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Ian O'Rourke
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The Superhero One Shot
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

I watched The Fantastic Four on Friday evening and this got me thinking about the logistics of a superhero one shot. I also woke up this morning thinking about it as well, during that period when your brain is surprisingly lucid.

The first thing worth mentioning is I've never really done one shot games. I've done a good number of mini-series, games that last 3-12 sessions and actually have a conclusion, but not really one session affairs. Well, not games designed to be one session affairs anyway. The closest was probably Thrilling Tales at the original CottageCon, but then this had two sessions and it went on to have a third and certainly wasn't designed to conclude in one session.

I also think the superhero one shot presents a number of difficulties.

The first problem is how you begin. You have to introduce a superhero team in a viable way and run to a conclusion in six hours. The first decision is to go with an origin story or to just have everything existing. If you look at films most of them go with the origin story but then most of them are dealing with a single protagonist. When dealing with groups the X-Men films went with the set-up existing, and then used the narrative tool of an 'audience' character as an introduction, which doesn't translate well to the gaming table. Now, The Fantastic Four did an origin story. I must admit I find myself leaning towards the origin story idea, the odd unique twist may be available, but I still like the idea of going from 'origin' to conclusion in six hours. This tends to mean the characters are connected before the session starts and all powers have a common origin. A few ideas, in no particular order:

  • Option One: The characters are all involved in the same accident, say the first tourist flight into 'space'
  • Option Two: The characters were all members of a top secret scientific 'mission' of some kind
  • Option Three: They are completely random, but are all suffering from similar visions, dreams and fugue states (think Close Encounters without the trigger event being known)
  • Option Four: They start as heroes, but after some pivotal event that has fractured their memories
  • Option Five: Emergence day, some pivotal events causes the eruption of superheroes

All of these have options and some of them have scope to tie the origin into the one shot story. I think this is necessary, since you're including the origin it should be integrated into the story, not just the reason to explain the superpowers. I also like the idea that these models, with the exception of the last one (and potentially option four), assume the heroes are not one of many, but are pretty much unique. I've included option five for completeness, but don't overly like it. Finally, if we assume the session has four segments, each 1.5 hours long, the origin has to conclude in the first segment.

The handling time from origin to 'cool team' has to be pretty short. I would suggest this would need to conclude by the end of the first segment, or the end of the second segment if it includes 'grand reveals' and it is woven into the larger story Option Four has significant advantages here as a whole superteam infrastructure including a base, vehicle, cool costumes could already exist awaiting to be 're-discovered'. Option two has transition options due to the government link and the assumption the characters are scientists, military personnel or at least administrators on a project. Option One and Three obviously need a bit more work with respect to this transition stage as it's a normal folk to superteam transition and may preclude things like vehicles and bases in the one shot, snazzy costumes still being perfectly possible (and advised for simplicity in the case of certain powers). Depending on the actual characters option one and three may find solutions there (e.g The Reed Richards and Baxter Building effect), and a bit of a time jump is always possible after the first segment.

The plot itself we can only generalise about at this stage, but it has to be big scale. Massive scale. Michael Bay on steroids scale. It not only has to be big scale in terms of sets, locations and how much of them are destroyed, but also epic in scope in terms of the threat and its implications. We are talking world ending, reality shattering, Galactus arrival scale stuff here. While I quite like some of the origin elements of the The Fantastic Four, I'd want something a bit bigger to happen afterwards (though the characters issues are pretty good). As mentioned, the plot shouldn't be entirely disconnected from the origin.

Systems are also an issue, mostly because they become one of the biggest logistical elements. They are an issue for two reasons: complex character creation and potential complexity in actual play. Complex character creation is a pain because it tends to demand player familiarity with the system or a lot of GM oversight. While this isn't so bad for a campaign, it can be a bit front loaded for a one shot. You can't suffer complexity in actual play, it has to run smoothly and simply. You have four segments of 1.5 hours so having a single slugfest take 1.5 hours, while it might be cool, isn't really an option.

