Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Campaign design in Tianxia

By now you have probably picked up on what's my favourite Fate setting, the wuxia game Tianxia from Vigilance Press. I have ran a few sessions, and decided to wrote some words on how setting development and campaign design have worked for me.

First off I might say I consider a campaign to be a GM and his or her ongoing game, not a storyline. That being said, I have not really thought much about where this game will be heading. My main focus was to have a set up that would enable people to come and go, and always have a reason so slot in the game for a night.

The gathering point, I decided, would be one of the security and escort companies that litter the setting of Jiangzhou. Having a central repository of "missions" and clients would help tie the characters to existing conflicts and also to powerful individuals that could make life interesting for them.

If you have ever played Call of Cthulhu, you are probably well familiar with the question of not only "why are we doing this again?", but also "why am I hanging out with these nut cases again?". For me that is a very relevant question, not only in CoC. By having the escort company, I get to offer some kind of fall back to those questions for the PCs. For those tired nights when everyone feel less than inspired, that can be a great help. This is what I wrote for the central organization for my campaign.
The Iron Monkey Security Company
It Will Be Delivered On Time
Discretion Above All
It's like a family
Great Contacts +4
Good Resources +3
Fair Lore +3
I really like the way you stat things up like this. I gives you some game mechanics to hang on to. If I'm out of ideas I can always use those traits as a problem and off we go.

For me it has often been a source of problem to tie the PCs to the actions in the setting. I've been a CoC fan for ages, and the idea of Delta Green as a solution to that age old problem for CoC is not exactly new to me. Maybe I had to read it in a book to feel I got the blessing of the game designer to use it somewhere else, I don't know.

I decided the company is run by "Old Monkey Li" one of the disciples of The Flashing Sword Song. Another of Song's disciples, Madame Wu, is running The Golden Flower Company which will be a possible source of conflicts.

I think the next time I start up a "D&D game", broadly interpreted, I will also start with an centring organization like this. It strikes me as I write this that The Harpers in the Realms probably started out with a similar function. Well, it would not be the first time I was a late guest to the party...

This is what I had when I started the first session. Every night would be another mission, or some intermezzo created by the last one. Regardless who showed up, the company would have representatives present as everyone was a brother or sister in the company. I decided to start the off on their way home from a mission, and naturally there was an ambush in the woods. Original, yeah right. But, it has worked before, have it not? At least it were no kobolds involved. Let's just say it's a classic.

From this start we put things in motion, and I'll write more about the highs and lows of what happened later. 


Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Running a game of Fate - Tianxia

Having played a few sessions of Fate, and having seen how much it's been talked about, I took the plunge and ran a game myself. The publisher of Tianxia has a great blog post about running demo games of Tianxia. I stole his setup whole cloth, and it worked great!

I've found there are some things I really like with Fate. My favourite above all is how easy it is to create the opposition. You just need to think up the main thing the character is about, that's their High Concept, and add their top three skills in the pyramid and you're ready to go.

I guess that is precisely the thing that makes class based systems work so well. For me those have never been categories that sparked my imagination, though. Being able to use Drunk Brute or Snarky Magistrate  just runs straight into what makes me go "wow" and get ideas about what that character can do that would be cool to put in a scene with the PCs.

This might be the "killer feature" I unconsciously have been missing in so many other games. It makes me think that there might have been a reason I so often have relied on stock NPC templates from the GM chapters of the rules of whatever game I'm running. Interesting that it took so long to figure that out!

Monday, September 15, 2014

How many clones do you need?

Today I listened to a Swedish gaming podcast, Viskningar från kryptan [Whispers from the Crypt], about a new old school game Svärd och Svartkonst [Sword and Sorcery]. Incidentally, this coincides with a new release of Delving Deeper being talked about. It's interesting, because I felt roughly the same level of interest in both of them. Let's begin by considering the older one.

As some of you might know, that latter game was once part of the train wreck that is Brave Halfling Publishing. But, after having been published by BHP, others have kept developing it, and now have a new version available.

When I heard about that, my first impulse was to groan and turn away. Buy that game? Again? But wait a minute. Haven't I done that before, and cheered my fortune almost every time?

Naturally, Delving Deeper has had a troubled road to walk to get to my door, but I don't think this apprehension about a new version of the game has that much to do with the troubles with the delivery of the last one. The fact that SoS didn't make me look forward that much to its release might be a clue to a general state of disinterest for new old school games, for me.

