to terms with what’s happened. You’re told there’s a taxi waiting outside to take you to a hostel, that your money will be refunded in line with inflation, but without interest. They would never be able to work that out…

All these things make sense to you. Words and concepts that make you feel secure. ‘Just how different could the world be’, you think as you close your eyes and breath out as the front door is opened for you, ready to breathe in the future. Eyes closed tightly, waiting to open to allow you to take in the sites so few people from your time would ever get to experience.

The sights, smells, and sounds are now only remembered as a cacophony. The werewolf having sex with a Chinese business man. The child with half the skin on her face apparently scraped off sat watching a TV screen in the sidewalk. You think the show was called ‘Sex Puppets’, but that can’t be right. The guy with a floating digital camera behind his head talking to a women eating what was clearly the cooked arm of an Afro-Caribbean child. The adverts for Ebola-Cola, for a U.S. President called the Beast, for an enclave where feudal japan is lived and relived while people from outside watch on. The police dog talking to a drug dealer.

You don’t remember the taxi journey at all. You barely remember the first month at the hostel apart from the beatings as every penny you had was taken from you by the gangs of veteran revivals who have banded together to pray on the weak. You were lucky you recovered quickly, before you were put out on the street for business. You found a few other lost souls, all wearing someone else’s cast off clothing who no longer whimpered themselves to sleep every night. With nothing else to do, you shared stories of the time you came from, fighting back the influence of this future that seems so wrong. The only thing you seem to have in common is the time you came from. But that association is enough to keep the gangs away, to give you breathing space to take stock, and maybe, just maybe, find your place in this future.

Oct 082012

A few months back I looked at a console game through the eyes of a table top role player, and I must admit, the game didn’t come out too well. Sure it got rave reviews all over the rest of the internet, but in this little corner, not so much. Today I place that role playing eye firmly on another Xbox game that I’ve been playing recently: Borderlands 2. This will not be an in-depth review about its merits as a first person shooter, but more a little look at how it works when seen as a traditional role playing game. For a bit of background, it’s worth knowing that I played and loved the first game, and most of the time have been playing both of them split screen with my girlfriend.

The first bad thing about the Borderlands franchise as an RPG is the almost total lack of interaction your character has with the rest of the world that doesn’t involve shooting it in the face with a mind blowing variety of boom sticks. The most they seem to talk in the second installment is a few little quips when employing their special abilities - maybe half a dozen different lines which get old pretty quickly considering how often they get used – and little back and fourths between player characters as one heals another. This kinda sucks, but when I think back to some other games, it really isn’t that big a deal. Sure, Deus Ex, Mass Effect and the Dragon Age games give you conversation trees a-plenty, but sometimes you really don’t want to hear the voice they’ve given your character as it may very well be a voice that you would never associate with the way you imagine it.

What it does to make up for that is give the NPCs some killer interactions with the player characters and each other. If you find an Echo recorder and pick it up, try and pay attention to what’s being said; it is usually tangential to the plot, but even so, they’re well written and bloody hilarious. There are little bits on the player character backgrounds, as well as history of the world and NPC back stories too. Actual conversations are also worth paying attention to. Usually the only verbal interactions available are when collecting a job, and turning it in. This will almost always have a bit of monologue from the quest giver, and once again, even though you don’t need  to hear it, take the time to listen. They really do give life to the characters and contain some of the funniest writing I’ve heard in a video game.

Don’t get me wrong, the characterization for almost every NPC is pretty one dimensional. The bad-guy is bad, and every time he has something to say, it reinforces his stature as ‘evil-boss’ for the game. I would drop a few examples here, but I’m trying my best to keep this review spoiler free, and some of his best lines lead to some great reveals in the plot that I really don’t want to spoil for anyone. Handsome Jack isn’t the only bad guy in the piece, and all of the others are just as hammy when it comes to their lines and how they are delivered. Put it this way though, if you load the game up, take a look at the awesome stylized graphics and expected some subtlety to the characterization, you may not have very realistic expectations.

