Tag Archives: RPG

Back to the Stacks

I’ve switched from my novel to doing a bit of work on the Stack based RPG this week. If I’ve not mentioned this before, this is a RPG that utilizes Warhammer style careers but stacked in a related series. The plan is to give bonuses to those players who go through a stack without jumping to a different one, but leave it viable for those who want to jump around to get a more diverse set of skills and abilities.

This week’s work has me fleshing out the system mechanics and working up various lists. Lists of talents and abilities, lists of spells, and a list of skills.
Skills have always been a sticking point when designing. Do I want to have a skill for all conceivable player actions? This leaves me with a long list, the majority of which will never see any apprecable play, let alone do more than give some characters a smattering of flavoring. It doesn’t advance the playability of the game or the character. On the other hand, I could aim for haivng a majority and let the GM and Players do some clean up if they find something I’ve missed? That gets rid of a certail level of customazation I know that some GMs and Players really enjoy having.

It also leaves them with an additional task when creating a character.

With either choice, I’m often stuck on this part of the game for weeks going back and forth.

So I’m trying to do it different with this game.

Last night, I had the idea that the careers have inherent, but litmited, skills and/or abilities (whatever you want to call them) which are directly related to what the career is named. That is if your character starts life as a Baker, then obviously, they’ve had some training and expreience baking goods. In making this a rule, both the player and the GM can safely make the assumption that if anything baking related suddenly becomes important to the story, then this character has the capacity to deal with it. How well they can deal is where dice come into play.

This cuts me free from having to stick in a dozen or more of the more function style of skills. At the same time, it also keeps the sorts of custmozation and character flavor options in there, should the Player or the GM want to go that route.

Which is good. I like that I can keep the skill list short-ish. It means that players are going to have a better chance at doing things, more often because their characters will have the skills to do so.

But then there are the meta-skills.

Perception, awareness, search, and their brethern. Where do they fit in?

Anymore, it’s something of a rite for players to expect, once a session to miss some detail or clue because of a botched test of one of those listed above. It is disheartening and frustrating when it becomes apparent that this was curcial in order to get through the rest of the session.

That player part of me wants to eliminate those failure points. Move to something like the Gumshoe system which gives the characters all of the clues and then uses their skills to put the links between them together. It’s a nice solution which keeps the players invovled in the story and less involved in statistics and dice.

“But,” the GM in me interrupts, “what if the situation calls for the players to be distracted at a crucial clue gathering moment? Or if the GM feels they need to work for a clue to the plot? What then?”

In those situations a skill check certainly feels more appropriate but this doesn’t get us past the underlying dilemma — the use of randomness to advance the plot, rather than using character action to do the same. I’m not saying that randomness isn’t a part of RPG patterns, but I have become suspcious when it’s used for plot.

More thinking is needed before I come to a decision.

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How Wizards can get this Geek back

Wizard of the Coast announced they wanted to hear from the gaming community while designing 5th Ed. Which is great, but seems to miss the point. As far as many are concerned, WotC’s slip-ups and bungling of 4th Ed is reason enough to never look again. While it is tempting to be that sort of grognard, I think the company and designers deserve to know what it would take to get me to come back around.

First, the things that WotC did wrong

The PDF debacle

The digital world is here and now. Pretending otherwise isn’t helping anyone. Taking away the ebooks and pdfs did absolutely nothing to deter or prevent people from having a digital copy. All it did was take away legit sales. All it did was alienate people. All it did was create a PR nightmare that continues to this day.

Bad communication and inconsistent messages

What was the plan with 4th and why did it get changed so frequently? What was supposed to be the core books and which were optional? What was the difference between Essentials and the Red Box? And how were those different from the core? And what was the bloody point to it all?

If something changes this needs to communicated. If something advertised is impacted, this needs to be communicated. If something gets cancelled, this needs to be communicated. And the reason needed to be communicated, too. Hiding behind press releases and allowing rumors to get started never helps maintain a brand, let alone the goodwill of the gaming community.

Lack of support

It’s great that they went back and converted many of their settings but what else was done with them? Nothing! Where was Dungeon with the latest installment of an ongoing campaign? Where was the weekly “encounter” example? Where was free intro adventure to said setting? Where was Dragon with the interesting twist on play or class?

And in conjunction with my previous point of communication, it seems to me like there should have been a greater effort to make players aware of some of these things (if they existed, which I’m not sure that they did).

Subpar products

How much errata did they release? How many times did they forget to include necessary mechanics in their books? Nothing is as frustrating as finding that the part you’ve just spent three days searching for never made it into the final product.