I have pdf copies of OD&D, LotFP first boxed set, Delving Deeper boxed set from BHP, Swords & Wizardry White Box Edition, Swords & Wizardry standard edition, Dragons At Dawn, Ambition & Avarice, Dark Dungeons, B/X and BECMI, AD&D1 and also multiple editions of T&T and other non-D&D old school games. Guess how many of those I have played? Why should I play them all? Are they all interesting enough on their own? I think most people have probably done like me, but mostly play or or two of them that best suit their taste and personality.

While this might be old news to most of my readers, I have not really had these thoughts sink in before. I've read a blog post about someone who really found one of the games mentioned above really great. I rushed out to buy it, and might have browsed it a bit before putting it on the shelf among the rest. Now suddenly I find myself with doubts. Why do I not at once become enthusiastic for these new game releases? I think I might have reached the point where I say I really don't need any more clones, or retro inspired games.

Since it feels like I have lost some enthusiasm, I'm planning on taking them out one by one and post my thoughts about it. If nothing else it might tell me what it was I found to enticing, and that I no longer can grasp.

Then again, I might already have Delving Deeper, but SoS? Maybe I should just buy, one more, and then call it quits...

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Waking up, smelling the coffee and thinking ahead

Excuse me if I wax a bit poetic in my post titles. Sometimes I get a bit influenced by Samuel R. Delaney and created titles that sound pretentious and grand. Considering I lag behind him English style, it might sometimes become a bit comical. You'll get those laughs for free.

Since I have woken up this blog, here are my intentions going forward.

I have been thinking a bit about D&D again in the hubbub about the 5th ed. and I have been playing mostly Fate recently, so I will write about those things.

Fate for me is a very strange experience. It's a game that liberates, and at the same traps me in crunch and game mechanics. D&D at the same times feels very much more like a sounding board, a reference, than a living game for me. Maybe 5th ed. will change that. I will at least make an attempt in that direction.

Let's go. First out is a post about my thoughts relating to an old school D&D release.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Waking up, slowly

If you have followed this blog for a long time, you know I used to post pretty often. I faded out of it all, loosing interest. Now I have once again started to feel the stirrings of blog posts, so even though the pace might be fairly slow I will start posting again.


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

How to have a moving combat

A while ago we had a game session in our irregular D&D game, and it made me realize that as mechanics went, it was a very clunky game session. I wondered at the time if there was a better way to model what was happening in the fiction, and how the rules might steer you away from something that makes sense in the fiction, but would not be fun or work well in the game mechanics you're using.

We were travelling in a boat, with one PC rowing like crazy since his STR is way better than the rest of the characters. The rest were tasked with protecting a NPC also in the boat, and we were all trying to reach the middle of this lake as fast as possible. That was the easy part. Don't let that fool you, it became a stumbling block for game mechanics as well. More on that later. Now for the dramatic part.

As we sat in that boat, a hundred or so of tiny red dragons circled ahead, and they started to swoop down and attack us. Picture this in your mind.

Picture now in your mind a battle mat, minis on the table for the characters. Now you have to place, and move, all those critters attacking us. Yes. Picture that.

So how on earth do you handle the fact that the boat and its passengers are moving constantly and thus leave the flying creatures behind and new ones come swooping in and you have to keep track of which one is which, and who has gotten 4 hits, 2 hits or maybe is under the influence of a Slow spell? Our DM was kind enough to limit our attackers to just 20, but it was still quite a circus. Also, it was slow moving and it felt quite clunky.

Of course, you could decide that the error here was to bring out the minis and the battle mat in the first place. But, would you do better by trying to just describe all that in vague terms? It would probably be even harder to remember which dragon was hit, and for how much. Maybe the relative movement could have been easier that way, but I'm not sure.

I guess you can tell that 3rd ed D&D was not a great match for this. If I had been the DM, I probably would have tried to figure out a way to change the narrative instead of the rules. But, the setting were set up and I liked the fact that the cool part of what was happening in the setting did happen, regardless of the rules. Thinking about it, I wondered what kind of rules set would handle this.

I pondered some rules I know, and some which people usually grasp for to model wild and woolly action scenes with. Doing a chase in Savage Worlds sounds like it could work quite nice, especially with the new chase rules in SW Deluxe. But, having used those rules I feel they are only slightly less painful than the alternative, not pleasant. Picking another favourite in the gaming scene online, Fate, don't solve it either. You could use Zones and maybe abstractly make the movement easier to handle that way, but the damage tracking would still be there. Frankly I'm not sure the chase would not have been a bit bland in Fate, really. I have not checked the Toolkit book for any rules about chases, though. BRP would probably be just as cumbersome as D&D.

