Nov 112013

The Marvel Comics way that I’m referring to is in fact pretty old news at this point, but in how it pertains to the way campaign worlds can be managed, I think it still has some relevance. You see, way back in the dim and distant, DC comics was an unstoppable juggernaut, crushing everything in their path, but they would tell stories about their main stable of characters in a way that would seem odd today. The Batman who appeared in Detective Comics, for instance, was not the same Batman who was in the Justice League, or who joined forces with Superman in the Brave and the Bold. Each comic book line was in fact  self contained universe, with no need for anyone who wanted to read them to have to pick up a bunch of ancillary comic books to get the full story.

Then Marvel comes along, and decides to do things a bit different. First, they did away with the idea of fictional cities as homes for their heroes. I’m not saying that they’ve never made somewhere up, but they certainly didn’t go to the lengths of creating Metropolises and Gotham Cities, just to give a main character their own distinct playground. They set their stories in the real world, mainly new York, and this gave the readers something they could recognise. It’s true that Gotham is a distinctive city to the legions of Bat-fans out there, but not so much as the New York skyline is.

This is part of one of my idea; don’t worry too much about making up towns and cities if you’re setting your game in the real world, either historically, contemporaneously or even in the future. When it comes to the past, there are countless online and real world resources out there to flesh out a city that actually exists, and although the research time will need to be spent, it will be probably be quicker than making an entire working city from scratch. At least in my experience. Your players can also do their own research, and although you may have had to change a few details to make your plot work, it will give them the chance to get under the skin of your setting a lot more than they could do if it only exists in your head.

The second thing they did differently, and this eventually had an impact on DC, and lead to them running the Crisis on Infinite Earths storyline, was that all of their heroes, be they mutants, superheroes, or masked vigilantes, all existed in the same universe. This meant that Spiderman could tangle with the Punisher, and the X-men, if you wanted to get totally crazy, could battle the Avengers. Although this spawned one of comic book’s greatest travesties – the multi-comic title crossover event – it meant that consequences could be felt throughout the entire marvel universe, because of the actions of one hero/villain.

I know that most of the awesome GMs out there on blogs and forums already have a pretty good handle on the way that consequences of actions should affect the game world, and the characters within in, but I thought I’d try and go a bit further with that today. Like at least a few others out there, I have a couple of favourite settings that I keep going back to. One of which I am revisiting for the first time in many years the next time I GM, and the other is a lovely little Neo-Victorian horror game called Unhallowed Metropolis. I’m not even sure how many campaigns I’ve ran in this world, but they all take place in the same continuity.

This means that if a group of players needs to find a fence to get rid of some stolen items in one game, then they find their fence with a simple streetwise skill check, and I get to play some kind of lovely cockney rogue for a while. Some months later, a player who has created a consulting detective character needs some info on a heist, so finds a fence he can trust. I have one ready, and can flesh out some details by having him refer to things the other party may have done. In a certain game, I went even bigger.

The plan was to run a very long campaign with a three act structure involving a serial killer, and unknown plague, some ghostly goings on, and an undead horde. It was going pretty well until a fight broke out between the player characters when they were on route to a location in them middle of the wastes with no one around for miles who would care what happened to them. There was one survivor who made his way back to Hull, but was so traumatised by the events that he was sent to an asylum. The thing was, I’d put a whole bunch of work into the adventure, and didn’t want it to go to waste.

So the employer of the first group tried again, using a different recruiting process, and about a year after the failed mission, another group set off. They succeeded – as much as they could do in the circumstances – and saw several shadows of the last attempt. the stories of a lunatic in the sanitarium screaming the name of their employer for one. And my personal favourite, finding the burnt out camp of the previous expedition, complete with rotting corpses of those that came before them.

This added a whole lot to the experience, for myself and the players, and I think if you have a game world that you love, you should try something like this yourself.

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 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.

