Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Rogue Who Loved Me

Ah, the Rogue. Such a misunderstood character class or archetype if you use a classless system. A lot of the issues with the Rogue is it's such a WIDE concept to capture. At it's baseline you have the OD&D thief, but it can spin up into high concepts like Han Solo (pilot/rogue) or Solid Snake (Fighter/Spy/Rogue) characters. And what skill sets do Rogues exactly get? Social? Sneaky? Assassination? Breaking & Entering? Finesse Combat? What mix is valid?

Well the answer is YES! and "Depends on the setting". And that's where the real issue with the Rogue pops up. They are a Chameleon class. What is that? It's the one class above all others that adapts to the setting and rule set. This is because so much of what the Rogue does is dependant on how the game engine and setting tropes interact. Let me give you a few examples-

Shadowrun - The Face, Decker, Security Rigger, Technomancer, Stealth Ops. Seeing as how one of Shadowrun's BIG THINGS is Heist missions, it doesn't surprise me the game offers the most options for rogue-like characters. Shadowrun is way up in my "TAKE" style game play featuring a weird mix of covert action, sneaky skill use, and deadlier combat options.

GURPS - A Rogue style character in GURPS tends to be a skill monkey. High IQ and DX helps with off setting the massive dump of points into all sorts of breaking and entering skills, logistics, bluff and fast talk. And lets not forget the urgent need of allies and contacts.

D&D - Oh boy...this is half of the reason why people get confused about Rogues. There has been SO MANY types. Early on the Rogue was basically a Thief with specific % rolls on thief actions. 3E Rogues were sneaky combat machines who specialised in skills over a lot of other features. 4E rogues were light armored skirmishers who specialized in set-up tactics. And well, there are countless variants. D&D's idea of the rogue has been his huge ugly mess...but we'll get to that. Hell, the Bard qualifies as a Rogue thanks to edition nonsense.

Numenera - The Jacks of the settings are basically Rogues. Except they also are part Fighter (Glaive) and part Wizard/Cleric (Nano). To add to the confusion they get unique speed based attack options that neither of the other 2 classes in Numenera get. To fit into the setting they stand in between the two pillars of the setting and get little things to make them unique like crafting and disabling attack options.

The list goes on but notice how the Rogues mutate based on the setting and options the game engine offers them? I thought about what exactly Rogues do. This is how I came up wit the idea of "Take" game play from my earlier BIG 4 post. But let's break it down into easy to follow career paths. These are just rough central focuses of Rogues I've picked up on over the years.

Face Man - People specialist. They focus on social systems in games, exploiting character mental weaknesses. The catch with this build is a LOT of it is NPC/GM dependant. If the GM is only handing you hard line militant foes that always seem to see past your ruse, then this variant is NOT fun to play.

Breaking & Entering Expert - Maxed out skills versus traps, security systems, this build is one part engineer one part acrobat. The Thief-Acrobat of old was this class to a T. The catch is, unless the rest of the party is willing to give the B&E expert time to work he might as well be another combat character. Being sneaky takes time in game as any Decker, etc knows.

The Assassin - Most Rogues specialize in well, non-conventional combat tactics. They rarely will walk into stand up fights. Sneak attacks, dirty fighting, low blows, psychological attacks. You can boil the concept down into a sneaky assassin who uses the environment and various tools to end his foes. If you ever play the Hitman series of games, the trick was to hit your target quietly and move on. Smooth. RPG terms the Rogue from 13th Age, 4E, and variant builds from Pathfinder (Ninja, Slayer, etc) are all this. Get in, find and opening, drop foe, get out. The hitch? What if it is a social game or the group needs you to deal with traps? Then your skills don't always fit.

I highlight these 3 paths because Rogues in total suffer from what I call "Situational Overspecialization". That is to say, unless the game take the time to break down the Rogue into specialities that fit one of these 3 or offers skill packages that round out their abilities it is far to easy to build a Rogue that turns into a one trick pony. I can't tell you the number of near-unplayable Rogue builds in far too many systems because of this.

But there is HOPE!

Lets look at the Star Wars Edge of the Empire: Smuggler and it's variant classes. This is a good outline how to build a functional rogue. First you build a foundation. This is a handful of useful skills that will always help the party. Maybe a little B&E like lock picking, or security systems. A pinch of stealth. Maybe a hint of fast-talk. With that out of the way, then layer on your primary focus. Yes, this means you won't be uber specialized, but at least this way you won't fall into the niche trap that Rogues so easily do.

The Rogue is a hard class to master. It's not not quite the mental gymnastics of a caster, but it does take a very good understanding of the mechanics of the game, the expectation of the missions, and finally how to play support and overall coverage protection for the party. In many ways a good rogue doubles as a leader for a group. Not so much in the face to face (but they can be) but in the making the big picture of a game work.

