Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Top 10 Gamer Movies!

Time for a break. How about one of the oldest Gamer Tropes of all time. Top Ten Gamer Movies! Everyone has their list of what is a Gamer Movie, I'm going to go one better and tell you WHY they are great Gamer movies.

This list is in no particular order. This top ten is over all.

1. Goonies - Say hello to your typical gaming group. You have Samwise as the party leader, the tech, the face, the conman, the social introvert, the gamer girls. Honestly, this group could have been sitting around a table describing their actions and I'd still enjoy it. When you think of a bunch of kids acting like the typical adventuring group...there you go. And damn, if they didn't have an exciting time. If anything I'm surprised no one has hit on the idea of kids just being kids as a RPG. Well except for Monsters and Other Childish Things, but that has the whole Monster thing...hmm. They go get Sloth. Man. Nevermind then!

2. Aliens - Game Over Man! Game Over! Welcome to part of the Gamer Quote Trifecta. This movie alone has added 1/3rd the best gamer based movie quotes. It doesn't help the squad mentality is there, the machismo, the bad ass lady with Riply and all the Alien shooting gun love. Hudson, Hicks, the whole gang is insane. Also, the underlying horror element from the movie just works in this case. And hell, I think it spawned a huge number of movies with other gaming groups seeing if they could do better.

3. Monty Python and the Holy Grail - Number 2 in the best gamer quotes of my trifecta. While this movie was pure comedy gold, it's also a great example of what I call party banter. Take the various chatter back and forth between the knights, the role of Arthur and the "you're arm's off" "only a flesh wound" mentality that comes up which mirrors how gung-ho gamers feel during some fights and events that it's just encapsulates the bizarre metatable behavior of gamers so perfectly.

4. The Princess Bride - Number 3 in the trifecta of quotes. While the group dynamic in this movie is broken until the end it does however illustrate almost perfect in character dialog. The way Wesley quips, Inigo Montoya broken record of vengeance, the simple but just SLIGHTLY intimidating statements by Andre the Giant, and damn. If you wanted an example of a TALK focused game going right. There you are. That and it really plays with your expectations but also allows you to enjoy light fantasy.

5. Lost Boys - Monster Hunting done right. What is with Corey Feldman being the patron saint of monster hunters? Goonies, this movie, AND Gremlins. That man got a round. But this movie was better than Monster Squad, had way more drama about turning into a vampire, and was just the right mix of bravado and stupidity to make the boys turned hunters believable. Add that to great banter between the brothers, the vampire 'boys', and the crazy twist at the end and man does this movie not hold any punches.

6. Ghostbusters - The concept of a group of professional Ghost Hunters was so compelling that after this movie came out WEG got the rights and came out with the very first d6 system game using this setting. I'd put it as the honorable mention of top movie quotes if it hadn't lost some favor in recent years. The weird low-high tech gear, the converted firehouse, the shoestring make do gusto of the group also works really well with the MacGyver crowd. You have the munchkin, the mad thinker, the face, and the normal guy in a group. The movie is a perfect example of many a modern gaming group of the era.

7. Sneakers - I AM NOT going to put Hackers on here even though the flashy style and action was a good thumbing of the nose at 1980's Cyberpunk culture. But something has to be said about a team of pros doing a job right. Sneakers is one such movie. Part urban spying, part mission impossible, but with a mature and fun cast. The reason why this is a gamer movie is how the group in the movie out thinks the baddies with clever use of their skills, a good amount of talking their way out of trouble mixed in with a bit of just being plain old sneaky. I love sneaky movies, I really do. Less bang, bang, more skulk skulk. I know there are a lot of gamers who agree.

8. Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven - I put these movies together because one is the original and a VERY period piece of feuding era Japan, the other is a nice and smooth western. Both movies showcase how a group gets together, cooks up a solution to a problem, and finally be badass working together to solve the outstanding issue. (Bandits) It has character death, a good romance plot, more experienced characters mentoring less experienced, Pros from Dover, lots of sword or gunplay. Both movies are perfect. Just know that Seven Samurai is LONG and has a much slower lead in. Akira Kurosawa is the god of gaming movies, you just don't know it yet. (Or you do...)

9. Star Wars - *DROPS MIC, WALKS OFF STAGE*... Okay not really. Do I have to explain this one? You have the classic adventure party, magical powers (force), the princess that all but saves HERSELF, the droids, Darth Vadar gunning for the #1 badguy prize of all time, tight directing and editing, and lord the banter, the BANTER. You can throw the whole original Star Wars trilogy in here. Otherwise, avoid the prequels. However...might I suggest you go see the movie Star War was based on? What's this you say? Go watch another Akira Kurosawa joint called The Hidden Fortress. Just go watch it and did I mention that is also inspired Princes Mononoke?

10. Lord of the Rings - This like Star Wars is another gimmie answer but it fits. Tolkien characters, story telling, world building mixed with Peter Jackson's sense of EPIC just mixes so well. Worth it just to show someone the movies pull out a copy of D&D and say THIS! I'M PLAYING THIS! And keep in mind it's NOT just Frodo's story, is the story of the fellowship broken as it may be. That's important.

First Rule of RPG Fight Club: Everyone Talks about RPG Fight Club

Welcome to the final part of my Big 4 talk. This time we are going to cover the last and oddly most and least important element of roleplaying. FIGHT, or fighting. Combat is critical to how you handle situations when things go bad in a game. Or maybe that's the point of the game.

One think to keep in mind out of the Big 4, Fight is rarely EVER the primary focus of a game. Earlier editions of D&D danced between Take and Fight, and games like Deathwatch dance between Fight and Talk, but in the end Fight is a tool to support the other 3 elements of roleplaying, Take, Talk, and Make. When games make Fighting and Combat the unipolar element of their entire experience usually they are considered weird and overly fixated. Mind you, a lot of (once mini's war games turned RPGs) tend to feature more Fight than anything else: D&D OE, Deathwatch, Warhammer Fantasy, Only War, Iron Kingdoms, and MechWarrior all feature more combat focus over the other mechanics. Social, logistics, and character development options are under featured or are require a little GM TLC to make it work. Take a look at Iron Kingdom's skill system, or D&D's early non-weapon proficencies as primary examples.

Sometimes a development team comes up with a game as Fight focused from the get go. Riddle of Steel is one such case, but it features a lot of Fight/Make with it's magic rules and character advancement in their martial techniques. Still, it's not for everyone.

I say combat is the most and least important because 90% of the time when people gripe about a RPG it's talking about combat rules. Combat rules can be downplayed and easy, but badly written rules can make or break a game in the eyes of the market. SCION for example is a game with a fantastic idea, playing the children of the gods in modern day, but it's combat rules are Exalted 2E with the rails off that made Exalted 2E work. No keywords for powers, no balance for dexterity supremacy, and defence trumps offense equals frustrated GMs and players. And SCION while popular is also in bad need of a new edition where someone fixes the explode die problem of the storyteller system first befor they take another attempt with the game. It was one of the primary motivators behind Exalted 3E and it's Errata bigger than the book!