Sep 092013

Bill the Butcher

Having spoken in the past about ways of making your big bad evil guy (BBEG) a bit more three dimensional, it occurred to me while re-watching Gangs of New York that the thing that made William Cutting such an interesting – and maybe even sympathetic – character, was that he was, in almost all things, honest. I think that this can be trait often overlooked when creating your own BBEG, as they are more often the type to lie and scheme to get things done. Lets take a look at Cutting and see if we can’t apply some of this to our own RPG villains in a way that will make them more rounded and interesting to interact with for your players.

First of all, yes I used the word sympathetic to describe a man of sheer and unrelenting brutality with absolutely no empathy; basically the worst type of psychopath. This might not seem to make much sense, but once you get to root of his motivations – no matter how flawed and antagonistic they are – you see that he is acting with nothing but a steely determination. This is something that is often praised in real life, and it could be said that he just happened to be born and live in the wrong time. In no way am I excusing his rampant racism  – and if you’ve read other posts by me or follow me on social media, you’ll know I’m against prejudice in any form – but it seems like he would have been made perfectly at home with his attitudes if he had born in a southern American state about one hundred years earlier.

With his obvious charisma and leadership chops, plus his ability to intimidate others, he would have been a political powerhouse, able to operate almost completely within the law if he had been born in a different time and place. Sadly for the Butcher, this was not to be the case, so the life of a criminal kingpin was his best option. And it’s a life he’s ideally suited to. When he tells someone that he will cut their ears of if they disturb him, the people around him know that this is no idle threat. The Butcher never wastes a word, so you better believe that whoever is rude enough to interrupt a game of cards is going to have to buy smaller hats for the foreseeable future.

Some of his more brutal moments from the film also fit well with this honesty, and make you wonder if some of the other characters are actually as noble as they seem to be portrayed. Amsterdam’s plan to kill the Butcher from a distance after wheedling his way into his trust comes across as decidedly dishonest compared to Bill’s killing of Priest Vallon. Priest was challenged to an open combat, with rules of engagement and in full view of the local population so that no one would be in any doubt over who had prevailed. True, the Butcher did use a bit of trickery to deliver the final blow, but even vikings were proud of men and women who could over come an obstacle by trickery if it was easier than going at it in a head long rush and winding up dead. And when Priest was lying before him, the fight was stopped and the final wound administered quickly and efficiently, with all due honour shown to a respected enemy. Amsterdam, the movie’s hero, has no such respect for his enemy, and would see him dead without a chance to defend himself.

Later in the film, when Bill kills Mad Eye Mood… sorry Monk, in the street when his back was turned, it again looks like Bill is the bad guy. He totally is, but once again, he is nothing but honest in how he operates. He goes to Monk in broad daylight, carrying weapons and calls him out. Monk appeals to Bill’s sense of fair play and citizenship, inviting him in to talk rather than fight. And for some reason, then turns his back on the Butcher. At no point does Bill agree to talk or go quietly, he lets Monk have his say, then when opportunity presents itself, does what he set out to do, and walks away satisfied. Far from the actions of a hero to be sure, but he never claimed to be one, and set out his intentions as plain as day.

Now, using this in an RPG means having a BBEG that’s in a position of power to get away with doing all of these thoroughly unpleasant things and having a support structure in place to stop them from feeling the negative effects. If you have such a villain in place, then try this out, see how unsettling it is when they tell the Protagonists pretty much exactly what they’re going to do, and then do it. Make it brutal and shocking, almost hyperbolic even, and watch the players squirm as they now realise that any threat offered by the BBEG is more than idle words designed to intimidate, but a promise of future unpleasantness.

