Wednesday 28 May 2014

Getting Real and Scaling Down

Our gaming group has lately become a victim of geography, and the pressure of PhDs and other work. With our face-to-face fantasy roleplay gaming having dwindled for a spell, I need a new project (no, I don’t, but anyway…). C, one of the players in our group, and I have been talking about getting real and scaling down our miniature gaming.

As in playing a bit of 15mm historical. 

The attractions of 15mm historical are; economy - a small army can be bought in a job lot for a reasonable price. The restrictions placed on the quality of painting by the scale – non-one expects ham-fisted painters (i.e. me) from achieving anything spectacular at 15mm, so a workmanlike, gaming orientated paint job will be perfectly acceptable. The fact that there is more space on a table – which produces greater possibilities for the exercise of ‘generalship’. And I might actually learn something from historical gaming.

But I need this to be a gaming project. Too many of my miniature projects run out of steam because there is no definite ‘game’ at the end. They become about painting, modelling, and collecting, and those are all secondary to the fact that you actually play games with the little men. 

At the moment I’m thinking about Dark Ages gaming, primarily because I have been reading Bernard Cornwell’s Arthur and Uhtred books, but also because, on a practical level, historically realistic battles can run from everything from a skirmish to a clash of shieldwalls, and I’ll be able to use the miniatures in fantasy gaming too. But feel free to suggest other eras/conflicts/battles too.

So, I am here to pick your brains. 

Someone reading this must have experience of historical miniature gaming in 15mm. I would like to know:

1) Which rulesets would people recommend? I’d like something that plays fast and is fairly straightforward to learn, while still being ‘representational’, rather than an abstracted strategy game with historical/military flavour. 

2) Which miniatures (and suppliers) would people recommend? I’d prefer hard plastic, as, after all, I am after economy and gaming first here, but happy for metal recommendations (and to mix and match).

3) Which (sources of) scenarios would people recommend? What particular game/s should I buy and paint towards?

And, for each of those, what should I avoid if I were you?

Tuesday 20 May 2014

The Information Game

RPGs are games of information and choice.

The most important point of this post is this cartoon. If you don't want to read me spend several paragraphs thinking aloud for my own benefit, skip to the end. 

Understanding RPGs as information games does bring in contrast my unease with games that have 'information gates' built into their mechanics. I play and enjoy those games. But I do think that it takes real GM skill to play a game that, by the book, is peppered with rolls that (in the hands of a bad GM at least), might deny players the information that required to make meaningful choices on behalf of their characters. Despite playing games with these kind of mechanics (WFRP, RQ etc.) I'm never sure whether I've managed to get the correct balance between information simply given, information supplied in response to player questions, and information granted by virtue of character abilities. I thought about something like this some time ago, suggesting that, despite spending a large amount of time away from D&D in favour of more 'realistic' games (and an even longer time not playing at all), my experience with the particular iteration of the 'Information Game' of D&D has baked-in the way I referee a game - I am a DM, not a Keeper.

But there is another aspect to the information game of RPGs that most 'how to play' sections miss; the fact that the information flow of the game is not one way. The GM needs to extract information from the players. I have found that players might be very good at providing statements of intent that accurately express the will of their character for the next 6 seconds/10 seconds/60 seconds (delete by edition). But they often keep their longer term goals - longer term here might mean their goals within a single encounter - obscure. Sometimes this is deliberate, when players feel they are playing against the referee, but often it is because the players have not really understood the fact that the information that they have of (encounter) situation is necessarily incomplete. The description of a situation can only by a few sentences long. This can be 'total information' in a boardgame in which there are only a limited number of options. The only information that is game relevant is that which directly impinges on the mechanics of the game. In a RPG, with 'tactical infinity' this is the merest skeleton of situation. Any information can be game relevant, depending on the imaginations of the players and the GM. Nothing can be dismissed a mere 'colour text'. Players can flesh out the information 'skeleton' by asking questions of the referee, but unless the referee knows the 'longer term' plans of the players and their characters, the referee cannot provide directly relevant information, nor can the players be assured that all the information relevant to their plans has been provided.

Along with necessarily incomplete information, the transmission of this information is almost certainly imperfect. Even in a totally railroaded game with boxed text producing perfectly homologous imaginations is not going to happen. Significantly divergent imaginations of the situation are more likely in games in which the referee generates encounters in play and improvises descriptions - i.e. a game that allows for significant player/character choice. Without players explaining the longer term plans of their characters, those plans will likely be frustrated by misunderstandings of the situation. Or the referee, not wanting to disappoint the player as his character's imaginative plan is revealed one action at a time (ending with a great reveal - 'Ta Dah!'), will shift the 'reality' of the game world to match the misunderstandings of the player. That's not a bad escape to the situation, socially, but in game terms it denies the importance of player/character choice as the 'reality' upon which they were acting had no solidity.

tl;dr: Players need to ask questions, but Referees need to question players over the intentions of their characters in order to ensure as close as possible a shared imagination of the game world.

Added bonus: NPCs with mind-reading skills (or high 'Spot Motive'/'Insight' etc. skills) can do their thing with ease!