It's dangerous to go alone. Take a Rogue!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Urban Minotaurs...Living the City Life.

The best modern dungeons are cities. Just think about it: Interconnected city utility tunnels, multistory buildings with unused floors and corners, maze like smaller connecting roads and back alleys, territorial gang zones and bundles of comical and industrial development, and lots and lots of decay and dangers.

But when you think about playing a urban fantasy game I often seen people fall into the World of Darkness mentality. What is this? Well, it's more a social layout of a city than a dungeon layout. Such as having a social center (Elysium), a hanging ground (bars/alleyways), and battle zones (industrial parts from Werewolf games.). But what they are missing is you can build a city around a fuller range of dungeon/sandbox play! Here are some tips:

* Most cities have an organic growth from smaller commercial/residential areas. Industrial parks on the outskirts that slowly get swallowed by growing residential needs, or other pop-up development that envelop them. Go look at say a map of Seatle, notice how the most developed areas are near rail lines, and sea ports? Then as highways came in the rail ways zones have decayed from less use? Same deal! Washington DC is a perfect example of urban planning that goes 'just far enough' around the main Capitol hill and then gets messy on the outskirts. South DC is a mess of interconnected rail lines, industrial development, when there is this messy residential growth to the north, etc. Nab a map and really study what's going on, where are the shops, the development. Etc. When planning out a self made city (if not using a real one) keep this in mind!

Or...go play Sim City (earlier versions please.) Or Living Cities, Cities XL, there are other options.

* When placing supernatural 'growths' in a city area think of them as communities! So what if goblins are making less than a living wage near a meat processing plant and they live in a decaying mess of very old 50's homes just north of it connected to a trailer park. Details like this help establish where your supernatural critters live. Or maybe a necromancer overlord rules a downtown high rise. Easy right? Okay, where does he story his bodies? In the basement? So, do any of them 'burst' out into the subway lines? Have there been attacks of 'drunks' eating people in the nearby sewers? Are the local homeless and cops afraid of going anywhere near the underground connections to the building? These are elements you need to keep in mind.

* Cities need resources, and live and die on the money they bring in. The Dragon CEO running the local stock exchange is going to want his horde of local businesses to have a steady flow of customers. He might be paying the Trolls that run the local Highway division to keep the bridge tolls low enough that commercial truck freight is affordable into the city's manufacturing plants. Orc gang bangers hanging out in empty old storage warehouses most likely won't have the power on in these places. No money means, no/low facilities and support. Little to no chance the local cops are going to come running if you call 911. You can damn well expect the local supernaturals with money are going to protect banks, businesses, and transportation of their goods.

This was one of my biggest bugs about Vampire games. Vampires had all this influence over city resources, but you rarely EVER had to deal with them in your games. The focus was more on the drama of being a monster and having crazy urban brawls than managing an empire. Hell Mage/Syndicate games were more realistic to this. I want to play a urban fairy tale version of the TV series EMPIRE or 30 Rock. It might be more interesting!

* Everyone has to have somewhere to sleep. The Minotaur may patrol the back alleyways of his territory like a bizarro horned Batman at night, but during the day is he just laying in a dumpster? Or does he have an apartment he gets for free in return for protecting it from other supernaturals? Homeless supernaturals have to deal with the same trials normal homeless do. No food, lack of heat, sickness, lack of personal property, cops pushing you around. Sure for some physical needs won't be AS bad. But the idea that a Vampire can just sleep in the sewers is okay right up until a day crew comes down to fix a phone line that is having problems and they bump into your little parlor. It gets more complicated when these 'off the radar' communities tap into local utilities. They may not notice it at first, but eventually someone is going to come along to figure out why there is a power draw on/near your base.

* Humans live here too! This may seem obvious, but normal non-supernaturals are EVERYWHERE. In an urban fantasy city the homeless or locals of a city are going to know something is up. Many will stay quiet and just accept it as a price of living there. Others might try to attack, drive off, or beg for support from your fantasy critters living there. Always take the time to think of how the interplay works. Take my earlier Orc Gang bangers idea. Eventually they might 'induct' tough humans, men or women. Hell there might be second-generation of Half-Orc Gang members who are the children of mixed race couples. And maybe they're fighting the local Hispanic gangs for territory...and this Latin gangs have slowly been getting help from members who are werewolves. Slowly infecting more members via hazing rituals.

Crazy stuff.

If you want more ideas on just how to build urban dungeon crawls check out: Urban Explorer websites, Urban Decay pictures, History channels Gangland dramas, etc. Look into real life examples and think "how can I inject some magic/weirdness here".

Eventually your urban dungeon settings will seem very alive and very dangerous.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Hobby Endures, The Market Adapts.