When you sit down and look at a lot of RPGs that claim to feature fast and easy combat mechanics look at what they did the achieve it. Did they abstract combat into the same raw mechanic they handle skill usages with? Did they turn combat into game that rides besides the raw mechanics of the rest of the game? Was the combat engine the core mechanics and everything else was abstracted to fit that combat dice mechanic. However the game is altered to "speed up combat" the most effective way to control combat is to a: Give the GM a system easy enough to internalize logically, because 50% of game speed issues is GM judgment down time. And b: Player understanding of their option, because the other 50% if player choice paralysis.

Let me give you an example of a game where the development team refocused the game towards combat options over Take/Make/Talk and what happened.

I'm of course talking about Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition.

Disclaimer: I'm not bashing 4E, this is a criticism and some analysis on how the change of focus benefited and hurt them. It is my opinion and I don't HATE 4E, I just felt perhaps the team working on it went a little to far in the sake of speed. FIGHT above all else.

First off 4E in combat terms was SMOOTH. Like silky smooth, in the early up to Players Handbook 2 days. I really only think the game ran into problems when they got away from the core logic of how Fighters worked around Essentials well, that and the volume of "Living Errata" and over focus on online tools to make the game work. But when combat was running, newbie players picked up on the powers focus of character builds pretty fast and the player side choice lock up rarely happened.

This extended to the GM side as well, the NPCs were way easier to handle and were built from 'what they do' standpoints which really helped making quick judgement calls. So mechanically D&D 4E had combat solid. This was great. But they gave up a LOT of the other play options to pull this off.

The TAKE half of the game was abstracted greatly. Skills in total were burned back to a handful of broad categories what made the GM and players shoehorn all sorts of situations into only loosely related skills. Dungeonering the Skill was great, but when rogues loose the option to be more than a generic rogue-thing vs pickpocket, lock picker, assassin, etc something has been lost from the earlier joy of TAKE gameplay. Same goes with the treasures themselves. Many of the magic items have very generic effects to prevent over itemization and balance issues when tactically minded players exploit loop holes in the game. But suddenly you are punishing players who's joy was finding those loopholes, or their minor (or major) exploits. There is a whole level of meta gaming fun that can be found in that style of play. TAKE gamers feed on that kinda stuff.

MAKE gameplay was turned into a treadmill. The whole concept of residium gave me personally issues. I disliked the concept of magic items always returning X value all the time, and the ability to churn items down into abstract dollar amounts took the feeling of customization on a character and item level away. the DMG 2 gave the option of giving 'magic' bonuses as story rewards and that was a nice option, but I feel the damage was done at that point. However, it did make some things like Rituals (a good idea in some ways) interesting. I liked the idea that some magic really should be taken out of the realm of combat. I didn't like that some of the spells that DID have combat related uses were nerfed to remove any 'outside the box' uses. That I think was my biggest sticking point. Artificers during beta had a very powerful 'building' option that jokingly was called LEGOmancy. It remained in the final version of the rules, but they cut away some of the more 'over powered' uses. They were not over powered, they just allowed the players to break the convention of grid combat in interesting ways and it disrupted the oh-so overly controlled tactical combat the game professed to love.

I could talk about TALK gameplay but D&D was never very good at that. I will finish up by saying that 4E was daring and did a few things really well. The setting fluff was a fun reimagination of the D&D brand. The backstory of the gods and primordials was fun, and the revaped planes while a bit generic didn't give me too many problems. But the devs of 4E made a choice. They cut down the 2 other primary elements of the D&D experience to address an issue with the 3rd. Combat WAS D&D's bread and butter for years, but I don't think since the days of Planescape, and the d20 boom to be sure, that it was only about that. The dungeon crawl abstraction works in something like Dungeon World because the game is about that abstraction. D&D is so much more these days, and I think perhaps the 4E team forgot that. Just took at 13th Age, one of 4E successors, to see 4E mechanical concepts DO work if married to an interesting MAKE (in this case background, character relationship, and unique thing) elements and TAKE (much more interesting magic items) options.

Is it perfect? No. But gaming was never about being perfect.

Monday, August 26, 2013

This Is A Sneaking Mission!

"I FEEL ASLEEP!!" your way into the enemy headquarters. Sneak past the security camera, hack the door, and steal the intel. Or bash down the door, crawl through strangely spacious sewers and find your way into the enemy's treasure vault. Either way, it's the 3rd part of my BIG 4 of gaming, TAKE or covert action gaming.

Welcome to one of the the biggest, if not THE biggest of the types of actions PC take in games. Not only is taking things critical to the core of D&D gaming, but so many 80's era games live and breath around the concept of the team being sneaky and making it out of a terrible situation with all sorts of loot. It doesn't have to be a dungeon, it could be an arcology, a lab, a super villains HQ, the point being that stealth is key and players are rewarded more for thinking their way past a challenge than fighting or talking.

The list of games that benefit from this style of play is staggering. Shadowrun, Cyperpunk 2020, Traveller, Gamma World, SLA Industries, Rogue Trader, TMNT And Other Strangeness, Ninjas and Superspies, Call of Cthulhu, Delta Green, Earthdawn, Transhuman Space, Eclipse Phase, GURPS (mostly), KULT, Tribe 8, Witch Craft, Buffy/Angel, Hunter: The Vigil, among others. AH HA! I hear some of you say. Some of those games aren't about stealing things. And you'd be correct, they are however more focused on the top 3 things that make a TAKE themed game well, what they are.

Covert Action, Skill over Power, and finally rewarding for tactical thinking.

The core of TAKE gaming is Covert Action. Where an ounce of stealth goes a long way. Sure, combat happens and the various games that focus on TAKE gaming have mixed success with Combat in general, but a true TAKE game focues on bypassing defences, working around guardians, and allows for victory with little to no blood shed. The best stealth PC games always seem to have a 'take down' option. But the big difference for true stealth games is that 99% of the time you don't want to be interacting with hostile PCs at all.

The other critical them is Skill over Power. This is debated because in a lot of games like Shadowrun Skill IS power. Skill equals dice and dice generate success. But sometimes in games like KULT, CoC, and such what you know is WAY more important that how you can fire a gun or pick a lock. (Well the application of Breaking and Enter is almost always useful...but I digress.) Knowledge skills make you able to make careful judgement. The whole GUMSHOE line of games mixes knowledge and investigation skills to play up the mystery of the setting. Most TAKE games also benefit from mad recon of a situation. If you are not poking around using your skills, odds are everything will go south fast.

Finally TAKE games reward tactical thinking. Tactical thinking is a mix of situational awareness (spotting foes, traps, useful things to steal or 'aquire'.) mixed with strong squad based movement. Moving as a unit in combat or mission events is critical. You are a group have to think of it almost as a team sport. Each player takes a role in the game. This is where the D&D version of TAKE is strongest. Front line, ranged support, fast movement, area denial, recon. You name it, but it's not just how you handle the actual mission. Planning is part of it. Coming up with Standard Operating Procedures, fall backs, all sorts of contingency planning. It's the kind of player that in video game RPGs enjoy Strategy RPGs more than standard ones. More Final Fantasy Tactics than just Final Fantasy so to speak.

Another element of take games is scamming and general playing in and around or outside of the laws of the setting. Take the RPG based on the TV series Leverage. It's Cortex + variant and focuses on setting up scams and gotcha against badguys. It's a perfect TAKE style game, the A-TEAM mentality. Or maybe Equalizer if you remember that show. However you play it, Robin Hooding is a BIG part of the full TAKE equation. It's not about your profit.