Sep 022013

I know, “the Slaughter sword”. It just sounds like something you’d want to use in any game ever doesn’t it? The thing is, you’ve probably encountered it by a different name, as this is just what it was known as to certain English speakers. More commonly it was called a Zweihänder, although it did have many other names. For simplicity’s sake though, we’ll just be calling it a two handed sword. This is actually a very important distinction though, as to be a true two handed sword, it must be designed in such a way as that it must be hefted with both hands. Although there are plenty of swords that can be used with both hands, they can also be swung with just the one, and more often than not would be thought of as “hand-and-a-half”  swords.

two-handed-great-sword-88wgs-full-1I have written in the past about ways to get more use out of a longer sword whilst fighting in confined quarters, but swords of this length would not be useful for such conditions. Before we move on to how one would go about getting the most use out of this kind of sword, lets address what a lot of people are concerned about when it comes to picking up and using it, the weight. I could go on a bit of a metallurgical rant here, but I think that’s better left to the professionals who have devoted more time to the study of such things. In simple terms, what everyone needs to understand is something that most gamers know, but has yet to make its way into the popular consciousness: whilst the Katana is indeed an elegant weapon, it was far from the unique marvel of sword craft that a lot of people seem to think.

In the early medieval period, vikings (Yup, no capitol letter there, a lot of current historical theory is pointing towards viking being a verb rather than a noun. As in, “lets all sharpen our axes and go viking”!) were using a very similar method of steel folding and smelting to create lighter weight but still large swords to take raiding. So even swords made that would be long enough to be considered two handed would not have been overly heavy during the medieval period that most fantasy RPGs seem to be set in. In historical terms. the Zweihänder was actually used more commonly during the renaissance period anyway, when metallurgical techniques had been greatly improved. But since history is often fluid and only used when it is fit for purpose during RPGs, lets not get ourselves too bogged down in that kind of detail.

Taking ceremonial blades out of the equation – which were considerably heavier, but not designed or intended to be swung into the face of a charging barbarian – the most one would be expected to weigh is roughly 7 pounds. I know that that might seem heavy compared to other blades, but it was designed to be used effectively with two hands, offering greater leverage for the swing. And as we all know, in physics, leverage is very important indeed. Swinging the weapon is no problem when held correctly, and the weight it has will make it formidable indeed on the battlefield. Why didn’t we see such a weapon getting greater use then?

Apart from the afore mentioned fact that it wasn’t around so much during the medieval period of great battles, it was mainly because of the cost of such a weapon, and the fact that it never made sense to equip units with it. Most of the other weapons I’ve talked about on this blog have mainly been used to great effect by massed troops. The warbow was wonderful when hundreds of archers loosed volleys into the enemy ranks, the gladius was easy to produce in numbers and very effective when used by close knit ranks of well disciplined troops and so on and so forth. The Zweihänder though was inconvenient to say the least to with fight when you are stood in close formation with your allies.

This actually makes it a great for player characters in RPGs as they would not often worry about maintaining formation when they fought a pack of angry gnolls. It is a weapon for an individual, and the fact that having one made was an expensive and time consuming would make them rare weapons with a whole bunch of mythology all of their own. They are also more versatile then you’d think. The rather excellent cinematic game 7th Sea has a whole lot to say on the fighting styles one could use for a weapon this long, and I advise anyone with an interest to pick up the relevant nation book for more details.

For those without the resources to pick up said books, the three basic stances allow for the wide swing – and historically there is evidence to suggest that such a swing could take out up to three combatants in one go – with the legs apart to keep balance; the bracing stance, holding the weapon almost as a pike to fend off mounted troops or small units of halberdiers. And finally, holding it with the hilt over your shoulder and the point aimed at chest height, using both hands and the leverage to move to weapon at speed to combat against units wielding smaller edged weapons. A lot of Zweihänders even had gripping rings at the cross guard to make it easier to hold it in this fashion and maintain a high degree of maneuverability.

If you are lucky enough to hang out with a few other people also skilled – and rich – enough to wield such a ferocious weapon, you can do some real damage. Just make sure you’re spread out a little first. With three to five people holding a loose formation, swinging the Zweihänder, you can hold off large units of pike men, the swords cutting through the shafts before bringing down those holding the long pole arms. Small units such as these were favoured in battle for useful and versatile they could be, and once more are a great idea for your very own role playing games.