The only reason why I'm posting this blog is because every 6 months or so I see someone hop on G+,, wherever and they start asking the wrong questions again and again:

Why is the hobby doing so badly?
How can we get more players?
What makes RPGs less popular?

They are all wrong, all pessimistic, and very myopic to the truth of the role playing hobby in general. Let me break it down for you.

The Hobby is doing very well actually due to a number of reasons. The biggest ones I can point at is diversity of product (a great sign) and selection of vendors and venues to play. There are plenty of players out there, and more keep coming into the market, but it is on the gamemasters and other players to introduce them to the products out there. Finally, they are super popular. So much so they have become in order: a fad, a joke, a social political issue, and finally pop culture icon. What? How so? Let me break it down.

The Market is Evolving.

If your expectations of roleplaying games is the old "Friendly" Local Game Store and it's shelves and shelves of books, or say Barnes and Noble's RPG/Comic aile of books, perhaps a few books in a hobby story then your 'world' of products is shrinking. This has nothing to do with RPGs, but rather physical stores are being destroyed by the online marketplace. Welcome to the Amazon generation kids. Brick and Mortar may not die, but they won't be big like they use to be. Local Game Stores shift more to boardgames, card games, etc to make money. Magic the Gathering players pay more steady money than we occasional book buyers. We have been, will always be, a niche of a niche market to these guys. Wargamers buy armies and models at a steadier pace than we do.

To make thing worse the cost of printing, shipping, and holding onto large volumes of printed books is killing the companies that make and sell the games. If a store like Barnes and Noble can't sell product they push them back on the publisher. And when big book stores like Borders close it pinches the bottom line as all that material either has to be returned, destroyed, or sold on second hand markets. It's not a pretty picture. Book bindery costs have gone up, and international shipping (say if they print the books in China) is NOT cheap. There is a reason why smaller companies are turning to Kickstarter to get enough funds to pay for their first print run. They have to cover crazy logistics and overhead costs.

But it's not all bad really. There have been changes to the market that make things easier on publishers.

Welcome to the era of the Tablet! The Ipad, Android tablet, and various eReaders have given publishers a big open market to sell their books too. Game pdfs are by far way easier to maintain. Almost no overhead costs, updates to the book can be sent out in almost real time (errata that shows up in the electronic copy months before new printings of the books.), and finally a much cheaper market value allow for more casual buys. Sure, not every company gets that the electronic versions of their books need to be cheaper than the physical copy to make sales. (I can name a few companies.) But most small indy press guys often will GIVE their core book away just so it drives the sales of the supplement players. Also, Kickstarters often have crazy bonus deals if you just get the pdf level of books. Or seasonal sales that drive players to make impulse buys. (Like I picked up Runequest 6 this year when the core book hit $5 for Black Friday!)

And there are a growing number of places to BUY the product., e23, Amazon, Nobel Knight Games, publisher web sites, Kickstater/Indiagogo, etc. Each day new marketplaces open up, pdfs, physical books, and other materials are becoming casual and friendly places to shop. Also the advent of Print on Demand allows for minimal overhead costs on publishes. Want a hardbound/soft copy of the book, willing to pay a little more? Presto, a week to print and ship. Done.

The Players are Pickier.

The other big misconception is that somehow after the 2000's thanks to MMO's we lost a lot of players. Nope. The players are still there, they just have a LOT of other things to occupy them. Remember the key words here are "Ease Of Use". More a byproduct of the Internet than MMOs users can get online to play video games, talk to friends, update Facebook/G+, watch movies and shows via streaming. The same things that use to take people away from the hobby take them away these days. It's just there are SO MANY of them out there and they are so easy to get at!

It was something of a Catch 22. The mass media market when through growing pains, but video games lead the pack with online connectivity and play, then slowly TV, social networks, etc caught up. Roleplaying games were still having a massive identity crisis around the early 2000's on HOW to shift to online market models. To put it bluntly, we were late. To many other entertainment sources beat us to the punch so we lost market share, people. Only recently has there been a robust enough number of play options for casual players (the majority) to check out.

Projects like Roll20, Paizo's new Virtual Tabletop, WoTC's on-again off-again virtual table top, push out play-spaces that casual players can reach out too. Other tools like Skype, IRC, etc were 'okay' But it wasn't until the advent of Face Time, G+ Hangouts, and Facebooks similar group/call like programs did the virtual play spaces evolve enough to be useful to real time play. I prefer Skype/G+ Hangout btw.

So, now that we have the venues to play, we have to bring it to the attention of potential players. And remember, game masters and companies need to keep it easier to use. It has to be accessible, or the casual players will hop back on WOW or go play PayDay 2 a few more hours than bother with writing up characters. You don't have to dumb it down for them, just keep it simple and functional!

I swear, if Games Workshop finally works out how to sell virtual armies to the Warhammer 40K crowd to play on virtual battle fields, they'll bank a mint.