A good TAKE game focuses on allowing everyone at the table to feel clever or badass. There is an old Gaming term from Champion days called the Pro From Dover. It's a specialist character who has critical abilities that helps the group out of a tight spot. Everyone needs their PRO moments in a good TAKE game. So it's as much the GM's job to think of how players can contribute as it is the players job to think around the challenges in the game.

If you have the formula working right you begin to trust and support each other. Cross player rivalry is fine, but at the end of the day only you can stop Metal Gear...I mean win the adventure.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Mr. Johnson: Action Negotiator!

Let's talk about talking in RPGs. The TALK quarter of my BIG 4 things you do in RPGs is actually one of the biggest things in the 1990's era of RPGs. I point at Vampire (both versions) as the iconic talking game because social interaction plays such a big part. You fight, steal, and build empires, but at the end of the day it's you in front of the Prince trying to get him to see your way. (Unless you ARE the Prince of a city.)

Talking subsystems exist in a lot of games. One of the easiest to notice is any Honor or Renown mechanics. Werewolf, Legend of the Five Rings, Pendragon, etc. If you have a social standing and it impacts how you receive and ask for favors you are dealing with what I call at "Talk" system. This also includes contact and patron mechanics form games like Shadowrun or Cyberpunk 2020. Hell, even GURPS has a limited patron/contact system that while it uses more arbitrary rolls for 'frequency' and the like, it IS there.

Social subsystems that work tend to be pretty simple. A status/rank track and some method of knowing who you owe and are owed favors and alliances with. This can get out of hand mind you. Take Exalted 2nd Editions far to complex social combat. When you are tracking multiple SOCIAL actions in combat turns something has gone horribly wrong. A good talking system is something that works off of negotiation between the player and GM. It doesn't have to be "in character" mind you. The player can just as easy say I'm using contact X owed favor Y and I'll do him favor Z as well if he'll do this. The GM can roll and say that it meets the requirement of that contact and move on. Then depending on how things play out the players either gain greater or loss support. Simple really.

Another thing to consider is be open to taking social systems in weird directions. Shadowrun contacts can be everything from Street Docs to a Kid in an Orphanage if the players are out there schmoozing and making friends. Sure the kid might be able to get you cutting edge cyberware, but they might know where a body is found in the sewers. Don't be afraid to give the party NPC contacts that they wouldn't expect. After all, Sherlock Holmes got a lot more info out the Street Urchins he paid for information than Scotland Yard. The same goes in issues with other professions. Much like a Policeman's note book don't be afraid to have an NPC tracker for the party keeping tabs on folks you introduce them to. Use my Rule of Thumb on NPCs of these sorts and give them 1 or 2 distinctive features and be done with it. You can just hand them a sheet of NPCs they ran across in the previous sessions of you the GM are keeping notes.

Now some games enforce an economy of points, or exp to buy new contacts. But honestly past character gen I'd go the Shadowrun route and just let them build up a rating through interaction. GURPS and HERO's cost for favors works against GM spontaneity down the line.

Now in some cases especially in mechanics like Werewolf's Renown, make sure you follow the guidelines for rewards. You can adjust the rate based on speed of adventure/scenes, but I've found that most the reward values are set where they are due to previous exploits by players. (This is assuming that the system is playtested like say how extensively L5R's is vs...well. Quite a few others.)

Some Pathfinder games use a reputation or 'hatred' score count for PC actives. These while useful tend to be fiddlier than I like. They don't account for a wide range of possible actions and shoehorn players into scripted responses. When in doubt, throw it out and write up your own. Don't be afraid to do your own estimates on how high these values go based on YOUR game criteria. Note this is different from my take on Renown and Honor mechanics. The reason is these simple score checks tend to not be as robust as the previously mentioned mechanics. Mind you, if you as a GM feel like you can better judge Honor or Renown awards than the book and it works for your players. Go ahead. You're the GM.

Even in Dungeon World where the PC's have an interconnected story and the mechanics reward player interaction there is some level of TALK play going on. FATE handles it very well, depending on if the right flavor of aspects are being used. Don't be afraid to mix and match system if you can make it work.

Rewarding TALK players helps games. In old D&D terms the Cleric use to be the TALK character until the Bard was born, but even then the Bard is just a refined Cha focused variant on the more Wis based Clerics. Priest, Entertainers, socialites, holy warriors, and a LOT of business characters strive to make the most out the various social mechanics in play. If your group thrives on this level of PC and NPC interaction over combat and take/make game play make sure you are using systems robust enough to handle them. And make sure you as the GM are comfortable in the style of TALK play happening. Remember, don't be afraid to handle it as a casual exchange at the meta level of player to GM if "In Character" chatter feels weird. What matters is the result and how the story moves forward, even if it's in 3rd person.

Be chatty, make friends, have fun. Just remember to be polite. Unless...you know intimidation is your thing.

Diplomacy the M'F'ker.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Along Came A Glitterboy!

Ah Rifts. Only in Rifts can you play a Blue Whale with flyfishing and enough cyber up his gills to fly in space. Rifts was a giant toy box if the toys were made out radioactive materials, legos, and bits of Thor post Ragnarok. The point of Rifts was...I dunno, but I could play a mutant cat flying around in Robotech jets. Rifts.

Rifts was also a very weird MAKE stuff game. (As in my previous Big 4 post.) There were so many character options, magic items, gear and kitbashed stuff to allow crafter characters YEARS of wacky customization. And customize my groups did. Trying to figure out how to strap the main cannon from a Glitterboy onto a hovertank. Link multiple missile bays to the same targeting computer, all scores of wonky player invented gear swap. Add in the Macross and TMNT rules and WOOBOY! It was like an adult frenzy of creative Destroy, Build, Destroy.

But there is a strong need of players to enjoy the MAKE Things style of play. Exalted's crafting system for example. I know many players that just drool at the ability to crank out artifacts, magictech or no, and to use things like Ritual of Elemental Empowerment and some magical material to cook up a full set of PC gear.

Our Wizard/Sorcerer players in various Pathfinder, D&D, and such games had laundry lists of gear they were working to create. Ultimate Equipment for Pathfinder came out and our Tony Stark Gnome wanna-be jumped in with a manufacturing order list. If the group was going to travel his downtime was going to be dedicated to draining money for magic items.

Other games allow for character building much like item building. Anima's KI rules allow for character to craft their own unique martial arts trees. I did much the same in GURPS with their MA rules. Ninja HERO too.

Why I remember my players reverse engineering the mecha rules for guns from GURPS MECHA to build custom guns in GURPS.

Mind you the 3E GURPS Vehicle rules were terrible. Volume? Eh?

That said, there are cafe style item building games like Shadowrun with it's lists and lists of gear and customizations for that gear. Shadowrun 4E with Augmentation and Arsenal books turns you into a scary monster. Star Wars WEG and Edge of the Empire editions have ship and gear customization rules. Those alone give my players hours of delight.

There is also kingdom building. I remember many an hour drawing up my forest keep when a Ranger hit level 10 or so in oD&D. That alone...the trapdoors and such. So much FUN! Logistics may be boring for some but there is a reason why the Civilization games do so well.

The crafter, the tech, the cyberdoc, the mage, the artificer from Eberron! These are a type of play and player. If you are a new game designer out there take the time to learn this crowd. You won't be disappointed if you cater to them.

