Thursday, October 24, 2013

Player versus Player Conflict

Walt at Gnome Stew posted about intra-party conflict the other day wondering whether it is okay to stop it or should it be allowed to take its course.

A quick caveat: I am not talking about characters having disagreements or role-playing tensions between them. This post is specifically about using game mechanics to harm, hamper, or kill another character.

While obviously this is a social contract issue and is highly game and group dependent, I almost never allow it. Some games invite it - like Paranoia - but my experience has been that it is usually destructive, especially if the people at the table do not know each other well.

Additionally, while intra-party conflict is sometimes defended as just being role-playing ("it's what my character would do!") what I have witnessed is intra-party conflict is a tool that players who want to remove agency from other players use to accomplish their goals (i.e. bullying).

Again, this is group dependent, if this is not a problem you have ever experienced, then enjoy slaughtering each other. The one thing I might stop and ask though is: is everyone having fun?

The problem with intra-party conflict in my model above is that it can be initiated unilaterally. One character just takes a swipe at another and there is nothing that another player can do to stop it.

This is such a minefield of social variables that I find it simplest as the referee to just say no. The costs are small (characters cannot escalate a disagreement to physical force even if realistic). The benefits: no one walks away from my game feeling hurt, bullied, or otherwise upset.

Fortunately almost nobody reads my blog so it is unlikely that I will have to defend this position against the inevitable backlash this sort statement gets so I will leave you faithful readers with a few tenants of my games:

  • No hurting other player characters. My game is not your forum to play out your bully fantasies.
  • No stealing from other player characters. We are here to play together, I won't let you steal from another player's wallet and I won't let you steal from their character either.
  • Only the player of a character may decide that character's actions, it is not your character so stop trying to tell them what to do.
  • Decisions are not made by talking loudest or most.
  • Play fair.
  • Make sure everyone has a chance to participate.
  • Make sure everyone is having fun.

Those tenants revolve around the ideas that one player may not take the agency of another player, and that the aim of the game is fun.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Free-form Skills

I'm reading Unknown Armies and it is fantastic. It isn't a sword and sorcery game but it would good to stretch myself from time to time. Very much reminds me of my favorite China MiƩville novel - Kraken. I was a little startled when I discovered the skill system operates a lot like what I've finally settled on for my S&W games.

I've talked from time to time about adapting the Stars Without Number skill system for fantasy games. Well, it's too much work to detail a bunch of skills and packages. Instead of a fixed skill list I've decided to just say: all adventurers have basic scouting style skills (camping, fire-making, first-aid, etc.) and whatever skills are appropriate to their class (e.g. fighters can repair and maintain weapons, use sophisticated battlefield tactics, and the like). Additionally I have players define a few skills that the character has. These can be as broad or specific as the player likes.

Maybe up to 4, or three plus an advanced one. These can be anything that seems setting and character appropriate. The more specialized the skill is the lower the difficulty of your rolls (e.g. a character with survival would have to roll to make a trap, a character with trap-making would only need to roll to create something unique or especially dangerous).

The skill-check is resolved with a roll of 2d6, stat bonuses add to the roll if applicable. 6 is an easy roll, 8 is a typical challenging task.

The first level of a skill gives a +0, every level thereafter a +1. Skills are only improved with time, effort, and training.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Why Have Rules At All?

While explaining the appeal of rules-light games to a friend who generally prefers a crunchier game, my friend asked me "then why have rules at all?"

I think the answer basically comes down to this:

A game is made more fun than just imagining through the limited introduction of rule. We use rules when we want to resolve things that are ambiguous, or when we want to abstract something, or when it is more fun to have a rule or constraint of some kind.


Some things are just ambiguous and dice mechanics are useful for those situations. Are you strong enough to knock the door down? It is hard to know, the player could say: "well I hit the door really hard." And we could try to work with that, but fundamentally this is an ambiguous situation and it is better to abstract it using a die roll.


While in most cases in a rules-light roleplaying game descriptive exploration and activity is encouraged, there are areas where description is either too ambiguous (as above) or otherwise finicky or difficult adjudicate so we abstract that decision with a die roll. Combat, saving throws, and thief skills all fall into this category.

Rules are fun:

Rules ARE fun. They are fun to think about, they are fun to experiment with. Constraints can create challenge. Niche protection and spell memorization rules create interesting constraints. The many tables for spells, criticals, and fumbles in Dungeon Crawl Classics are a good example of rules being fun. They certainly slow the game a bit compared to what the game would play like in their absence. However, they provide a lot of fun without creating many constraints on what is possible in the game. What is problematic is that in many RPGs is that there are many rules because it seems to be that the "rules are fun" reason has been taken to extremes. Because we like rules for a few things or because a few rules are useful it doesn't mean rules are good or necessary when created to cover all situations.

