Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Character Background Weight

Here's a hypothesis:  If there are some character background details that
  • a) impose less on the imagined world and other players, and 
  • b) are more interesting, compelling, or challenging for players
there might be a subset that is true for both a) and b) that we could utilize even in old school games.

By imposes on the world I mean you want something for your player that will make certain things have to be true for our imagined but unexplored world.  I had a player that wanted to play a Drow exiled because he was good.  So, if I let him do that, first, it means there are Drow in my world, second, they are not innately evil, or at least their evil can mutate like hair color or something.  It would also mean his character would have special racial powers, infravison, languages etc.  It seems that impositions on the world fall into these two main categories assumptions about the greater world and personal power increases.  Well, maybe a third as well-- player desire for the spotlight.

Fun Characters
I don't have a lot of experience trying to inhabit different creative and interesting characters in rpgs.  I usually just play me with magic.  Though I have played an alcoholic mage, a naive robot, etc.  Still, I'm no expert on what someone who detests OD&D style "faceless pawns" wants in a character background.  Is it hooks that can help them decide what this imagined person would decide in different situations?  "He was an orphan so he's doesn't want to leave the kids behind."   Or, is it more about a challenge?  "Hold on, my priest's 23 strictures make this one tough."

I'm running out of time and have to get to work, but what would be some background details that might be true for both a) and b)?
  • Things common to all humans or societies seem like they would work: having a parent die young, being a member of a big family, moving a lot as a child, being an only child, etc.
  • Pseudo-medieval jobs might be safe (but even this depends on the weirdness of the world) : farmer, blacksmith, ostler.
  • Privileged backgrounds seem more in danger of assumptions: if you're a member of royalty how does that work in this world?  How much money do you have?  If a lot, why are you risking your life in the caves?  Maybe you like adventure but your party members could probably make money safer by just holding you ransom.
  • Personality or physical traits seem like a good bet.  I think my hireling traits chart does a good job of hitting the biggest ones.  You're really tall, or never drink,  foolhardy or sullen.
  • Crimes seem like a pretty universal thing too: did you murder someone in a fit of rage, commit adultery, are you a secret arsonist?
What else?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Serendipity XV

Okay, you sweet bastards I'm still here lurking, though unable to do much because of work eating my brain.  Here's a series of pictures I call "Mr. Raggi's Players Interact with NPCs." (I kid, James, I kid, haha).
"Where are the copper pieces!?"
And the orb of annihilation:
Actually that first one is the most brutal public domain pic I think I've ever seen. It's supposed to be the legendary way Marguerite de Bourgogne died but Wikipedia failed me here. What's the legend, history buffs?

Sunday, January 22, 2012


Questions we have given Thee, in the number Twenty-three.

Can I answer these and still be a rebel?  Hah.  Here you go:

1. If you had to pick a single invention in a game you were most proud of what would it be?
I like all my fairy-tale logic magic items and spells.  I think people would benefit from more of these kinds of things in game rather than paragraph long descriptions trying to lay out every eventuality.  And, hell you can't beat when a player cuts his own eye out with an obsidian blade to give his blind friend back one of her eyes.   But you said pick one, so how about the Angel of Geometry.

2. When was the last time you GMed?
Not this Friday, but the Friday before.  (I could have played this Friday but cancelled because I was exhausted from work.)  I could probably be playing three times a week if I was independently wealthy which is crazy when I think about how hard it seemed to find kindred souls just 10 or 15 years ago.

3. When was the last time you played?
This Friday, eeeearly my time. (But wait, didn't you say you were exhausted.  Hey, I couldn't pass up a chance at the Caves of Myrddin, and it paid off I got the Spaniard's Orb of Inversion!)

4. Give us a one-sentence pitch for an adventure you haven't run but would like to.
This one seems kind of odd to me.  Why is it we haven't run this adventure?  I guess this assumes DM's having gamer ADD or something.  If I think of a cool adventure it usually happens in the next week. I'm trying to run the best game I can.  (I suppose you could think of an adventure that would be too high level for the current party, but I don't have any high level play experience so I'm not yet.  I suppose you could think of an adventure that you don't think fits your world's genre/tone, but I pretty much mash all my interests into my one psuedo-medieval/ Sinbadian smoothie.  I suppose you could just be bubbling with ideas for adventures, but why not buckle down and develop the one that's coming up in a week.  Maybe I'm just of a different temperament.)  
But also, doesn't this question push more towards adventures as stories DMs prepare?  My PCs end up having adventures shopping in Nidus.  Ok, enough, moving on . . .