After all, give them the tools and they'll build half the goodies themselves!

The Big 4!

This is about as close as you are going to get from me in a "Grand Theory of Roleplaying". It's pretty simple really. When you boil RPGs down to the primary elements of what makes games fun there are 4 primary 'things' you seem to be doing over and over again. You could call them the 4 Modalities of Play, but I'll simplify it and just call them the Big 4.

They are "Those who Fight", "Those who Talk", "Those who Make", and "Those who Take." That's it. 4 big things everyone seem to be doing, 4 methods in which we interact with the various game worlds. 4 ways mechanically games are built.

Fight is combat, Talk to social interaction, Take is a wide range of stealing, rogue dirty tricks, and general covert action, and Make is kingdom building, crafting of items, and personal growth over external crisis.

The catch is a lot of games focus on 1 or 2 elements over all the rest, and that's fine. It's actually some of the elements that made classic games so good. A good game caters to all 4 elements, but folds the other styles of play into the primary one bolstering it. So D&D is more a Fight/Take game but folds Make into magic items, and Talk into things like Charisma checks and dealing with undead for some reason. (Thanks to the Van Helsing like Clerics no doubt.) Or Vampire both cWOD and nWOD which are basically Talk/Make games where you deal with politics and Empire building but Take/Fighting revolves around how Vampires hunt humans and each other.

Let me give you some icon examples:

Those who Fight - Very few games stand on combat alone. This may seem surprising but it actually makes sense. Fighting for fighting sake means either you are playing Street Fighter or it gets boring. Or both. With the rare exception of maybe Deathwatch (which I argue is more a Fight/Talk game) almost all Fighting focused games back the primary game play up with Taking and less frequently Making. Fight/Take is your classic D&D, but it's also RuneQuest, GammaWorld, etc. There is a LOT of great games that follow the Fight/Take model. cWOD Werewolf was a Fight/Talk only because of it's honor system.

Now classic D&D at higher levels shifted the focus from Fight/Take to Fight/Make with kingdom building. Adventure, Conqueror, King knows this and plays it up as a primary selling feature of it's retro clone play. Exalted is a Fight/Make game right out of the gate. It doesn't handle the Fight/Talk aspect as well, even though they tried to shoe horn it in with 2nd Edition. A true Fight/Talk game would require a serious down play on gear and claiming land/items/etc. I know Deathwatch and handful of indy space marine RPGs focus on combat and character interaction over gear fetish and MacGuffin quests, but it's a mixed bag so far.

Those who Talk
- Vampire in all it's incarnations is a classic talking game. It's big on politics, dealing with rivals and using power to build up a support base. Any game that focuses primary on diplomacy qualifies. Talking focus games are a lot more common these days with the advent of Monsterhearts, FIASCO, Game of Thrones, and Leverage. I was going to say that Talk/Take is the rarest of the cross builds but suddenly we got Leverage which is a complete Talk/Take game. If I had to put my finger on it I'm pretty sure that Firefly/Serenity based games are this style too. Very much a TV drama genre of games. I guess the Cortex + folks have their niche locked down. Other system like L5R is Talk/Fight, a rarer mix. The focus on honor and Noble combat is where it shines. Pendragon also qualifies.

Those who Take - Welcome to the bread and butter of the mid 80's to early 2000's. These games make of the lion share of what I consider the Golden Era of recent memory. Shadowrun - Take/Talk, RIFTS - Take/Make, Cyberpunk 2020 - Take/Fight, TORG - Take/Make, StarWars WEG - Take/Talk. Mind you a lot of these games focused on claiming land, resources, money, reality, but all featured a heavy focus on skill and cunning. That's the key element of a Take style game. Sure you might be doing something heroic in the long run, but there will be a lot of out thinking foes, being sneaky, and being careful.

Those who Make - This is the trickiest of the 4. Many, MANY, games feature Make as their secondary focus but very few make it the primary. A magical version is the MAGE games of old and new WOD. Technically Demon The Fallen, the cWOD Changeling, and Wraith can fall into the Make territory based on their building up of self and their domain/kingdom building over social mechanics. MAGE works because crafting of magic is key to the setting. Learning, developing, and growing is a personal journey and it doesn't focus on poltics in primary. It's Make/Talk mostly. Non-WOD games could include Reign, Pathfinder's Kingmaker adventure path, late game OSR clones, and I've found Traveller is a big Make/Take kinda game. Big into exploration style missions which fall somewhere between Make and Take events.

There are games out there that try to fill all 4 niches equally with mixed results. Generic games focus on each system individually and sometimes go a decent job of pulling them together. (HERO and GURPS are not so good at TALK but great at the other 3. FATE Core is week in Fight but aces the other 3. Cortex + works well with Talk and Take but fumbles bits of Make and Fight. It also depends on how the group you play with uses the system as built.

What's the point of this then? Well coming down the line I'll talk about the 4 different ficoes and how some systems do it better and what you can steal and reuse elsewhere. And some of my thought about how to enhance an existing game to focus on any one of the 4. My next post will focus on the rare but fun MAKE side of gaming.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Fidelity of Magic

To cast a spell. To change the shape of the world. To call upon strange powers and have them do your bidding. Magic, is the fuel of change in so many RPG universes. Even if you don't call it magic, such as nano powers, super abilities, etc it all works out the same. Magic. Something beyond conventional science and logic. Quantum changes to the universe that just IS and DOES. The Force if you must.

Either way the player uses magic to rewrite the world's order to their own will.

The catch is each magic system has to fit the world they are built into. I've seen many 'bad fit' systems over the years where the powers don't flow into the narrative of the universe. Case in point d20 versions of The Force from various Star Wars games make The Force work far too much like D&D spells. You can't have fire and forget when dealing with the Force. You need to have a always on, but narratively dangerous system. One that pits the abuses of the Force directly on the fate of the character. Dark Side and all that jazz.

Another bad fit would be MAGE in the rest of the oWOD setting. Don't get me wrong. MAGE worked well on it's own. But not only does the darker nature of the WOD demand that MAGES are limited by harsher paradox but it also caused some of the biggest magical headaches in the early editions of the games. MAGE was ground breaking, and worked well in it's own work, but REALLY didn't play well with the rest of it's kin. (Like Blood magic and Gifts.)

Generic systems have the square peg in round hole system where narratively the powers require justification if they don't quite fit the setting. GURPS suffers from this. Effect based systems like HERO and M&M are a little friendlier but run into mechanical issues where there is no thematic support for how the dice and player build magic. (Unless you obsessively add layers of complexity by building crazy detailed if/and requirements into powers.)

One of the few 'good fit' magic systems was Earthdawn. The powers in that game were tailored for the Adepts and worked like advertised. Enhancing existing skills, opening up stylish power sets unique to each, but having enough cross play to use similar sub systems. Things like Thread magic and committing health for defense with magic items was very iconic to the setting.

Then there was Poker like mechanics in Deadlands where you 'draw' against powerful spirits in a game of chance on invoking their abilities with out unleashing their fury on yourself. It was a good fit to the wild west setting and made the 'drawing' of cards a tense thing.

I'm not saying with some TLC other systems can't fit into what you need, or Generics suck at magic. Because neither is true. D&D style magic works in D&D style games, but not say for psionic powers in a space setting.

