Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Sustainable Gaming

This blog is written from the point of view of a person who juggles his gaming life with professional and family responsibilities. So I was pleased to discover an article at Gnome Stew that contains tips for the busy person who wishes to maintain a regular gaming schedule:

Oliver J. Oviedo:  Consistent, Sustainable Gaming

Friday, September 25, 2015

Tunnels & Trolls Might Have the Most Perfect Combat System Ever

In my last post, I ranted about the uselessness of tactical combat systems. What I'm referring to are systems in which special moves, feats, and detailed movement rules feature prominently. My main gripes, in a nutshell:

  • Tactics slow down combat, making combat encounters disproportionately long.
  • Games with complicated combat rules encourage a video game mentality: Progression from one hostile encounter to another, succeeding through combat prowess, as opposed assessing situations for risk and avoiding hostility when possible.
  • The more advantages, disadvantages, and special actions in play during combat, the more the overall results resemble those you would see in a system with minimal advantages, disadvantages, and special actions. In other words, fighting skill could be represented by a single number or one hundred numbers; but one hundred numbers could theoretically be reduced to a single number anyway. In fact, the more stats, the less variation in their statistical average; the more customization of a character's combat skills, the less each individual skill matters.

D&D introduced a reasonably simple, effective combat system, and it became the template for most games that followed. In systems like this, you have an armor score representing how resistant you are to damage, a number indicating how much damage you can take before incapacitation, and a number representing bonuses to your to-hit rolls. Combat is resolved by determining an order of initiative, then having each combatant roll versus their opponent's armor score, and calculating damage if a hit is successful.

This system has worked pretty well for decades. It's logical, and allows for the player to take advantage of ways to enhance both the attack and defense ratings of their characters. Systems other than D&D have attempted to introduce novel ways of handling initiative, damage, and other aspects of combat, but usually haven't made any significant improvements on the original model. At worst, they introduce needless complexity.


Although some are just fine with it.


Enter Tunnels & Trolls. I recently picked up a copy of the deluxe edition rules, and I think this might be the best combat system I have ever seen. It is truly innovative, because it doesn't just try to hack the D&D model; it is a complete reimagining of how combat should flow in an RPG.

A Very Brief Introduction to T&T


Tunnels & Trolls is the second published RPG, released just one year after Dungeons & Dragons. Being second to the market and bearing a similarly alliterative name, you might suspect it to be a clone of D&D; but it is truly original. Some of the features of Tunnels & Trolls that differentiate it from D&D the most include the following:
  • Ability scores can be improved by spending Adventure Points, this game's version of experience points.
  • Levels are not gained through AP, but are determined by a character's highest ability score.
  • Magic is based on a point system, making low-level casters more useful.
  • There are only three character classes (and cleric is not one of them).
  • No bestiary -- GM's are encouraged to design monsters to fit each encounter.
  • "Save" rolls are similar to skill checks in Castles & Crusades, making ability scores more relevant.
  • The combat system is unlike any initiative-based combat system I have seen, and it's very elegant.
Let's take a closer look at T&T's combat system...

Combat in T&T


T&T  is very good at making ability scores (or "Prime Attributes") more central to the game. Four of the eight attributes -- Strength, Dexterity, Speed, and Luck -- contribute to a character's "adds," which are bonuses they receive in melee combat. Notice that Speed is one of the factors. This is because initiative does not exists in T&T. Both sides act simultaneously during a round (which is approximately ten seconds), so the impact of a character's speed and dexterity manifests as damage points. Remember what I said about how the more rules there are, the less they matter? In games that use initiative, a character's dexterity (which usually implies speed) will ultimately grant that character more damage done during an average round. So why not save time and forego initiative rolls altogether?

At the beginning of each round, both sides announce their intentions. Those casting magic or firing projectiles get to act first, though the results of their actions are not calculated until the end of the round. Missile attacks are not based on a "to hit" roll; they require a Dexterity check based on the target's size and distance. In some cases, no check is required. I think it's pretty clever -- and realistic -- to handle missile attacks differently than melee attacks. When firing at long-range, you usually aren't distracted by having to maneuver defensively. This makes missile weapons much more advantageous in T&T, but the advantage is balanced out with high DEX requirements for projectile weapons.

Melee actions on both sides take place simultaneously. Combatants choose their weapons, and roll to determine potential hit points of damage. A character's weapon determines how many dice (everything is d6) to roll, and the character's personal adds are added. Any natural sixes are tallied. Each side totals their members' rolls. The side with the highest deals damage to the other side, to be divided as the losing side wishes. Hits of damage are absorbed by armor; it is possible to be on the losing side and receive no damage if the hit total is less than the losing side's armor rating. For each natural six rolled on the losing side, one point of "spite damage" is dealt to their opposition, bypassing armor. This is a reflection of the fact that even a loser in a fight will land a few blows here and there.

Any damage done to a character is deducted from their Constitution score. There are no "hit points." If you want more hit points, spend AP to raise your Constitution. 

Monsters are handled a bit differently from statted PC's and NPC's. Their relative strength is measured with a single number, called their Monster Rating.  MR serves as both hit points and attack bonuses. When a monster attacks, they roll as many dice as their MR divided by ten, rounded down. Their attack bonus is half their MR. When they take damage, points are deducted from their MR. Special attacks or weapons can override this method. You can't get simpler than this.

In this system, it can be pretty easy for players to quickly determined if their party is outmatched. The differential between hits of damage done by each side can often be proportional to the stronger side's advantage. This is similar to real life; you can tell just by sizing up an opponent whether they are going to present a challenge. 

The Beauty of Abstraction


When designing rules for combat, one attempts to strike a balance between realism and abstraction

I have previously spoken of the Realism Gap. Let me describe it with an example: Say I am inventing an RPG, and I want combat to feel hyper-realistic. I introduce mechanics for weapon speeds based on their weight and bulkiness, injury locations and types, each with their specific effects on the body, critical hits and fumbles, fatigue, errant missiles and friendly fire, weapon and armor hit points, and so on. By introducing elements of realism, I have invited the addition of more elements. A highly critical player might review my system and ask, "If you're tracking weapon damage, then wouldn't it make sense to calculate penalties for dullness? What about the possibility of breakage?" If realistic is good, then more realistic is better, right?