It's not worth listing all the options by name but suffice to say they range from old school systems to 'indie games' to horrendously complex like Champions. Champions is out, it's way too complex in character creation and actual play, plus there is no juicy currency to drive the game. Some of the old school games have advantages, in that they are simpler, such as the original Marvel Superheroes game, but they tend to have their own foibles. One particular option I still wish I had to test for suitability is Marvel Saga, might have been a good fit. Indie games may be fine, but I tend not to overly like a lot of them so the chances are their superhero variants would be the same. Wild Talents has some cool features but it also suffers from one big problem: it's not a 'Yes' game, in that powers just can't do things unless you've purchased the option. Mutant and Masterminds is probably the best option in terms of its cool currency, it's 'Yes-based' foundation and, to a degree, a balance of complexity (it's simple in actual play at least), but it still has complex character creation, actual play is untested (specifically the currency ironing out wild results) and I detest its skill system and don't favour the linear D20. So, it's an outstanding issue.

Another logistical headache is player count. It strikes me you wouldn't want more than as a one shot in which four players? Once you start going over that number it starts getting troublesome. You obviously have the problem you've got more superheroes to deliver the awesome for, have great character dynamics between and more players pushing the currency to introduce complications. The main issue though is each additional protagonist tends to have an exponential effect in terms of the number and variety of powers on display and in terms of physical conflict. The larger the superteam the more difficult it is to create interesting slugfests, and you do want some scenery destroying battles, as it becomes harder to make one enemy viable and often results in more adversaries having to exist. The inherent complexity in this is difficult enough, but you also start thinking about the time the slugfests take in the actual game. The system can also relate to this, for example, I still have theoretical doubts about Mutants and Masterminds working well when multiple attackers gang up on one target (the possible 'stun lock' effect).

It's all possible, but some issues remain that need ironing out and some might not be able to be resolved until actual play, such as how the system actually works when it hits the table. Some things, like front loaded character creation, would just have to be dealt with (or the whole thing dropped on this basis). I'm also thinking it's great to organise everything around an 'issue', each being 1.5 hours long, but this might soon go completely out the window at the table in terms of timings. One thing that this process has resulted in is the 'introductory' problems of the set-up may actually be an advantage rather than a disadvantage. That in itself is...interesting.

Permalink | Comments(2) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 21/12/2008 Bookmark and Share
4E Session #11: The Final Battle

After eleven sessions the conclusion to the heroic tier comes to pass. An eight hour session from about 1400 to 2230 hours with a stop for a very nice home cooked curry in between. It was an epic final battle, with our heroes at the centre forming the elite strike force destined to make the heroic journey through The Cabal's headquarters, into The Spire and a personal confrontation with Darius, the leader of The Cabal. A full actual play can be found in the following locations:-

Generally, there was three parts to the session. The first was a series of scenes establishing material and relationships for the Paragon Tier. The second was the background awesome of the wider battle going. The third, and by no means least, was our heroic journey into The Spire and the final confrontation with The Cabal.

The Paragon Tier stuff was good, and our quest schedule is already pretty full of promise. We all got given a choice during the battle to become Champions of a specific Primordial or not (we've become loosely connected to a Primordial each due to goals or using their ancestral weapons). We all chose not to. It was also interesting to see new relationships form in the Paragon Tier and elements introduced to the setting take on a more front and centre position. As an example, my character's half-sister is now an enemy due my character killing her father out of revenge. She has allied with The Order of Transcendental Inquiry, a sort of pulp fantasy, secretive organisation that collects antiquities setting us up for some great rivalries. They'll probably be a significant aspect of the Paragon Tier. It's also great that we've become the sworn enemies of a whole people due to trashing a Primordial's tomb and taking his stuff during session one.