Aug 192013

As some of my more regular readers will know, I’m a big fan of comic book writer, and general amazing chap, Warren Ellis. As a fan I tend to find his writing pop up quite a lot in my general searches, and a few days ago a saw a quote attributed to him as part of an interview about his latest ebook short prose piece, Dead Pig Collector. The quote stuck with me, but I’ve been unable at time of writing to find the exact interview, so I don’t have a link right now. What he says, in simple terms, is that no killer ever writes themselves up as the bad guy in their own story.

No matter how deplorable they are, no matter how many innocent lives they either end or permanently affect, they all manage to do so without seeing themselves as the villain. Today then I’m going to look at a few choice villains, either from pop culture or my own games, and see how they perceive themselves. This should give GMs out there some inspiration when it comes to creating better villains for their campaigns.

The Higher Calling.

For this one you should really have already watched the flick Se7en. If not, now would be a great time to stick it on, but probably best not to have eaten much before hand. Especially not tinned spaghetti.  The bad guy in question here is called John Doe, and he believes with a powerful intensity that he’s doing the right thing when killing people. And he kills them in violent and disturbing ways. Really, this one is not for the faint hearted. But he justifies it all by convincing himself that none of his victims are innocent. True enough of the drug dealing pedophile, but the chubby guy and the pretty woman did nothing to deserve a fate as gruesome as they got.

John is a man on a mission, and although there is never a tacit acknowledgment that he believes he is doing God’s work, it is implied quite heavily. Even if we take God out of the picture though, he still thinks he has a right to these horrible things as he is telling a story and doing so in a very public way to highlight what he sees as society’s flaws and over all corruption. This goes beyond a delusion, and out the other side, becoming everything that John Doe is. Once we see that this isn’t just a way of getting attention, or a cry for help, we have to start asking ourselves why he is the way he is. I couldn’t possibly answer for this particular John Doe, but if you’re creating  bad guy with a mission, it’s worth bearing in mind.

Taking out the Trash.

So Dexter, pretty much. In that particular case we’re dealing with a psychopath that does what he can to use his impulse to kill for the greater good, but we don’t need to carbon copy the idea, and could easily do away with the psychopathy aspect entirely. But the idea that the PCs will be dealing with a brutal murderer who has a body count that staggers the imagination, but is only killing the bad guys is worth thinking about.

True, he does so in violent and ritualised ways, disposing of the bodies in such a way as to offer no closure to any of the victim’s victims, and getting in the way of state appointed justice. Would the PCs be quick to bring him in? Would they just kill him if there wasn’t enough evidence to convict, thus making themselves as bad our serial killer? Would they maybe even sympathise with hi cause, realising that he is doing the best thing he can in such terrible circumstances? Maybe the would even stop thinking of him as the villain…

The Pillar of the Community.

From what I can gather, the show Boss never did great guns state side. To be fair, not many people I’ve spoken to here in Blighty have heard of it, but I happen to think it was a powerhouse performance by Kelsey Grammer and a stellar cast. Without going into too much detail, it was a political show with the main character being massively corrupt for the entirety of his career, and only a degenerative mental illness started to slow him down. Clearly the bad guy of the piece then, but by doing what he does, he has made life better for thousands of citizens of his city.

His friends get kick backs, to his enemies he is wrath incarnate. Those he can’t silence by threatening their families with violence are quietly disappeared. And to become his enemy takes very little indeed, with even those who are his closest friends and confidants only a serious error away from being taken out of the picture. True he is almost untouchable, but even if he could be taken down, the power vacuum could be worse than leaving him where he is. Would the PCs just rush in to deal with him, or side with his enemies and engage in the kind of corrupt power plays they were trying to being to an end.

If Boss hasn’t made it onto your radar, the the truly wonderful Boardwalk Empire has a similar character played by the vastly underrated Steve Buscemi.

“I’ve earned this!”