But before you saddle up with a new game system that uses a type of magic sit down and look at how the magic mechanically and thematically works in the setting. Is it a good fit? Does it have "Fidelity" to the genre and style it's trying to emulate.

Radioactive Disco Assult: Or How I Learned to Glow and Love it!

Ah Post-Apocalypse how I love you. Since the heady days of Gamma World, into more terse Fallout fan creations, to more modern Other Dust it remains one of my most favorite genre's to play in. Part of the reason is I enjoy urban exploration. Digging through urban ruins and the decayed ruins of what we consider modern and clean.

For example:

http://www.deadmalls.com/

Dead Malls, a great site for closed and decaying Malls. One of the tropes for Exalted is Lunar and Solars righting over the decaying runs of 1st Age Shopping Malls and that idea stuck in my head. Especially when you consider the mall could be something like:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_South_China_Mall

The world's largest mall over 98% vacant. How awesome would that be?

Or http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montr%C3%A9al%E2%80%93Mirabel_International_Airport

One of the biggest Airports made, but hardly used! It's amazing and creepy.

Urban decay and the slow recline of civilization is part of the wonder of these games. Look at pictures of decaying Detroit and you get the idea. It's not all about just the decay, it's making something out of the decay. I honestly enjoy the Fallout series of games more than Skyrim. Mostly because even though the sewer X and ruined building Y do get repetitive, I love scavenging in games. Picking up whatever I can to make weapons and gear needed to survive. I wish more RPGs played up this aspect of making the most of what you find.

Another is how cultures change. History distorts and eventually either through mutation, adaptation, or culture push humanity or whatever race you are playing changes. Eventually you get into trans-human, post-human, or post Apocalypse culture concepts. Alien societies and worlds develop from the ruins. I find the rebuild what we had boring in turn. If the world has to end, change something!

That said, it's also a great group motivator in games. Survival depends on teamwork, and survival when the world can kill or change you overnight is very hard and takes more critical thinking and buddy support than most games. I've found you can tell a lot about the quality of a players commitment to a group by how they play characters in these settings. Good players tend to be helpful, as long as it's not a plot element for them to betray everyone, while problem players tend to horde and let the rest of the group die at the hands of whatever glowing thing crawled up on them this week.

In the end, part of what makes the post-apocalypse genre fun is it's what you make of it. It can be psionic new society adventure, robotic nightmare fuel, strange new mutant land, bizarre body horror fetish, the hard press for a new earth, or Planet of the Apes.

Either way, we had to blow it up. BOOM!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

My reward is food and real estate?!?

Ever get bored of handing out swords, rings, money, and such to players? Ever thought that maybe you can change things up with alternative rewards? How about a recipe for a lovely stat boosting dish that the players can cook up on their down time for temporary bonuses? Yes, it is very much a JRPG (Tales of...) idea but it's also hilariously good. It doesn't have to be food, but that's the basis of my example. Any Shadowrun player knows the fun of feeding a contact favors for more information. Or perhaps you have a Patron advantage and from time to time you have to quest to keep the advantage giving out gear and training?

The idea is actually pretty old. In Lord of the Rings one of the nicest gifts the Elves gave to the Hobbits was Elven Bread. Bread that didn't go bad, fed you with minimal loss of supplies, and tasted wonderful. (unless it's all you've been eating for months.) Everyone remembers the cool cloaks, but a lot of folks forget the rest of the supplies.

How about a Bard learning a old song with loads of clues for future missions? With the 3.X era Bards get a 'bardic knowledge' roll and are assumed to pick up songs and lore on the fly. But what if you changed the way such skill checks worked. The players have to learn the songs (at least their characters do) in game and the skill relates to how well they relate the tale or verse? I know they simulate this sort of by allowing a bard to learn spells that are empowered by their lore and music but what if you freely gave spells as a bonus for finishing a quest, ignoring the maximums of class knowledge. It's something I always preferred about a skill based mechanic. Learn the song, unlock the lore associated with it.

I try to avoid giving out property to parties that keep on the move. This is different however in games like Exalted where having a Manse base of operations is actually a good thing. But you reach a point of diminishing returns when you already have 3 other Manses under your control. What if there was a 'base' merit that had nothing to do with magical places of powers. Instead the players earn a shop front end they can operate from? I did this in one Pathfinder campaign. The group was given as a gift for their last adventure a large villa outside of the town they were next going to operate from. It allowed to set themselves up as local nobles, and *snicker* consulting detectives. The players really loved the idea of base building and I had them doing it from level 5.

In fact if you look at Star Wars games set in Edge of the Empire, the party gets a ship DAY 1. And that Ship is important as both a mode of travel and home. Now fantasy games don't quite have this option, but the party wagon(s), or their little fort/tower/bar might serve as both a money sink, HQ to rest and plan from, and a great way to get them invested in a town or location in the game. In an Eberron game I once handed out a small spire home to the PCs, just to give them a place to stay. Turns out, I gave them their eventual airship dock and secret 'storage' room. All added later by the PCs.

Whatever your group's desires you have to consider just how unconventional rewards change the game. Mind you, odds are they won't inflate the parties power right away. If anything it will give them a richer desire to explore just what other strange things they can claim. Yes, the prince/princess's favor. A lovely spa they are now part owners of, or maybe a forge to upgrade their gear!

So many fun and different things to hand out. Try it and see how your players react!

Monday, August 12, 2013

Attack on Titan - Behold True Monster Hunting.

If you haven't seen the Anime/Manga Attack on Titan you are missing one of the better ones of this generation. It's horrific and yet damn perfect when dealing with fighting something many times your size and power. The 3D movement gear, the specialized weaknesses, the ease in which giants can murder people. It's blood, war, and all the nasty things that Hero vs Monster stories leave out.

But we know that right? Years of fighting Dragons, giants, and other monsters. Mind you, it depends on the system and just how casually you can die in it. The reason why I love Attack on Titan so much is the attention to detail about the combat. It's not your typical fantasy plot, it's not dungeon crawling, it's raw military tactics versus things that man was not meant to deal with.

I want to stress that Dungeon Crawling is a completely different story and skill set than full on Monster Hunting. The key difference is Monster Hunters (slayers), or whatever you call them, tend to be focused on more war like logistics. They tend to have a wider range of tactics and well 'killing' options. Take a look at Hunger: The Vigil or the various Monster Hunter games. The tactics are more focused on luring monsters into kill positions, traps, keeping civilians out of the way, and a lot of laying ambushes. By inverse behavior, dungeon crawlers AVOID ambushes, work their way through traps, and tend to pick up specialized weapons. A true monster hunter tends to use a lot of different weapons and tactics. Unless they fight just 1 monsters. But even then there will be a wide array of take down techniques. There might be some cross over, but a well done Monster Hunting game doesn't get into the 10 X 10 room mentality, I hope.

I have my own Monster Hunter variant game I call Griffin Guard. It's a team of convicts, petty nobles looking for status, foreigners, and general dregs of society thrown in a murderous 5 year 'service' where if you live the 5 years your past is wiped clean, you are given an honorary title of status, and let go with a small stipend. if you do MORE than 5 years with the Guard your status raises greatly, but people think you are CRAZY. The idea is a low magic fantasy world where monsters are a real problem and the PC's are sent into suicidal situations where wits and luck might keep them alive long enough to end their 'service' period. It would involve taking down all sorts of monsters, making gear to take down others, selling left over body parts, etc.

