Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Lights, Camera, Stunting!

If you ever play a game that has some form of narrative control mechanic, in this case we'll use Exalted's stunting, you have just stepped into the Twilight Zone my friends. Not because it's creepy, oh no. It's because you have just been given a ticket to pull off some of the craziest table breaking insanity ever. Let me show you how:

In the case of Exalted I was playing a Dragon Blooded game when the group got into a complex fight against a Fair Folk Noble who was kicking out butts. So there I was in the middle of the fight playing my Fire Aspect trouble maker when an idea hits me. On my turn I suddenly start talking to one of the other players like he was a bar patron offering to tell them the tale of that fight. That's right, I broke the 4th wall, walked the games focus on a scene days if not weeks later in the timeline, and then told someone what I was doing like a  bar story. The GM and players were floored and I got a 3 die stunt, the highest you can get. After that I experimented a bit sure I had stepped into Oz of narrative combat and actions. It took a year but it finally hit me: YOU CAN BREAK THE 4TH WALL! Not just once and a while, casually, creatively, and if you do it right the group will love you for it.

Lets dip into FATE. You know how you can tag aspects in the scene itself, but you can also create aspects based on use of FATE points. Well, when caught up in the middle of a tight debate over a battle plan you can tag the aspect of Sports Commentators. What? Yep, you break the scene and suddenly the POV is that of a TV audience and they're watching a sports show where the commentators are debating the merits of the current battle plan. Have a retired 'adventure' come on and give his (your) opinion. Finish the back and forth quickly and then "return to the action" to see how it unfolds. What's more hilarious, the commentators are STILL active in that scene. Others can tag them too. More pan aways, commercial breaks. It's the ultimate mood lighter. Table laughter is great to relax people who are too on edge during a game.

But what if you want to crank up the tension, up the anty with horror? Suddenly the players are being read by a cultist in a tome of dark secrets and horror. The title is "The Sad Fate of the PCs" or some such and somber mood of the reader allows the PC to add their own take on the narrative of the game.

That's the trick. You want to frame the scene with you feelings and opinions. But, and it's a BIG BUT, you need to do it with creative descriptions, fast acting, and do no try to hijack the game repeatedly in the same session. If you have a good 4th wall breaking formula, like my bar stories, a vexed director calling CUT and then directing actors in a scene, or maybe even strange messages from mars (whatever fits your game) you can pull it out once a game to keep the theme going.

And the list is crazy what you can do breaking the 4th wall stunting. One of the best is the Spaceballs inspired ones. Slay the sound guy with a missed attack, sudden product placement Wayne's World style, or Sam Spade mono logging to the reader.

Try out different styles and see what works for you.

Now back to you Mitch.

That was an interesting intrest piece there Joe. But after these messages, the Weather!

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Grand Theft Morality

Ever started playing a game like Grand Theft Auto or Saints Row and you enjoy causing chaos because at the end of the day there is no lasting punishment for your actions? Blow a shopkeeper away, run over cops, steal, maim, jaywalk with impunity. You are invested in having fun with the world, and you could care less about the costs to those around you.

It extends beyond GTA clones, games like Skyrim, the SIMS, or any game really where you can break the law, take short cuts, or out and out cheat to win and the game rewards you with an achievement for doing JUST that.

What it causes in me is an Amoral Urge, a desire to not care about morality or ethics at all. There is no punishment, only reward for breaking the setting. Unfortunately this extends to tabletop play as well. We use to call players who descended into this setting smashing madness "Mad Slasher" taken from the extreme mentality that there were there to blow off stress and NPCs (and sometimes PCs) were open targets. I myself have descended into this madness.

One of my old GURPS characters, "Mr. Head Popper" was me abusing the older Psionics system to have a Strength 40+ Telekinesis power to utterly destroy NPCs. There was no problem I couldn't solve with out massive violence. I didn't want to give him a fleshed out back story, I didn't want to think about WHY he's power tripping the way he was. He was a mask of cool amoral power I could squash the setting with. I've had other GURPS characters like my illusionist who would torture people in bubbles of nightmarish mouths and claws in order to get information he wanted. Or my Solar Eclipse who could hijack entire societies by just saying they couldn't do something effectively making nations rearrange themselves overnight. Or my early TMNT characters who would steal anything not nailed down and go in uzi's hot. Heck my players were much the same. Selling drugs, stealing NUKES!, and hijacking robotic autobusses for their personal ride!

D&D promotes this style of play. The game is about fighting and looting. Questing is just a fluff around an engine that trains you to steal, backstab, and sneak your way to power and success. But a lot of this is on the shoulders of the GM as well.

It wasn't until the VERY late 90's I woke up. I played a little game called Legend of the Five Rings. The game promoted you to act honorably, to serve your family. You gained rewards by holding to your word and honoring your debts. Even dying you could gain a place of honor among those that remained. For the first time I was in a game that had positive reinforcement for productive moral and ethical choices. It was a game changer for me and my mentality. I suddenly saw Werewolf from WOD in a new light, I got why people loved Pendragon, and I wondered if there were other games that used this positive feedback method.

To this day I suggest to new GMs, if a player is playing the game like GTA when you want more social considerate behavior...make the rewards tied to the activity you want them to do. Social combat = more money vs just gunning and looting. Trying to punish players in a "Listen Up You Primitive Screwheads" Cyberpunk 2020 imperative style almost always backfires. Almost.