The descriptions of the wider battle wwas brilliant, and it was awesome stuff. All the forces that had assembled for the final battle, some of them through our own efforts, attacked their selected targets in cut-scenes that would have blown the budget of any film. I particularly liked the Pashtun witches riding into battle on flying carpets followed by a horde of Jinn howling behind them on a wave of sand all Mummy style. That seems to be the one that has stuck in the mind the most anyway.

It would take forever to describe the epic journey through the Armoury of The Cabal and the battles in The Spire. There was a battle at the entrance, an insidious trap in the Trophy Room, a battle in a Wizard's Armoury full of fragile flasks, the potential battle with the Iron Lord at the entrance to The Spire, the shutting down of The Cabal's ritual and the final confrontation with Darius. That was due to the route we took through the complex, we could have went a different way. Strangely, I liked the battle with a Golem in the Armoury as all sorts of chemicals and contraptions got knocked over and activated creating a hazardous environment. I also liked the battle with the Iron Lord at the entrance to The Spire as we heroically slammed in the Key of Time to shut the doors (we'd used the teleporting networking to get inside) and then kept the giant Golem away from the doors using knock back effects and status effects. Despite the fact it cut the fight short it just felt right, more heroic and desperate than the typical slug out fight. I also thought the trap in the Trophy Room was good, a sort of psychic assaulting tapestry, while at the same time trying to battle living statues that choked you to death. These were better than some of the bigger set-pieces I thought.

It was also pretty cool when we stopped The Cabal ritual, as the ritual had stopped 'the sun rising' that morning, and when we stopped it the battle momentarily stopped as the sun shone across the city. I thought that was very atmospheric, as it felt a bit 'Lord of the Rings' a signal coming to the thousands losing their lives that the heroic four they'd trusted their lives in might just be at the final hurdle. I did like that.

As a conclusion, it was really good. If I was to have one small minor complaint it'd be the usual one of getting sucked into the tactical battles just a bit too much, fun though they are. The main example being there wasn't that much interaction with Darius, but then there probably wasn't any real need for it. It was exciting, and interesting, but figuring out some way to inject a bit more role-playing into these confrontations would be good. I think that's an issue for the whole table. The battles just sort of pull you in. Still, it was a very good conclusion, with some great imagery and some exciting battles. I still like the ones with a lot going on the best.

Bring on the Paragon Tier.

Permalink | Comments(2) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 10/12/2008 Bookmark and Share
4E Session #10: Love, Betrayal and Vengeance

No, you've not missed anything. I missed something. Session nine to be exact as I was away. Not only did I miss a whole session I also missed the whole of level eight which whizzed by in a moment and I never saw it in actual play. Not a problem, just a curious observation.

As usual a more narrative breakdown of the sessions can be found on the GM's blog:

In many ways session ten was not so much the calm before the storm, as it was pretty chaotic and had lots of storms, but more the clearing of the decks. The resolving of a bunch of conflicts between the protagonists and a number of characters in order to have a clear agenda for the final conflict in session eleven and to move the characters to having less party-conflict in the Paragon Tier. We have Assamber resolving his religious differences with The Grub. Artemis and Morn resolving their differences over Kyia Tra'Kar, in the process Artemis got to kill Ak'Karan Tra'Kar, Kyia's father, and Morn realised his God was a total fake and wasn't protecting him from his bonds of slavery at all, resulting in Kyia being killed after she controlled him to protect her father. We also resolved our differences with the rebellion, though it largely became a non-issue as the offered us an olive branch to pre-empt the conflict. Dramatic stuff. The result of it is though all Heroic Tier dramas are over except for the take down of The Cabal in the final session of 'conclusionary' doom. As usual, things are more narratively dense than I have time to recount here.