Let's instead decide that even RPG's, though character-driven and freeform, are not meant to map exactly onto reality. They are games. All games are abstractions of reality, some more than others. Chess, for example, is highly abstract. There is a plot; you command armies at war. There are even characters -- bishop, knight, etc. But the details of their actions are left undetermined. Perhaps, when a bishop captures a pawn, he does so through sly political trickery, whereas a knight might capture another knight in a siege, or a duel. It's all irrelevant to how the game works. Monopoly is a bit less abstract. You are a real estate investor, and so are your opponents. You spend time inhabiting each others' property, and rack up debt in the process. When you cannot pay your debts, you are out of the game. That isn't hypothetical; it's exactly what happens in the game. But traveling in circles around the "city" in the guise of a wheelbarrow -- that's an abstraction.

Role-playing games exist on the realistic end of the scale of abstraction. For this reason, it might be easy to assume that the closer you can slide a RPG towards the hypothetical infinite realism (as in calculus, approaching zero but never reaching it), the better. But, just as traveling at speeds nearer the speed of light require increasingly ridiculous amounts of energy, the practicality of a role-playing game greatly diminishes as it moves from its "happy zone" of abstraction towards the realism singularity.

Thus, abstraction to at least some degree is necessary. Let go of the impulse to treat role-playing as a model of reality, and focus on what makes RPG's great -- storytelling, character development, heroism, adventure.

I believe Tunnels & Trolls gets it right. Its creators understand that combat should rely on characters' personal strengths, but should also be resolved in a manner that is painless for the players, quickly and smoothly, not bringing the pace of an adventure to a screeching halt, but rather adding high points of action that pass quickly in real life as in the game world.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Why I Despise Miniatures

When I was about 10-12 years old, I lived a block away from an office supply store whose back room was reserved for hobby supplies. This being the early 1980's, Dungeons and Dragons paraphernalia was pretty much obligatory. Between the hobby shop and the books & games shelf at a ShopKo just another block farther, I was in modules and supplements for ages. But it was the glass cabinet containing Ral Partha pewter miniatures that captured my attention the most.

Dwarf with Battleaxe, one of my first minis.

I love these minis; every few weeks my neighbor friend and I would visit the store to see what was new, and return home with one or two more. But my interest in them was as tiny works of art, not tokens for gaming. I failed to see a need for them in AD&D, which at the time did not rely on location-based tactics anywhere near as much as 3rd edition and beyond.

Fast-forward to the 2000's: After a long hiatus, I returned to gaming through the system most familiar to me: Dungeons and Dragons. And I was ecstatic about the introduction of the d20 game mechanic. For decades prior, I thought the system could benefit from a universal resolution mechanic, without having to consult endless tables. But the introduction of feats and attacks of opportunity soured my overall experience.

Tactical Combat is Baloney


3rd Edtition D&D turned combat encounters into drawn-out affairs, sometimes lasting the entirety of a session. Many players seem okay with this, but I fail to see the appeal. Here are a few reasons why:
  • If you want a game dominated by tactical combat, play a minis game. Wargaming exists for players who enjoy moving tokens on a battlemat. Roleplaying games exist for players who enjoy collaborative storytelling, exploration, and problem-solving. In an RPG, combat should represent action high-points in a story, not the bulk of the adventure.
  • A tactics-heavy combat system breaches the realism gap. Ever hear of the "Uncanny Valley?" It's a principle in computer animation which states that if you get too close to lifelike realism, virtual reality becomes creepy. There is a similar threshold in gaming realism. The more flavor you try to add with special moves, skills, circumstantial bonuses and penalties, etc., the more pressure you put on a system to to completely realistic, which is impossible.
  • The more combat rules you add, the less relevant they become. Fun fact: Adjusted to scale, the Earth is smoother than a cue ball. A cue ball is engineered to be smooth, whereas the Earth possesses an immense variation in its surface. But at the end of the day, they are both smooth from a distance. A highly abstract combat system may seem to rob a player of tactical options, but a rules-heavy combat system serves the same purpose in the end: One character, on average, will be stronger than another in combat. The more details you introduce to the system, the more gratuitous they become.
Since 3rd Edition, D&D has often been played with minis, because in a highly tactical combat system you need to mark each character's position. Let's take an objective look at the pros and cons of miniatures:

Pros and Cons of Miniatures in Tabletop RPG's


First, the pros:
  • You can't run a tactics-heavy game without them. Sure, you could mark graph paper every time someone takes a 5' sidestep, but miniatures are easier for all at the table to see; and being little models of characters, they add flavor to the game.
Now the cons:
  • The Realism Gap is in effect. Tactics aside, if you're hoping to use minis to make the gaming experience more immersive, then what of the fact that they will almost never resemble your characters as you imagine them? 
  • You will never have enough. Assuming you did manage to find a mini that looks pretty much like the character you're playing, what happens when that character perishes? Do you purchase a new mini for every character you play? As a GM, what do you do when you don't have enough 1HD monsters for large encounters? Use pennies for the remainder? 
  • They make your hobby more expensive. We already shell out dozens to hundreds of dollars on rulebooks, which is enough for casual board gamers to scratch their heads at. Add the expense of miniatures, and an outsider's bemusement turns to pity. I love RPG's, but there is a limit on how much I will invest in them, especially when the return on my investment is dubious.
  • Who carries the burden? GM's, do you require that your players purchase their own minis? Or do you take on the expense?
When the only "pro" of using miniatures in a tabletop RPG is that they are required, there is something wrong.

Two Solutions


Because minis are helpful in managing combat encounters in highly tactical games, the first solution to the miniatures problem is to simply avoid playing highly tactical games. If you enjoy playing with minis, consider channeling that interest into a miniatures skirmish game. Skirmishwargaming.com may be a good place to learn more. The Old School Renaissance has brought a slew of rules-light RPG's. I personally favor Labyrinth Lord and Tunnels and Trolls. Other popular games worth checking out are Dungeon World, Swords & Wizardry, and Dungeon Crawl Classics.

Lest you think I'm completely averse to post-3.0 D&D, I have enjoyed playing in campaigns using 3rd Edition and Pathfinder rules. But when I run said games, I prefer to craft flat tokens representing the PC's. Something like this:
The triangle at the edge of the circle indicates heading. 26 of these, and you have enough tokens to represent any character. If two characters' names begin with the same initial, I only need to create a copy of the token using different colors. You could use a silhouette of a weapon instead of an initial. Less immersive than likenesses of characters? I say no less immersive than minis that do not look like the PCs anyway. As for monsters, the process is easier: Google the name of the monster, and use whatever image you prefer in the images results. You can print the token on heavy stock paper for live games, or screen cap it, crop a perfect square around it, and shrink it to your preferred size for online games.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Surprise! There is no surprise.