Then again, there are days you just want to hijack a car and smash zombies with it.

He married his familiar! And other Tabloid Logic!

I was running a GURPS Fantasy game once where the PC's were able to look into their past lives and the party wizard discovered his Raccoon familiar was actually his wife from another life time. For a brief moment he remembered the connection and the explanation why the familiar chose him was the connection. The party eventually looked into transformation magic and turned the Raccoon into a woman and the two of them started the relationship back up again. Weird? Neh?

Back in my college years I had a long period of interesting 'twist' plots like that in my games. Stuff like a Ninja College Game (inspired by Ninja High School) where the players discovered that all the badguy NPCs were exboyfriends of his one girl who was mentally dominating them and changing their personalities into monsters. She wasn't doing anything evil, it was her exes. Even though she benefited from their deviltry. I also ran lots of variant plots like this were hidden relationship and drama was behind the NPC actions. Another game had a Sailor Moon plot where the PC's were hosts to magical animal spirits. They had a reoccurring NPC raven themed guy who helped them out and seemed to be hitting it off with one of the female PCs. The catch? He was a SHE! The spirit animal granting her super powers changed her gender when she was in her powered up form. And worse, she was the sister of the big bad of the setting. (Another powered kid, but much more darker bent in mentality.) Boy was that fun.

I call this style of relationship twisted "Tabloid Logic". I've heard others refer to it as Shōjo/Shōnen plotting. But for those who don't watch Anime, Tabloid Logic works well enough. It's used in comic books as well. Scarlet Witch liked Wonderman, but that relationship didn't work out, however Vision who had a copy of Wonderman's mind DID date and marry Scarlet Witch. And even weirder she had children thanks to her magic altering pieces of a demon's soul. Or once Supergirl (the non-Kryptonian one) dated Lex Luthor in a younger clone body who was pretending to be his own bastard son. Ya, very soap opera...very tabloid logic.

I support this type of drama plotting in games because it does a few things:

a. It throws the PC's off on some of the more secret elements in a game. Sure, I'm fine with them picking up the general plot, but there always has to be and edge to NPC actions and that edge needs to tie back to the players.

b. It ups the stakes for the players when NPCs or even their own back history tied directly into the action and conflict of the plot. It doesn't always have to be revenge, Batman plots. A better twist would be say Catwoman secretly gave birth to Batman's daughter, and the girl is the new Robin...only no one but Catwoman knows it yet.

c. It's great for the classical ass pull. No, I'm serious. If you are a 'from the hip' GM like I am, sometimes you have to use Tabloid Logic to fix a plot hole. Mind you, take a breather, get a soda, and think about how that impacts the story at large. But why not? It's interesting and will take the PC's many game sessions to learn the secret, resolve it's conflict, and then sets up for later adventures.

I have a few general guidelines on pulling out Tabloid logic though.

Don't squick out the players. You can disturb them, put them on edge, even make them a little embarrassed. Just don't get gross and overly descriptive on weird relationships. Let them work out the implications on their own. Hint, guide, don't slap it in their faces.

Always have it tie back to either the Players or a major NPC. No random strangers show ing up in the plot. Now if you are taking the time to establish a new NPC this trick is great, but make sure you put enough logical (semi logical) ties to the current dynamic so it works.

Keep a rough relationship diagram on a scrap piece of paper or your GM notes. It doesn't have to be Smallville level complexity, just a reminder for the twists and connections you need.

Once done with the new link, crank up the Telenovella music, have his Evil Twin show up and marry the player character, then pass the popcorn.


Adopt an NPC, Gotta Catch Them All!

We all want NPCs to be memorable. And for the most part we sorta succeed. Sorta.

But sometimes we have more luck than we realise and an NPC gets, for lack of a better word, adopted by the players. They recruit the goblin, keeps the NPC cleric on the party, keep going back to a favorite fixer for jobs and goods, and in the end that NPC gets fleshed out and more useful to the party at large.

But it goes beyond that sometimes. At least for me. My groups have a habit of...ummm...creative NPC enhancement. Like some examples about what I mean?

A farmboy saved from monsters is not turned over to the local lord but rather recruited by the party. They train him in class levels as one of their NPC cohorts, equip and arm him, and generally use him as a party squire.

Magical weapon made of the soul of a little girl is taken care by the party and they go out of their way to keep her 'the sword' company. Sing her bed at night, etc. Think about enhancing her bonus towards an Holy Avenger so only nobel souls will wield her.

Exalted NPCs are recruited, forcefully awakened as essence users, taught geomancy, cross trained in magical martial arts and sorcery. Then finally armed with low level artifacts banged out in a day. (Gotta enhance that followers rating some how.)

Selective infection by choice strains of lycanthropy mixed magical spells to allow the user to keep their mind. Then slowly infecting outward to local population of now feral combat weres to defend against an invasion. WOW eat your heart out.

The trend continues, but in the end the players tend to reach a peek of power and then start experimenting. Everything from minor magical enhancements, full body alteration, unique training, etc. If a subsystem exists a game to grant someone powers, they'll use it. They'll track the NPC's sheets, development, and training...oh and they'll pay them handsomely to stay loyal. In many ways the players are turning the NPCs into extensions of their character.

Given time the players build small armies of NPCs and 'extention' characters. Games like Ars Magica call this "troupe" play and it's awesome. The catch what point should the GM hand the NPC stats over to the players and let them run the NPCs themselves. In games like D&D it's easier. They have cohort and hireling rules. Games like WOD, GURPS, and Exalted get muddier. You have to be careful of doing this, especially if the NPC has a chance of moving beyond the party and maybe even turning on them.