A key to an excellent game is making sure that the rules are serving a specific purpose. The rules covering every eventuality is not useful to a good game. Common sense can serve a lot of the need that rules purport to. The referee was introduced into wargaming as a way to obviate the need for encyclopedic rules and to make it possible for anything to be attempted (see Playing at the World). Referees can still do this job without a lot of policing! That is because the referee is not the players' opponent.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Source of Clerical Powers

The reality of clerical magic is not per se evidence of the existence of the gods.

I was reading The Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding and one of the articles was discussing the difficulty of atheism or agnosticism in a world where clerics have real magical powers. I think nothing could be further from the truth.

While most clerics (or even most people) might believe that their powers come from a divine source that does not foreclose other possibilities. Perhaps clerics have gained powers through the brain altering power of prayer and meditation. Perhaps it is a form of sorcery that is simply not well understood but ascribed to higher powers. Or perhaps the "gods" are in fact other beings masquerading as gods.

Just because someone says that something is the cause of another does not make it so.

Perhaps wizards loath clerics for their dogmatic and irrational beliefs.

Perhaps all wizards are traditionally elves and all clerics are traditionally humans and it is mere racial magic passed down along with the spiritual traditions of the race.

Perhaps things can be mysterious and ambiguous!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

In which I become much more specific and discover the problem I am truly facing.

Zak S. had some good feedback for me on my last post and through our conversation I have come to a few conclusions.

  • I don't mean collaboration. What I am talking about is participating. A game is created by mutual participation in the game. I am not talking about games where the storytelling responsibility is equally shared among all participants.
  • The problem I am grappling with is when players either don't participate in the game or are hostile to the game.
    • I am not talking about quiet players, quiet players participate - just not always vocally.
  • This behavior begs the question of why are they playing.
Zak said this:

If someone is at your table it isn't necessarily because of some gameological compatibility--it's because they bring something (anything: creativity, friendship, snacks) to the table that you want at that table.If you want that at the table, then you don't get to change them. You, like any general, use what they bring (wanted and unwanted) to somehow fuel the game .If a player just wants to hit things with an axe, create situations where that desire makes the game more interesting for everyone rather than treating it as an obstacle.Your players have traits: you can use them for you or against you. If you use them for you, then you create an exciting game that will make everyone want to extend themselves in new ways.

I think this is very well-phrased. I think that deep problems arise when a participant is no longer bringing something that you want to the table or if  what the player wants is outside the scope of what you can provide in a game. At this point the game fails - at least in the context of that individual.

This is what I was talking about with the terms collaboration and consensus. We at the table all come together to play this thing and bring whatever we have to offer. If one of the participants either: doesn't give anything; or interferes with the ability of the other players to participate you have a failure of the game.

What I meant by rescue (which may have been a poorly chosen word) is: how can we invite a player who is not participating to participate? The problem may be that there the situation only occurs when there is no longer anything that the player can or wants to bring to the game which is compatible with the game the others are playing.

For whatever reason, I have noticed that this is most often an issue with people who have been roleplaying for a long time - hence the veteran player aspect. I suspect this is because some players may only have continued to roleplay for social reasons - and that over time the gap between their actual needs and desires from a game have increasingly diverged from what roleplaying has to offer - leading to anti-social play.

Perhaps why play with new players tends to be better is that there is no social impetus for the game to occur. This would also apply to online play. The game only happens because of mutual interest.

In terms of solving my particular problem? I think that sadly there is no game remedy, so the problem is inevitably a social one.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Game Through Consensus

I love playing with players who are new to the hobby. They have no preconceptions. I try to run my game as much as possible by consensus. Whether it be the crunchiest modern system or the lightest OSR system consensus is the aspiration at my table. Collaboration is the only vehicle to a successful game. As I play with new players more I find that they are more open to the collaborative and consensus driven nature of my game. I find that often the more exposure players have had to role-playing the less they are interested in the group story. I don't know why this is. Maybe as players gain more experiences they become more particular as to what they want the story to be about and stop listening to the others at the table (or even the gamemaster)? Or maybe it is just that they have had a lot of non-collaborative roleplaying modeled to them, so they have become habituated to a different style of game - whereas the new player learns from what I model and suggest which may be quite different?

In either case how can we rescue the veteran roleplayer?