It was a good session, it felt a bit perfunctory I suppose. A bit by the numbers, joining up all the dots to ensure every order of business was concluded, but it worked well. I liked it, particularly sending an arrow into Ak'Aran Tra'Kar's back...nice. The episode before grand conclusions can be as tricky as the conclusion itself. The main focus of the session was the fight with The Grub, which seemed to be a significant set-piece of epic proportions. It seemed much longer and involved than our other fights? Not in a bad way. Personally, I think we gave The Grub a good kicking and he never really recovered from our opening assault after Assamber's player used a stunt point to stun him in the opening round as a result of ritual feedback. The description of the fight in the GM's blog possibly suggests The Grub was doing better than he actually was. It's all perspective I guess, as Morn's player might not agree since he went to low health at least once and spent most of the fight immobilised.

It was a bit of a pity to see The Grub go, one element I added to the game down, but that's the great thing about the collaborative nature of these things. In actual play The Grub became more important to another character and the result of that was death. Interesting how things turn out.

One interesting thing happened as I levelled before this session: I got Attacks on the Run. Is that the single most awesome daily power in existence or what? I can do a full move as part of the power, attacking twice as I do so for 3W each. That's potentially my weapon damage (D12) six times, plus my Hunters Mark (D8) plus my damage bonus twice (+8) if I hit both times. That is obscene. I assume, though I didn't realise it in the session, that I can then use my normal move as well. So I can attack for a ridiculous amount of damage and move 12 squares. Amazing.

Next session, number eleven, is the final episode of the heroic tier. It's potentially an eight hour epic-fest featuring epic battles in the City of Kings, Wizards, mad inventors, giant Iron Golems, Dragon Riders and whatever else. Looking forward to it.

Permalink | Comments(4) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 26/11/2008 Bookmark and Share
4E Session #8: The Key of Time

A more detailed breakdown of The Key of Time can be found here and here. It's suffice to say it was a really good session. The heroes had to go to the Shrouded Oasis to collect Artemis's mother, as the rebellion had promised her to Akaran Tra'kar, also giving us the opportunity to speak to the High Priestess of the Cult of the Eternal. The Shrouded Oasis was a very atmospheric location and I certainly want to go back to it and have more adventures there. This is especially true since things have already been added due to failed and successful skill challenges that it would be cool to know more about. As we made our way through to The Cult of the Eternal's home in the Shrouded Oasis we got chased by a tribe of savage apes, knowing more about them would be cool. Are they ruled by some semi-intelligent Monkey King! I'm also thinking, if the heroes eventually get their own Hero's Sanctums or other fancy locations (such as Assamber's tower), I want mine to be in the Shrouded Oasis all Phantom-style. In fact, by the time the epic tier comes we should all have such sanctums with instant teleports and communications to each other, even if we never use them!

The session got off to a strange start. I'm not sure what it was but I don't think I made the mental shift into playing. Not sure why, it's hardly a big getting into character thing, it's just we sort of started before focus had been attained. I think there was a tiredness round the table for the first time as the session started. I'm not sure this fully cleared until we actually entered the Shrouded Oasis. This meant some of the decisions up until that point probably could have been better. I know I wasn't mentally ready for all the pivotal authoring on how to get into the Oasis I was faced with, I should have saw it coming, but a combination of MBA head space and not having transitioned to gaming mode made it more difficult than it should have been. I think everyone had that problem. We certainly need transition time.

The last scene in the game was also very interesting. In that we arrived back in the city having completed all these heroic things: got Clan Antarion to agree to slow the Dragonborn (session five) and killed a Dragon, found The Makers (session seven) and secured their help with the Golems and brought Artemis's mother back (session eight) and got entrusted with the Key of Time. Before we left we kept it secret we'd discovered who the traitor was in the rebellion (session four) in the hope that Akaran Tra'kar would try and finger an enemy for it as part of a political ploy (as he had been charged with hunting the traitor down). Artemis had also put his mother, against her will, in Assamber's coastal tower intent on not handing her over. I think we were all set for a grand scene in which we impressed upon the rebellion our total awesome and asserted our new authority (in our minds). I'm not sure the scene went as anyone intended as before we could regal our heroic journey it became embroiled in the issue of Artemis refusing to hand over his mother and got locked into that with neither side willing to budge. It seemed to be a point of no compromise for the rebellion, who still seemed hell bent on just bossing us around. So we parted ways having had a 'serious disagreement'.