Mind you, that's a big 'be careful' moment. Players HATE loosing pet NPCs. The Pokemon joke in the title is not used just for jest. Players grow attached, and jerking their pet NPCs around pisses them off really fast.

But don't limit this behavior. It's good. I means investment in the setting and the NPCs. Support the habit. Because in the end, it's fun to keep pets...even if they ARE technically people.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Mentat Octane Burning Bright

Time to take the choke off, and let the mind wheels spin at full power. Here let me set the mood:

So what am I talking about? Why the coolest game idea ever. Or lat least the coolest THIS week. I have a lot of cool ideas that don't get past this stage. But why don't we take a spin with this one okay?


In the swirl of the multiverse there are countless universes where people with super powers appear. Powerful mentats, amazing physical champions, dark crusaders, and mistresses of the martial arts. The stories change the end result is the same. A planet full of super people...with no one to save. Or more accurately no "MORE" people to save. They cleaned up the messes, locked away the super villains and then asked...then what? Some turned their powers to colonization, expansion of the sciences, or just went into retirement. But some...some wondered. Is there others out there that need help? Other versions of us that didn't have the luck of supers, or it turned out all wrong? So they gathered their greatest minds and tore open gateways to worlds where things didn't go quite so well. And they set out to war...a war to reshape the multiverse!

Welcome to World Rescue Squad, the stylish heroes from another world. Each of them has a unique origin and power type. Each of them is a product that they sell to the client worlds. Each of them is out to prove that THEY can save this world when their forebears did so on their own. It's a weird mix of competition sport, holy crusade, and  PR campaign. After all, the WRS's way is the best way to save everyone. Solve hunger, cure disease, and make everyone happy...right? So what if the client worlds don't always agree.

If I was to run this I would have random origin roll ups. What kind of world did you come from: Founder World, Client Nation, Fallen World, powered local. How did the WRS recruit you from friendly to 'creative guidance". It would flavor if you were for or against them. It would also allow for backgrounds of backing, mentor, etc. Hell, if the players wanted too we could roll up random power sets. Magic, mutation, etc and let them flesh it out from there.

The point would be the client worlds didn't ASK the WRS to come in to save them...but in the WRS eyes they are hopelessly behind the times. It could be a friendly guidance, hard loving conversion, selling the WRS ideas to the "People", or a covert restructuring. Bad Guys, be they governments or super villains are taken down, lives are saved, and WRS looks great!

Flashy costumes, theme music, all the works.

And yet it would be one of the most distopian supers games I would run.

Love it. Wonder if I'll ever get to run it. Such is my lot. Too many cool ideas, never enough time to run them all.

Screw You Scooby-Doo!

I don't HATE, hate Scooby-Doo. It's just a cartoon show. Mind you, it often was a horrible filler between more awesome cartoons during a typical 80's Saturday morning...and I've seen every one of the classic episodes like 10 times...and the plots are ALL the same. But, it's just a show.

No, when I talk about Scooby-Doo, I'm talking about Scooby-Doo Syndrome. It's a term I use to describe a game gone wrong. Usually when a: The GM is tired b: The GM and Players don't communicate well or c: a session of "just winging it" goes horribly wrong. Or some mix of all 3 reasons.

I call it Scooby-Doo Syndrome because it accurately describes what happens. The game starts out with a standard mystery or unknown event. The PC's investigate, and then everything goes WACKY for a few hours, and the resolution doesn't make sense. Or more often there isn't a resolution and the session is called a "Dream Episode" or just forgotten. Embarrassed GM, laughing or miffed players, and you call it a night.
Remember me talking about the trick of using the player's paranoia to your favor? Well, this is what happens when you take it too far, or go way out of your way to go against what they THINK is happening.

So instead of say: The McGuffin was stolen the Bad Guy to raise his dead wife...oh no. He's using it raise a dead harem, or his dead dog. Or the McGuffin is a Red Herring (another Scoobyism) and it's actually a trap to lure the PCs into a murder machine. Or the whole thing was a scam to make people think the McGuffin was worth money and 3 ninja clans are fighting over it now because they think it will give them real ultimate power. Somehow the Decepticons got involved and then we had to become plumbers to sneak into the base to steal the McGuffin back, only our love intrest betrayed us thanks to ninja magic...and demons from the planet Zog. But in the end the BagGuy was actually our land lord Mr. Smithers and it was all just something to make us move out so he can sell the Grotto. He hired the ninjas from Hollywood by way of Chuck Norris, and suddenly there is wizards riding dinosaurs.

Confused yet? It gets worse, but the the problem compounds with run-on plots. Dangling clues and events that the GM forgot about and has to resolve, and loads of strange "Pardon Me?" moments. Que the 60's music, run around the hallways for a few minutes. Call it an episode.

I've had quite a scoobies in my day. Too tired, too stubborn, too silly to see reason and just call it game.
Worse, some of my games became a series of run on scoobies I had to resolve later when I was sane/awake.

Oiy Vey!

So put the dog back in the van and send him down the street. No more old men in costumes for this GM...until I forget the lessons learned one session and suddenly it feels like a re-run.

A Rough Beast Struts Towards Prada!

Consider this a part 2 of my Paranoia Kabuki Theater post, but it really is it's own topic.