The Products need to Diversify.

Ah, the "Good Old Days". Remember the height of the 2000's. WotC was king and you could find every flavor of d20 product out there. Countless great games from the 90's suddenly had d20 variants, and everyone under the sun was predicting a golden age for RPGs. Then the market tanked and WotC started talking about 4th Edition. Ya, lets just say I don't remember the d20 era so fondly. Why?

Market homizination. Too much of the same everywhere. Mind you, that era gave us Green Ronin, Fantasy Flight Games, and a number of decent publishers that 'went big' in that era. But it also murdered countless non-d20 game lines, flooded the market with too many overpriced unplayable d20 clone books, and eventually tanked a lot of the small sellers who thought they had to have 1 of EVERY d20 product on their shelves. And worse, Hasbro looked at the deline of the d20 market and did silly things like kill the SRD for 4th Edition, tried to turn D&D into a online paywall market (almost an MMO, not mechanically but in market terms, model).

When I saw the d20 boom, I was excited too. But after a few months of reading the quality of the early d20 products I knew what I was really looking at. A fad. That's right, D&D had turned into a fad product. We had horrible movies about it? Check. We had pop culture chatting about it? Check. We had everyone trying to square peg the round hole by d20ing every old game under the sun/or every game concept into a d20 flavor? Check.

Welcome to bound to fail. Add in new markets in the MMO field, the Superhero movie boom, other mass media catching their attention as that generation of gamers grew up...and *POP* the fad died, the market crunched, and then we had a decade of people scrambling to capture new business.

And thankfully, I can say with out a doubt the market is STRONGER for the fall fo the d20 era. Look at it these days! We have classic systems like d100, Runequest, Metamorphosis Alpha, Open d6, Traveller all making comebacks with NEW product! We have new(er) systems out there GUMSHOE, FATE, Whatever they're calling Numenera/The Strange's system (Cipher?), AGE System (Dragon Age), The Warhammer 3e/StarWars EoTE system, you name it it's happening.

And it is GOOD! More options mean more choices for players and GM, it means competition in the market, it means new ideas and new writers, it means that if a product line dies there are a dozen more to pick from. Just like any other form of evolution, the RPG hobby must adapt or die. Thankfully it seem that much needed change is happening.

So the next time a naysayer says to you RPGs are dead. Tell them to pull their blinders off.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Never Enough Swank: Swankier Dungeons 2!

I'm going to make a series about Swankier Dungeons. Fair warning. XD

That said, lets talk about expanding your idea of what exactly is a dungeon and why Swank is important for these 'alternative dungeons' too.

The Super Villain HQ - Did you ever see the Cobra Base Playset? You should.

Say hello to the Terror Drome!

Now isn't that bloody awesome? A good Super Villain HQ is part Bond Villain base, part action playset, and all molded plastic action. Computers everywhere, secret doors, hidden bad guy gear, rec rooms, launch many launch bays. Ever wonder why Bad Guy organization X can field so many mooks? This is why! And let me tall you something, nothing feels quite so good as say taking on Xanatos in his Corporate Tower/Castle..oh wait, I'm talking about Disney's Gargoyles. But you get the idea right? No?

* Include a command room, make it nice and big with huge view screens. Odds are you main villain will have a command chair here where he lords over his minions.
* Place plenty of 'crew rooms' around the central part of the base. A great place to stow KOed baddies if you are being sneaky.
* Freaky Underground Labs where they are building new supervillians, have one break out when the PC's invade the base.
* LAUNCH BAYS! And bad guy crafts and such sitting around.
* Prison facilities for hostages.
* Death Traps!
* Bonus points if the Bad Guy base is mobile. Flying Carrier, dome, etc. Super sub.
* Self-Destruct systems. Obvious and dangerous. Why do they keep building these?

The Lost Colony - Go watch Aliens, take notes, pay MORE attention to the sets. Especially the layout!

Congrats on your space game. Be is Stars Without Number, Eclipse Phase, Traveller, and such you are now out among the stars only to be called down to investigate a colony world that has gone dark. Before you drop players into said colony it's time to think about what exactly they are going to run into.

Most colonies have a reason for being there. The colony from Aliens was a homestead world for farming. They had: Main building with admin, medical, and living quarters. A landing field for shuttles. A massive atmosphere terraforming system build by machines before the rest of the colony got there. This is essential! This is the building blocks for your space colony dungeon.

Other layouts might be like Dead Space: Giant Planet Cracker ship with refineries on board, including landing bays for ships, medical wings, and lots of engineering bays. A bridge with crew living quarters. And the lower mining colony with the massive Marker sitting there in a fresly dug out pit. All ripe for what comes next.

First you find out what the colony SHOULD look like. Then you infest/alter it!