Friday 2 May 2014

Some Thoughts on Magic World

We recently played quite a few sessions of Magic World, Chaosium's update/compilation of its BRP fantasy rules (Elric!, with a bit of RQIII squeezed in there too). We enjoyed playing it, using it to run a brief sandbox game based around Salamonis in the Fighting Fantasy world of Titan. I have a few thoughts on the system:

1.    I like the combat system. This is no surprise, as it is basically the Elric! system, which is very smooth and quick to run, while at the same time retaining plenty of texture, mostly by way of a large number of 'spot rules' that handle things such as disarming or knockout blows, variable weapon length etc. Variable armour adds another dice roll when compared to most games, but it is a simple one that adds to the drama of combat, and using total hit points rather than hit locations allows for easy bookkeeping. The major wound system can provide plenty of specific and 'colourful' injuries, all the same.

2.    There are too many skills. This is particularly noticeable in the case of the 'physical' and 'perception' skills, groups of skills that, to my mind are so interrelated that skill in one should almost always accompany skill in (some of) the others. In terms of 'perception', Magic World has Insight, Listen, Sense, Search, and Track, plus other 'information' skills such as World Lore, Evaluate, etc. It is a weakness of my Refereeing style that I have a hard enough time running a game with a single 'perception' skill. If these kind of skills are going to mean anything in the game, the Referee must 'gate' important information not by player decisions but by character skill. If a PC has Sense at 90% (as was the case in our game), the Player must get the sense (ugh) that such a skill is as mechanically meaningful as having Sword at 90%. Whether a PC has Sword at 90% or 60% or 30% determines her chances of defeating the Baron's Champion. If we are going to have perception skills, the percentile rating should determine the chances of the Player being given information that will allow them to make better decisions. Oh, I know I am hashing out old territory here…

But it is not just the types of skills, but the granularity. The fact that competency in these closely related skills is not related, which leads me to…

3.    I like the way combat skills are handled (but…). In Magic World there are weapon groups, which encompass all weapons of a particular type. Skill with one weapon in a group = skill in all other weapons in that group. This skill is used for both attacks and parries. This is a nice middle ground between the extreme granularity of Chaosium RQ with skills for each individual weapon and separate parry skills, and the broad strokes 'styles' of  MRQII and RQ6 and the 'close combat / ranged combat / unarmed combat' split of OpenQuest. But then, if I’m going to enjoy this level of granularity for combat, for the sake of consistency shouldn't I accept a similar level of differentiation for 'perception skills', or for the eight (yes, 8!) physical skills? Perhaps, I should, and here you can see how my preferences waver between the granularity of Magic World and the condensed skill list of OQ.

4.    I don't like the fact that the equipment list is all out of whack. Who would. That's not a taste thing. The Bronze economy appears to make little sense. The weapon groups on the table are all over the place, but this is easily fixed by reference to the table describing what ought to be in each group. But this does cause one to lose confidence that the other numbers on the table reflect the intent of the designers. Should the STR/DEX requirements be that high? Should this weapon really do more damage than that one? Should a falchion really be that expensive? I own Elric!, and so could do a comparison, but actually, when I run Magic World again, and I shall, I will most likely dump the entire equipment section and replace it with a bespoke list, likely derived from Arms of Legend.

5.    Character creation is great! Quick and simple, but without losing the distinctive customizability of a BRP game. Players don’t simply have a pool of points to distribute as they see fit, which leads analysis paralysis as they pinch a percentage point here and there, tinkering with details that drag out character creation for little gain. Rather, they have blocks of points based on their culture and prior occupation, rather like Peter Maranci's Skill Pyramid. Players simply have to decide which of the listed occupational skills they want to be best at, which they want to be good at, and with which skills they want some competency. The, as default, limited magic helps speed up character creation, too. Which leads me to…

6.    Magic. By default, only characters with a POW of 16 or more can use magic. If Players are randomly rolling their characteristics, this means that magic using characters will be pretty rare, unless they make a grim bargain and begin trading away their other characteristics in the pursuit of magical power. I'm pretty happy with that – it matches the tone that my fantasy worlds, regardless of starting point, eventually take. And with magic as a power limited to just a handful of people it means that the assumptions of the game are roughly compatible with the assumptions behind most (D&Dish/’vanilla’) fantasy worlds.

There is only one type of magic in Magic World (barring Advanced Sorcery, or plugging in the Unknown East for Elric!, or the BRP Magic Book, or stuff from the BGB, or, or, or...). But, actually, that’s not quite true. There is only one mechanic for handling magic in Magic World. But that doesn’t stop a Referee creating a specialist spell lists for different types of magicians and magic users, changing the flavour text and so on. And it is certainly easier to do this than to grokk and incorporate the mechanically distinct magic systems in RQ6. 

This is not a review. But here’s something like the conclusion to a review: In a nutshell, the disappointments that I have with Magic World are largely a back-handed compliment; while I wanted a clean, revamped Elric!, Magic World appears a bit undercooked, perhaps because Chaosium haven’t backed the game with any great gusto. Which probably makes business sense – who wants to put too much of their resources into a competition with Legend (the $1 OGL D100 game!), RQ6 (a game of supreme polish), and OQ2 (the quickest and easiest system for running D100 fantasy, and it is OGL too!)? I don’t expect Chaosium to invest great resources into fighting a losing battle because it’ll please my idiosyncratic desires for a relatively low magic D100 game of medium crunch that uses the resistance table! But I’m glad that they let Ben Monroe resurrect the Elric! system, and hope that Magic World releases are part of the BRP catalogue for some time to come.

But update the .pdf with the errata, already!