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?