That is one of the strongest points about this game though; its writing and how well it all slots together to give a consistent feel to the world and the plot. Any GM knows that you can run a dark game and still throw in occasional bits of humour and not ruin the mood. The ‘GM’ for this game is running it for pure comedy, but knows just the right amount of ‘dark’ to slide in on occasion to keep everyone engaged with the plot and stop being nothing but a yuck-fest.

What else makes it a good RPG? Character advancement. The skill trees are pretty varied, and it’s easy to think of  leveling up getting you some hit points, an advancement in a skill and/or a feat. All of which are perfectly in fitting with your character, while also giving you the freedom to try out a few different things without ever worrying about stepping on another character’s toes. As an example, playing a Siren I can be kick ass with a sniper rifle, but will still never get in the way of the Assassin being the best at it.

My final point is a mild spoiler for people who have never played the first game, and maybe even a little bit spoilerific for the second. You get to meet the characters who played the vault hunters in the first game. In thus game they’re pure NPCs, and the writers have done what every good GM should take a swing at at least once in the same situation. If you have returning players to the same campaign world, but years after the last plot’s resolution, and bringing in all new characters, then what do you do with the old ones? Write them into the world. Make them a little bit epic, give them their own followers and show that their actions have had long lasting consequences on the setting. To me this is one of the best examples of how the game works as an RPG, a thought given to the consequences of the player actions that tie in with the larger setting, and it’s something that a lot of GMs can learn from.

As before, I invite people to make their own comments below, either on the game itself, or thoughts on how I viewed it.

Oct 052012

For people following this blog, you will know that I’ve already touched on the subject of horror role playing, with tips for GMs, players, a nifty little location you can use, and even some thoughts on why playing a adolescent PC happens so often in horror games. Today, in honour of this months RPG Blog Carnival – hosted by the delightfully lovely people at Troll in the Corner Games – I’m going to offer a last couple of tips, one aimed at GMs, but the first at people who will be playing a horror game. Unlike my earlier articles that were full things to do, this more about what you shouldn’t do, or at least, keep to an absolute minimum.

To all the players out there who live to get into character: please, keep a lid on the hamminess when you’re in a horror game. I know, it’s very tempting to get totally into the scares, and the GM will want that, but when you push it to B-movie screaming and hand waving it really pulls everyone out of the mood the GM is trying to create. The horror that can happen around a gaming table is a lot more palpable if everyone is drawn into slowly and quietly, so every noise they catch at the limits of their hearing is something that could be watching. Waiting

If you want to really play up your terror in a way that will keep this sense of dread going, withdraw from what’s going on a little. Think about what you would do in the same situation; would you be the foolish person who runs around screaming and attracting attention, or would you hunker down and try to get out? Maybe the only way out is mentally? There’s a reason characters lose sanity in horror games, they can’t cope with the new and terrifying reality they’re encountering, so they create a safe place in their minds, and hide there. Now just think of the effect this will have on the other players, as they watch you crumble slowly and eerily away from the person you used to be…

For the GMs now, and this is based on a mistake I’ve made myself in the past. Sitting and watching a scary movie is a very different experience than having a bunch of friends role playing around a table. Sure, you can take a bit of inspiration from movie lighting and sound effects, but what will scare one or two people in a darkened room, won’t always have the same effect on a group of people trying to enjoy a story. So, that cool thing in a horror flick that had you jumping out of your skin? Don’t force it into a role playing game. Take cues from it, but I promise you, the returns you get will be nothing like you expect.

You also run the risk of going over old ground. if you’ve seen the horror flick in question, there’s a good chance the payers have too. Although fear of the known is possible – I prefer the unknown, but that’s just me – familiarity will bore right through that. As will the players then breaking off to talk about their favourite bits of the film it has just become obvious you have stolen from.

I hope that was some help to everyone, but don’t forget to keep checking back with the Troll in the Corner, for more blogs on how to bring the scary to your horror RPGs.