5. What do you do while you wait for players to do things?
I don't like waiting for them to do things, (unless it is part of the fun, like heist planning- but usually it's bickering about which way to go in a corridor or whether they should leave the dungeon or explore just one more door)  So I say "Ok, what are you doing?" and I roll for wandering monsters.  In combat I'm even less patient; if it's your init I start counting to 5 before I move to the next person.  I really want the combats tense and snappy.

6. What, if anything, do you eat while you play?
Sometimes my players have cooked things-- potato skins, chili.  We had some nice games where everyone ate dinner together, chit-chatting before we played.  But usually just beer.

7. Do you find GMing physically exhausting? 
Yes.  I try to dramatize the abstract combat dice rolls and riff on previous events.  That takes attention and creativity.  It' true that I get adrenalined-up and have a hard time sleeping afterward, but I'm still wiped out.  It would probably be better if we didn't start at 7:00 pm at the end of a day, at the end of a long week, of work.  But I imagine even if we played during the day I'd just take my extra energy to try to up my game.

8. What was the last interesting (to you, anyway) thing you remember a PC you were running doing?
Climbing up a Cthulhuoid horrors's cloaca and stabbing its brain from the inside, haha.
9. Do your players take your serious setting and make it unserious? Vice versa? Neither?
This is a very good question.  I find that sometimes I undermine the mood of a game by taking a joke opportunity when things were getting creepy.  Tone is tough.  But usually, goofiness and joking is meta, and my game tries to maintain a dry brutal, serious, creepiness.  You can laugh at what the goblins were doing but you're still dead.

10. What do you do with goblins?
I came to despise the idea of humanoids.  But I guess I reconciled with goblins by making them my own (which is sort of the whole point of OD&D style DMing, right?)   I reinserted kobolds and goblins as something from the mythic underworld-- hard to predict, odd, and offputting.  Why are they here?  Where do they come from?  Why are they slathering that zombie abbot's pale naked body with honey?  Of course I don't call them "goblins" and my "kobolds" are just weaker versions of the same things.

11. What was the last non-RPG thing you saw that you converted into game material (background, setting, trap, etc.)?
Not sure, but probably the South Pointing Chariot, except it points to a tower in the middle of some lava-tubed, broken lands (hard to pull a chariot there).

12. What's the funniest table moment you can remember right now?
Have a lot of these, and I'm sure I'm forgetting some of the funniest, but what comes to mind was when the PCs were running a heist on a shrine and the Cleric Toral tried to rile up the crowd of pilgrims to cause a distraction.  He succeeded so incredibly (I think he rolled the big d30, and my reaction roll was max, and he had high Char) that the crowd wasn't just distracted but became incensed and started ripping the guards limb from limb. 

13. What was the last game book you looked at--aside from things you referenced in a game--why were you looking at it?
The GURPs Goblins book at the recommendation of Richard Guy and Chris Hogan.  I'm on the lookout for any cool game innovation and it sounds like this book has several.  But I have to confess, I have a hard time sitting still and reading any more.  I think all this internet and blog reading has atrophied my attention span and I have a hard time reading more than a page before my head's spinning with other ideas and I want to get up and walk around, go do something.

14. Who's your idea of the perfect RPG illustrator?
Someone that makes illustrations that tell a story.  I am so sick of pictures of people looking "badass."  Remember "no honor among thieves," from the DMG?  Or the one with the guy trapped in water and cell bars with a skeleton coming. Or the one (from a White Dwarf ad?) that showed all the dead skeletons reaching for the huge diamond?  Or, hell even the alignment illustration from Moldvay.  Yeah, more pictures like that.  Here, illustrators, I'll even give you one: couple down and out guys trapped behind iron bars, using a golden sceptre as a lever, golden crown as a fulcrum, to try to lift the bars.  Sceptre is just starting to bend.

