Thursday 22 October 2015

Consequences over Process

The Last Kingdom starts tonight on BBC2. I'm pretty excited, being mid-way through the books and having just finished watching series 3 of Vikings.

Bernard Cornwell writes fantastic battle scenes. I loved his 'King Arthur' trilogy and its brutal descriptions of warfare in the Dark Ages. But whenever I think about Cornwell's books I am reminded that my mother loves his books too, and she pretty much skims, if not skips, the fight scenes. She also enjoys Joe Abercrombie, another writer of wonderfully brutal combat, and again... Again, what my mother wants to know is who has won, and what were the consequences of that victory (or defeat).

So while Cornwell's books make me think that I want to play an RPG with a crunchy, 'realistic' combat system (RuneQuest 6 with Mythic Britain* comes to mind) my mother's tastes remind me of what I actually enjoy at the table, with the players I game with. A while back I wrote 'Thoughts on boring systems...', arguing that simple (combat) systems maximise player choices with minimal demand for system mastery. Sure, if I'm playing 'Saxon Britain: the RPG', I will want a combat system that produces brutal, visceral results - the consequences of player choices regarding engaging in combat - but I don't need a system that has a process that simulates the brutal, visceral nature of combat. Not only do those systems tend to require system mastery, which is rarely attained by my players, but simple systems tend to produce rapid resolutions, allowing players to move and make more consequential choices in a session. Which is pretty important when you're squeezing gaming into the gap between kids' bedtimes and heavy-lidded brainlessness. 

So, by all means, I love games that have combat that has the PCs risk bloody wounds and hacked limbs, but for my players, which sometimes includes my mother, I need to skip to those consequences.

*RQ6 is a beautiful system that, despite the above, I would love to properly play sometime. I have Mythic Britain on order, but it might get cannibalized as the setting for a more rules-lite game, depending on which players I can bring to the table. I

Thursday 15 October 2015

Wage Rates and Treasure Hoards

On my other blog, I wrote about the route to a quick fortune in the Old World of WFRP1e - busking. Not too long ago, I wrote about my preferences for systems that accommodate the PCs employing NPC hirelings. Both of these posts touch on another concern of mine - levels of reward.

I have no need for the extensive price lists found in many games. I couldn't give a flying feather about the price of a chicken. I couldn't give a snort over the cost of salted ham. But that is because those kind of 'realistic' price lists are focused on the wrong kind of thing for my game. I don't need to know the minutia. But I do want to know, at a glance, what it will cost a PC to live. And I do want this broken down, not into a series of line items, but into consequential differences - into a series of bands from 'poverty' to 'princely'. I don't care about the difference in price between a cup of mead and a jug of ale. But I want to know what a carousing session costs, perhaps broken down by quality of neighborhood. Cost of a cloak? Pah! Cost of 'dressing in finery' vs 'dressing in rags', yeah, I can use that.  And so on.

As an aside, this is why I also can't be bothered with platinum and electrum coins. Gold, silver, and copper are enough - in fact, in practical play, two types of coins often provides a perfectly workable system, with simplified accountancy.

Thing is, I do like keeping track of the cash available to the PCs. I do like having the PCs grub around for the gold to cover their living expenses. This can lead to trouble, and trouble leads to adventure. But I don't want to play a game in which the players discuss whether they can do without cloaks, or whether they will wear boots or shoes, and so on. I don't find that fun.

What's this got to do with levels of reward? Well, a good, game-able pricelist allows a GM to calibrate rewards based on wealth. And more importantly, it allows players to understand the level of their PCs' wealth with regard to the game world. They are being paid 500GP to recover the Icon of St. Cuthbert? Is that the same as the yearly income for someone of their class? Is is 10 years' income? Is it the revenue a minor baron would collect? How many months of 'upper class' living would this reward grant the low-born PCs? And so on.

Of course, the much maligned (outside the OSR, at least) random treasure tables provide an additional mode of reward calibration, this time by risk. More or less. So is this a deadly adventure, akin to taking on a Dragon? Or it is like knocking over a couple of Goblins? Either way, and anywhere in between, D&D (and its clones) has you covered.   

Tuesday 13 October 2015

Endogenous Inspiration

The AD&D DMG has an ‘Appendix N’, filled with inspirational (and educational) reading, fiction and non-fiction. The D&D5e PHB and DMG are peppered with quotes from fantasy fiction, but the fiction being quoted was D&D fiction, produced to fit – for better or worse – the conceits of the game. Of course, to be fair, there is also a section on ‘inspirational reading’ in 5e too – which includes D&D fiction but isn’t dominated by it – but it occurred to me that as games/game worlds develop they begin to feed on themselves, to the point of generating ‘endogenous inspiration’.

