Thursday, October 23, 2008

Writers and Gaming

I just stumbled across this article. Short, and I've heard some of these people talk about writing and gaming before (especially China Mieville), but it's a pretty interesting read nonetheless. I must admit at times I can't tell if I'm a wannabe adventure writer who likes to play and run RPGs, or if I'm an RPG hobbyist who likes to try his hand at fiction every so often. I'm sure a lot of other gamers fall into a similar quandary.

Anyhow, here's the article: Of Dice and Men: Modern Fantasists and the Influence of Role-Playing Games.

Just A Thought

A lot of people consider a defining aspect of "Old School" RPGs the fact that they lack a "skills system". Just a few quick thoughts about this with regards to "classic" D&D...

- The idea of "levels" in D&D is, really, a representation of how skilled, overall, a character is in their ability to perform the tasks of their given class.

- A character's ability to hit (call it THAC0 or not, you know what I mean), is a generic "combat skill".

- A character's saving throw numbers represent the skill needed to avoid dangerous effects.

- A cleric's ability to turn undead represents skill in doing said activity.

- A character's hit points, being such an abstract, amorphous concept to begin with, represent skill in turning a sword blow that would have killed them at one point (7 hp damage vs. 6 hp) into a minor injury (7 hp damage vs. 30 hp).

- A dwarf's or elf's ability to spot secret doors, or a halfling's ability to hide...all skills. One might argue that it's not a "skill", but an innate ability, but in any other game system, it would still be treated as a skill, albeit not a "learned" one.

- Any time a DM asks a PC to make a roll vs. an Attribute to accomplish something, that is as much a representation of the PC's skill at doing that as their innate "ability" to do the task. If you ask a Mage to make an Int roll to remember some bit of arcane lore, what you're really doing is making a skill check vs. an "invisible skill" that the Mage has developed over time.

- Do we even need to mention Thief Skills? Yeah, they're not in the white what? They're in every other "old school" version of D&D.

Agree or disagree as you like. These are just some observations I came up with while pondering the idea of D&D being a game that doesn't have "skills". The way I see it, any character ability which A) can increase as the PC grows more powerful, or B) represents some aspect of the character developed through character experience, and C) is a basic function of the PC's career (read: class), is a skill. Just because it's not put into a skills list, and just because it doesn't involve a unified mechanic like percentiles or d20/3E, that doesn't mean it's not a character skill.

Friday, October 17, 2008

CiaB: The Mystery Scrolls

There are a lot of parallels, both good and bad, between the United States and the height of the Roman Empire. I'm not going to get into anything deeply political or social here, but what I am going to focus on is that, when it comes right down to it, Rome makes such a great campaign setting precisely because there are so many parallels to draw on. Your average middle class urbanite probably has a lot more in common with a Roman tradesman circa 40 BC than with some Frankish peasant circa 1200 AD. And yet, for whatever reason, Medieval games seem to be several orders of magnitude more popular that RPGs set in the Roman world.

Therefore, my Campaign in a Bottle for this week is The Mystery Scrolls. Simply put, it is The X-Files meets HBO's Rome. The ancient world was full of supernatural mysteries, mythical creatures, dark magics, and other weirdnesses. You've got heavily built up cities as well as primeval forests, customs and superstitions from dozens of cultures all mixing together and providing lots of interesting avenues of adventure exploration.

My more specific campaign premise would be that the PCs are members of a secret Imperial organization, sanctioned by the Emperor (or the Senate, if you're setting the game pre-Caesar) to investigate instances of dark sorcery, hauntings, attacks by mysterious creatures - anything that the Emperor or the Senate feels more conventional bodies are ill-equipped to handle. Now, this being the Ancient World, there's going to be a more pragmatic viewpoint towards these happenings - after all, at least a good portion of Romans really did have some belief in "magic", and who really did know what was out in some of those ancient Germanic forests?

Just like The X-Files, there is the potential for lots of varied adventures. One session could involve tracking down a vampire who's stalking the streets of Rome at night, feeding on drunken, unwary nobles. Another session might find the PCs on the British frontier, going against a powerful Celtic druid who's frustrating the efforts of the Legions to subdue the populace. Another session might have to deal with the haunting of a Roman villa, while the next might place our PCs in Greece, dealing with a bloodthirsty Minotaur cult that's making trouble for Roman trade interests.

One nice option for a game like this, is that because of the distances involved, it might make sense to use a stable of PCs, rather than a set party, and this would mean that you could have a huge variety of characters, both Roman and foreign. While Rome was a pretty biased, racist state, they certainly were not above employing foreigners, and depending on when exactly the campaign is set, you could have any number of European, African, or Mediterranean PCs of a wide variety of professions. Magic-using PCs, both "wizards" and "priests" (although there was a lot less differentiation back then) would be very handy - in fact, this sort of game would actually lend itself quite well to a D&D-esque four-class party of Fighter/Thief/Mage/Cleric.