I should say, the best art wouldn't have to have a little scene in it.  Your picture (Zak) of the obese succubus has a lot of story just in her expression for me.  She looks bored or wistful and, under the conditions she is experiencing it, that is interesting.

15. Does your game ever make your players genuinely afraid?
I think so.  As much as any movie does (if not more).  You'd have to ask my players, but there was a time where a naked, female ghoul picked the party off one by one in the darkness.  And the time a pc who's player has arachnophobia (I didn't know) was climbing up onto a ledge and a giant spider bit his face, killing him.

16. What was the best time you ever had running an adventure you didn't write? (If ever)
I haven't.  Part of it is NIH syndrome, a kind of cocky, thinking I can do better.  But part of it is the opposite; a complete lack of confidence "how can I remember all these facts and get this right?"  I do love looking at adventures because other than after play reports it's really the only chance you have to learn how people do this DM thing.  This usefulness is undermined by people who write modules throwing everything they do at the table out and creating something completely different, like railroads and tournament modules, because they think that's what a module is.

17. What would be the ideal physical set up to run a game in?
Big oval table seating 10, felt covered.  Side table for my junk.  Room for me to walk around the whole table.  Well-lit.  Walking distance from where I'm staying.

18. If you had to think of the two most disparate games or game products that you like what would they be?
I haven't had much gamer ADD, been pretty happy with D&D and trying to make it work but I was really impressed by the way DC Heroes fit Ma Kent and Superman on the same chart.  I would like to look at that again.  And I spent a few years developing a system of magic that used sentence like structure (SVO) to cast on the spot spells, only to find Ars Magica beat me to it.  Haven't played it but was impressed.

19. If you had to think of the most disparate influences overall on your game, what would they be?
The Bible and Walt Disney.  (that last one completely surprised me right now, but the genre-summing-up that the original Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion do, seems a lot like what I'm attempting in my D&D.  I mean, "what does the perfect haunted house need in it?", seems very similar to "what does the perfect classic dungeon need in it?").

20. As a GM, what kind of player do you want at your table?
I guess the kind of person you'd want at a party; friendly, interesting, funny.  I almost said I want people that won't sit there quietly, but will be active, but I changed my mind, I want quiet players too, as long as they enjoy the game, the company, and my DMing.  It's just with quiet players it's hard to determine that.

21. What's a real life experience you've translated into game terms?
Hah, this terrifying raccoon

22. Is there an RPG product that you wish existed but doesn't?
A book on DMing.  Everything I've ever read on the subject was so abstract or light as to be useless.  A lot of good questions get in depth discussion on blogs, if only they were compiled, arranged, and added to.  And I don't mean DMing tips, as if we were homemakers wanting to know how to better clean our whites (that we already know how to get partially white), I mean stuff like how do you run a campaign, when, in the real world you will have different players every week? How the hell do you start a campaign as a newbie DM?  How do you organize your junk so it doesn't slow play enough to start affecting how fun the game is?  What do you do when players show up an hour late to a session?  These probably go the opposite way and are too specific, but I guess what I want is someone to lay out DMing theory-- show how you can devise practices from it, and vice versa, show some DMing lore that has worked for a lot of DMs and try to figure out the underlying reasons.

23. Is there anyone you know who you talk about RPGs with who doesn't play? How do those conversations go?
Yeah, my blog is pretty important to my sanity and enjoyment these days.  And not just because of gaming (I've learned a lot about audience, writing, and the blog post as genre).  So, if you're in my life I'm going to be talking about it at some point.  Unfortunately, it is so alien that these folks just don't understand.  My parents and my boss don't even grok video games, so they can't even use that as a metaphor to understand our game.  In the end, I think they know I like to try and minimalize and innovate in all things and they figure I'm doing something similar in the realm of a child's game.  But there is always that sense of being wary-- wasn't this that Satanic game with demons and magic?-- which I suppose is partially warranted with some of the godawful creepy things I have goblins doing to try and mess with my players.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Serendipity XIV

These images are all public domain.