X-Com is technically a monster hunter experience in modern terms.

The best video game example recently besides Monster Hunter series could be Dragon's Dogma or God Eater. The idea is the same and it's fun and different break from the typical dungeon crawl. Not that it's better, but I'd LOVE to see a dedicated Fantasy Monster Hunter game with high attrition rate, maybe using the Only War style squad mate mechanics from 40K. Focused more on dealing with all sorts of monsters and having class specialties based around the way they fight. Highwire style Attack of Titan giant killing, undead disrupting via Holy writ, maybe cold iron and silver weapon specialization based on type. Monsters would have specific weaknesses and the PC's would exploit them to win the day. Hell, you could do it in FATE or a similar style game.

Then we make weapons out of their shin bones. If they have them.

Derailing to save the game.

Railroad prewritten adventures SUCK.

Old news, but honestly this weekend I was playing a Void Master in a Rogue Trader game when the group was basically being driven through hallways in a wrecked ship fighting space zombies when every creative solution we came up with to solve the issue was answered in the module with a 'nope that won't work'. Who the heck writes these things? If I was this persons editor I would have gone through the adventure with a very angry red marker.

*ahem* Point being, it's not the GM's fault, the adventure s written was to be a 'teaching' game. However, it's teaching exactly the wrong skill sets. It undervalues critical thinking, alternative solutions, and non-combat focus. Honestly, good cover and a steady laspistol was all you really wanted in this game. First off when you are in any protracted or hard puzzle like fight with an NPC where only thing will hurt them...you need to make it obvious pretty fast so you don't loose a session to one protracted battle.

It all goes back to 'Perception' checks to notice things. I'm growing to HATE this mechanic. I understand that the GM needs to hold some details close to the chest in the long term, but obvious stuff in a scene needs to be called out right away. I like how GUMSHOE handles it that the clues are there, the PCs WILL find them, what it does it present the puzzle, the clues, and lets them build the case from there. In the case of a puzzle fight the way to do it is to write down a top 3 things each character 'might' catch on to. Tech-Priest notices strange cabling all running to Captains Chair MUCH earlier in the fight. Rogue Trader notices the box for the xeno artifact. Navigator notices the Navigator Spire door is open and seems to be a great fallback position, etc, etc. The point is, give the players the clues with their 'get a clue' first scene description and let them decide if they are going to call out the obvious to everyone else.

But Joe? You ask, what about ambushes? What about danger sense?

That's a good question, when you need to surprise players a lot of it has to do with how the system handles surprise. Some games like GURPS gives the players an advanced warning, basically GM radar. This is...bad. It destroys the sense of urgency. Other games all the player who has danger sense and awareness to act normally when surprise happens. They can defend, seek cover, etc. This is way better and still preserves the sense of surprise. Precognitive powers, divine questions, they all exist in many games and one skill the newbie GM needs to learn is 'be vague'. Not be quiet, oh no. False alarms, half clues, hints, and common sense help is always a useful thing to direct or at least advise PCs. Just avoid giving them the solution, unless it's after the fact. And honestly even then, don't rub it in the PC's noses they missed clues X, Y, and Z. Just makes them less happy they didn't optimize for clue finding. Honestly, don't force PC's to dedicate their stats on detectin the obvious. Just don't.

The next issue is in adventure writing. You need to come up with more than one ending. You need to have a very simple 4 part tree of pass-fail:

Succeed With Bonus, Succeed with Clues, Fail with Bonus, Fail with Clues.

What is this? This is how you get your players coming back for more. Here is what each of the following pass/fail grades mean.

Succeed with Bonus - The PC's find the baddy, save the day, finish the needed quest and they are given a reward above and beyond what was promised. This could be an ally NPC, more treasure, or a new Ship, better spells. Whatever the setting calls for. You did good, enjoy the reward.

Succeed With Clues - The PC's just pulled it off, they barely succeeded, maybe they needed help. Either way the job is done and they can move on. The Clue part is they get hints about things they missed but might still be able to check out. A lead to more treasure, a possible NPC contact for future missions. This is the reward that motives them to dig deeper into the mission. This often leads to the next.

Fail with Bonus - The PC's can't save the day but maybe they saved someone else? As in the case of taking on the hulking space ship. We can't recover the whole thing but we CAN save the NPC crew and maybe loot some relic gear and weapons. Loot the armory and bug out. It's not so much a consolation prize, it's often how old school D&D session went. You can't take on the whole dungeon but you can claim a part of the loot and maybe come back later. Or if not, you are better equipped to handle the next mission.

Fail with Clue - This is the minimum failure/reward tier. This is where the PC's fail saving the day, gaining the final treasure, but they hear about alternative ways to win the day. A new mission or another angle to get at the badguy NPCs. Now if the game was a pass/fail where a friend dies, or some resource is gone for good then allow the option of revenge. Never underestimate the pleasure of a group of players take from seeking revenge against a hard NPC.

When you finish a session the players need to feel like they accomplished something, even if they only succeed at finding out some minor but critical intel on their foe. Every SINGLE SESSION there needs to be some reward. Money, information, emotional. It may be Pavlovian but the idea is to get the reward pleasure center going.

And for those players that LIKE loosing, well did they laugh and smile going down? Well, that's their reward. Don't assume however though that the 'joy' of a session is reward or pleasure enough. Allow even the most hallway of quests to have alternative reward structures. One PC's treasure might have been trash in the GM's mind eye. I've discovered this so many times.

Players seek the freedom to try crazy ideas and seek something, anything for their effort. Don't just 'nope can't do that'. Just don't. Get off the rails if you want to save your game.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Flavor Of Madness

So you want a scary horror game eh? You think running from Squid Monsters with Wings is scary?

Well, let me say this much. Just how man schlock movies have you watched? Do you remember late night 1950's Atomic Monster flicks? Did you digest the weirdness of H. R. Geiger? What about the esoteric weirdness of trippy 60's psyche out flicks?

Well, I've digested a LOT of horror over the years. Still love Ken Hite's "Nightmares Of Mine" from back in my Rolemaster days. Great book published by ICE. Almost impossible to find these days. GURPS Horror is about as close as you'll get.

Mind you a lot of his horror also got invaded by the various manga and anime, and just a few drops of 80's cartoon logic.

So what does that create?

Cyborg Zombies Being Controlled by Magical Brain Bugs

Ahem.

Let me tell you about my Pathfinder Mythic game I ran not long ago.

The group was running around in Osrian, the psudo-Egypt of Pathfinder's main universe. They were trying to locate a lost temple for a client that found a map but lacked the skill to plunder the tomb. Offering the PC's a lions share of the take they agreed.

Over the adventure they discover:

A vast underground air tunnel/sewer drain system for the dungeon filled with fungal growths that give you psychotic visions and then slowly turn the host into a deranged fungi monster that spreads the spores. (ran this before Last Of Us was out, and fully detailed)

A massive underground Pyramid structure with high energy magic systems that overloaded the PC's mind with arcane information jumbling their spells.

A factor full of clockwork machines that feed dead bodies via conveyor belt through a gruesome process of dissection, and rebuilding to turn them into clockwork reanimated flesh. Oh, they discover this when the clockwork workers of the facility kill and mount one of their PC allies on the machine and they watch him be processed!

