Thursday, 9 December 2010
Monday, 6 December 2010
First, here is Head Injury Theatre's guide to the stupid monsters of D&D. D&D has lots of 'stupid' in it, but then D&D does consist of hundreds of books spread over 30 years. Some of these monsters are actually 'bad', in the way that lots of very early D&D was 'bad'. I don't want to have my players explore by routinely tapping the ground in front of them with a 12" pole because deadly traps are that commonplace. There's no heroism, adventure, or cleverness in that. It might remind us of the old days, and despite my fondness of old school RPG rule systems and game settings, the idea of dungeoneering being a series of escalating death-puzzles is about as exciting to me as D&D being World of Warcraft, now with added paper! I want my players to role-play their characters, be heroes (or villians, or snivelling sneaks) and have fun doing so. Which is why this is a bad monster.
It's not that it's stupid, it's that it's bad. Just how are a party of adventurers meant to cope with that. How will the players not feel that they've been 'cheated' when the ceiling drops down on them and kills them. Put The Lurker Above, and its kin, in your game, and you've got henchmen taking point once the players re-roll their characters. Heroes all.
Anyhow, I've been living my online gaming life around the Dragonsfoot (for all my classic D&D needs) and Bugman's Brewery (for my WFB Dwarfs) fora recently, and do recommend that if you interested in these game systems you check out those sites.
Wednesday, 22 September 2010
Wednesday, 18 August 2010
Some time ago I ran a game of BECMI/Rules Cyclopedia D&D for my wife, my mother, and my teenage sister. We had created characters the day before, and I knew the game was going to be interesting from the amount of imagination they put into developing their heroic personas. By the end of character creation we had a ruthless veteran Thyatian warrior, a warrior priestess from the Northern Reaches, and a runaway teenage unlicensed magic user from Glantri.
I decided that we would play a version of module B9, Castle Caldwell. This is a short dungeon crawl with little to commend it apart from its simplicity. Which is exactly what I wanted from an adventure I would be using introduce three beginners to the game. In putting some meat on the bones, I had it that they would be hired by Cassius Capex, former slum landlord of Thyatis City in the process of turning his family into members of the respectable gentry. If he is successful, he will be able to serve as an early patron for the adventuring party. The first step in this process is the purchase of an abandoned fortified manor house and accompanying lands in northern Karameikos. Unfortunately, the abandoned manor is occupied and he needs some desperate/brave strongarms to clear his property. To add an NPC who could offer beginners tactical/game mechanic advice, I decided that Cassius will send his son, Atticus Capex to accompany the party and keep an eye on their efforts.
In hindsight, should I have done all this in a ‘cut-scene’? I have little aversion to using cut-scenes – extended periods of description that throw characters into an adventure or move the plot forwards between episodes of ‘open’ play. I use these to shamelessly ‘railroad’ characters into events, to place them at the doors of the dungeon, or knee-deep in intrigue (or in gore, depending on taste), before handing the characters over to the players. I see little wrong with this, as the idea that a GM is able to avoid ‘railroading’ is a nonsense - to give characters total freedom, after all, would involve beginning every game session with, ‘You wake up. What will Edwin the Bard do now?’ Or, like Tristram Shandy, we could try to begin with the conception of the characters. A good cut-scene can do away with that staple of adventure beginnings, ‘You spend the evening in the Skewered Boar. A strange man approaches you as you finish your Darokini wine’, and provide a beginning that is more cinematic, theatrical, or literary, depending on your tastes. For all that, the party met Cassius Capex in a tavern.
What followed was an excellent few hours of role-playing. The warriors and the runaway negotiated with Cassius, discussed his offer with each other, inspected the horses that he provided, weighed up Atticus as a party member, and generally failed to get on with the adventure. When they did arrive at Castle Capex they hid in the treeline and watched the entrance for the best part of a day, before watching a goblin hunting party return. They laid a plan to lure some goblins out, setting a smoky campfire to attract attention and concealing themselves some distance away. Four goblins were sent to investigate.