Time to Zerg the place up! In Aliens, the Xenomorphs built a massive nest structure into the underbelly of the Terraforming system, right up against a massive reactor core! Yay fun! The rest of the colony now shows signs of battle, desperate attempts to secure the admin wing of the main building, and Newt turning the crawl ways into a secret tunnel system. Oh and if the players are feeling adventurous after dealing with the aliens, a massive crashed alien ship the next valley over. But...a disturbing lack of bodies, at least until they find the hive.

Or in Dead Space. All sorts of organic bio mechanical growths all over the Massive ship, alien living tendril 'things' in the main loading bays and reactors. Crasy piles of dead bodies everywhere that jump to life and attack you. Then below you have the Market, the slowly growing wall of flesh around it's base. Etc.

Mind you, colonies can die/change from more than nasty xeno infestations. Nano attacks, mad AIs, alien invasions. Again, think of HOW the setting gets altered by the hostile force. Give players partial information and then turn things on their head when they find the changes. LOADS of fun. Now if you want to do something more like a secure military location/colony that's a subject for a later blog. Swanker Dungeons 3: Swank Goes to War.

Temple Of The Mind - Ever play a psionic game? Or gone to the astral plane and wondered into the mind of a god? Hacked someones head trying to dig up information? Welcome to the Temple Of The Mind.

This is a play on the idea of mind palaces. A memory technique where people create a 'home' in their heads and they fill the home with memories, data, etc so they can walk through these memory palaces to pull up information they need. In this case the Temple is a structure built on the memories of the person who's mind you are inside.

A good Temple has the timeline of a person as wings of the building. More secure, of older memories locked up in dusty, or more dangerous locations. And the Temple is defended with memories of the person. A guild thief might have black clad attackers boil out of nowhere to back stab invaders. A hot decker mind have Black IC sitting there lording over paydate in their head.

The real risk is the active mind of the person you are inside. They might have a mental avatar fighting against you. Or they might 'hide' memories making parts of the Temple disappear or be VERY tricky to find entrance too. Worse, if actual brain damage happens while in there whole sections of memory (Temple) disappear! Nothing make me grumpier when a dying mans mind starts shutting down around me while I'm digging through his memories like a 2nd Storyman.

Mix it up with invading thoughts. Like 'mind control' from a badguy is in there ruling the place. You can team up with your 'zonked' buddy and battle the control to free them. An interesting experience for a player who suddenly has to face their demons in the form of memory attackers. It's a cool place to change up expectations. Just remember, you the only thing you can take form there is memories...or data. Nothing physical unless you are THAT good. (or have access to that kind of magic/tech.)

There you go. 3 Swanky examples to get your dungeon more interesting. Have fun!

Welcome to Left Field, the lesser known game issue.

So, you've had a bit of system burn out. Big popular game X has been on your plate for years and years and frankly, you want something new.

You go hunting and pecking around various places looking when you run across a new system (new being subjective to you) that looks fun, fast, weird, and exactly what you've been itching to play. one seems interested in playing it with you.

Welcome to Left Field. Or as I sometimes call it, the Land of Misfit RPGs.

There is a LOT of great undervalued RPGs out there. Sure they may not be as well supported, edited, or colorfully illustrated but they're all functional and interesting if you dig into them. Hell, I buy RPGs just for setting material some times. (See. GURPS, the grand high Poo-Baa of setting books. At least during the 3E era.) Sometimes I buy a variant rpg to rip ideas from it, d20/OSR cousins and d100 variants are perfect for any OSR or Runequest player will tell you.

The catch, the biggest catch, when it comes to these games is finding players. Man, nothing rips my love of a game out than not being able to play it. See my love and frustration with GURPS. Love the system, hard to find local players. But, if your heart is set on the game here is how you get the players attention way out in Left Field.

1. Be willing to play online. Yep, thanks to the internet you have the biggest game table of all time. Get a Roll20 account, find a friendly IRC server, G+Hangouts, SKYPE, whatever it takes. This has issues if said game is map heavy, but Roll20 is a good solution to fix this. I know a lot of gamers, myself included are not big into the online experience due to lack of real time face to face, but while you can't find enough players locally to run Game X, odds are you'll find enough online.

2. Be willing to sale the game. Learn the fine art of writing a pitch. Remember, a lot of players are coming at this cold. Just saying you are going to run XYZ setting isn't going to get you any players. Consider writing up possible "highlights" of the game. Take this for example:

"Come join us for Chronicles of the Void where it's Javelin on Javelin Brawling! Will your crew win in the Planet Null's Battle Arenas and make it off planet with the data cluster of your Aqasoo's lost family cache? Will the contact you reached out in the Neuro Labyrinth be willing to pony up on your competitions weakness? Only you can find out, but joining my game this week! 2-3 players WELCOME!"