I also wonder if this is a problem I face alone, but my experience as a teacher tells me that a problem one person is having is often just the tip of the iceberg.

Anyone have any thoughts?

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Alternatives to Death

One of my goals for my over the table gaming is to spread the excellence of the OSR. However I find a lot of opposition to OSR games in my local community. One of the complaints is the lethality of the game. From a certain perspective  this makes sense. For those players who want to invest in their character but find the likelihood of death in a gritty game is an impediment to engagement then the game is failing. I don't think it is my role as the GM to educate my players about the wisdom of the OSR, but rather it is my job to facilitate a game that all can enjoy. So I began thinking about ways to reduce the likelihood of permanent character death without making characters invincible.

I'm not dead yet! After being brought to 0 characters survive and can be saved for 1 round per level, through magical healing, binding wounds, or inspiration.

Binding Wounds! As per S&W White Box. Trying to do this during battle is not advisable without a fighter standing over you, but you can of course attempt anything!

Inspiration! Any character can attempt to inspire a dying character to continue fighting. The character doing the inspiring makes a charisma check, if successful the dying character recovers to 1 hp and keeps fighting. This is a temporary hit point.

Deal with Death! Death is willing to bargain with heroic types. When a character dies death is willing to bargain with them. Death will resurrect the character in exchange for favors. Each resurrection incurs a debt with Death. If you roll a 1 on any d20 roll and have an outstanding debt Death calls in a favor. The favor would be determined randomly using the Tome of Adventure Design or similar quest table. If Death feels you are not making adequate process you might have to explain yourself. This is of course available totally on an opt-in basis. It is also rumored that other powerful beings have the ability to intercede and resurrect fallen heroes but they are not as predictable and even-handed as Death.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Pitch: Crater Diving

The old folks say that when they were children the Empire straddled the continent entire, and that the Emperor sat upon a diamond throne in a shining city. Well, all that is gone since the five kings of the ancient kingdoms made war against the throne. The war raged for seven years. In the winter of that seventh year the Emperor was on the verge of defeat. Some say he summoned a great demon from Outside. Others say he slew his own priests and stole a weapon forged in darkness. Children and fools believe he became a ravening dragon. Whatever the truth is, the armies of the kings vanished at the gates of the Imperial City - along with the city itself. Instead a gaping wound was left in the earth and the land for miles around was left a wasteland.

The five kings allied in the war all suspected treachery in each other and, the armies destroyed and kingdoms impoverished by the expensive war, settled into an uneasy, inward looking peace while they rebuilt.

Curious types soon began exploring the crater where the Imperial City once stood and found it was riddled with mysterious tunnels and caves - as if the earth below the city had been rotten. When a group of delvers brought up a chest full of gold and jewels word exploded across the continent and treasure hunters, mercenaries, and cutthroats of all sort made pilgrimage to the crater to seek their fortune. Many of those who went down never came back up, but nonetheless many still make their way to this unhappy place. So many that a thriving boomtown was settled on the rim of the crater, catering to the wants and needs of the delvers.

Now people from across the continent make their way to the crater for information, magic, and hired-blades for there is no better place to find any of those precious resources.

The five kingdoms have rebuilt their peasantry and armories and eye each other hungrily across their borders.

And quietly, sages at the crater warn those who listen that the wound in the earth is growing.

You, a treasure hunter through and through, have journeyed from your homeland seeking your fortune at the crater.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

on the modern game player

Holy crap, it's been over 7 months since I posted anything. I haven't been posting because I've been busy with work, life, and gaming! So I am content with that.

I've been running a lot of games in that 7 months including a nice sustained Swords & Wizardry game that lasted a pretty good while. Since then though the group has fallen apart and attempts to begin new games have been failures.

Last night I sat down with two key players and hashed around about why things weren't working and what we wanted to do about it.

Key points from the discussion: I find Pathfinder and most rulesy games obnoxious (for reasons I have posted about ad nauseum); Player A doesn't like OSR games because he finds character death upsetting and discouraging; Player B wants to play fantasy and doesn't want to get bogged down in rules adjudication.

We decided that I would run a series of one-shots with them and a few new prospect players to A) try get a group  and time established; B) try out some systems and settings and see what people like.

Then this morning I finally understood the modern game player in my group (Player A above) and I sent A & B this email:

After a good night's sleep I think I have an insight coming out of last night's discussion.

RPGs can be divided broadly into two categories: story games and traditional games. Story games have mechanics that can effect the narrative, in traditional games the narrative is totally the purview of the GM.