A room where the new clockwork zombies heads are filled with larval bugs that eat the dead brains gaining the knowledge of the host and very faint memories of their past life.

Then an auction that has been in process for over a thousand years for a fresh (ha!) minted unit of ready clockwork zombie bug soldiers. They bid and won.

An arena where local animals, monsters, etc are fought against the zombies to prove the usefulness of the soldiers. And where they were willing to show you just how nasty the augmented bodies can be.

The 'parts' pile where unused gear, limbs, and assorted attachments that didn't pass the inspection process.

An 'enhancement' room where the zombies are customized for their masters whims.

Oh and they got to experience the second half the adventure with the zombie remains of their friend walked with them as one of their undead servants where one of the PCs held a control rod.

And then as they escaped the giant underground complex they were chased by a massive steampowered mechanical Sphinx that had launched platforms, flying drones (and unfortunately named drawings of one "Helicocktur", story for later.) And alchemical siege weapons.

That for me is Madness. Pure gaming bonkers...but damn if it wasn't fun!

Did I mention that game killed 2 PCs?

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Looking For Love With All The Wrong Ninjas.

Ah Romance.

A tricky element to bring into any games depending on the maturity level the players involved. A lot of times groups just avoid the subject all together to avoid any issues at the table. I personally have discovered that it's fine to introduce it, but try to keep it away from PC to PC relationships (unless they invite it.) and generally play it at about the Daytime TV drama level.

Now if you'd like to sneak it into a game with out freaking out your players I have discovered a few tricks.

The "Rival" -

Nothing breeds romantic tension like a semi-hostile npc that pops in, flirts with their rival PC and then darts out never playing through the relationship until you get a feel for the group that it's something that might happen. This keeps the PC's from feeling too weird at the attachment. The 'oh, it's them' feeling allows for banter in full Moonlighting style. If the PC doesn't seem interested, have the rival move on or fall to some mysterious fate and you are done. I've had good use of this in Exalted. In a high powered, big ego game like that a powerful romantic rival is perfect to draw out the PC's acting skills. At least it gives them someone interesting to use their social combat skills on.

The "Offer" -

This one is useful and dangerous. The way it happens is the relationship is a set up between an NPC and the PCs for some poltical or criminal reasons. It could be an offical 'marry the dutchess to gain access to the castle" or more casual "help my friends and I by joining our family". I'm going to give you a few cases of this just so you follow what I'm talking about:

1. The party was dealing with a powerful witch coven needing aid against a squad of werecreatures. The Green Hag wanted to extend her coven but didn't want to allow too much inbreeding among her followers. So she...*ahem* seduced the drunken monk of the party one night while they were negotiating for help. He went along with it because, she looked nice at the time and hell 'drunken monk'. The player thought it was funny he now had a Hag girlfriend and then I told him he would most likely have a daughter by her. (A lot of the reason why the Hag helped them is because the Monk played into her plans.) The player went 'cool!' and asked to play his daughter if we ever picked the game back up again.

2. Another PC arrangements this time was a group who was looking for support against a powerful rival faction at their school. Well in traditional Ninja High School fashion, the marriage of 'clans' would suffice. Hilarity ensued.

The "Danger" -

If you have an amorous player looking for NPCs to add to his or her little black book I have a technique to add a potential romantic interest that eventually betrays the party. Mind you, the person still feels conflicted about their choice and sometimes gives clues and hints to help them. Not a pure betrayal, but more a holding to their prior oaths issue. It's great for drama.

In this case I had a party Paladin Half Orc fall for a hot Elf Druid. Only she belonged to a sect of murderous 'fire' druids that sought to purge and change the world in turn helping a group of Were monsters. Yes this was the same game as the drunken monk/hag relationship. Needless to say the relationship drama added punch to the plot.

The "Student" -

Not my idea, but another player in a group took a 'maid' under his care in an Exalted game, awoke her essence and then proceeded to romance her keep her around as his personal assistant and pupil. I've seen this happen a lot to "pet" mortals in Exalted games. Romance them, equip them, turn your servants into lovers and living weapons. It's quite...different.

The "Casual" -

A romance interest with out emotional baggage who is just part of the character's background. Someone they spend time with between missions and the player is allowed to flesh out what happens at their leisure. Just like some relationships are low stress and fun to toy with, these are great. It helps if the NPC acts as an asset either with information or perhaps acting as a gofer or party backup for less dangerous needs.

Notice something, none of them are the "Damsel". While that type of possible romance exists it's also a: played way to often and b: less fun for the players. Damsels are rarely helpful to an adventuring party and often squick out potential female players. Unless the Damsel is a guy...and well, playing against norms is fun here and there.

However you slice into the romance pie though, make sure the players are on board with you. Or, well. It could get messy.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Room Has Five Corners

I love messing around with extra dimensions. I enjoy crafting worlds with a little MORE, and when I am playing a supernatural or supers...or supernatural supers game all bets are off. I go hog wild in bending space in time.

Take one example. I was playing a game set in a college dorm where all the players were exposed to an explosion of a powerful being much akin to an angel. This semi divine agent embedded pieces of itself inside of them...altering their auras and allowing them to interact with spirits, the underworld, and to alter the real world with unique supernatural powers.

Here is where it gets weird.

They could access a type of copy shadow space they called E-Space. Ethereal Space that was like a shadow dimension that allowed for realtime travel. They trick is E-Space allowed them to bypass walls, move around most physical objects like they were ghosts. In fact most ghosts (or beings that were echos of the living) were found here. This was also where a lot of power players from the 'other' dimensions like Angels, Demons, godlings moved around with out being seen. THEN they could in E-space access another more advanced dimension. A-Space which could be accessed from mirrors and folded shadows. This other realm was disconnected made up of tunnels of light and windows into other worlds. This byway was how the PCs and NPCs could bypass travel distances and pop in and out rapidly over great distances. As time when on the group cross trained on these 2 methods of travel and their other ghostly powers and started getting really good at popping in and out at great speed. They loved it. It was a big mystery where the next mirror went to.

Think of oWOD, Umbra on steroids.

I also loved CyberGeneration's Viruality and the old Cyberpunk cyberspace universes. I always wanted to explore these digital worlds with my PCs. Go scampering over data vaults and having chats with AIs. Or maybe in Shadowrun a Mage using spirit sight always looking around at auras and local spirits, in a half here half there drugged out blisful look as he's a otherwordly tourist.

I think it reached it's peak in Planescape. Jumping through portal keys, diving down the Astral, then dealing with the Ethereal and Inner and Outer layers. Weird places like Bytopia and Mechanius pulling me in every time. And Limbo, for love of Limbo.

I enjoy opening portal to the Labyrinth of Exalted, drawn to Stygia to gloom over the Vaults of the Neverborn. Then to walk 5 days to reach the edges of Malfius's great Yozi bloat. Finally to sail the quicksilver rivers of Yu-Shan before stumbling out the heavenly gate winking at the confused Lions. I'm drunk on other dimensions, alternative planes.

I've actually explored Hammer Space once. Stepped inside my own internal Katana folded space time ala-Highlander and stumbled across mountains of old gear I forgot I had stashed there.

I want to draw chalk lines on the street, knock 3 times, and then open doors to bizarre urban playlands.