Cards, minis, tokens, decks. AKA: Extras

These are distractions even when they’re the central mechanic of play. Remember that all of this started with pencil and notebook paper. Add some standard dice and that is all you should ever need to play. Anything less and you have broken RPGs. Substitutions do not apply. Additions, maybe, but they have to be optional and cheap enough to buy for everybody.

Even Fantasy Flight had to relent and give players straight up books with the card info in them in order to keep selling their version of WFRP. The point being we of the RPG world don’t like being forced into buying extras to keep playing. If we wanted to do that, we’d be playing Magic (and some of us still are). Keep with making the books the sole point of information to play.

What they need to do

Convince me there’s a vision

A D&D that’s all things to all players already exists. It’s called GURPS. If I want to play that, I know how to find it. And while I am fan of Monte Cook’s work, I already have the most recent revision of his best. There needs to be something new, something different, something cool about this next version of D&D.

The thing is, no company gets customers automatically. The execs of many may think they do, going so far as to see these people as an inevitability. But that’s not how it works. You have to earn your customers and their loyalty. Nothing stands out more in this line of thought than Gabe Newel’s recent comments about Steam and his business.

He is spot on about how the media companies are killing themselves by worrying over control instead of delivering the goods to people for a price they want to pay.

The same has to happen to the culture of Hasbro and WotC. They have to let go of the control ideology and embrace an more open paradigm.

Which translates into support, support, support

They need to step up the support of digital world. That means pdfs, ebooks, and the web. Yes, people will send these to their friends. Yes, they will be on torrents. And guess what? This will happen anyways. If Hasbro/WotC wants any chance to stay relevant, they must ignore the inevitable and provide a product that people will pay for.

Also, web tools. The character generator should be out front and ready to be used by any passing browser. Don’t make the gateway to your system sit behind a paywall or a log-in. Let players make thousands of characters for the hell of it. One or two might get turned into a sale. And that’s what the goal should be.

Anything else (GM tools, maps, etc) can sit behind a log-in. Freemium at the very least with a dollar or two for 48/72 hours of unlock of extra tools. Make the tools good enough, you can start selling week/month/year subscriptions as the word spreads. These need to be available at launch. No later unless you want to hear how this is just like the 4th Ed tools that never existed.

Support also means more than settings. It means having campaigns in those settings. Sourcebooks and gazetteers are nice, but nothing beats being able to point a player to a single source of everything needed for their game night. Getting set up is a chore and one that 4th attempted to solve. But that was solving for the wrong variable. The right one is having the story ready to go.

Even better would be to match what Paizo has done with Pathfinder and have a continuing, living, open campaign to draw the players. Pick one of your many properties. Start writing and have fun with it.

Acknowledging the past

I have no idea about the actual costs, but with the rise of the retroclones, it is obvious that there are players craving something of the old-school. And since there’s this gigantic back catalog there is absolutely no sense in not tapping it. In keeping with my first point, this also means digitizing it. Make it available and make it cheap. Suck it up, figure out the maze of royalties, and give your customers what they so obviously want.

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Investing and RPGs — A philosophic journey

Something occurred to me after listening to my employer’s quarterly meeting. What triggered this thought was the way the CEO went on about the investors and what he believes they’re looking to get from companies.

The thought was this: The RPG market has two separate sets of investors. The first group are those who spend money to get get games printed. Let’s call this group the Publishers. In most cases, this group does the work of publishing in the hopes of getting some return for their money. It doesn’t have to be a whole lot, and smartly, this group will see potential in lots of games and will spread the risk of their investment throughout all of them and hope that a good return on any one of them will cover the losses on all the others.

The second group invest their time to take the RPG and make it fun for others. Let’s call them the Makers. We can’t use the common economic framework of risk and reward to understand this group. Their investment is to create adventures, to host events, and to promote it among their friends and family. This makes many of the Makers fickle and loyal. They can see any one aspect of an RPG as the thing which draws them to it. Remove this one thing and you will risk losing their investment in your system.

Without the Makers’ investment, your system sits on store shelves, languishing.

Without the Publishers’ investment, your system may never see print.

What are these investors goals?

Obviously, Publishers want to have a monetary return. Although they may have secondary goals that led them into that business, their primary is to make money. To do this, your RPG has to sell.

Which leads us to the Maker’s goals. To have fun. To make something interesting to play. To tell stories. To entertain and engage with friends or strangers through drama and dice. To do this, your RPG must have a certain level of accessibility.

Boiling it down we end up in a situation where access has to be balanced against profit. Is there a good way to maintain this in the digital landscape? Does one trump the other?

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Combat in Lucha Libre RPG

It is assumed that in RPGs every character will at some point contribute to combat in some fashion. This keeps people playing together and keeps the in-game characters as friends, mostly. However, wrestling is an individual sport. It’s drama is kept to one or two person teams who fight against one or two person teams as individuals. For an RPG based around wrestling, there needs to be a way for combat based conflict resolution  to engage the players who are not currently in the ring. What follows are a few thoughts I’m currently exploring on how to do this.