So no great and simple solution readily available, eh?

What was it I wrote about the rowing? Yeah, you know what? There are no numbers in the book about how fast you move in a boat. Seriously? No data? Sailing? Rowing? Nothing. You have to make it up, and guess if that turned into a show stopper as well... While I felt the DM handled the scene as well as could be expected when the action finally started, I really wanted to scream when people slowly and politely discussed how fast beasts and boat should be able to move.

The session left me with the question of how to better model this, and I've still to find the answer.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Comparing two game sessions and the prep - Savage Worlds & Stormbringer

I've been thinking and writing a bit about my recent online game. One thing I was not really satisfied with that game was the flow and pacing, but it highlighted different ways to handle game prep. I thought it might be interesting to compare that game to a Savage Worlds/Agents of Oblivion I ran last year. That game was not online using Hangouts, so the issues I had with that format did not apply, of course. But, I realize that there are other interesting differences.

For those who are interested in how prep notes for a SW/AoO game can look like, check these notes. It's worth nothing that my Agents of Oblivion had a healthy dose of Cthulhu to it, and less James Bond.

Worthy about these notes is that I've listed the names of people, but very little about what they know or what they will do. I improvised that part as we played. Also, I had a vague plan that was basically using the look and feel of a small mining village like the one in the movie October Sky and the dramatic feel of a X-Files episode. Basically, I knew the place and the people, but except that the only thing clear was that the Fungi would mind wipe the characters. Then I just made sure weird shit happened.

I can tell you that they investigated the shit out of that place! They basically took Jackson's place apart and sawed out a bit of the floor with some odd scratches/markings which might have been a Mi-go claw mark! After a fight with the MIBs they totally freaked out when they turned to piles of sand! Some pretty cool roleplaying happened when the sheriff showed up and they had to fast talk her and cover up the weird shit. To say nothing of their trip down to the mines...

In my Stormbringer game on the other hand, I had figured out how they would be forced into the situation, how they would encounter some people who could show them the way and a clear end to their travels, and a final scene where they could do two things. Those was dependent on them either being convinced of the need to repair the world machine or to destroy it. While a con game has to be slightly linear, I can now see some additional problems with it.

While the Savage Worlds game was all centred on the mining village of Torchwood, the players could talk to anybody and go wherever they liked. Also, they could do it in any order. The other game was built on a trip by caravan, where things would unfold. Sure I had the feel and attitude nailed down as well. I wanted the freaky aspect and unreal quality of dream to play up. Moorcock usually introduce the outre into the mundane and I wanted that feel. Less fun with the travel, though. I'm more convinced than ever that trips in roleplaying games should be narrated in a sentence or be the whole point.

Trying to make travel be just part of a scenario never seem to work for me. This makes me think of the Call of Cthulhu scenario Blood on the Tracks from the excellent scenario collection Out of the Vault by Pagan Publishing. Running that worked excellent and it was all travel. In comparison I don't think I've really did any low technology fantasy wilderness adventure that worked well. Know what you're good at, and play to your strengths...

Friday, March 28, 2014

Everything carries baggage

For those who read my post from yesterday about how game systems might colour your experience when converting a setting, this is a good read.

The big thing is how things are presented in Ron Edwards game Circle of Hands and how some attitudes about controversial things can seep into a game text in a way not intended. Sometimes a text might be coloured by your views, and sometimes your views are so natural to you that you do not write them out, which also colour it. Ron has already revised the text for it to clearer reflect his views on these topics and it will make it a better game I'm sure.

Naturally, the lesson here is how not only the game rules, but also the game text can carry meaning and sometimes even baggage you did not intent it to. It pays to have an open mind.

Some people say they just want to kill some orcs and relax among their friends. Sure, that's fine. But, this conversation between Ron and the owner of the Go Make Me a Sandwich blog (who I for the life of me can't find the name of anywhere!) brings out an interesting potential as well.

Instead of having a game carry unintended baggage, bring it out into the open! In a post-apocalyptic game I ran last year we had some quite interesting sessions where the conflict between the owner of a sawmill and the sawmill workers escalated and involved the players. My political views was not a hidden agenda, it was up for debate, forcefully so! We had great fun and it worked out ok. It pays to have an open mind, right?