Work is brutal; spent the last two days trying to find a way to not lay off people while maintaining minimum services with a cut budget.  Know this isn't really a personal blog but I want to explain why my posting will suck for a while because I come home with a head like a scraped-out melon.

Monday, January 9, 2012


So, I called it three years ago.  I don't think the reboot has so much to do with a failure on 4e's part as a natural part of selling game rule books.  Once you've sold all your players books, you have to change the rules to sell them more.  (I'll go out on a limb again and say that even the fan-beloved Pathfinder is getting long in the tooth, expect a revamp in the next year or so).  Sure, 4e might have underperformed what Hasbro hoped for, but 5e was inevitable.

But that isn't why I wanted to post.  I've learned a lot in the last three years and one of the biggest things is that even if every roleplayer in existence is wowed by whatever 5 turns out to be and switches immediately and unanimously, there are plenty of players available to play in games of whatever homebrew you want to use as long as it's relatively simple and fun.

I was afraid before.  Afraid the shifting of the official game culture would leave me outside of the conversation, excluded, playerless.  But with some more DMing experience under my belt and some confidence because of it, I know I can have players till the day I die.

So, I hope people that love 4e aren't bummed out too much-- you can keep on playing-- and I hope people don't get too excited to see what Hasbro's going to make for them next.  Hey, roll your own.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Character Sheet 2.0

I love index cards.  They're cheap, common, and standard-- all great qualities for a DIY material.  But as I've gotten more play under my belt, keeping track of player stuff has become a problem.  Players have cards I give them for treasure (potions, scrolls, gems, etc), poker chips to track ammo, little notes they've found in dungeons, and hireling cards.
The party was finding torn out pages all over Animal Island
How do you keep track of all that junk?  Especially if you have a player base that rotates and changes a lot (like mine) and you don't have a stable place of your own to game (like me)?

I sat down to try and come up with a solution.  I wanted it to use a single sheet of paper, require only folding, and be simple.  And I wanted that sheet of paper to also function as the character sheet.  I think I've got it:
Here are pdfs for Fighter, Magic-User, Cleric, and Thief.  These are probably too specific to my own game to be of use to anyone else, but print one out and try it to see if you might want to make your own (you can also import the pdfs as images into an editor to make sure you've got the dimensions right before making it your own).  They're pretty simple to fold but I'll walk you through it:
Fold in half lengthwise.
Then fold that in half so the heart shows.
Fold along the dotted line.
Unfold everything, turn graphics-down, and fold the corner up.
Fold over the flap at the same dotted line.
Fold it back lengthwise again.
And in half again.
Now you've got a little pocket:
It's not perfect, but doesn't require staples or anything.

I made the backs so I could store them opening-up (maybe in a coupon holder).  I think I'll use colored paper clips to help distinguish which sheet is which player's (yes, sorting this out takes us a lot of time) and also to make sure the stuff doesn't fall out:
I might make some revisions later but that took me all day and I'm happy that at least it's better than my groups' current situation.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Grab Bag Storerooms

Happy 2012!  Wow, the last few days flew by.  At ze Bulette's recommendation I finally took the plunge and bought Minecraft.  I'm just about to go back down in the mine but I had a thought.

One of the places that's difficult for me in DMing is a room full of junk, because, invariably, through tone of voice or body language I tip off whether there is something valuable to search for or not.  And when players find something, whether that was it or that they should keep searching.  I wish that was more of a player choice.

How about listing all the items in a room on index or business size cards and when players say they want to search the room you flop them all on the table.  So, not grab bag in the sense of players inputing creatively like with the treasure post, but in the sense of physical items they can paw through in real time.

Who is busy searching when you roll that wandering monster encounter?  Well, the players actually physically looking at the cards.  How long does it take them to search?  Maybe a turn per card.  That way you know this room stuffed with junk like Tut's tomb, with each item on a separate card, will take hours to search.  This, still-used storeroom with things organized on shelves has each shelf on a card, 2 turns.

Or I suppose you could time players in real time.  You might put several layers of information on a card-- say , the front just says small cask, but the back says weight in stone, smells sticky and sweet, estimated price if it's unfouled honey, etc.  Players can quickly glance at the fronts to see if anything interests them.  To turn a card over will coast another half a turn or so of search time.