The first idea I’ve toyed with is to create some additional combat parameters. Let’s call them “Stress” and “Crowd”. Stress would weigh negatively on combat, where as the Crowd would weigh positively. The idea is then the non-combat players would do what they can to keep these parameters in positive territory for their side while working to push them into negative territory for their opponents. This mirrors the psychological side of combat as well as giving the non-combat characters something to do.

That still leaves me with defining what these parameters are mechanically. Crowds seems more obvious than Stress in thinking about it right now. This would be the non-combat characters doing what they could to rally the crowd to their friend’s side though shouting and cheering and otherwise being gregarious with the people. This sort of thing is infectious and can be seen to easily pass from one person to another where people are gathered for sport. There would be some sort of skill + attribute roll that is modified by how much the crowd is already cheering for the wrestler or the team. This increases the ability of those in the ring to land their attacks as they would be buoyed by the crowd while simultaneously their opponent would have some of their same emotion taken away.

If Crowd comes from outside the ring, then Stress should come from what is happening inside of it. Currently, I have a tentative character attribute called Pain which exists for all characters. This is a measure of the character’s endurance, of how long they can keep going inside the ring before becoming exhausted physically and can no longer continue in the bout. Pain is generated though the moves, holds, and pins that the characters know. All moves can cause some pain and thus wear down the opponent.  So I need to avoid duplicating or complicating this aspect of the character. — Aside: Need to give some sort of temporary pain recovery mechanism for tag-team matches. —

With that restriction, it seems that Stress seems like a good way to reduce the effectiveness of a given attack. The character is not going to be concentrating on how well they’re doing. They’re stressed and their attention is elsewhere. They may be able to land the attack, but it is not going to be as good as if they weren’t distracted by other thoughts. This also seems like a good play to introduce some sort of dominance or fear based effect. Something I’ll have to keep in mind as I continue to develop this RPG.

So Crowd makes it easier to land an attack while stress can take away some of that attack’s effectiveness. Does this balance itself out? Is it possible to tweak things to the point where a player has too much of an advantage, and if so how does that play out dramatically? Right at this moment, I don’t know. It is something to put on the list of playtesting items to watch. Until I get to that point I’ll have to run dice simulations once I start assigning numbers to stats and skills.

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Building up the rpg market

The amount of money being spent on various forms of entertainment these days is growing, but for some reason, the RPG market remains in its limited scope. Why is this?  Considering that one of the biggest trends in entertainment has been the so-called interactive experience, I find it surprising that RPGs haven’t been touted loudly. The core of RPGs is interaction and the sharing of fun with other people.  However, I realize that these games have had a controversial existence marked with swathes of provocative misinformation and purposeful misunderstandings hounding those who play them.

Perceptions of what these games are and those who play them are the biggest culprit. Not long ago, some umbrage with the images and themes used in the biggest of games, Dungeons and Dragons. Grabbing the headlines, blame for all sorts of horrid and completely imaginary events was unjustly laid at the feet of a mere game. If you look in the right places you can still find this going on today. One of the saddest of these demonetizations came from Jack Chick and his ignorant pamphlets. In it, he unsubtly proclaims that playing D&D leads directly to devil worship, and does so in the most serious of terms. If it wasn’t so sad, all of this would be hilarious. However, since many took them seriously much damage was done to the reputation of RPGs.

To counter these perceptions we must be proactive in advocacy. And to do that we must be honest with ourselves about what we are doing.

Role Playing Games are make believe. Dressed up with esoteric rules and polyhedral dice, we project ourselves into worlds of fantastic designs, supernatural powers, and heroic paragons. But at the very core of this experience is a game of make believe. Couched in these terms RPGs don’t seem very dangerous. Practically childish, in fact.  This is a good thing. It takes a sprained mind to twist such a simple idea. However, there is someone else to consider in terming it this way. Us. It will probably take some time for gamers to become comfortable with these terms, nonetheless, this must happen before progress can be made.

Once the idea of “make believe” has been accepted by everyone, we can build on it to show that it’s not a childish escape. There is intellectual, cultural, and artistic merit to the things we do.  In taking on these alternative personas, we get a chance to experience life from a different perspective. Questions of a philosophical nature are given life in new and exciting ways not easily experienced in everyday life. This acceptance even gives us a chance to explain the iconography in proper context, finally pushing our hobby out of the metaphorical dungeon it has been languishing in.

There is a second perception which needs to be addressed. The perception of ourselves.