One of the biggest issues I have in an RPG is the bad guys don't look good. Or more accurately they don't look interesting. Lets take the Stormtrooper and Darth Vader vs your typical Orc and Lich.

The Storm Troopers have an iconic white, almost ghoulish armor that you know means trouble. The "space skull" motif really sales the idea that they are both minions and are out to kill you. They are the Empire's version of the Space Marine. Hell even 40K universe gets this. Darth Vader is iconic as well, the helmet (hair), the overly large eyes, the breather mask. His whole outfit radiates authority and dread. If he shows up, you run. Or die shortly there after. It gets worse when you combine the two. The first scene from New Hope during the border...ya. Vader is strutting in with his minions. He looks every part mastermind of this operation. You know he means business.

Other super foes get this look too. Doctor Doom, Darkseid, The Shredder. The list goes on. Each of them stand out, they have a defined LOOK. It doesn't have to be armor, but that's classic. It could be a fancy set of robes, some fetish or jewelry, the point is they have something about them that draws the eye. When a player see this item they immediately know who they are dealing with. This helps establish the mood and makes the NPC more memorable.

Mooks generally get a uniform. Even if it's not an official one. This helps establish either class, role, or ideology of who they are facing. Rangers of the Doomwood might all have Light Grey Cloaks and raven's feathers in their hair. Boom, instant recognition. And you cut down the amount of work you need ot do to help players remember NPCs. Imperial Guard in 40K all look the same, most warriors have the iconic 40K skulls and holy script on their armor. You remember it.

I have a rule of thumb on this. I call it the 4,3,2,1 method.

Major NPCs get 4 descriptive lines. One of which is usually environmental. ie. Darth Vader - Dark Armor, shiny bug eyed helmet, constant his of respirator and deep metallic voice, aura of menace.

Or for another example: Admiral Nex - Bright blue uniform, scared white right eye, sword cane always tightly held in his hands, constant his of sea around him.

It works.

Mid-bosses, or major NPC foes or allies get 3 lines.

Minions, or minor allies get 2 lines.

And nobody NPCs get 1. And I follow that. it could be "Creepy" kid, or "Lumbering Ox" farmer, etc. That way if the deal with that NPC again, you just use the one word description so they can mentally find them again.

It's basically a memory trick, and boy does it work.

And heck. Dress them up a little!

Paranoia Kabuki Theater

One of the oldest tricks in the book to flesh out a game is to take the players own paranoid fears about NPCS and the setting and making it 'real'. I've spent hours just letting players speculate on the state of a game and took notes giving me ideas on how the badguys will act (or how the players expect them to act) down the line. I call it Paranoia Kabuki Theater?

I learned later in my GMing career that if the NPCs start doing seemingly random things the players will try, desperately to find a overall theme to WHY they are doing what they are doing. And a quiet GM during player chat can get loads of ideas if you make little changes to your plot. Part of his discover was just how disappointed player will get if their theories are always wrong. I use to dream up my badguy plans in my head and then give what I thought were useful clues to the players. Often it wasn't enough and they got completely different ideas about what was going on. It was only later I figured out how to give players enough information to lead them towards my concept of the plot.

But to prevent total player disconnect to the ongoing story I started making their theories correct. And HO-BOY was that fun. Assassins being hired to stop them from saving the Presidents Daughter? More likely than you think! He's steeling the Overthruster to build a spaceship that can enter the 8th dimension? Why not? And the players pat themselves on the back because they were right, and I didn't have to come up with the plot twist for the night.

Now...that's old hat. So why do I call it Paranoia Kabuiki Theater? For 2 reasons: The first is the pacing of traditional Kabuki, called Jo-ha-kyū, it represents slow, break, rapid. Such as slow hints early in the game, a masive break or ah-ha moment by the players when they 'figure' it out. And the rapid deployment by the GM of their theory by the NPCs allowing the players to act on their information fast enough to be useful.

What I'm getting at is that you need to take your time building up with the players. Give them small subtle hints, and give them plenty of down time between clues (events, even if random) to build their opinions about the game. Usually give them 'planning sessions' where the PCs can talk to each other. This is important. The next part is the "break" or breakthrough when the PCs declare a theory. This needs to be handled fast, give them another clue to confirm the theory you like and give them a motivation to put this informatin into their own plan of action. Finally make sure the PC's get quick resolution of their theory before they have time to rethink it. Otherwise, the disappointment sets in that they might not be right and or they start looking for more shadowy alternatives.

The end result will be a very play like nightly session with a good climatic resolution. This is great for investigation games with an episodic feel. Like Monster Hunting, WoD faction fights, Exalted politics, etc. Longer term dungeon crawls and exploration doesn't benefit from this.

The second reason why I call it Kabuki Theater is the over expressiveness you need to use with the NPCs. This comes from describing them, showing off specific colors and actions to play up their behavior, and finally very specific if stereotypical methods of behaving. The end goal is your NPCs should signal the players their intentions. Someone who is supernatural should have a green cast, strange reactions to the world, etc. Primal marks and masks. A fierce general should have the bearing of a Lion, wild hair, dark piercing lines. Etc. It's all makeup, but damn if it doesn't help. This is key if you want to guide the players theories in something of a right direction. I've learned that playing up 1 or 2 aspects of an NPC help me give them a clear indication of friend vs foe.