Back before the poker craze of the mid-2000's, when most players were terrible (and few games were legal), I steadily earned some extra cash playing low-limit hold'em at the nearest riverboat. Movies and television convey the impression that poker is a game of bluffing; but in weak games, against players who are always trying to spot a bluff, usually the best strategy was to play in a completely straightforward manner. If you have a weak hand, get out. If you have a winning hand, play it strong.

Today, I was thinking about building RPG adventures, and all the ways I could avoid the stereotypical, "find the artifact," "save the maiden," and "kill the boss" story lines. Some twists might include:
  • The boss isn't who you expected -- perhaps a puppet of someone the PC's once thought was friendly.
  • In recovering an artifact, the PC's have accidentally hastened a villain's evil plan.
  • The damsel in distress was killed long before the PC's arrived; and her captor, anticipating their arrival, has laid a trap.
Sometimes, it is important to keep things fresh and avoid the same old tropes. This might especially be true with groups comprised of veteran players. But for every plot that you feel needs twisting, there are twists that themselves are old news.















Here's the thing: I got into D&D when I was ten years old because I wanted to delve through winding tunnels, face deadly traps, and eventually rescue the princess. That's the initial appeal -- living vicariously through your pen-and-paper heroes. I didn't care to be misdirected or surprised; I craved the moment when my party would open that last door to find the big boss, laughing his evil laugh and daring us to vanquish him.

Throughout the 90's and 2000's, movies were all about the twist ending. TV shows would capture viewers by dropping enticing bombshells during the final moments of every episode -- particularly season finales. Now it seems that in telling a story, surprise is mandatory.

But not so. I was very disappointed at the ending of Saw, because the final twist ending seemed entirely unnecessary. We already were given a satisfying build and climax; it could have ended a few minutes early and been much better for it. Remember The Forgotten? It begins as what seems like a psychological thriller, but unfortunately shifts gears near the end, when suddenly it's about aliens. Let the Right One In, on the other hand, told a straightforward story with no shockers or surprise revelations, and it did not suffer in quality as a result. This is because there is more to a story than "the big reveal." There is pacing, mood, tension, and character development. Why do so many horror movies play well with audiences? Because in a horror film, a character suspects danger, deliberately walks right into it, and finds exactly what they feared they would.



Next time you build an adventure, try sticking with a completely predictable story, with no twists. You don't need a gimmick to keep players engaged. Instead, consider these devices:
  • Create a mood. If your adventure takes place in a crypt, make it spooky. Describe the gnarled, dead tree branches outside, and how the wind chills their bones. Don't just tell them they see the corpse of a previous adventurer laying near the open sarcophagus; tell them how it reeks so badly it puts a lump in their throats, and how the skin pulses with maggots. In the case of horror, the mood is fear. When it works, players will be on their guard. In another case, the mood might be heroism; the players will feel gung-ho. In another case, the mood might be suspicion; the players will lack trust of others. When the objective of the adventure is attained, the mood breaks, and all tension with it.
  • Make them hate the bad guy. I mean, really really hate him. What is it about Joffrey Baratheon that had fans sending hate mail to the actor who portrayed him? We have grown so accustomed to the sympathetic villain -- Once Upon a Time's Rumplestiltskin, Batman's The Joker, and so on, that we overlook the entertainment value of a purely unredeemable bad guy, the sort of character who never fails to impress you with how low they sink to achieve their ends (or maybe even for no purpose but sheer sadism) -- the characters you do not suddenly feel bad for when they are humbled or punished, because you know they still haven't learned a thing. These characters inspire fear and respect, because there is no way they survived as they are without power. They earn PCs' contempt by demonstrating a lack for respect of life, taking advantage of the poor and young, and placing others in danger to protect themselves. And the closer your party gets to a confrontation on the foe's home turf, the more adrenalin-soaked the final encounter.
  • Use the theme of an adventure to spook the party. If the final objective is to kill a vampire, have bats periodically rustle the air overhead. Place "decoy" sarcophagi in the crypt near the vampire's hidden coffin. Let them hear a wolf howl outside the window. In their early encounters, pit the characters against foes who might be the final boss at first glance: a pale-faced human familiar, a shadow, or a giant raven. "Things that go bump in the night" are a time-honored way of creating the impression that the villain can always be around the next corner.
In all the above cases, there need not be twist endings or surprise revelations. A simple plot in which PC's have a clear objective and there are no surprises on the way can still be interesting, as long as the journey is entertaining. For some modern gaming groups, the lack of a twist might itself be the twist. And if everyone has fun, who cares? As the GM, you're not there to impress people with your scheming; you're there to ensure the game runs smoothly, fairly, and in a manner that doesn't generally suck for anyone involved.

Dragon Magazine #10: Dark, Black, and Oriental?

Building Realistic Dungeons

Dragon issue 10 continues with an article by Richard Gilbert titled, "Let There Be a Method to Your Madness," which discusses logical dungeon design. Here are a couple of key statements from the article:
"To the peoples of your world, digging a dungeon out of solid rock is a tremendous task, one not to be undertaken lightly."
I have often thought this. If you're going to place a handful of kobolds into a finely carved network of tunnels, those tunnels better have been there long before they settled in, otherwise there should be hundreds of kobolds living there, with leaders, wives, shamans, children, etc. Your first question to ask is, "Who built this place, and how and why?" Gilbert reinforces this: "You, as the designer, must think like the builders when you design a dungeon...".
"Before you do anything with a dungeon, you should have specified where it will be located, what the surface area looks like, and what, in capsule form, its history is."
There are GM"s that don't do this? This is a no-brainer. Have in mind the origin of the structure, and a tasty description of the approach for your players.

Gilbert continues by leading us through the creation of a sample dungeon, remembering of course to include a paragraph on "love nests." Overall, his approach is recommendable: Imagine the original purpose of the structure, its history, and how it came into its current state.

One point at which I diverge is on the use of trap and maze rooms. In a quasi-medieval economy, who can afford to dedicate an entire section of their stronghold to frustrating intruders? Plus, I can't imagine wanting to live in a place where my own ability to move around is hindered by a giant puzzle. Here's my guideline when it comes to these matters:
If a temple, keep, or some other structure that guards valuable treasure contains life-threatening traps, the inhabitants of that structure must have had an easy way to bypass them.
Failure to provide a means for regular inhabitants to go to the bathroom or visit the kitchen to make a sandwich without threat of being sliced in half by a giant axe-headed pendulum is what I call the Tomb Raider Effect: the problem of a dungeon that is built only to kill visitors, but not shelter tenants.