I have been to GenCon twice now and have to say that I could not have met and had fun with nicer people. Strangers and friends alike, everyone found themselves enjoying the fun. Everything else was ignored as unimportant. Gender, identity, ethnicity, and the lines which generally divide humanity were all tossed away. It’s hard to explain to those who have never experienced anything like it, but for all too briefly the only important matter was laughter and fun.

So why do we accept the picture of a basement dwelling, misogynistic, agoraphobe drenched in sour smelling stains of sweat as the public face for this particular facet of our lives? Why do gamers, RPG players in particular, allow this stereotype to continue unchallenged?

The vast majority of us aren’t represented by this view. For some unknown reason, we tolerate it, and it keeps people away. I’m beginning to think that deep inside we are all elitist assholes. That we don’t want other people to play if it’s not someone already approved. I hope this isn’t the case because it couldn’t be further from how I feel. I like including more people, new people, in my sessions. I like new faces because it means we get new views on the story. There will always be a few outliers that do live in their parent’s basement, eschewing greater social contact for the insulating glow of 20 watt bulbs and the screen of their computers, but that does not mean we accept it as the face the rest of the world judges us by. It by no means is me, my wife, or my friends.

A few years back Wil Wheaton gave the keynote at PAX. In it, he goes through why he continues his gaming and why he exposed his kids to it. In the end he give some sage advice to those who want to spread the word. Don’t be a dick. I cannot think of a singular, simpler way to express what must be done to get more people to join in the fun.

Play. Have fun. Include strangers. And don’t be a dick.

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Embracing Change in the RPG universe

They can’t away your books. Really, they can’t.

Games change. New companies buy licenses, old companies get new developers, different ideas are bandied about to see what sticks. The point is nothing remains the same forever. Not even your favorite RPG system. In the last couple of years the RPG world has been inundated by change. WotC announced and brought to market D&D 4th edition. Paizo responded by having one of the most open, transparent, and popular beta testings of a new system, their D&D 3.5 based system, Pathfinder. And at GenCon this year both Fantasy Flight Games and AEG announced that two popular systems, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and Legend of the Five Rings, respectively, are going to see new versions published in the next six months.

Yet all of this change is not completely welcomed. There is something in the makeup of many gamers that does not welcome these changes; something in how habits are formed. Wherein, playing at the same time each week, at the same house, with the same system and same GM, over and over again, an inertia is created that is not easily overcome. So much so that it is usually not nearly enough when one person in that group may want to try something different, it is the whole group which must embrace something new in order for it to happen.

However, it is shortsighted to say that this is only in the hands of players. The companies which produce and publish these games also bear some culpability. They also get trapped in inertia, but of a different nature. These are habits of risk avoidance and profit seeking. It is expensive to bring major change to an established series; development and testing is rarely free and advertisement is pricey. Faced with these costs is it no wonder that new versions can take decades to reach a release. There is also the matter of previous advertisement that the publishers must deal with. You don’t have to look very hard to find where these were declared “The Best Evar!” and “Will Never Be Replaced!”. All of which has no small contribution to the risks that fans often reject changes outright.

I, too get caught up in these feelings and am tempted to go down the path of least resistance. Perhaps a smarter idea would be to admit that games change to fit the times. Popular roleplaying systems today may not be popular next year. We need to admit that there is no such thing as “The Best Evar!” and that a fanatical adherence to any particular system is a disservice to our experiences and time spent with friends. We must also respect differences in opinion; admitting not everyone enjoys or feels the same way is as important to remember as is having fun.

Most importantly, we need to remind ourselves that they can never take away our books. Just because a new version comes out, our books do not stop working. The words are still there and can still be used to create whatever world you see fit. Nothing is stopping your keyboard from writing new adventures and playing them. Just because a new version comes out, does not mean our previous experiences are magically invalidated. Your memories of fun and excitement do not disappear into a void, they are as much yours to keep as are the books. And finally, just because a new version comes out it does not mean that you have to embrace it. If the old is what you like, then by all means stick to it. There is nothing in this world compelling you to buy everything new. That sort of blind loyalty is as destructive as blindly rejecting the new.

In return for this reasonable reaction to the new, publishers need to respond with like. Make available unfettered electronic copies of previous versions so that books may be replaced as they age and wear out. If you have done your jobs correctly, then it should be cheap, simple, and profitable to do so. I also ask that publishers stop with the advertisements that push ideas of exclusivity and fanaticism of your systems. Trouble only follows when your fans become fanatics. You cannot predict when they will turn on you. Open up your development process to be seen and stop keeping every little thing a secret. Remember that communication no longer takes the form of monthly magazines. If you want us to embrace change, then let us witness it as it occurs. We have a world which communicates in seconds what used to take days or weeks. Allow us the chance to see the justification for change.

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