Sadly I can’t think of anything from a movie for this one, so unless you were lucky enough to play in my Cyberpunk  2020 game last year you won’t know exactly who I’m talking about. A quick recap: a powerful man seeking more power struggles to deal with the stress of his hectic life and turns to deplorable activities. Never once does he think of himself as a bad guy though, instead justifying his actions as stress relief, no matter how much he hurts people.

It would be easier for the PCs to see this type of character as villain, but always bear in mind that he never will. The people he hurts are just collateral damage to him, and each one that falls is nothing compared to the people he thinks he will be able to help from his position of authority. They are stepping stones, and he is always careful to choose people who  will not be missed. He has no reason to justify these murders as taking out the trash, and the act of murder is a necessity for him, and a small price to pay.

I hope some of that was useful to you, and has given me some things to think about when it comes to my own villains. Especially thinking on some of  my earlier creations that were decidedly one dimensional when compared to what can be done with a ad guy. I was going to include a little bit on William Cutting from Gangs of New York, but that ended up being a larger bit of writing so may very well be a blog post all of its own in the future.

Jul 222013

I understand that it is widely known, understood, and lamented in games mastering circles that plans do not survive first contact with players. True, it makes for an interesting game, keeps us on our toes, and means we rarely run the risk of being thought of as predictable, because we’re often just making it up as we go along, but it can be a little tiresome at times. After many years as a GM, this is something I have not only come to accept though, but to look forward to. At it’s absolute worst, it can be highly frustrating, and today I want to talk about one facet of this issue that has struck me twice in succession; never knowing who the players are going to trust.

When I create NPCs, I don’t just make up a bunch of antagonists. At the start of any campaign, it’s quite nice to know that there’s at least one person who has the best interest of the player characters at heart, and might just be able to keep them out of trouble for a while. This isn’t some catch all plot device to steer them away from mistakes; they are more than entitled to make as many as they would like. This is the person who gets them an early contract, maybe even gets put on retainer by their boss to help keep them supplied. Not every trip down to Guns & Ammo needs to be part of the adventure, so having a valet or some such to nip down and pick up things that could eat up adventuring time should be a good thing.

Since I also like creating interesting NPCs just for the fun of it, I tend to make them more than just two dimensional caricatures, but instead give them a reason to be involved in the plot for more than because someone higher up tells them to be. This has in the past been because of a desire to find answers about a missing relative – that the PCs have some information on already – or the need to get a particular voting block on side in time for a Presidential Primary. On both of these occasions, the NPCs in question went above and beyond the call of duty in assisting the player characters in any way they could.

So of course, the players thought they must be up to something, and promptly began to suspect their every action as having sinister undertones. *sigh*

Not the end of the world though, as I got to role play out some rather righteous indignation, and storm off – figuratively, as I was still the GM – when the players continued to call into question the motives of one of the these NPCs. While admittedly fun, it can get in the way, and cause massive delays to the game, which sucks when you GM on a yearly schedule. What is there that can be done about this situation then?

Well, the simplest seems to be to stop using friendly NPCs and let the players flounder around without help, as that is exactly what they deserve. Yeah, read that back and realise just how petty it sounds, so we won’t be doing that will we? We’ve all (hopefully) moved away from a generally antagonistic relationship between players and GMs by now. What we can do though is cut down how important these friendly and helpful NPCs are, and it shouldn’t make too much of a difference. But as I mentioned earlier, that could mean missing out on some great opportunities to role play while GMing, and also run the risk of these characters being the two dimensional puppets we were hoping to avoid.

Instead, I think it could be time to subvert the players expectations, by giving them almost exactly what they expect. Let the NPC get mad, let them storm off with the players feeling proud of themselves for getting one up on their presumed enemy. An enemy who will now be looking for ways to strike back at them, but subtly. Let the NPC maintain the charade of a good working relationship after apologising for leaving in a bad mood, and continue to have them help out wherever possible. But things start happening a little later than the players would like, and substandard help is all that is now provided. The players will soon complain again, that much is a certainty but now the NPC just meekly apologises, biding their time.