Building Realistic Character Bodies?

If there's one thing I can say about First Edition AD&D, it's that its creators (and house-rulers) were obsessive about having a table for damn near everything. P.M. Crabaugh lives up to the statement with his contribution, "Weights & Measures, Physical Appearance and Why Males are Stronger than Females; in D&D." Here, he takes vital statistics, the part of character creation where we spend the least amount of time and effort, and combines it with encumbrance, the part of character creation which we loath dealing with the most. Riveting!

In a nutshell, Crabaugh provides tables for the generation of height and weight, based on species and gender. Tables like this are useful if you insist on randomizing the process. Personally, I don't see how picking your own stats could break the game. No GM has asked how tall my character was, or how heavy. Nor has hair and eye color come into play beyond the first introductions in session one of a campaign. You want a randomized system? Here, I'll make one up right now: Google average height and weight for your gender. Flip a coin: heads, you add, tails you subtract. Add or subtract 1d8 inches from height, 1d20 pounds from weight. 

Crabaugh makes all this data somewhat relevant by applying hit die and CON bonuses based on body mass, and then gets into carrying capacity. I know we can be tempted to make our games more realistic, since RPG's are, after all, simulations of reality; but such meticulous attention given to demographic and encumbrance stats seems unnecessary for anyone but the most annoyingly detail-oriented rules nerd.

Crabaugh closes the article with, you guessed it, more tables; although they do call attention to things I haven't thought much about, and might try to more often: voice pitch, handedness, "habitual expression," and complexion, which he unfortunately limits to (default-white?), dark, black, and oriental.

Gaining a New Experience Level

Tom Holsinger writes,
"Existing rules for D&D/EPT are very unclear concerning the mechanics of how a character gains the new abilities, hit points and whatnot upon reaching a new experience level. “At the end of an adventure” is about all they say."
 Okay, I'm with you so far. RP'ing level advancement is something we could do more of.
"What is needed is some sort of definite ritual that characters may undergo at any time once their total experience points qualify them for a higher experience level."
Well, "needed" is a strong word. Not a bad suggestion for some characters at some levels, though.

Holsinger then presents an elaborate ritual for gaining the favor of the gods, which grants the PC's their new level bonuses. As I said, handling level advancement in-game is an appealing idea. But here are two major problems I find in Holsinger's approach:

First, it requires gratuitous effort. By the rule of, erm, the rules, if a character has gained enough experience to level up, he has already earned the new bonuses. Spell casters should still observe whatever rules exist on purchasing or copying spells; but things like hit points and attack bonuses are automatic. Why subject the player to a session dedicated to activities that will only result in something that's already guaranteed?

Second, and more importantly, it's very meta. How does the PC know it's time to "level up?" After about the 7th or 8th iteration, wouldn't the routine seem suspiciously redundant? How does it affect society in the game setting? Knowing how often PC's and NPC's alike will be visiting "leveling" shrines, would local townspeople dress them up and turn them into tourist attractions? Might they start charging fees for access and booking months in advance?

I think a well-designed rules system already lays out the process for leveling up. Usually, it's automatic bonuses, except for new spells, which have to be learned or copied, often for a fee. Thieves' skills might involve some process. I prefer to keep it simple. I assume that most players, after leveling up a character, are too eager to get back into the fray to go on some mini-quest (with guaranteed success) to earn what they already earned.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Dragon Magazine #10: Random Monsters, Treasure XP, and...Orgies?


The Dragon issue #10 is one of the most useful and interesting ones I have encountered so far in the series. Because of the amount of content in the issue, this review is going to be a two-parter. I'll take the articles in order:

D&D Option: Orgies, Inc.

This article addresses the problem of PC's having accumulated too much loot. This may have been a concern in games where XP is awarded for treasure. The author, John Pickens, proposes a novel solution: award XP not for money earned, but for money spent.

I suppose this might be helpful if a DM truly wishes to encourage players to siphon off money, but I don't see "too much wealth" as a problem. If they have trouble carrying it, provide a bank or let them take it home and lock it up. If you don't like how quickly they're leveling up because of the size of the hoards they recover, then scale the treasure hoards down.

Pickens gives us five expenditure types that would qualify for XP awards: sacrifices, philanthropy, research, clan hoards, and yes, orgies. I was instantly reminded of the anti-D&D propaganda during the Satanic Panic of the 80's, in which claims were made that characters were rewarded for brutality, rape, and an assortment of other vile deeds. At the time, I thought such claims were baseless. But this article only serves to fan the flames. There's even a 1/3 page, full-color illustration of a goblin orgy! Even if a DM wishes to implement this system of XP rewards, the fifth option is purely gratuitous.

Designing for Unique Wilderness Encounters

Yet another random terrain generator. I don't see much value in tools like this. A DM with any amount of imagination should be able to create a logically consistent terrain map on the fly. But in case you don't wish to spend the mental effort, this system seems decent.

Random Monsters

Now here is an interesting concept. The article isn't about random encounters, but random monsters, as in monsters whose features are unique and randomly generated. The idea is reasonable at first glance; player knowledge can render many encounters mundane if you only stick to "normal" monsters. Why not throw them for a loop from time to time?

But I personally won't be using this system. While I believe a new creature can be useful when it fits the theme of the adventure, arbitrary use of a new creature seems illogical. I assume the monsters featured in whatever guide your system uses represent the gamut of your world's ecosystem. Anything new or unique should have a cause -- a mutation, an enchantment, etc.

Next time, I'll complete the overview of Dragon #10 with a look at dungeon design, encumbrance, and level advancement. In the meantime, you can find Dragon #10 on Ebay or purchase a collection of back issues on disk at Amazon.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Gumshoes s01e03, "Unchained" part 3

The first story arc in our fantasy detective campaign continues. Here's the summary of last night's session:
Day 2 of the Investigation.
Raenion returned to the group after being introduced to pickpocket turned informant, "Slide" Wells. 
Chief Goodchild introduced the team to a newly promoted detective named Walder James, then led a briefing and strategy session. They planned to visit the East Egaria Arcane Society, and pass a description of the victim and beast to Slide.
At the EEAS, the party met with Forwin Helbrand, a middle-aged man who holds a position of some authority there. Forwin recognized the sketch of the deceased as a former colleague, Emil Thornton, who left the society due to professional differences, likely pertaining to his penchant for animal mutation.
The team found Emil's address at the City Registrar and entered his home, only to find the usual amenities of a lone tenant, until Franky discovered a hidden passage to a cellar under the fireplace tool rack. Beneath, they located an office containing invoices, and beyond, a small menagerie of foul but mostly harmless beasts, including a (hardly) talking two foot-long salamander, a bird with a reptilian tail that breathes fire, and a cat.
The next session should be interesting. As events unfolded in the game, I realized there are some holes in my story. I need to tighten up a few details, and perhaps re-write the timeline to make it more climactic; and I have a week.