While I think you have to tread carefully, I think this hobby of ours can even handle problematic issues like sexism and rape (and just plain politics). Unless you game with dickheads, and you don't do that, do you? Good.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Flavour of the week - converting between gamesystems

In between the Fate game I play in, and my resurging love of BRP, I think about these trends in converting games to your favourite system.

When Savage Worlds debuted I remember seeing threads on everyday about how you could "savage" this or that old classic and make it sing again. Savage Worlds was the "flavour of the week" so to speak.

I'm a fan of Savage Worlds, and many games I think really benefit from a "savaging". But, one thing not always taken into account in those happy endorsements are the flavour a game system bring to the table. These days the worse enthusiasm have cooled off Savage Worlds, and now I think it's more often suggested for games that need that special pizzazz and zing that a fast flowing pulp, action game gives you. Needless to say, that's not all settings and games.

Now I get the feel that Fate is the new "flavour of the week". How does it stack up?

As anyone who have tried Fate knows, it's a game much like the revised 3rd ed of D&D where everything is nailed down. It's a crunchy system, but very abstract and broad reaching, with its capability of turning anything into an Aspect and thus part of the mechanics of the game. If you want a game system that fades into the background, I don't think it's a game system for you, just like I don't think you should use Savage Worlds if you want a simulationist feel to your game.

But, I'm beginning to see why it's very alluring to try to make Fate the base for any kind of game you want to play. It's very elegant to use the "Fate fractal" and let everything be modelled with a High Concept and some more Aspects, some Skills, some Stunts and Stress tracks. You can fairly easily model anything that way. Understanding that makes it easy to quantify anything, and put numbers on it.

The other game that I always think of is BRP. It's trivial to make up a skill list suited to your setting/game and if you need anything to be modelled by the game system, you make a skill or a derived attribute of it. Then you roll your percentiles and Bob's your uncle. You only need to make up a rough probability of something succeeding and that's the whole game system. Basically.

My thinking is that make not all games has to be run in Fate, just like to every game turned out to need to be savaged? Can anything be estimated as a probability written as a percentile, and end up BRP game?

I guess that if you want to you can turn any game into whatever it needs to be. Hero and GURPS were designed to be used for putting numbers on anything, but it takes so much work I'd never work up the energy to even try.

Whatever the feel of BRP is, and however it compares to Fate (I might delve into that at a later date), they have one big thing going for them both. It's really easy to convert things into those systems. My latest reading of Fate conversions have really opened my eyes to how things like that can be done. I'm beginning to see how the Fate Fractal might be the most insidiously genius thing Evil Hat ever created. Even if I arm myself with BRP in one hand, I'll be thinking of that fractal. Make all the cool things an Aspect, and then roll those percentiles!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Running games on G+, my verdict

I have now played in a few games on G+, and it works quite fine. The biggest issue is trying to figure out which timezones works for everyone so you get a group together. Having tried to run a game I found there were some issues compared to a face to face game, though.

My first issue was surprising to me, having played successfully. I was not getting the kind of visual queues I apparently rely on a lot when running a game. Setting scenes and doing descriptions I often do without thinking to much about it, but this time it felt stymied and stunted. Without being fully aware of it, I think I rely quite a lot on getting eye contacts and seeing my players listening to me. Now they might be listening intently, but if their webcam wasn't trained on their eyes, or if they glanced at another window I kind of felt a bit out of touch. Clearly this is something you can adapt to, but I didn't know I was so dependent on it!

My second issue was the question of where the characters were in relation to each other. Usually I don't play with minis. Instead, I usually drop down some dice on the table to show how is where. Now I had to get Roll20 up and make sure everyone was looking at it. It felt a bit awkward. Those who have been running games online seem to like Roll20 a lot, so I guess it can work fine as a virtual table, but for me it felt clumsy. I had to choose if I wanted to get that eye contact, look at the chat window, or at the virtual table. Maybe if I could have them all in different windows and have them all side by side it would work better?

The last thing is dice. I like rolling dice. The feel of a nice die in your hand as you toss it is part of the experience for me. In the game I ran we used physical dice for the most part and it worked fine. Like I said, if you want to cheat you've already misunderstood what it's all about anyway, so why should I even try to stop you? But, I found I missed the feeling of everyone huddling around the table, waiting intently for that crucial die to land. Maybe the virtual dice rollers are the way to go after all?

All in all, I think this is the way to go. I have no idea of how well Google feel their new platform is doing. They have been known to kill off things before, and I hope it's working well for more people than the rpg crowd. It's clearly where people are getting their game fix these days. RPGA events and cons is good, but this is it. Let's hoep Google keeps it alive!
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