They have been inside the machine of the player character’s organisation, and could jam any number of spanners into the works, all while being the most contrite bugger in the world. And when enough damage has been done, and the PCs really need some help to get their arses out of the fire, the friendly NPC who wanted to help is nowhere to be seen.

That’s just one idea of course, and I imagine that this has happened to a lot of the readers of this blog, so why don’t you share those stories below, either from a Gm stand point, or what any payers out there might think about this.

Jul 152013

Choose-Your-Weapon-Dice-TabletopOnce more I find myself taking inspiration from the writing process, as work continues apace on my Steampunk RPG: Rise of the Automata. I’m still chugging away nicely on it and have almost finished the section I will need to try a play test of the combat system out. I’m not going to go on at length about what this will entail, as I have a different blog for that, but it has made me think about the kind of combat system I wanted to create, as it would be the kind I also wanted to play.

In the past I have made note of how much I love the Cyberpunk 2020 role playing game, but still felt the need to tidy up the combat system a little bit, as it wasn’t quite what I wanted. There wasn’t a great deal wrong with it, but there was just a bit too much dice rolling for my mind. And that’s what this post boils down to, and what I want to talk about; I want a combat system that truly is fast and fun. In the CP 2020 combat rules, when you attack anyone in close combat, either with a weapon or without, both combatants roll off against each other. Since this should happen at the same time, it technically shouldn’t slow thing down, but it does. There’s an awful lot to take into account when making a combat roll in CP 2020 anyway, two people doing it just takes that little bit longer. And the fact that what you have is a fluid target number also means a heavy degree of unpredictability, so people spend a lot longer thinking about whether or not luck should play a role in this moment.

So I removed the need for people to roll against each other by creating a very basic way of characters to have a target number that represents their ability to either parry or dodge an attack. It worked pretty damned well; the only failing being my own as I forgot to write down what I had used to make this number, or tell the players how to do it either. It was based on a combat skill, and as they were putting points into it, the parry/dodge score should have been going up too. My bad. So in the game I’m working, I have done something similar, but made a special box for it on the character sheet, so that it should be easier to track.

Another combat system I generally like, but could do with streamlining, is Savage Worlds. For a system that claims to be Fast and furious, combat can sometimes drag. Mainly down to two reasons based on my experience: initiative order changing every round, and being Shaken. Initiative first; I understand that combat should be fluid, but changing the order each round by the draw of a card is not the best way to go about it. I have recently been involved in play test sessions for 6D6, and I love one of their ideas about initiative. If there is a narrative reason for one character to go first, then they do – as long as it is agreed upon by all participants – and then they nominate the next active character. This means that the order is fluid, and the players can make tactical decisions in how they operate. A lovely idea, and one I thoroughly enjoy. I’ll be sticking with good old fashioned rolling once then setting the order though, as it’s simple and quick.

Being Shaken in a combat round is a big pain in the ass. I know why the rule is there, but it just means that a player has the potential to be a damned big hero who just lays there for several rounds as they fail test after test to regain their senses. I personally would like to just ditch this rule, but it would make player characters a bit too powerful, and they really don’t need any help in that area. if anyone has any thoughts on this, I’d love to hear them.

So far then, it seems the best thing to do to speed up combat is to reduce the number of dice rolls. Before anyone points it out, I know that Amber does that job spectacularly well, but I’m still a bit too much of a fan of random chance to go full dice-less. So I have a parry/dodge mechanic to cut down on one set of dice rolls, and I am also trying out something that should do away with damage and hit location rolls. This idea has not yet been tested out, but it should be fun.

At its heart, the game uses a 2d10 system. So, you roll to hit, adding the two dice together and checking against the target number. If successful, you choose one of the results for hit location, and the other for damage. This works for all characters, so it isn’t just the players who get more control over how they deal damage. This could still be broken, and I may need to insist on different colour dice so that one will always be location, the other damage, but I’d like to try this out first, and see how it goes down.