A Two-Handed Sword Does 5.5 Points of Damage

Two things -- a recent event in my family Labyrinth Lord game, and a train of thought that crossed my mind during this morning's breakfast -- led me to a realization about weapon damage.

I began running a Labyrinth Lord campaign with my son and wife as players, each controlling two characters. I'm aware it's generally a no-no to double up on characters, but it's working for us in our situation. Anyway, after two of the 1st-level PC's perished, the remaining two found themselves at the top of a deep cistern with a black pudding climbing after them. To my surprise, they had dispatched it in only a couple rounds by firing arrows at it, then hacking at it when it reached the top. Of course I profusely congratulated them on such a fortuitous success (my 7-year old echoed my excitement for the rest of the day), but something didn't seem right. Checking my sloppy handwritten session notes later, I realized that I accidentally was subtracting HP from another monster with half the hit dice.

I suppressed the urge to find a way to bring the balance of the universe back into order (Reduced XP for the remainder of the adventure? Send another one after them?). I knew one of the golden rules of gaming is, "The DM's ruling is final, even when it's a mistake." The pudding was declared dead, and that's that. So then I tried to imagine how I might justify the error: The HP was at least within the range of possibility; I could assume I had rolled five 1's and five 2's when generating the creature, however improbable. I could figure that, since the description of the monster differed a bit from the version in the rulebook, it was a some kind of weakened variant. Perhaps puddings get weak in their old age? Was it poisoned by sewage? One possibility, that had I more forethought I could have scaled its HP downward intentionally to balance the encounter, only briefly crossed my mind before I dismissed it as too "fudgey."

This morning, I was eating cereal at our kitchen table. My son's dice were resting on the table in front of me, and in boredom I began fiddling with them. As I slid a d10 next to a d4 I imagined explaining their purpose to a non-gamer:
"These represent the damage ranges of different weapons. For example, a dagger would inflict 1-4 points of damage. A halberd or something would naturally have the potential to inflict up to ten points."
"But they both do a mimimim of one?"
"Uh..."
I am a big fan of the bell curve in die rolls. My Castles and Crusades campaign uses 3d6 instead of 1d20 for attacks and attribute checks, because the best and worst possible results shouldn't be as likely as results that are in-between. Likewise, why do we use single dice when figuring damage? Under the current system, a pole arm is 30% likely to deal less damage than a dagger's maximum. But if we used, say, 2d4 instead of 1d10, the probability of dealing 3 or fewer damage points lowers from 30% to 12%, while keeping the mean at 5. If you want to raise the maximum back to 10, make it 2d4+2. Now the mean rises to 7, which I'm sure most fighters would appreciate!

When I'm shopping for weapons and I see damage stats, my tendency is to be optimistic; and I'm guessing this is true for many players. We see "1d10" and our inner voices say "up to 10," instead of "average of 5.5".

In a single-die system, remember that you'll see as many minimums as you will maximums and averages. In fact, let's make it an eponymous aphorism:
Raymond's Law of Damage Dice: You are just as likely to roll a 1 as you are an average result, and it will never happen at a convenient time. 
 The reason you're attacking something is that it's trying to hurt you. There is never a good time to roll a one. But it will happen. And even if you wield a 1d10 weapon, you will roll that one 10% of the time.

How does this tie in with the Black Pudding anecdote? It has to do with scaling adventures. When stocking dungeons, why must a GM roll random HP for its inhabitants? Take advantage of the weakness in damage rules by manipulating monster HP to suit a party's strength at their worst. 

If a party carries no weapons with magical bonuses and an average strength mod of zero, lower monster HP toward its statistical minimum. The stronger the party, the more range you can allow in monster HP. This makes the most sense in low-level adventures, where a difference of one or two on a damage roll can mean life or death of a PC in one round. I generally don't advocate fudging results during combat, but at least you can level the playing field by ensuring that one-shot kills are equally likely for both PC's and their enemies. As PC levels increase, the variance in percentage of total HP lost in a single shot grows smaller.

And if you're a player, remember to guard yourself with a knowledge that you will roll 1's more often than you instinctively suspect. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Gumshoes s01e02, "Unchained" part 2

We just completed the second session of our "fantasy cops" themed campaign. Unfortunately, we lost two players; but there was still plenty of fun to be had. Here's the summary:

Silver and Raeinion were called to another case, leaving Franky, Tex, and Lt. Broadmoor to continue the investigation.

Old Man Haddock requested assistance at his chicken shack outside of town to the south, where his chickens have been decimated by a mysterious beast.

Among the fowl remains in the shack, investigators awoke a sleeping beast, which lashed out at them. A brutal battle ensued, during which two officers were seriously injured. The beast was rendered unconscious and identified as a bizarre canine-chicken hybrid.

Officers Murphy and Franky hog-tied and cuffed the beast, and the team brought the beast to the precinct office and locked it in a holding cell.

Franky took a sketch artist to the guard post where the body of the victim was being held before disposal.

Tex spent most of the night monitoring the harbor for suspicious behavior. At around 1am, Boris Schmidt left the granary, locking the door behind him. He paused and glanced at Tex, then went on his way.

Lt. Broadmoor visited the library hoping to find any mention of a creature like the one they fought, but failed to turn up anything.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Blogging the Dragon: Town Building


On to issue 8 of The Dragon, featuring an article by Tony Watson about the creation of towns. 

This is an excellent article, one I intend to use immediately in the fleshing out of my current campaign setting, the city of Cyrilsport. Some highlights:

Layout

Watson begins with the obvious considerations of a town's size, location, and surroundings, then discusses the sectioning of the town into various "quarters." He reminds us of the most common features seen in fantasy town maps, like open markets and temples, but also brings up features that world-builders could easily overlook, like barber shops, cobblers, and cartographers. He offers simple rules for services-for-hire (e.g. cartographers charge 100-600gp per overland map, depending on remoteness of the location). 