Sound like a TV advertisement for a new show? Yep, that's exactly what it is. The best sales I've seen of a game sound like pitches for TV pilots. Play up the action, the roleplaying, whatever feature the game you are going to pitch has that you want the players to enjoy. Other good things to do is list off possible character types, play focus, make sure to showcase the game for the player. Better yet, if you can get the game for les than $5 in pdf somewhere like say FATE CORE, or such? Post links to get the pdfs!

3. Be willing to demo the game. Nothing gets new players like a good, free, low effort fast play. Seriously, cook up some pre-gen characters, offers 2-3 demo games either at a local game story or online and let players hope into character X and then showcase the system. Pare back the rules and do most the heavy lifting for these players. (After all, you make the pre-gens you should know what they can do.) Let the players ask questions, be helpful. Just run it like a con demo. Once you get a potential player interested, THEN make your ongoing game pitch. Also consider running demos to get more players for existing games.

4. Buy pdf copies for trusted players. This is my last and riskiest option. Say you have a friend who is a borderline potential players. As long as you can afford a pdf copy as a gift (say nothing over $10) then nab them a copy! I've found that pdfs carry some weight with players. While they might never guy a hard copy of game X, if they have the pdf they might be willing to roll up a character and play. Why buy a copy vs just sharing your pdf? This way the pdf is theirs, not yours. This is important, you are basically using the sunken cost fallacy as a player fishing trick. Weird as it sounds, it works.

Whatever you do, keep the pressure on. Be willing to showcase and teach the system. Let players make suggestions and listen to them. Spread the word with Let's Plays on the various forums! Raise awareness of the game! It's the only way to support the line and play the games you want to play.

Left Field sucks, but you can works your way out of it.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Signature Settings and the GM Comfort Zones

Over the years when I wasn't running pre-packaged settings from various companies I would run my own homespun settings and genres. What I found was I had what I call "Signature Settings". These are genres and playstyles that sync up nicely with what I'm cozy with running a group on.

For me I had a few Sweet Spots:

Medium/Low Powered Urban Supers - This was just so easy to run. Come up with a reason why powers, dish in conspiracy, maybe some things like rival gangs, TV news, and lots of sneaking around with super powers. I ran SO man games of this using 3rd Edition GURPS, Heroic Tier HERO System in 5th Edition, M&M 2nd Edition, and a bit of D20 Modern when I could. It was cozy really. I loved what you could call post Iron Age, Modern heroic themes. Heroes were people, but still tried to do the right thing. They were NOT supermen, just exceptional and in danger from them selves and others. A lot like White Wolf's attempted Supers game Aberrant. (Which is kinda why I loved that game, if not it's system.)

Actually if you are a fan of TV series like HEROES, Alphas, Arrow, Agents of Shield, even Smallville. This was the kinda game I was running! It was modern enough so I didn't need to explain cultural clues, had powers which made characters interesting, and with a robust enough system I could make rulings on the fly. Good time, good times.

High Magic High Martial Arts Fantasy - Take one part D&D high magic setting, throw them against Wuxia Masters who can cut fireballs with their swords, add a dash of action trumps overplanning, and allow everyone to run around kung fu fighting. I did this setting using GURPS, HERO, and M&M (see a trend?). Supers mechanics worked best for this. Eventually I ran into Exalted which looked like this in a can. Only problem was Exalted (Storyteller 2.0's) mechanics were a carry over from the Trinity line days so had a LOT of issues with defence vs damage, ping, etc. So while I LOVED Exalted setting, mechanically it was a hassle.

There are not as many multi-media examples that match this that don't look like Chanbara or Kung Fu movies from Asia. I guess you could point at stuff like Lord of the Rings, but the power level was way too low. Gandolf made stuff glow and ummm.... Now there were a LOT of 80's cartoons that fit the bill. Pirates of Dark Waters, The Golden Lance, Thundarr the Barbarian, Thundercats, He-man, etc. So there was that.

And those two are my sweet spots. Ultimate comfort, ultimate fun for me as a GM. So how do you find these in yourself?

1. Don't be afraid to make up your own home brew setting using any rule set that works for you. Effect based systems are more friendly to experiment with, but if you can refigure the match on D&D spells to emulate your unique mystic mojo in game. Do it.

2. Go off the rails a lot when thinking up characters. You have to break your limits to know them. Do this in 2-4 session bursts. Then re figure characters and try again at lower power until you find the right 'fit'. This is also how you can come up robust character house rules.

3. Benchmark, Benchmark, Benchmark. You have to find where games break and think of solutions. I found out I liked the high marital arts fantasy when experimenting with GURPS by layering it's FULL magic and FULL marital arts systems together back in the early 90's. And for me, it worked! I had no issues. So down the line I knew I could handle that. I also discovered around the same time I hated world spanning supers games because of the inability to make the PC's feel invested.