So there you have it, some thoughts on speeding up the flow of combat, and a crazy idea i want to try. If you have any thoughts of your own, please feel free to share them below. If you think my ideas stink, please keep the raging torrent of bile down to about two paragraphs. I thank you.

Jul 082013

I have a game design blog that I’ll be cross posting this to, but since I have discussed money and keeping track of it in games before, I thought I’d pop this here first for people to take a look at. Expect the idea to be more refined by the time I put it into the actual game.

I have commented on forum threads, and other blogs on such subjects, and waxed lyrical about how much I enjoy the spending of money in games where it makes sense. My favourite example is from my most recent GMing history, and that was running Cyberpunk 2020. With the emphasis of the game being all style over substance, it makes sense for the shopping side of things to take a prominent role. There are splat books full of nothing but things to buy, and I think they’re great for adding flavour to the setting.

But in almost every other game, I would be happier if less time was devoted to the book keeping involved in keeping track of money and flicking through books to find things. In a game I have played in repeatedly – and hope to play again soon – they have a nice mechanism for dealing with day to day monetary spending while still allowing for shopping to take place for specialist items and the like. Basically, money is put to one side to cover your character’s living expenses. If you have little money then your lifestyle will be poor; living in a flop house and surviving on two cheap meals a day. This means more for buying fancy things like armour and weapons, but means you have a higher chance of picking up something contagious. Put more money aside, and you have a better lifestyle. Staying in a single room in a hotel, with meat in at least two of your three meals, plus a few pints of beer a night too.

This works for the game in question and adds to the flavour of it, which is one of the biggest things I look for. So with that in mind I have been thinking about how to handle it for my RPG. The Automata that the players will be taking on the role of  have just as much diversity of personality as do the Humans who made them. They are just as likely to be covetous of the belongings of others, and unwilling to share. As a society though, the Automata have sought to move away from the weaknesses of their creators. After the war the most valuable resource for them was fuel, but since it was necessary for the survival of the Automata, it is available to all, as long as there was enough supply.

I wanted this attitude to permeate most of their society. A socialist state as it were, especially with regard to trade. The only value of objects is how hard they are to create and how useful they are. What this means for the game is that each item has a score that modifies the dice roll required to convince the owner to part with it. This will make the Bargain skill a lot more useful to people, and hopefully stop the Interface Attribute being used as a dump stat quite so much. As a side effect it might also stop players thinking that treasure is so important. Unless something has a use, it has no value. As an example of play, the characters find themselves at an Automata settlement where they make an additive that prolongs the burn time of fossil fuels. One of the Automatons they meet has a lovely pneumatic sniper rifle, that one of the players could really use. This is a rare item, so the base chance to convince any Automaton to give it up would be pretty high, and the two characters would make opposed Bargain checks to see who can be the most convincing about who should own the weapon. If the NPC is a guard of the town, then he would get a bonus, as he has more use for it, but if it was a scientist or production worker who lacked the skills to use it, the player character would have the advantage as they were often in dangerous situations dealing with Human aggressors.

When it comes to character creation, each player character will have a set number of points which they can use to get access to items. Each item is worth a number of points equal to its Bargain modifier, and I’m playing around with the idea of allowing players to spend some of their character points to increase the number of points they’ll get for equipment. Based on a character creation session I ran, one player did ask of there was anything else they could spend their points on as they had picked up all the skills they wanted, and had a point left.

I’m not one hundred percent sure on any of this yet, but I would like to try it out. I know that a lot of gamers are happier without micromanaging equipment and money, and although this will not get rid of such concerns in their entirety, it should minimize them some what. As always sound off below with your own thoughts on the subject.

Jul 012013


I will try and keep the review elements of this post to a minimum, because I have already touched on how much I like the basic game in the past. Instead, this is all about how the hobby I love is represented in something a little bit more mass media. I will also draw comparison to two other attempts to bring role playing to the attention of the masses, in the Big Bang Theory, and Community.