Yes, it's a good thing to sometimes play against stereotypes, but that's more advanced techniques. They need to be used sparingly actually. Too complex games can sometimes hurt the overall fun of the session. And it causes a strong sense of mistrust and player anxiety, IMO.

But, then again I just want to dress up in costumes with wild make up. Dunno. Either way, use the players paranoia and make those NPCs over the top. It helps.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

With Extreme Prejudice

The Following Post Contains Descriptions of Gruesome NPC Death, Be Advised

Players can get a little crazy, myself included. Well, with super powers and magic at our disposal it allows for some creative and over the top ways to dispatch an NPC bad guy in our games. What I'm about to list is some of the more extreme, impossible, and absolutely painful ways our group came up with to dispatch a foe. These examples are from over years of play in various systems:

  • Utilizing Time Magic in GURPS, the group caused a Time Stop bubble around themselves and unloaded 3 muskets into the direction of their target. They kept this up for well over 50 minutes thanks to Purify Air spells and a power stone. When the time bubble was dropped the NPC was turned into a fine red mist, the back wall of he office he was in exploded outward, the shock wave downing trees and causing a smoke plume for over half a mile. Oh, and when this happened 2 sword masters were in the middle of chopping the NPC's head off with fancy sword work. They survived (not in the line of fire) but were KOed from the shock wave.
  • My "Mr. Head Popper". A extreme case of over powered TK he had roughly 4 tons of force at his command. He would grab a foe by their shoulders and then head and TWIST with full force. Needless to day a lot of NPCs started running when people dying like they were in an Akira movie.
  • Self Guided satchel charges that would find a target and hug them and explode. One alone is unnerving. A dozen of them flying in formation bombing a foe's armored position was horrific.
  • One player running around with super strength and stainless steel ball bearings. He could throw them with such speed the acted like massive slug rounds from a high caliber gun.
  • Another player using TK again to spin knives as ultra sonic speeds and bouncing them around a battlefield in a very KRULL fashion turning foes into so much sliced meat.
  • A space time warper using a small 'hole' in space to target people miles away with a high caliber rifle. Literally the sniper you could never see coming.
  • My teleporter who if he could touch you, drop the person into high earth orbit. A terrifying way to deal with assassins and mooks. He would look up and POP, look a new star!
  • One super player having a freak out, grabbing a sniper, using him as a silencer for the very rail gun the sniper was using (inserted painfully), and then firing the resulting sniper + rail gun at his allies. (Needless to say the PC was having a bad day.)
  • Super speedster grabbing someone running them up to MACH 2 and then letting go into an telephone poll.
  • A shape shifting Lunar Warrior in an Exalted game hopping from head to head of a group of bandits killing them from the force of his Mario on crack.
  • Barbarian Warrior throwing ANCHORS at people. Which were small tokens previously attached to his jacket.
  • Pumping about a tanker full of LSD and PCP in an aerosol form into a dance club full of corporate goons. (Don't mess with a CyberGeneration Alchemist.)
  • Melting their hands through the chest of a full conversion borg to yank out his brain case thanks to your nanites. (Again, don't mess with a CyberGeneration Alchemist.)
The list goes on. But my point and warning to new GMs out there. Players with power get creative. It's not just portable holes in bags of holding, or breaking a Staff of the Magi that seems like impressive alpha strikes in games. Oh...there are so many worse things out there.

I'm sure other GMs have similar horror stories.

Lots more.

+1 Mace of Glowing

I played Clerics.

Loved em. Just something liberating about being party healer back in the day. Didn't have to worry about mastering spells, I just got them. Didn't have to worry about getting the best magic items, didn't always need them. Didn't worry about picking locks or picking pockets. Didn't have the skills.

I call it Dungeon tourism. Sure being a Cleric turned me into the party healbot pre 3.X days, and I always go the last pick on magic items. But in the end I got to see the cool things, did most the talking to NPCs, and still was thanked for my support. The only time I had to step up was when some undead were causing issues and I dropped a mighty turn or three.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed exploring the different types of gods and how they related to people. Being a priest was interesting. But as time went on I had favorites. Typically Sun Gods, or gods of healing and family. I enjoyed the Van Helsing warrior for good idea that was at the core of the Cleric, even though I didn't know that was hard coded in early on. Mind you, I would have rather played the Van Helsing from the Hugh Jackman move over the one from the books.

I've experimented with Paladins, but somehow mine always come out seeming like Brock Samson from Venture Brothers. In the last game I played a Paladin, it was described that my character had a "Murder boner" vs evil. True enough. Playing the intimidating loose cop Paladin had it's fun values but sometimes I wonder how long he would be considered Lawful Good, stupid alignment system. (I kid.)

So what's up with the title of the entry? Well, back when I was playing my Cleric the most important magic item I ever got was a +1 Mace that glowed. That's it, no armor, no shields, nothing but that mace and being the party potion carry. It wasn't until later when we switched GMs and the game turned into a full on Monty Haul magic item prize bonanza did I get more, but back then that mace was important to my cleric. It replaced my need for torch, holy symbol, and weapon. It was always at my side, and after a while I grew fond of it. I still miss it to this day. It didn't have the swagger of a full on magic sword, but my lump of magical steel was near and dear to my gaming heart.

The more that I think about it, that magical mace is/was my signature item. My green lightsaber. My demonsword. My sonic screw driver. My humble Mjölnir. It was part of my character.

So that's what it feels like...

All the toys I never get to use: An argument against levels.