Watson completes this section with a recommendation to keep a town directory. A modern GM could easily add entries to his software database (Earlier I mentioned Bento, which is sadly discontinued. Now I use FileMaker), along with all other NPC's and items in his campaign.

Population

This is where a GM could easily lose herself in the town-building process. The author suggests a method for quickly generating NPC's using randomized traits, and then instructs us to keep their stats in a notebook. GM'ing is always a balance between prep time and game time, and with modern database technology I'd say skip this step, use your imagination (and a random name generator if necessary) on the spot when you need an NPC, but then remember to log them in your database.


Friday, July 24, 2015

How Should a DM Handle Character Death?

One of the hottest topics in RPG discussions is the death of PC's. How should a GM handle character deaths in a way that makes the game enjoyable? Let's look at the pros and cons of PC deaths:

Pros

  • The most obvious reason death must be a part of a game is that it's in the rules. Hit Points serve a specific purpose: to measure how close a character is to death.
  • You don't have a game without risk of failure. In player-vs-player board games like Monopoly, the object is to keep from going broke and sitting out the remainder of the session. RPG's usually aren't PvP, but there still needs to be an element of danger or else the experience could be dull. Why bother with strategy and tactics if you can't get killed?
  • The threat of death contributes to an atmosphere of fairness and realism. Bad guys can die, so why not good guys?
  • A GM who fudges rolls to avoid killing players gives the impression that he is not an impartial adjudicator of the rules.

Cons

  • Sudden, unexpected, or early death can be gratuitous in the context of a story. The words "role-playing" in "role playing games" are key to the experience; without a compelling narrative, characters' roles within a story don't seem relevant. They might as well be a few of dozens in a large-scale miniatures war game. Where in any other media, like film or novels, do you see main characters dying at seemingly random moments, without their deaths contributing to the cause-and-effect component of the storyline?
  • The death of a PC can spoil the fun for your players. Usually, a good deal of time is spent creating a character, not just rolling up stats but drafting a personal backstory. Add that to the hours of play before a character dies. It seems futile to put so much effort into a character just to watch them perish.
  • PC deaths can slow a game down, or even break it up. If you allow a player to roll up a replacement on the spot, your session grinds to a halt. If there are no backup characters for a player to use, she might as well go home.
  • A GM who plays by a "let the dice fall where they may" rule gives the impression that he is indifferent to the players' desire to enjoy themselves.
Basically, on one hand, you have rules for a reason; without rules, there is no game, just make-believe. But on the other hand, there is "The Rule of Fun."

I believe that fun can be had even with short-term losses. Otherwise, the gambling industry wouldn't exist. So as GM's, how can we reconcile our desire to manage a fair campaign with our desire avoid losing our players' interest?

A Google search led me to a discussion of the topic at the DnD subreddit. Here are some of their ideas for handling PC death, each followed by my opinion:
"As a DM I allow a Divine Intervention from their God if they beat me in % roll. If they win they are at 1 health. If they lose, then they die."
This is a deus ex machina, which I generally consider a no-no in storytelling. Unexpected intervention from an entity not connected with the story is a cop-out.
"I wrote a 3 month long campaign where they toppled many challenges and discovered the "Imortalis Pits." It works just as the Lazarus Pits work for Ra's Al Ghul in Batman. So if one of them were to die the others can take the body of the fallen and return to the Imortalis Pits to revive them at the cost of their magical items and gear. However I only allow 2 uses of the pit, after that the body and soul of the deceased begins to wither. That way death is still a very real threat but wont be the end for the players who die."
This is better than the first suggestion, because it contains an object that players are aware of from the start of the campaign. I personally don't like the video gamey feel of it; it reminds me of resurrection stones and the like from online MMORPG's. Even in a world of magic, some "rules of life" should be followed, one of which is that in a dangerous environment it is easy to die, and resurrection should be very expensive.
"I essentially give each player one extra life (they do no know this) if they were in a situation where they would die the first time I fudge the roll once and only once. Next time they die." 
I like this idea even more, and it reminds me of the (convoluted and in need of revision) Fudge Points system I devised a while back. There is a bit of a catch-22, however: I believe rules should generally be made known to players, in order to preserve the bond of trust between players and GM. But if players know their characters have two lives, they may base important decisions on this knowledge, which undermines the accuracy of their portrayal of their characters.

Here is the best response I read:
"One thing I think should be mentioned about character death, is asking yourself how it contributes to or influences the story. While I'm not against players dying in combat, it is a waste if it's a fight that has no plot implications, and is mostly there to give an environmental sense of danger."
This is in perfect alignment with what I consider to be the golden rule of RPG's:

Role-playing gaming is collaborative storytelling.

Everything that happens in the game is part of a story, and most details of a story serve to move the plot forward or aid in character development. Any details that don't do either still have a purpose, like enhancing the mood or providing comic relief.

This means that a character death without purpose is to be avoided. However, that doesn't mean we should avoid death. It means that we should make death purposeful. Even the seemingly sadistic George R.R. Martin doesn't just erase major characters from his stories with no follow-up or consequences.

When handled well, a PC death can inspire players, not disappoint them. Here are just a few ideas I have for making deaths purposeful:

  • "We've taken this too far." A villain responsible for the death, either directly or indirectly, realizes that his actions will have bad repercussions. Perhaps he was supposed to bring the character to his boss alive, and now will seek protection from the remaining party members, in exchange for assistance in the foiling of his organization's scheme.
  • "I shall avenge you!" An NPC, maybe a henchman, who has become close to the PC wishes to complete the deceased's quest and bring justice to the murderer. The NPC's stats can be incorporated into a full-blown character sheet, and the player gets to keep playing through the session.
  • "Take this to ___. He'll know what to do." With her dying words, the character asks that the others bring a message or an item to someone who has been important in her life, like an estranged family member, a fellow guild member, or a former adventuring partner. The significance of the item or message leads to a new story arc. This one takes some foresight. Crafting this hook gives a player assurance that, should their character perish, their death will be significant.
One other option: Wing it. If your story has been flowing well up to the point of a character's death, recent events in the story could give a GM ideas for weaving a character death seamlessly into the plot. 