I will discuss a little bit of the technical stuff first though. The humour that has marked both games out from the crowd is still well and truly present, and with jokes aimed very much at the readership of this blog – stuff for you to laugh along with, not making you the butt of the jokes – makes it a great way to spend an evening. Sadly, the fact that you can get through it in an evening is a bit of a let down. The other DLC packs were much bigger, but since they mostly just re-used elements from the base game, they didn’t take up much space. So much has been made just for this DLC – including frickin’ dragons – that the same space just doesn’t go as far. Still, it looks amazing, and there’s some really nice touches. The village setting looks amazing, and the Immortal undead look great, with glowing swords embedded into their skulls to set them apart from the other, easier to kill skeletons.

But what does it tell us about table top gaming? Mainly just how much bloody fun it is and how inclusionary, but also how flawed some of the people who play the game can be. To begin with, we have the fun of people picking their characters. Brick, the close combat nutter picks the Siren, claiming she is the most beautiful and graceful creature in the world, and that she’s great at punching people in the face. The Siren who’s actually playing the RPG – Lilith - seems to be the only reasonably experienced gamer of the group. A lovely touch when we consider the messed up humour of The Big Bang Theory, making light of the fact that no guys ever play D&D with their girlfriends, contrary to mountains of evidence saying otherwise.

She is also a true blue geek, and gives Mr. Torgue a hard time for wanting to play, questioning his geek credentials, since he is clearly a muscle bound jock. I hate to say it, but I have been this person. Not the jock, the one who wonders whether or not someone is really a geek, or just trying to join in with what they think is cool. I see people walking around my home town wearing “GEEK” emblazoned on their shirts, and always feel the need to ask them what class their first character to hit level ten was? Or if they have any recommendations for fantasy literature other than Game of Thrones (The works of Joe Abercrombie as an example)? I never do though, as it is a small and petty annoyance. It is harder sometimes though, when I remember the beatings I got through school that Lilith also claims to have received for letting her geek flag fly. To be fair, I didn’t help myself out. Not only did I wargame and read comic books, but I was also a fan of very heavy metal. Oh, and I was short with a pronounced overbite and wear glasses. I mean seriously, what was I thinking?

But Lilith embraces the big fella when it’s obvious that that he loves the game, and although he may be far from most people’s ideal of a good layer, his passion for the hobby is beyond question. And this is what I mean by inclusionary. The DLC makes it clear that the perception of gamers as nerds with hygiene issues is far from the actual truth, without letting us off lightly, by also showing how elitist we can be about the games we play.

Lets go back to Brick again now. As mentioned, he’s the close combat specialist, and his power move is to go full on berserk rage and punch things until they stop twitching. In the role playing game he has trouble separating this urge from what his character would do to move the plot along.  It gets in the way so much in fact, that at one point a very easy problem to solve gets trashed as he punches a Dwarven slave in the face instead of freeing them all to help in their quest. Every GM has had this moment, and has to decide just how much they want it to matter. Tiny Tina goes all out, and now every Dwarf wants a piece of the players. No matter how helpful they are in freeing the enslaved Dwarves, they’ll always remember that Brick was the one who killed their mate. But Brick learns from his mistake, and by the end of the game does change his ways to fit with the character rather than what he wants to do.

So, all very cool, and a great way to portray gamers in main stream media. But it goes one further, and shows how useful gaming can be as a coping mechanism. I know most people who rock up to the table are their to have fun, in whatever way they decide is fun for themselves. Sometimes though, you have a bad day, or week, or month, and just want to get rid of some frustration in a world where you have a bit more control. It’s not necessarily healthy to rely on the hobby for such things, but it is damned useful all the same. In an episode of Community that involves RPGs, we see the same thing. A problem is, maybe not solved, but worked on a little. And the group happens to have a great time while doing so, and talk about coming back to play the game again.

I can’t think of a much better portrayal of table top role playing in other media than this DLC, and if you have any interest in the series at all, it is by far and away my favourite bit of DLC so far, having played every last one of them. two very enthusiastic thumbs up.