Dice rolling began in earnest. The party killed two, broke the morale of the remaining two and captured them. Under interrogation, the goblins told the party that their band controlled the castle, and ‘taxed’ the humans who used it. I wanted to offer the party hints that they might be able to clearing the castle largely by negotiation – the merchants, bandits, evil cleric, and goblins could all be persuaded to leave the castle when faced with swagger, threats, sharp blades and a little gold. The party would still have to fight the ravenous wolves, and whatever evil lurked in the cellars, but they would be able to role-play much of their way to success.
After the party put their prisoners to death – one of them was trying to escape, but I might have to look at an alignment shift for these Lawful heroes – I got my first sign that these players were so unfamiliar with adventure games of any description that they would need guidance. I needed to have Atticus get to his knees and search the bodies of the goblins in order to reward the characters with any treasure. And then, armed with information about the inhabitants of the castle the party rode back to town, Atticus grumbling all the way, to renegotiate with Cassius. They demanded that he hire a few more strongarms to accompany the party if they are to clear out a castle that is not only home to goblins, but also a couple of groups of ‘umans and that ‘strange chanting lady’.
A clever move in real life, perhaps. But not a gamers move. A gamer – even one only familiar with computer adventure games – would assume a difficulty scaling in keeping with the power of the characters. People with no familiarity with the way these games work see four novice adventurers, and a castle full of people and things who will try to stick pointy bits of metal into those people. Where a gamer might risk the life of his character to achieve progress in the game, and more importantly would understand the scale of these risks in terms of game mechanics, in this game the players – my wife, my mother and my teenage sister – used their imagination to assess the dangers of having fun storming the castle. They role-played their characters, and found that they were far more concerned with keeping their characters unharmed while earning enough money to escort the runaway novice magic user downriver to Specularum then they were achieving abstract character progress in the form of ‘levelling up’. Their lack of familiarity is what made the session such a fun role-playing experience, and such a frustrating adventure game.
Wednesday, 21 July 2010
Role-players are usually comfortable with the idea that the characters can be physically dissimilar to players. We do not blink when the character being played by a weakling bends iron bars or lifts boulders, or when the character played by a clutz nimbly disassembles a deadly trap, or when the player who is never completely well rolls up a character with a constitution of 18. The dissimilarity of the characters and the players is enforced by the way in which physical characteristics are bound into the mechanics of the game.
Characteristics such as wisdom, intelligence, and charisma – personality and cognitive characteristics – seem to present many role-players with a problem. They are often not tied so strongly into the mechanics of the game. They might determine how many spells you can learn or cast, or offer slight modifiers to reaction rolls, but their effects are not felt in the mundane mechanics of the average role-play session. Complicating this is the feeling that the activities that might be covered by these characteristics ought to be the proper domain of role-playing, not dice rolling. When a player says that his character will attempt to throw a goblin over a wall, a GM will ask the player to roll some dice. The GM will not ask for a demonstration. When a player says that his character will negotiate with a goblin, a GM will often ask the player to role-play this negotiation.
While Steve couldn't string two words together, never mind an argument, his character (Wis 17, Int 17, Chr 17) could speak like Cicero.
I want to protect characteristics such as wisdom, intelligence, and charisma from being ‘stat dumps’ by giving them more mechanical prominence in a game. But I want to do this without cutting the role-play aspect of role-playing games. That said, a clever player, playing a D&D character with intelligence of 7, who solves puzzles, engages in complex negotiations, and the like, is no more playing a role-playing game than one who devolves everything to a characteristic test. A combination of characteristic tests and skill tests, modified GM judgement of intrinsic difficulty and role-playing decisions is the best way forward, I feel. A player might make an impassioned speech when negotiating with the King of the Assassins, but if the character who is to be making the speech has a low charisma score that might not be quite what comes out of the characters mouth. We would not consider for a moment that there should be one to one translation from player action/stated intention to character action when dealing with questions of physical action. This is not just to hobble the characters of the clever, charismatic players, but to boost the characters of players who are not so quick witted or charismatic. Just as a weakling can play a Herculean hero, so can the shy player who stumbles over his words play the greatest demagogue in the Known World.