I want to tear open nihils and dance with reapers.

I wanna get around.

Sorry, I'm drooling a little.

Breaking the World Because I Care.

Murphy.

Cruel god of statistics, or test engineer who gave us rules to live by.

Roleplaying games are not perfect. Their mechanics are designed to simulate a narrative, tactical, or simulational of the environment the designer wanted us to play with. Which is all fine and good, but a lot of RPG writers rarely bother to stress test the extremes of what their game can and will do. What am I talking about? BENCHMARKING.

You see when I pick up a game system I like to build a generic character. Let's call him Pete Tester. Pete's been a Bard, Barbarian, super hero, Solar, Lunar, Street Sam, you name it. There is very little special about Pete right away. Most off Version 1 of Pete tends to be as average an PC as I can build him. Middle of the road required stats, just enough abilities to handle a session, and a spattering of generic skills.

Then I kill him.

Over and over again until I have the lethality of the system down in my head.

Oh, the WAYS I kill Pete are creative. I ram TIE Fighters into im a full speed. I've dropped him off of...well just about everything. Spaced him. Inserted him into acid, lava, hostile nanties. I've fired SO many guns into him a full auto. Let him taste Superman's fist. Accelerated him to sub light at walls. You name it. It gets weirder when I do things like infect Pete with all sorts of mutating plagues and then expose him to things like insanity melting monsters. But I digress.

Why do I kill Pete so much? I need to know where a game breaks. Specifically if he combat system handles the ways it says it should. Short and bloody? Slow and pondering? It matters. I also go looking for exploits. Little 'beaks' that power gamers latch onto when building characters to make them unhittable and unkillable. They're everywhere. Most happen when you can work out exploits like Shadowrun 1E's Truck Stomping Trolls thanks to how armor and godly physical stats work. Or weird stuff like GURPS acrobats being able to foot dance through APC armor. Etc, etc.

So what happens after I finish killing Pete? I invert the issue and build Pete to the excesses of character gen will allow...then I let Pete have his revenge. I use him to Break the Setting and System. Uber Troll Shaman, check on that 10 drain manaball. Or run him around with super speed and flurries in Aberrant. Or what happens when I layer defences vs the strongest attacks in a game? Or can he jump unpowered over things? (This is how we discovered that normal humans in Exalted and HERO system could make mutli meter jumps with ease from standing!) Especially if there ARE powers involved with a system. I look for how the can be abused. How long does it take Pete to turn NPCs into jelly?

Again, I'm looking for system breaks.

At the end of the day of running Pete through some mental gymnastics and die rolls he goes back into the box and I look a the results. Could he wrestle 8 guys at once? Just how big a foe could he defeat? Etc. These establish for me a quick and easy benchmark on the rough power leve in a game. I know where some of the worse system breaks are, and how to avoid them. And usually if I'm the mood and like a game despite it's flaws this is where my house rules list comes from.

It's also why I have problems with more narrative focused games like Smallville. The PC's don't 'touch' the setting in a way I can measure easily. I feel like Pete's made of Jello. It just makes me feel weird. Doesn't mean I can't test raw combat with Pete, just means I can' tell how much he can dead lift. Etc.

I also use what I learn from Pete on creative ways to 'bend' a game to make later session fun when playing. I rarely go out of my way anymore to break a setting. But impressive in game mechanic stunts are aways fun to pull off.

Then I pick up a new RPG book, and poor Pete starts dying again.

Ain't I a stinker?

It has to be the hat!

Call it a pet peeve in gaming.

I get really into a game, describe my character, get started and ask everyone what they look like...and I get "eh, I dunno. He's wearing armor and has a sword." That all so crucial into segment when I get to build a mental picture of the rest of the party is ruined for me. They become faceless NPC #1302. Ugh. You think I have issues with NPCs that don't have descriptions? Well...PC's with out also give me the willies.

I'm not mad at the player, but it does hurt the immersion for me. You have to understand, I suffer from the need to accessorize. I LOVE characters with cool costumes and outfits. I want to know about belts, tools, colors, and things like the way they carry themselves. Take a look at Dungeon World, each of the playbooks for characters has a short 3 little descriptive eyes, clothing, hair elements. It's WONDERFUL. Seriously every game book out there should have tiny advice for races, classes, just to help new players visualize and describe their characters.

I don't know if I'm infected with the latent writer, movie costume designer, or just the little kid wanting to play with dress up dolls. Maybe all 3. I just want my character to look unique enough to stand out.

So what does have to do with hats? Well, I commented on G+ that wizards are sexy in their hats and robes. And I stand by that. Something about a Wizard's hat, depending on the type is important to me. I know a lot of wizards do with out the hats and go for a crown, or head accessory less...but it feels wrong to me. I'm not just talking about the Gandolf here. I like the idea of fedoras, long sombreros, the dusty 10-gallon. Wizards need to have sexy hats.

It's a thing. It's my thing. But *ahem* I'm going to use it to show you a trick I use when describing characters.

Let us say I'm going to sit down for a session of GURPS Dungeon Fantasy and I've decided to play a specialist wizard. Maybe he's a Geomancer and specializes in reshaping stone and rock with a bit of engineering skill to make it useful deep in the dungeons.

Cool, I got the baseline concept of the character down, but how do I describe him?

Here is my quick and dirty method:

1. What is his Job?

He's an engineer caster, so his robes will have belts, look more like work clothes. Browns and light yellow or greens. Lots of pockets, and engineer tools, like say pencils and plumb bobs.

2. What is his wealth?

He's a professional. So I'll put him above most folks (must remember to buy some Wealth). So nicer leather belts, cleaner clothing well tended too. Still keeping in the idea of him being a pro so lack of obvious wealth, maybe a ring of his guild/college he trained at. Not much else.

3. What his personal outlook?

I'm going pure "Pro From Dover" here. When I say personal outlook I don't mean the generic stuff most books ask you. I'm asking what the outward impression I want the other players to have. Very much becoming the mirror here. So in  my wizards idea, he's in his late 20's. Clean cut, maybe with a "work long hours" 5 O'clock shadow. Clear brown eyes, and just for flavor, reddish brown hair. Short cut. His hands look like worker's hands.

4. How intimidating is he?

No seriously, intimidation factor is BIG with roleplaying characters. In my character's case he's not very. He has the air of a calm engineer, but doesn't project much. So I'll describe him as homely and friendly. This is important.

5. How stylish is his hat?

VERY important for my Wizards. Now, my guy is a pro, but maybe this is his one accessory he spends some time on. I could be very technical about regional hats, etc. But I'll keep sane and say he wears a clean, crisp black tricorn hat with a stylish green feather in it. The hat has gold trim. It radiates, just a hint of pride and money. See how a good hat just makes the Wizard?

Now, the trick is those 5 questions are unique to my games. What you need to do is sit down and think, what are the 5 most important descriptive elements of my character? What 5 things do I care about in the way he or she looks? Then build those 5 costume/framing questions to guide your own costuming session. You might ask, What Kinds of Shoes does she wear? (Important to you) or, What sort of scars does he have? Or does she style her hair? Pick out the petty things that matter to you.

You see, IRL I have a large head and VERY, VERY few hats fit me. So for me roleplaying characters with a stylish hat IS pure pleasure. I find taking the time to fill in these details makes or breaks my enjoyment of a character in a game.