A lot of this advice boils down to experimenting and experience. And that is exactly it. Be willing to break the default limits on games, take notes on what works and then try another variant. Over time you'll find you comfort zone. You won't need a pregen setting, just a rule set you like.

Pick up the books, and yammer out the back story to your players as they build characters. Eventually you'll be able to eyeball character gen and do it even faster.

And you will have fun playing in you comfort zone.

Just don't forget to stop, let others run, or try something else for a month or two. Just so you don't get in a GM rut.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

PayDay 2...the best Shadowrun game that isn't. Or, welcome to the Heist!

I know I have weird titles, but I mean it. I started playing PayDay 2 recently on Steam and the VERY first thing that hit me was, I'm playing Shadowrun. Or more correctly, I'm playing a game that tells you what Shadowrun is minus the cyber and magic. I swear, give this team the Shadowrun license and ask them to do a first person, team based game where all you do is heists and extractions. We would be in heaven.

Remember my series of posts about my Big 4 of Gaming? Talking, Fighting, Making, and Taking. The Heist, or Heist games are the core of Take gaming. The very core.

Shadowrun, Cyberpunk 2020, Leverage, Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, you name the system and I'll point out they all want to do Ocean's Eleven. But Heists games take a bit of special GM mentality so I'm going to talk about them.

A good heist is broken up into elements that GMs need to pay attention to:

1. The Loot. Money, information (paydata), people, it doesn't matter what it is. What matters is it's precious to someone and you have to claim it. Coming up with Loot is job one. Mind you, it can be a set up and there is NO loot, but don't do that too often. Odds are the Players will want to see the Loot (legally) or do some level of recon to confirm their target is in range.

2. The Assets. These are a list of things the players can turn to their advantage. Rooftop access, bribable guards, sewer access, older security system, inside man who gives intel. Make sure you sit down and write up a list of assets. The player may not find all of them, but they should be there and give situational bonuses if/when the players use them. It doesn't matter what the setting. Modern guards, fantasy guardsmen, a dungeon sewer, a city public works vent. It all amounts to the same. Just keep in mind things like Magic/ultratech add new layers of asset options.

3. The Hazards. This is what the players fixate on first. Good Guards, security systems, dogs, traps, puzzles, or "time till police" counts. All the negative things that work against the players. If you are writing up your heist situation do one list of assets and one of hazards. The ratio of risk/reward determines the difficulty of the heist. If the Risk is too high, up the Look reward to make it worth it to the players. Otherwise, they'll walk away from it.

4. The Team. This is mostly players and their characters, but sometimes it is not! NPCs play a big roll in getting a Heist to work. Contacts are A#1 here. Make sure that some form of contact, info broker, or ally on the inside is present. Sure the intel may be sketch, but it's more useful to have an NPC give them aid than just handing them things. Hirelings factor in too! Hiring a good team of support cast is a BIG boost to OD&D to early 2nd Edition AD&D days. OSR players know this as gospel.

5. The Plan. Welcome to the brass tacks folks. This is the make it or break it. Once the PC's have the intel, the gear, the objective and the time to pull of the heist mission. They plan...and plan, and plan, and plan. Player planning sessions have eaten whole gaming sessions. And you know what? This. Is. Fine. Let the players plan. While they do this take notes. Write down a list of things that might cause them to change the plan. And if they are planning correctly they'll have Plan B's and fall back points if tings don't go quite as planed. Speaking of problems.

6. The Randomness. A very important factor. A good heist has randomness to it. Guard shifts his patrol at the last minute. A NPC kid spots the gear the team is sneaking. Or maybe the pass code for the safe got changed. Think up a half a dozen of potential problems, or go crazy with "wondering heist problem" table and roll up weird events at critical junctures. Just don't over do it. Randomness is great once or twice during a mission. But if EVERYTHING goes wrong no matter how good the planning, well that's just a GM being mean! Allow the player's Plan B's to work.

So my fellow crooks and conspirators. Let's make some bank. The heist is tonight at midnight. You all know your places? Good, lets do this.

Game on.

Dealing with my own biases.

Coming off my Fantasy post previously, I had to face a few things. I have strong biases as to the type of game I'm looking for and sometimes they detract from me enjoying exactly what I might need.

Let's talk GURPS. I was wrong. Very wrong. Everything I know about GURPS is 3rd Edition. I have a full collection of 4E books and they are just sitting there on my shelf for the the last, gods, 9 years. 9 years and I haven't played GURPS because when 4E came out my groups changed. I casually read the updated books and thought "I'll eventually play this." But I haven't. So I was wrong in my understanding. There is no more Passive Defence, they wrote rules into handle escalating skills, and getting killed is not as easy as it use to be. But in my mind's eye I still see GURPS in 3E term, with all the warts and issues.