And to further sweeten the pot, just like The X-Files, there's nothing preventing a clever GM from mixing "conspiracy" sessions with "creature features". the Roman world was rife with conspiracies, and it would be almost impossible for some of the PC's missions to not be politically motivated. Taken even further up the Weirdness Scale, you could start working in, dare I say it, the "Alien Menace". Hmmm, Stargate, anyone? After all, if the sandal fits...why not wear it?

Questions, Comments, Suggestions?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

New Feature: Campaign in a Bottle

I'm one of those GMs who, for whatever reason, always has a slew of campaign ideas running through my head at any given time. It's probably one of the reason I tend to run short campaigns of about a year or so - I latch onto one great idea, run with it, and within a few months, start getting fish-hooked by another "great idea". I eventually wind down the current campaign, and dive into the new idea - wash, rinse, repeat.

So, since I can't constantly be running games left right and center, I figured I'd start sharing some of my ideas with all of you - thus was born Campaign in a Bottle. I'll try to post a semi-regular campaign premise, something not too terribly original but perhaps an idea with a little bit of a twist on it - I've got a few ideas bubbling away in the still, ready to be 'bottled' and posted. I'll try to get one of them up either today or tomorrow, and put up another one every week or two.

And yes, that song by The Police is going through my head too. Sorry about that.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Who Blinks First?

So, say you've got a RPG campaign going on. After some time, it becomes evident to pretty much everyone that there's some indefinable miscommunication happening, because the game that the GM proposed and is trying to run just doesn't seem to be the sort of game the players are trying to play, and even among the players, there seems to be a disagreement as to how the game is/should be played out. Perhaps the GM wants a game that's more like Lord of the Rings, while some players are looking for Conan and others are trying for Fafhrd & The Grey Mouser.

In these sorts of situations, who blinks first? Assuming that each viewpoint is what that person considers "fun", and they aren't really interested in another person's "vision" of the game (for example, the GM doesn't want to do Conan and the players aren't really Epic Quest sorts of players, but more into Ale & Whores sorts of gaming), who gives in? Personally, I've always felt that the ultimate goal of the Game Master is to ensure that the players have fun. If the players aren't enjoying themselves, the GM isn't doing their job right. This doesn't mean always giving in to every whim of the PCs/Players, but more a matter of filtering out what the players really want from what they say they want, and responding appropriately.

On the other hand, if the GM was smart and approached the Players with a good pre-game proposal for what the campaign would be like, and the players agreed, then the players should really be respecting the time and effort the GM put into preparing and planning for the game, and get into the spirit of things. If you agreed that LotR-esque fantasy gaming would be an acceptable campaign premise for you, don't show up to the game and immediately ask where the taverns and wenches are, all while battle-axing any grimy peasant who doesn't move out of your way fast enough. You're probably smart enough to know that Grogbash the Barbarian isn't an appropriate character to have wandering around the Faire and Noble Kingdome of Hondore.

So under these circumstances, I ask you, gentle readers, who blinks first? Which side of the GM's screen caves and gives the other side what they want? Or should they just agree to disagree and pick something else to play?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Wraith Recon RPG Setting

It took me a few moments to "get" the title of this new fantasy setting for 4E D&D, put out by Mongoose Publishing. Now, I'm a big fan of the original Ghost Recon game. Actually, I was a big fan of the original Rainbow Six and Rogue Spear computer games, and Ghost Recon took my enthusiasm to a whole new level. I would play GR for hours upon hours, my whole world nothing but my 19" monitor and my headphones (definitely one of the first games for me where the usefulness of stereo sound was critical - you could actually tell where voices and footsteps and gunfire was coming from just by listening). I never played GR 2, and GRAW (Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter) has been long neglected but is currently on deck for the next time I get the video gaming bug. In terms of FPS video games, I think Ghost Recon is one of the best for an overall sense of realism, tension, and just plain attention to detail. There are better looking games and more advanced games, but Ghost Recon is for me the standard against which all other FPS's are judged.

Which brings us back to Wraith Recon. Now, I'm not super obsessed with fantasy being kept as "traditional" fantasy, but there's just something that rubs me the wrong way here. Granted, most PC parties are like a Special Forces A-Team - you've got specialists, you've got cross-trained generalists, you've got recon and medics and heavy support and all that fun stuff, just in a fantasy PC group. BUT, to take this idea and carry it to what may or may not be a natural conclusion just sits a little bit wrong with me. I usually don't mind a little cross-pollenation of my gaming genres, but it has to be done with a certain sly-wink attitude so that I know it's all done for the sake of a good laugh and a little bit of "hey, that's sweet!". This setting just seems a little too close to serious to give me that vibe. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe I'm right, who knows.

I ask that you take a look, and judge for yourselves. Comments?