Tuesday, 6 July 2010
Those who behold this flag within sixty feet must make a saving throw or else are charmed by the flag bearer and will surround and follow him, protecting him and the flag with their lives if necessary. The spell is only broken if the flag should touch the ground or if the bearer can be interpreted in any way as disrespecting it.
Saturday, 3 July 2010
Wednesday, 23 June 2010
• A pewter flask engraved with a crossed hammer and chisel. It is full of brandy.
• A weighty tome titled 'Majestic Dynasties'.
• A pair of ermine trim leather leggings.
• A throwing hammer etched with a kill tally.
Thursday, 17 June 2010
Tuesday, 1 June 2010
If the concept of HP makes any sense, it is better to understand and, more importantly, to encourage players to conceive of them as ‘Hero Points’. Rather than the number of times the character can actually get hit, think of HP as the number of times the character can nearly get hit, can manoeuvre so as to take a glancing blow, can absorb sub-injury fatigue and bruising; the dead legs, the aching shoulders, the bruised ribs, the burning, gasping lungs, before a character takes a telling, fatal blow. Think of HP as a combination of fighting skill, experience, conditioning to the peculiar physical and psychological – e.g. dealing with stress, terror, and exhilaration – demands of combat, and perhaps most importantly luck and/or the blessings of fate. For human-sized characters at least, only a very small component of HP should be the ability to fight on with actual wounds. Because a human or demi-human ought to need only get stuck with a sword once before he dies, no matter the level, but then no ‘hero’ ought be killed by the first ‘hit’ in a role-playing game such as D&D.
Of course, the HP value of monsters need not represent exactly the same thing as it does for characters. HP is an abstract value. A Fighter’s 50 HP does not represent exactly the same thing as the 50 HP of a dragon. A dragon should be able to take many more actual sword blows than the human, in which case a greater proportion of the HP value is taken up by physical resilience, and less is derived from luck, fate, and that peculiar ability to make that last minute, but exhausting adjustments in the face of potentially lethal blows.
Narrating combat of this kind as a GM can be demanding. Draw on the choreography of the sword fights of cinema – characters arms grow heavy from constant parrying, the deflected blows of edged weapons still strike their victims, but on the flat, when weapons are locked the character with the upper hand is able to land a kick, a knee, a punch, or a headbutt, and characters scoring a 'hit' will have put their opponents in a series of awkward positions. And yes, a sub-lethal hit will sometimes be a nick or a graze. When done well this helps new players pick up on the level of abstraction found in most RPG mechanics – I have found that it breaks the coherence of the fiction for some new players when they are faced with the idea that they can ‘hit’ for maximum ‘damage’, but their opponent is able to fight on without any injury of significance to the game mechanics.
Wednesday, 26 May 2010
The Old World is the world presented in the first edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (WFRP) (1986). A faux-Renaissance Europe dominated by the Empire, corrupted from within by petty human failings and the shadow of Chaos, it was a setting richly detailed in the superb The Enemy Within campaign. It is a low-fantasy setting with a dark, humorous atmosphere. And it is a lot of fun if played that way.
In two imaginary worlds, and their associated game systems, we have neat encapsulations of the gulf between American and British pop-culture. One the one hand you have the Justice League of America, on the other the Justice Department of Megacity One. The Known World of D&D is bright, clean, and [super-]heroic. The PCs survive (mostly), save the world, defeat the evil, and grow powerful and rich. The Old World of WFRP is dark, dirty, and a grim struggle. If the PCs survive (and there’s a good chance they won’t), they merely forestall the spread of chaos, before they are permanently disabled fighting a pickpocket in a filthy alley, grow sick, and die in poverty.
And for a GM, or player, these two worlds and systems have, between them, all the rules and well-presented colour to run fantasy campaigns of whatever flavour you want. I have recently returned to roleplaying after a long period away – getting a degree, becoming a husband, getting a PhD, becoming a father, and breaking my body on the rugby fields of Yorkshire and South Wales. Those 15-20 years have given me a different perspective on what I want from a roleplaying game. This blog is about the Known World and the Old World, the game systems that they were built around, and my thoughts on playing these classic roleplaying games.