Within traditional there are modern and OSR (old-school) games. Modern games tend to be rulesy and tend not to include character death as a large part of play. Whereas OSR games tend to be rules-light and embrace character death. Until last night I was focused on the rulesyness as the main dividing line not thinking about the implications of the latter division.

The big difference I think is that in a modern game we are telling The Characters' Story, in an OSR game we are telling The Story - in which the characters are participants. That is why for me (and others who enjoy OSR games) character death is (while sometimes disappointing or frustrating) fundamentally not a big deal, because the larger story in which we are participating continues, and we get to continue participating through a new character. This can even be exciting.

Neither of these approaches is badwrongfun, but I think our discussion finally gave me insight in to the modern game player's preference.  Having permadeath on the table adds to tension, excitement, and ultimately the satisfaction in victory for the OSR player - because the OSR player is focused on the overarching game experience. For the modern player it is merely loss, because the focus is on the character in its individuality.

So for RP oriented players the rules heaviness may not be the important distinction at all.

I may run something other than Other Dust for the 1st one-shot game. It is most definitely an OSR game. So while it has awesome systems and lots of opportunity for sandboxing and RP there are mutants in the waste that want to (and can) eat your face.


Saturday, February 23, 2013

Ancient Alien Power Source

Where do dungeons come from?

If you are swayed at all by Gygaxian Naturalism this is a serious question. While I enjoy games that have weird stuff in them I find that if things don't make some sort of sense, if there is not some reasonable verisimilitude, I find it hard to suspend my disbelief and invest my imaginative powers in the game.

So where do dungeons come from? Ruins, crypts, and caves seem to account for many of them. Well, why are they full of monsters? What percentage of such things end up being full of monsters? How do they supply themselves and where does their material culture come from? These sorts of questions lead to a Gygaxian Madness of maps full of lots of latrines, bedrooms, and kitchen. How many goblins to a latrine? How much grain do the giant rats need access to? The dungeon master can easily spend enormous amounts of time worrying over this sort of minutia that ends up being quickly forgotten flavor description. Basically not a good use of time worrying over, but if you are a logical sort of person who thinks about these things you will probably spend a lot of time thinking about why exactly some dead become undead, and why certain places are infested with this or that and others aren't. Some of these things are important back-story considerations and others (e.g. how many weeks of rations can you reasonably retrieve from the goblin storage-warehouse, and where did all of these barrels come from?) are just distractions.

How come all of these monsters have managed to exist, survive, and even thrive alongside humans? Humans may have become agrarian because they wiped out all of the mega-fauna they hunted in the paleolithic, so how come we have a world full of crazy beasties alongside professional monster-slaughterers? It is either a crazy game of evolutionary arms-race, or they must be coming from somewhere.

Ancient Alien Power Sources:

In the before time, otherworldly beings visited, lived, fought wars, and died on the planet. The ruins of their technology can be found here and there, particularly if you delve underground where the ruins are protected from the elements. In these places one can find crashed starships, factories, and even cities built out of strange materials and exhibiting wondrous qualities. Most dangerously though one can also find the long-decayed power sources of their civilization.

These power sources, large and small, have lasted across the eons but have decayed and become uncontrolled. Their strange emanations twist the matter and energy of the universe itself. In their vicinity strange creatures roam and the earth itself can become deformed. Sometimes alien sites no longer hold any trace of their true nature other than the power of source. These places hold wondrous unearthly riches and terrible dangers. The power sources themselves, (which have through the ages mutated and changed into many forms) are a miracle and a disaster, bringing both power and corruption to those sorcerers and heroes who attempt to harness their powers.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Updated 0th level character sheet

I have updated the 0th level sheet, the new sheet can be found here.

My next DCC projects:
  • Make a 1st/2nd level sheet. I am thinking it should probably be two characters per sheet.
  • Make some sort of marching order tracker, maybe something as simple as little character nametags that can be pushed around as characters die change march order.
  • Spells record sheet. Instead of printing out gobs of text about each spell I think a simplified cheat sheet for players to fill out would work well. One stop shop for all of the relevant information (mercurial magic, manifestation, brief summary of spell effects, etc.).

Monday, February 18, 2013

Religion on the Isle

Three religious groups account for most of the believers on the Isle: the Church of the One True God, The Holy Order of the Eternal Void, and the Righteous Path.

The Church of the One True God

Before the base world there was pure law, truth is law and all else is illusion and corruption.

The state religion of the Isle and by far the most popular. The Church is responsible for many good works around the Isle including insuring (comparative) safety on the roads and shipping lanes, charity to the poor, and the championing of righteous causes. The Church rejects the notion of other deities, denouncing other powers as devils and tricksters and stamping out other religious sects when able. Encountering the healers and holy warriors of the Church is a boon or bane depending on ones outlook as they are equally quick to help allies and destroy enemies.