I have a love/hate relationship with level based systems. (Don't get me started on open ended d20 rolls vs the glorious bell curve). The central issue I have with level based mechanics is all the cool stuff, the REALLY cool stuff with characters is locked away in higher levels. Starting characters can spend months, if not years, of play before they really get into their own. I'm okay with the hero's story of the newbie turning into a pro, but the concept that a well trained fighter can't do anything more than bash things with his sword, especially if he's a 'well trained' fighter until some magical number of sessions later...well, it's silly.

I enjoy point based, or pip/talent/etc, character builds because I have a list of awesome tricks and abilities right out of the gate. WOD style powers with higher levels of master was more fun than D&D level unlocks. It's frustrating is a game only lasts short periods of time and you don't desire to artificially inflate the power level by having more skills and abilities.

What do I mean by inflate the power level? Well in supers games you have have a low power 'street' game with characters like Spiderman. He has wall claiming, web shooting, spider sense, and he's a great techy. A D&Ded (leveled) character with that wide range of skills and powers would be something like level 10 when the full range of character utility opens up. Some level based systems are better than others, but some like D&D 4E has 'utility' powers unlock at level 2. 2. Seriously? Ahem. As you go up the supers power spectrum what changes isn't utility of a character, it's the scope. Scope is a funny thing. In Supers games I have 3 types of 'maximums' represented by 3 characters. Superman = Maximum Strength, Batman = Maximum Skill, and Green Lantern = Maximum Scope. Because you can't get bigger in scope than the galaxy. That's what I mean. Sure, you can raise the power level of a character, or their skill. But in the end supers characters deal with bigger threats, larger more complicated issues. They advance in scope.

Leveled characters have this weirdly artificial handled scope. In OD&D/OSR there is the 'named levels'. They grant titles and duties to characters. A keep, followers, money, etc. The idea is you take your first 10 levels of adventuring and turn it into a career in maintaining your empire. You still go out on events here and there, but it's to support/defend your keeps. Okay. That is and can be loads of fun in a meta way. And some games like Adventure, Conquer, and King do a great job of fleshing that out. But somewhere in 2E D&D it went away. And what we were left with was characters getting more powerful but with no ability to change the scope of the game as time went on.

One of 4E's greatest sins wasn't it's it's radical departure from 3.X's mechanical model. It was the lost opportunity to allow characters once they hit Paragon level or higher to really explore a wider scope on a personal level. Sure the game assumed you would go world spanning or planner to find foes, but it gave you very little in game reasons to do so. The only time I ever see long term thinking show up in 4E is in the Epic tier of play but the game assumes you will sunset and retire you character after 5 levels of finally living up to your potential as a character. Seriously? That's when it gets GOOD.

Not all level based mechanics are bad, some handle the unlock of more potential for a character with a strong understanding of not restricting the fun toys early on. Most of these systems give the players a pool of powers early on and then grant them development points to unlock more down the road, ways to customize the powers they already have into more interesting unique tricks. They don't have level requirements for power XYor Z, but allows you to explore more themes WITH those powers. Funky mechanics aside, Anima Beyond Fantasy does a decent job of this. Giving the players enough toys early on, then allowing them to upgrade them to crazy levels of scope down the road.

In the end I still prefer point based, or point hybrid games. Star Wars Edge of the Empire and WEG d6 variants are more fun for me than the d20 or SAGA editions. All the editions had valid points, but two gave me more to work with while the others had me playing the waiting game.

The waiting game sucks.

To Dream the Henshin Dream

I have a dream game. I wish I could pull it off, but after years of tinkering and goofing around I haven't worked out the bugs...just yet.

You see I'm a fan of tokusatus shows the stuff like Sentai and Kamen Rider, but it's more than that. At the surface value you'd think just out and out Supers would work. I've gotten close with Mutants and Masterminds, but it's always a little off. Part of the flow of a good toku show is the building drama, the hero going to the ropes, the mid season power up!, and other genre flavor elements that are hard to emulate in a RPG. It's kinda like how people who play Star Wars games gripe about how game mechanics get in the way of the flow of a good Star Wars story. (I argue that is bunk and yes that means my issues are bunk, but I'm getting to that.)

Half of the action of a good toku show reminds me of Dungeon World style relationship mapping. How you can have ties to the rest of the PCs. A good toku hero picks up rivals, support characters, bitter enemies, as the show goes on. But another element of good toke reminds me of FATE style compels dealing with environmental fights, building up enough aspects to put a beatdown on someone. Finally there is the Hero Point mechanics of say Mutant and Masterminds where for all the setbacks you take, you get bonus points to blow people away when the time has come.

Which is great except, well....I love more mechanical play. I love knowing how high a character can jump, having a list of unique powers to call upon, etc. I get twitchy around more narrative driven games, mostly because in my head I have this massive disconnect between the simulation of the world. I can't benchmark PC's vs. real world stuff. I get my jollies thinking about just how many windows The Flash would blow out running at full speed without the Speed Force canceling out the shockwave he SHOULD be producing. I have dreams about Wolverine's claws getting stuck in something not because he can't cut it, but friction catching up with him over time. It's silly, but Murphy's Rules are so...delicious. The little Munchkin power gamer in me rubs his hands and giggles in glee.

Maybe I'm hanging on to the old GURPS/HERO junkie in my soul too much. Maybe I need to pick up a copy of FATE Core and throw my fortune to the wind. Or maybe M&M3E is finally flexible enough to pull it off. Or maybe...I'm trying too hard to make the perfect toku game.