How much do you want to bet my understanding of HERO 6th isn't that much different? Since I stopped playing when 6th came out.

The biggest obstruction to me enjoying a good game is ME. Sometimes I'm too much of a gronard for my own good. I had a bias in mind wen I was looking for a new Fantasy game. And no matter what other people would offer me, no matter the explanations my bias sat there in my head and heart saying "No. I want THIS." The problem? "This" was a non-reality. I had no idea what "this" was. I was really waiting for something to catch my attention and make me enjoy it. What a horrible backwards unproductive way to go about looking for games.

But it is what it is. We all have to live with our biases.

I don't like FATE very much, but I have a copy of FATE Core. Why? Because it's so well loved I keep hoping someone will run a game and give me a taste of WHY they like it so much. I can't see that reading the book myself, but I WANT to find that love. I'm sure there is a FATE game out there one day with my name on it. Haven't found it, or it hasn't found me. But I'll give it a chance when it does.

Truth be told, I should give more games a chance. Tim Kirk pointed me to High Valor a new RPG of his and I'm going to give it a look. Even though I can't look at the cover and help think Manzinger is a Fane-Lord. I'm sorry, I can't unsee it.

And hell, I know I said no levels, but maybe I should give Dungeon Crawl Classics and 13th Age another look, no?

Even though I did ready 13th Age and found the setting lacking, the rules were serviceable enough.

It's a Catch 22 sometimes, you can so easily blind yourself by setting to harsh of limitations on what you will try to play or offer to your group. But if you don't set boundaries you'll never have time to run them all.

And biases are there for a reason. They just shouldn't rule your gaming life.

Now if only I can take my own advice, no?

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Fantasy Slump: Or Trying to Find the Right Fit

Sometimes I have a hard time finding a good fit for what I want. Especially when my system desires run afoul of my setting needs. And then what happens is massive GM headbanging with out the joys of music.

So, what happened recently (besides trying to buy a house, always kills my free blogging time) is I've hit a Fantasy Slump. I've grown tired of Pathfinder breaking down past level 10, and well tired of level based mechanics in general. Mind you, I LOVE Pathfinder's wide selection of class options, the setting to play with, etc. But, it's getting a bit tiresome when it breaks in the same places.

So I started looking around for something new, something interesting to try out. And I hit a wall.

GURPS Dungeon Fantasy is fine but takes a LOT of Player heavy lifting if they don't grok GURPS logic. Add to that the glass (hydrogen) ninja issue of skills going past 18 causing people to explode if anything goes past their defences. I like the range of 'build' this, but need a group to kick in the time to build. That's the Biggest hitch with generic systems.

Fantasy HERO gives me the issue of trying to make sense of effect based mechanics in building a unique enough magic system and world rules. It's not the end of the world, but it can be a turn off if you are low on GM prep time.

So rather than bounce around I had to set rules for myself. (And ask friends their opinions) And well over time I started to get a picture of what I wanted.

1. A robust skill based system.
2. Options for tactical combat (but not requiring miniatures), and tactical combat is NOT dominated by magic.
3. No levels!
4. Flexible character options for combat and non-combat.
5. Skill/knowledged based magic.
6. Medium to low prep time.

And I came up with a few suprising options afer asking around:

1. HARP - The "not quite Rolemaster" HARP is fast, has a much streamlined crit table system and flexible enough magic. If you include the College of Magic book that came out recently my options double, and melee/ranged combat is not dominated by the Fireball. A good sword swing or arrow to the eye will still win the day!

2. Arrowflight 2E - This was one of my 'left-field' options but after talking to Dan the admin of the rpgnet IRC board the option looks legit. It has martial arts, multiple combat styles, custom magic styles, and fun takes on fantasy races. Combat looks interesting.

3. Runequest 6/Magic World - Just a matter of taste in complexity. I'm not big on Legend (aka Mongooses take on the same) but I'm cool with classic Runequest or Magic World's (Elric) inspired engines.

4. GURPS Dungeon Fantasy - Still a valid choice and I might have a chance of selling it to players. I'd have to keep an eye on 4E mechanically, but I know GURPS well enough the down time for relearning things won't be so long.

5. Fantasy HERO - Still a valid choice as well. Just harder sell than GURPS and I don't know how much building I'm inthe mood to do. (See buying House.)

So now comes the fun part, asking my players what they will or will not do.

So it's how I've solved my issue, kinda.

When trying to find a good fit for yourself pick a game that fits you tolerance for GM prep, combat complexity, and pay attention to flexibility to change the game to suit you needs. Make a list of priorities and then measure the systems versus this. You'll find it a lot easier than just random guessing. Mind you, asking for options to this list will give you a LOT false leads, but eventually you'll find a left field option you didn't think of. See me and Arrowflight 2E.

So keep your mind open, but have standards.