The Holy Order of the Eternal Void

Before law and chaos was the void, pure, holy, and unattainable. Seeking the bliss of the void is the only true path.

In secret enclaves and remote temples one can find the Holy Order. Despite cultural, theological, and material encroachment from the Church, this ancient mystical order remains. They quietly and patiently seek out converts among the mystically oriented. The Order claims that they are a peaceful, intellectual sect, but the Church claims that they are in league with evil forces from beyond space and time.

The Righteous Path

Before the coming of the great powers there was only freedom. Freedom is power, slavery is death.

The Righteous Path has no organization or assembly but is rather a loose association of like-minded mystics. They believe that the purpose of the powers of law is to enslave and that the void is a mere shadow of law. Freedom is the true path of humanity. Some say though that the worshipers of the Righteous Path seek only their own freedom regardless of cost, consorting freely with terrible enemies from Outside. The Church hunts the Righteous Path with obsessive fervor.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Horror at Ilio

As I add things to flesh out the Isle of the Unknown I will post a summary here along with the hex it is in. Generally I will post the descriptions, plot hooks, etc. but leave off the game statistics (unless there is a desire for game statistics?).

Hex 0506

On the southern shore of the bay sits the town of Ilio. The town relies heavily on fishing (along with vineyards and some farming).

Over the past few weeks a strange red ooze has been filling the bay corroding the hulls of ships. Some fisherman have disappeared. The ooze can be traced to a small cave along the shore. The cave can only be entered at low tide.

Behind the ooze lies Yapesh, a wizard who, having been taunted by his peers as a scrawny boy in Ilio now seeks revenge against his persecutors. He has sworn allegiance to a terrible brine demon in exchange for his wizardly and alchemical powers. The brine demon takes the form of a giant bipedal shrimp with a blue crystalline rhombus instead of a head. The demon attacks with a powerful psychic attack that enslaves those it does not kill outright.

Yapesh's cave is full of alchemical and magical traps of his own devising, along with the carnivorous shrimp-spawn of the brine demon, psychically enslaved fisherman, a dangerous brine elemental that takes the form of an enormous, iridescent snake, and treacherous portals to a watery extra-planar domain. Beware high tide.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

DCC RPG 0th Level Character Sheet

Update: I have made some minor changes to the character sheet based on player feedback. Here is the new 0th level record sheet.

So, my few readers, the blog has obviously been not doing much since I started my new job this fall. Projects begun and largely abandoned. I am okay with this I think. I've run a fairly good Swords & Wizardry campaign, which I am now throwing overboard to begin a long awaited Dungeon Crawl Classics game. I am going to be running the game on the Isle of the Unknown to get me past the world creation point I always get completely stuck at: the basic map.

My resolutions:
  1. Actually work on fleshing out my game world. I have always enjoyed this but have gotten flummoxed since my return to gaming with the whole map thing. Having removed the map from the equation I should have no more excuses.
  2. Work on creating things that I wish I had access to. For example a 0th level character sheet for Dungeon Crawl Classics.
  3. Post the crap I create for my game.
  4. Post no more random ramblings.
I have wanted a good character sheet for funnel play in DCC. Full character sheets are a waste at this phase and you can go through a lot of index cards.

So I made one: 0th Level Record Sheet. Link updated 2/18/2013.

Feedback is welcome, this was my first time using Scribus (or any layout software for that matter).

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Stag and the Glade

Huntsman and travelers tell of a giant stag that wanders the woods. A careful search of the woods will reveal signs of the stags passing. The stag is fearless and makes no effort to disguise its passage. A ranger or other skilled tracker can follow the stag to an ancient and hidden portion of the forest. The stag will often be found drinking from a clear pool at the foot of a massive deciduous tree. The stag is an ordinary animal but 9 feet tall at the withers with a rack 6 feet across. The stag is fearless but will flee from giants and speakers of giantish. The pool is pure clean water and the tree radiates a faint aura of holy magic. The pool, the tree, and the stag are all under the protection of the various powers of the forest. Desecrating any or all of them will invoke the wrath of the forest but consequences are not immediate, rather agents of the ancient forest will seek revenge from time to time, if they fail however, the wrath of the forest builds over time until making all out war against the violators. Atoning for such a crime is possible but exceedingly difficult. On the other hand protecting the sacred stag and glade from harm will earn the gratitude of the forest itself - a powerful ally indeed.