Whatever you do, just don't drop the character and move on without treating the incident respectfully. Early in my GM'ing days, I remember two cases in which I did just that: In the first, I was running the Ruins of Andril scenario from Dragon magazine. The party's thief tried on a Necklace of Strangulation, failed a save, and died instantly. My response to the player's shock was basically, "That's what would have happened. Should have come up with a safe way of testing it." Then the party continued, presumably leaving his body where it fell. In the next case, I was running the Sprechenhaltestelle module that came with the Top Secret box set. The same player who earlier lost his thief in the Ruins of Andril saw his character die suddenly yet again, this time from a punctured lung caused by a bullet wound. For days, in passing my friend would mutter with exasperation, "Pfft, 'punctured lung'." He never played in one of my games again.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

C&C Campaign: Gumshoes

A long time ago, I presented an idea for a "cop show"-style campaign set in my homebrew fantasy world. Last night, I finally ran our first session at Roll20.net. Here is the summary I posted to our campaign forum:
Detectives on duty were summoned to the scene of a suspected homicide, at the interior of a granary warehouse in the Harbor District. The body of an older male, possibly a magic user, was found lying on the ground with a large open abdominal wound. Nearby was a flatbed cart supporting a 4'x6' cage whose padlock was opened, seemingly without force. Still harnessed to the cart was a donkey who had bled out from the throat. Detectives noticed the neck had been sliced, but could not determine the instrument used. The deceased was in possession of a set of keys, one of which fit the padlock, some arcane material components, a bit of cash, and some type of jerky. 

Persons of Interest

  • Marc Royston, granary day shift manager. Found the body and reported its discovery to the police. Claims the front bay door was open, and the back door was locked when he arrived.
  • Boris Schmidt, granary night shift manger. Our team spoke to him during his lunch at Sid's Cliffside. He explained that only managers have keys to the granary, and was unable to produce his own when asked.
  • Local workers: A marina clerk and a mill operator, who both deny having heard or seen anything unusual during the previous night and morning. Marina records indicate that a hoy registered to Ahren LaFlore, a member of an aristocratic family, left the dock in the early morning without being signed out.
Suspects
  • No suspects have been named at this point.
Just after meeting Boris at Sid's, a local farmer rode into the neighborhood, agitated and looking for assistance.

In my early GM'ing days, I was nervous about urban scenarios. So many NPC's and locations to keep track of! I felt much more comfortable leading parties through a more linear scenario, like a typical dungeon crawl, where there are specific rooms with specific encounters, all mapped out with little ambiguity.

But recently I suspected that a city campaign doesn't have to be any more difficult. I would still be planning encounters, just not placing them in a dungeon. Encounters are more conversational than confrontational, which places an emphasis on role-playing. And role-playing is kind of the point of these types of games, right?

In crafting our first scenario, I followed these guidelines:

  1. A role-playing game is collaborative storytelling. Whether in a dungeon or in city hall, the narrative is what matters. My players spend effort crafting characters with unique backstories, motivations, and personalities. If my efforts are spent mostly planning combat encounters, I'm not justifying their efforts. The process of urban scenario creation is fundamentally that of dungeon creation: Invent some key encounters that drive the plot. The difference is in how to move the action towards the encounters you planned. That's why I chose the detective theme; as characters discover clues, they'll be led to the NPC's I created. 
  2. Write the story that happens off-camera first. This is especially true for the detective-themed campaign. Mysteries seem tricky to write, and they are when you take the point of view of the characters. But if you build a detailed story of what happened at the scene of the crime, you're prepared to handle your players' actions from an omniscient standpoint. 
  3. If role-playing causes the story to diverge from what you planned, be prepared to roll with it. In last night's session, our heroes canvassed the area around the scene of the alleged crime. I considered fast-tracking it to keep the pace quick, but decided to role-play a conversation they had with a local marina clerk. I knew there was some traffic at the docks that might be of interest to the characters; and even though I wasn't planning for them to find a clue at the clerk's office, one character asked to take a look at the previous day's activity log. I was able to give them another clue without my having prepared for that interaction. This is why point number 2 above, writing the off-camera story, is so crucial. As far as the players know, I intended for them to discover that clue.
  4. Award XP for moving the story forward. In a story-based campaign, plot development is more important than slaying monsters. For my first scenario, I added to my notes a list of key plot points, which would each trigger a certain amount of XP to be awarded at the end of the session. 
The biggest thing to remember is that just because PC's are in a "sandbox" style environment, that doesn't mean they are free-roaming. Encounters aren't random; they are weaved into a narrative.

The players' reaction was mostly positive last night. I was anxious to hear their feedback after an entire session with no combat and only a handful of attribute checks. We never even broke out a map or minis. Everyone seemed happy to have experienced a session that allowed them to build a story and flex their character's personality traits. For a while, it felt strange going for such a long stretch without any combat action; but because the party was finding clues leading to a suspect there was still a sense of progress.

If our first night in this campaign is any indication of what's to come, I might strongly prefer the story-driven, quasi-sandbox scenario over underground and interior crawls. With the right kind of preparation, it's not only a refreshing change of pace for players, but I get to play along, with every NPC as my character, and not just adjudicate over die rolls.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Review: Fuzzy Heroes

Yesterday, I took my kids (age 7 and 5) to Pegasus Games for the first time, hoping to inspire some new interests. As expected, big brother was captivated by the wargaming minis, and sissy wanted to take home a pink sparkling d10. But what interested me most was this:


Fuzzy Heroes by Inner City Games designs is less a tabletop RPG than a "floortop" RPG. In its simplest form, it's a tactical miniatures game, using stuffed animals and other toys that you happen to already have in your home. After skimming through the rulebook and consulting with the staff on duty, I determined that it could be a nice intro to RPG's for my kids; and after bringing it home and playing a couple of sessions, I can confirm that it is indeed a game suitable for just about any age.

Part of the appeal of Fuzzy Heroes (FH) is its graded ruleset. An 18-page primer on combat basics will prepare players for their first session in a matter of minutes. All you need is a few d6's, some pencils and paper, and a tape measure. The basic rules don't allow for special attacks, saves, or ranged attacks; all combat is resolved when characters are positioned within 2" of each other. Facing makes a difference, however, as does size. My son's 73" stuffed dragon was a formidable attacker, but his long body was easily exposed for flanking by my daughter's two My Little Pony figures.

As you become more involved with the game, you can begin incorporating advanced rules. There's also a section on adding role-play elements. This game grows with your kids' interest.