We all have our pet projects. Mine is guys in full body costumes beating up other guys in full body costumes.

Hmmm...almost sounds like a fetish.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Magical Engineering Commandos!

I better get this out of the way. Magical Engineering Commandos (MECs), it's a term I use to describe a type of player. Well, a type of player AND a player mentality. You grow up in an Engineering town with lots of folks who tend to work in the IT, Engineering, and Space fields they tend to crop of. At first you might mistake them for Rules Lawyers, Muchkins, or just Power Gamers. But as time goes on you soon discover they are not out to hurt or sabotage your fun. No, they're playing a different game than you were expecting, they're looking at challenges, the rules presented by the game, and their resources at hand...and they hey solve problems. Creatively, explosively, and generally in manners to make most GM's jaw hit the floor and bounce.

Let me spin you some examples:

One session of GURPS Fantasy "With GUNS!" in my own setting the group go their hands on a High Mana zone, a highly skilled PC enchanter, and a lot of power stones. (All through play.) What they churned out was: self reloading guns with ammo pouches that self filled between shots, quick fatigue recharge wands dedicated to just doing that so they got their power back faster, self guided satchel charges that flew to their targets, guns that upped their accuracy, and...well, I can only call it the magical auto cannon. You'd have to see it in play to understand what I mean. The group always went in armed to the teeth, well prepared with gear and resources, and recon was the word of the day. They LOVED to scout and ambush. It was "The Way". Hell one of the players developed a spell recon combo called "Captain Air Biscuit" which was Body of Air, Invisibility, and Shape Air that allowed him to sneak around better than some ninjas!

Another group of MECs in a different game of D&D3E started kitting themselves out in magical gear. Everyone picked up crafting skills to help out, they were spreading the exp cost around. They were developing a special 'kit' for all the players. Rods of Prestidigitation, Wands of Cure Light Wounds (for clerics AND bards), cloaks of flying, boots of striding and leaping, gloves of climbing, bracers of armor, rings of feather fall, rings of substance. The idea was to allow the PCs to enter ANY environment and move around with little hindrance. They were all about mobility and speed. In combat they struck fast, hammered the foes lines, and snuck out again. Yes, magical guerrilla tactics.And boy did it work. Once in an arena fight they had their part monk layered in so many persistent buffs he all but glowed from the effects. (Then again this was in 3.X when trip combos were abusive.)

I...I shudder to talk about how zany things got in Exalted. Demonic Mailboxes, party teleporters, Instant bases, the list goes on. Once they discovered the raw utility of summoning magic things got bonkers FAST.

The list goes on, but the playstyle remains. The group fights as a unit, protects each other, covers weaknesses, and most of all looks for ways to enhance their abilities. The Fantasy version of a Shadowrun team, or hell a modern Special Forces unit, mixed in with some crazy problem solving. It also involves a lot of flat out being sneaky and taking advantage of the rules and setting mechanics to the groups benefits.

My advice to a GM that runs into these players? Nurture it, but keep it focused on the fun of all the players....and take notes! NPCs might adapt their tactics too. Just saying.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

You are my type of scum!

One of the biggest draws for players of games like say, Star Wars Edge Of The Empire, is the ability to find like minded criminals. Not all characters are sociopaths, but a who lot of them are seriously borderline. When I got into roleplaying, Palladium games TMNT was my game of choice and it was fantastic. However the game did lend itself to a lot of back ally brawls, crazy gun fights, and seriously less than legal ways to acquire what the mutants needed.

The SOP, standard operating procedure, was to break in steal what was needed, and duct tape NPCs we captured or KOed in positions inspired by the movie "Men At Work". And as time went on and I met the type of players who I now dub the Magical Engineering Commandos, some of this juvenile play still sneaks out in games.

Let me tell you about my Pathfinder group. You see, if you ignore the Gnomish riff on Tony Stark and his Summoned power armor, the kitsune witch, deranged barbarian pirate, and the bard who will bang anything with breasts (Something we tease him to this day about.) , and the sniper assassin you'll discover they all have something in common. THEY HATE FRONT DOORS. They call it the "Crisis Entry". They've...well lets list it out:
  • Entered into a Dungeon via the backdoor and fought the final boss FIRST then spent 2 sessions clearing the place out.
  • RAN through traps to get the drop on a mastermind sitting at his drawing table in what I dub the final boss beat down. He didn't even get to stand up. The group alpha striked him so hard.
  • Developed a magic item to Pass Wall just SO they can avoid going in expected entrances.
  • Flew a fully loaded cart to the roof of a castle just to AIR RAID the place and bypassed 50% of the guards to take out more ciritical baddies.
  • Did another AIR RAID style attack on a guild chapter house, and blew a hole in the roof so they could surprise the guards. (And one wizard they geeked in 1 round of combat.)
Ya. Ya. They are not nice to a GM who likes his maps and well planned traps. This is because they love Breaking and Entering. It's their thing. Dungeons, castles, keeps, it doesn't matter. They are basically the team from PayDay The Heist in D&D terms. Scum by any other name. Nice scum, but boy do they cheat!

And that's what D&D use to be about. That critical non-linear dungeon bypass (TV TROPES alert).

That's my kinda players. Screw my rules, we're doing it OUR WAY.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Dungeon Hearts aka Dating Sims and Dragon Girls!