I don’t think that I do that well with games that draw on themselves for inspiration. This occurred to me when I was thinking of Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play, and was trying to work out what was at the heart of my preference for 1st edition over 2nd edition. I don’t know enough about 3rd to have an opinion other than, “but I’ve got two small kids, and that’s a lot of fiddly bits to lose”. There’s a few mechanical things that I prefer in 1e, and I prefer some of the aesthetics – from incidental artwork to book design - but I realised that while WFRP1e is heavily shaped by influences – from history, fiction and art – from outside Warhammer, WFRP2e is very much more built on ‘other things Warhammer’.

It seems to me that the more games draw on ‘endogenous inspiration’, the harder they can be to ‘get’. Not only is there a larger body of canon material, but canon material references/is based on earlier canon material, rather than real history, legend, or external fiction or art. Games built on endogenous inspiration appear to be wonderfully immersive places, full of consistent(?), well developed ideas, but their fan communities are intimidating, and a desire to run a game ‘right’ can inhibit a GM. I find that a game which wears its external influences more baldly can offer a GM licence to draw on other inspirational material to add to the patchwork and make the game their own.   

And that reminded of Coop’s excellent post on WFRP – Not Syphilitic,Not Knee-Deep in Shit. Aside from agreeing with Coop’s argument that the WFRP1e rulebook offers a generic ‘grim and perilous’ fantasy system capable of doing higher-fantasy gaming that some of the classic WFRP scenarios would imply – I’ve long wanted to run WFRP in Fighting Fantasy’s Titan, for example – a comment from Graeme Davis highlights the stage of ‘coherence’ that the Warhammer setting had reached: “…at this stage [1986], WFRP didn't really know what it was going to be. The Warhammer mythos as a whole was still at the red box second edition stage, with odd and sometimes contradictory snippets of background scattered across the Citadel Compendium and Journal, miniatures ads, and the backs of mini boxes.”

As a final note, this highlights why I am always wary of trying to run games in the ‘real world’. The canon is enormous and all the inspirational material is ‘endogenous’!

Wednesday 7 October 2015

When nothing is on the table, everything is

One of the problems of not playing for any length of time, as has happened as a result of our house move, is that my normal Gamer ADD, constrained by actual play, is unleashed. With no campaign on the table, any campaign is on the table. In any genre, in any setting, using any system.

But I think that I have narrowed the next game down to a 'space game'. But which one?!

Despite owning quite a few different 'space games', I have boiled it down to the classic choice; Traveller or Stars Without Number. Other systems that I own have been set aside as these two, in my opinion, support a 'traditional' sandbox campaign without the kind of heavy crunch that, when GM-facing, inhibits the facilitation of PC freedom of action, and when player-facing, intimidates the non-'gamer' players with whom I play.

Stars Without Number is a thing of beauty. Truly. The GM advice is worth the price of the book alone - though the book is free - and the sector generation tools knock those of Traveller (any version) into a cocked hat when it comes to producing 'adventuresome' situations. SWN has a lovely simple faction system that allows the players to impact on the 'big politics' of the setting, the rules for AI and mechs are straightforward, and the supplements are... yadda yadda yadda. SWN is cool, and will only get cooler when Starvation Cheap, a supplement for military campaigns, is released.

So Traveller would seem undone, as far as my preferences go. But Traveller has one big advantage, when it comes to an open-ended sandbox campaign, and that it the way the PCs are built. No, I don't mean the minigame - which I love, and Kevin Crawford as 'sorta-kinda' replicated that for SWN in Sandbox #2. I mean the fact that PCs roll out of the gate fully formed, at least as far as skills and so on goes. They don't 'level up'. And this means two things.

1 - With 'fully formed' PCs, the 'adventures' out there don't need to be scaled for 'level'. If a danger or hazard out there is too much for the PCs, it is because they haven't accumulated enough in-game-setting resources to tackle it, not because they haven't spent long enough accumulating in-game-system points.

2 - With 'fully formed' PCs, PC death and new or intermittent players can be incorporated much more easily. Starting PCs are as competent as they are going to get (more or less). Though the 'party' might grow in strength, this is often due to the accumulation of (nominally) shared resources; wealth, hardware, contacts, etc. 

So I've got my Traveller Book, my Mongoose Traveller, and my Stars Without Number, and really, as in all cases of Gamer ADD, I just need to get playing, and if that doesn't solve it, get playing more. Analysis paralysis is resolved, by necessity, at the table.