Yesterday's first session was a 2-on-2 team deathmatch. Naturally, that's not what I called it; the rulebook described HP as "Energy Points," which, when depleted, cause the character to fall asleep. It ran about 45 minutes, just long enough for my 5 year-old to begin growing restless. Today we followed up with a scenario in which two renegade plushies had captured a magic ring, which the characters had to retrieve from the renegade base (a small structure the kids built from cushions). I expected a smash-and-grab operation, but the youngest suggested distracting the villains, a monkey and a weiner dog, with a banana and a hot dog, then having the winged pony of the group fly through an upstairs window to sneak in and grab the ring. This inspired a brief craft activity before the session, in which we made the food props. I improvised a sneak mechanic which used the PCs' avoid stat, and a rule of combat which allowed an attacker the choice of either dealing damage or gaining possession of the ring. When the scene was over, we discussed possibilities for how it might affect future sessions. Perhaps the bad guys might try to kidnap another character, demanding the ring as ransom. Or maybe the ring could bestow its user with an additional attack roll.

I am delighted at how FH inspires structured play using toys that otherwise might have remained in the corner of a closet. As an adult, I sometimes am overwhelmed when a child asks to play with action figures or dolls; but now I can lead my kids through a story using mechanics that help me form a solid narrative. I found myself adding color text to the results of die rolls, which kept the kids engaged in the story -- good practice for my adult RP'ing sessions. The villainous monkey, Booger, was screeching and "ooh-ahh"-ing with every failed attack, and the wiener dog whimpered and barked. Our second session was resolved without any character "falling asleep," but rather with two ponies making a break for the exit with the ring while their larger companions held the enemy off.

Our FH session in progress.


This doesn't have to be a family game; I can imagine the fun older players could have with it over a few adult beverages. A backyard deck could make a nice playing surface during a summer evening barbecue. Imagine the fun Mom, Dad, and their guests could have employing their kids' toys, or perhaps a garden gnome or a jack-o'-lantern, to foil some evil scheme, or play a yard-sized version of Capture the Flag.

Final Verdict: With an experienced gamer refereeing, this system is easy to dive into; but even in the hands of the RPG novice, FH's basic rules are easy to comprehend. I'm excited to try incorporating some of the advanced rules in future sessions, but only when I'm sure all players can stay focused. I want to bring mom on board for a session or two as well; in the right mood, I know she can bring life to the characters and elicit some laughs from the kids. The role-playing ideas presented in the book promise to offer a more immersive experience, but I'm not sure if most players will feel compelled to use them. If this were only a minis game it would be good enough, especially for people like myself who want to introduce their kids to role-playing a few years before they develop the attention span and comprehension skills that more popular systems demand.

Friday, July 10, 2015

After years of inactivity, I am joining a gaming group.

Well, all this recent attention given to RPG's has inspired me to seek out a new group. A little research led me to Roll20, an in-browser tabletop gaming client with what seems like a pretty active community. I'll be joining a Castles & Crusades group with a randomly generated character.

The original purpose of this blog was twofold: First, to share ideas about running campaigns, and second, to share the struggles and triumphs that come with being a busy dad who plays RPG's. Since I no longer run a campaign, I'll probably be focusing mostly on the latter.

I haven't yet ruled out the possibility of running my own campaign. But first, I need to carefully get re-acclimated to the scene and determine how feasible it is to add more gaming activity to my already busy life.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

First Impression of D&D Online (A Few Years Late to the Party)

I know it's been out for a while now, but my son and I recently began playing D&D Online, and I wanted to share some random thoughts.

My background with MMORPG's is scant: I spent some time MUDding in the 90's, and between 2009 and 2012 I casually played WoW, repeatedly advancing characters near max level, then losing interest before experiencing the real meat of the game, as seasoned players described it.

I personally prefer tabletop games to video games, mostly because of the freedom they afford a player; but getting a group together can be tough, and MMORPG's allow one to play through adventure scenarios without having to align the schedules of 4-5 of their friends.

Anyway, here is my first reaction to DDO, albeit years behind its emergence:
  • Free-to-play is nice, even with some features disabled. Whether missing features will get in the way of a fulfilling experience remains to be seen as we spend more time with it.
  • The video game seems very true to the D&D ruleset. I was mildly delighted to see encumbrance being monitored, and weapon stats listing die types and modifiers. I would like to see alignment affect the outcomes of a character's decisions, though.
  • DDO seems to offer less free exploration than WoW. Terrain loads on demand, rather than in real-time as in WoW. I'm guessing this is one reason why DDO requires far less storage, and that's a trade I'm willing to take.
  • The interface can be a little clunky. Icons on the hotbar are pretty small, and it took a while for me to get acquainted with weapon sets and other aspects of inventory management. I still can't figure out how to use the heal skill. There is no in-game tutorial for skill and feat usage that I have noticed to date.
  • So far, quests are more fun than in WoW. Quests are more dungeon-based than fetch and escort-based. Lore is tightly written, and quests follow a strong narrative. Having a DM narrate some of the action brings some of the tabletop experience into the game. Dungeons aren't all hack-and-slash; the monotony is broken from time to time with puzzles.
Final word: I'm enjoying DDO, and I plan to continue doing so until the limits of playing free get in the way of my enjoyment of the game.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Wow, This Blog Still Exists?

I just logged into Blogger to begin work on a new project, and realized that this blog is still online. Wow, it has been a long time! Here's a quick update on my status as a daddy and a role-player:

  • I'm up to two kids now. The older brother, Braxton, is now seven years old; and his younger sister, Channing, is five.
  • Some years ago, I couldn't maintain my commitment to my online Pathfinder group. This was partly out of frustration with the slow pacing of play-by-chat, and partly due to other professional pursuits.
  • What little gaming time I get is now dominated by Minecraft. The whole family plays, each person preferring a different style. I personally favor modded survival on multi-player servers. I'm spending most of my time with Modsauce and FTB Infinity. 
All this doesn't mean I'm done with tabletop RPG's for good. I still come across my old rulebooks now and then and feel the urge to get something going. I have recently perused Wizards' site to see what's new with D&D, and holy crap I'm confused.

My oldest kid has recently picked up a couple of books from a series Wizards has released. They're like field guides for D&D monsters, except presented purely as lore and not directly connected to the game. It has sparked a conversation about D&D and tabletop role-playing in general, which led to my downloading D&D Online so he can get a feel for the experience. I was careful to explain the differences between a computer-based MMORPG and a tabletop RPG, and he just might want to try the latter in the near future. Good god, how much am I going to have to reinvest? Anyway, no big hurry, since I'm unsure whether he's quite at an appropriate age. Plus, finding others to play with is always a challenge.

As for your truly, maybe a couple hours a week wouldn't hurt again.

If anyone still manages to stumble across this blog, please let me know! Should I dip my toes back in the water?