I don't know about you, but I love me some jrpgs. And in recent years there has been a drive for what I dub dating-sim RPG. Take one part dungeon crawler adventure, one part Love Plus get the girl simulator a mix. You might have heard of one of these: Persona 3, maybe 4? Ya. Totally a RPG with dating elements in it.

Mind you I'm remember when Thousand Arms was a thing. Sure you were a magical smith trying to live up to your family's legacy, but you were also a magical hammer wielding playa.

Anyrate, what I'm getting at is games like Dungeon World and Monster Hearts are dancing around using the same raw mechanics and not quite capitalizing on this opportunity to go to town on a massive cross over mechanic. I dub the seed of this idea: Dungeon Hearts! Be it a guy trying to get the girls (fellow adventures, local town ladies, or the monster girls in the dungeon itself) or hell go the reverse with the male harem anime tropes. Either way, the point is to have massive fun while playing up the wondering adventure trying to get the girl/guy who warms your heart. What this mechanically means is hybrid characters with Dungeon World style exploration fronts mixed in with downtime Monster Hearts romance plots. It's gonna be rocking! Then again, I might slim down both mechanics so players don't have to memorize two full sets of moves, either that or some moves have double meanings. Ah well, it's a concept in the rough. But honestly, I'd love to play a lonely Dragoon trying to woo the Princess in another castle. It would be fun to play!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Enter the Labyrinth

Welcome to the madness. I mean to say welcome to my gaming blog where I talk about my 20? Ya we'll go with 20 some odd years of gaming. So asks the mysterious person I imagine reading this says. Why should I read YOUR blog when I have dozen of far better written and more gronardtastic (is that a word?) blogs to read? That's a really good question I say to Mr. Or Ms. Imaginary reader. Why don't I talk a little bit about myself?

I'm Joe obviously (or not), and I've been playing since the early 80's. I started out as most gamers with a nice healthy dose of AD&D 1E and then spent 2-3 years homebrewing my own game systems. No honestly, it was me and 2 friends just bsing our own rules. Then I discovered my first love in gaming: TMNT and Other Strangeness. Yes, yes, I bought with my own money a Pallidium RPG and it was glorious. You see I was something of an avid comicbook reader and I read the original Eastman and Laird Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and seeing a RPG based on it was too much for my little fan boy heart! <3 (I wonder if it was an entry drug into Furry Fandom, oh yes I was into that scene. What, it was a MUCK I was a consenting platypus, she was I think a cross between a hippo and feline. It's all rather muddy.)

So years fly by as I bury my nose into Ninjas and Superspies, Heroes Unlmited and many other Pallidium products. Not I didn't say RIFTS, not the great MDC stew didn't hit me until I nerdy adolescence in gaming. I call this my Cyberpunk 2020 era. I chromed up and dove headfirst into countless AD&D 2E games. What, it was what everyone was playing. But the early 90's were a heady time full of Earthdawn, Shadowrun, Mekton Zeta, and finally the thing called RIFTS and it was awesome. Many a weekend was spent worrying about cover and range modifiers. Calculating the real world conversions of guns into fantasy numbers. It was during this era I got a taste of Planescape and Dark Sun and...well, I think my finally got my first not quite a gronard beard growing. That or I thought mullets were cool. We all have those horrible fashion trends hit us. Mine was bolo ties. Lovely things, Great for doubling as a useless garrote.

Then in the late 90's I was doing the college thing and I found my 2nd great love in gaming. She was a sexy third edition full of awesome sourcebooks and universal appeal. Yes, I was one of the hipsters of the gaming scene, I was into GURPS. I loved GURPS and still do, To this day the decade of generic system playing has made me love any game system that attempts, flirts, or even pathetically tries to call itself generic gets a look from me. Even the mongrel thing that d20 is. This goes on well into the early 2000's when I stumble into the depths of WhiteWolf and the WOD. Again, everyone was playing it. But me, no I happened to enjoy the weird stuff. I was a fan of Wraith, Trinity, and eventually Aberrant. I think all my years of playing low powered supers in GURPS, my avid comic and 80's cartoon love finally awakened my taste for supers roleplaying. And it was good.

A few things happened in the 2000's.

I found Exalted, my brain was blown.

I got "into" D&D with 3rd Edition.

And after a while I started podcasting.

Ya. I podcast. Or use to, well I do again but we're talking about then. I got in with the d20 radio crowd in the late? Ya late 2000's and started podcasting a show called:


Sound impressive? For me it was. I got to interview Steve Kenson, Steve Long, Robin D. Laws, David Pulver, Cam Banks, Greg Stolze, and Sean "Dr. Kromm" Punch among others. And man was that fun. Most of these folks are really awesome gamers and just bleed cool ideas. Even at the time of my 30 or so casts I was focusing on just supers.

But what do they say? Life catches up with you. In my case I got married, had a beautiful baby daughter, found out a lot more about myself...and kinda crashed. Hard.

But now I'm back, leaner and meaner and podcasting again! Ya, this time I'm doing an Exalted podcast. Voice of the Chosen Exalted Fancast!

So why "Love the Labyrinth"? Well for me, gaming has always been about puzzles and challenges. Be it a strange plot, a great monster, or just something new around each corner. I been down dungeons, danced around OSR to New School story games. I love them all. I mean, I know I'm a little fruity but I'm not dancing around in tight pants juggling balls and asking people if they remind me of the babe...yet.