By no account was this the campaign's first bad session as was queried by the GM before we went home. It may have had some slow points in the beginning. It may have had high expectations of it. It certainly had the best action sequences so far, one ending with me doing a victory lap around the kitchen. It may have had a pivotal scene at the end that went in a direction people didn't expect (but by no means not great or interesting). It could even be argued that it was one that was a bit more uneven than it's predecessors, and possessing a sort of raw quality, rather than an impeccably served experience. But bad? Far from it. I think it leaves the game in an excellent place, but that may just be me. The session ended with great drama, the ominous music kicked in and the credits rolled. Cue next week.

If I could be so bold, it could even be argued it was the best one yet.

So, why did it take 3 days for the GM to go from feeling 'it was the end of all things' to being much more mellow? Personally, reading between the lines and possibly getting it totally wrong, I think it was the first time the game ran away with itself and fine control was completely lost (from a GM perspective). The sessions are excellent, no one has any complaint, but there is an element of awesome stage-management in terms of plot, NPCs and performance orchestration. It's not a smothering control, more a puppet master behind the scenes sort of control tinged with some encyclopaedic knowledge. This session probably broke the strings at the end and it became a bit of a conflict between the Players (through the PCs) and the GM (through the NPCs) to wrestle control of the creative ground, story direction and the degree of protagonist impact (the fate of Artemis's mother being a symptom rather than a cause). We'd killed people on the relationship map before, we'd ignored things by accident before, but this was our first attempt to mould it in our image and put us at the centre of it. To use a lawyer analogy, it may have appeared a bit like a case falling apart in the courtroom due to surprise evidence. There may have also been an 'expect the players to play as he would play' mistake going on, a mistake I think we've all made in our time as we've GM'ed.

The ironic thing about it is this can only be a good thing and the GM only has himself to 'blame' as the sessions in the desert away from the city were so good I think every player came back wanting to transition their character to a more heroic, we're taking the bull by the horns stance (and taking no commandments from above) and impact ourselves on the environment as the heroes we are. I believe everyone wants that to happen, I just don't think he saw the unconscious player agreement on it (it wasn't that well flagged) and our unconscious group think to use that final scene to establish it. As a result, it probably came out of nowhere in a scene that was pivotal, but ironically rushed at the end (a mistake by all parties).

The above is, of course, only one perspective.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 30/10/2008 Bookmark and Share
Hard, Wiggle And Gobble
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

While browsing around the web during a break from looking at books and papers on Human Resource Management, I encountered the Wild Talents: Essential Edition for 3 GBP. A bargain, so I hastily downloaded it. I quite like these pocket editions of books as I think they are a great idea. They make the game a spontaneous purchase rather than a considered one, and they provide all the rules with all the setting and whatever stripped out. Since the chances are these days that part of the content wouldn't be used, it's nice not to pay for it. The Essential Edition is exactly like the Explorer's Edition of Savage Worlds.

This isn't my first encounter with Wild Talents, when the game was being developed (despite already existing in Godlike) it was part of a Yahoo Group and you could download the rules as they took form. I used to have those rules a while back, so I was broadly familiar with the games unique dice mechanic of everything being resolved in one role (the One Role Engine), and it's use of hard and wiggle dice. While the dice mechanic seems quite clever, it doesn't help to decode the system on an initial pass. You then have the usual problem of all the power rules taking a bit of time to digest. They are particularly obtuse in this game. So, it's going to take a bit of digesting, and time will be a factor, but it looks like it might be pretty good.

The part I like about it the most, and the reason I specifically downloaded it, is it pays particular attention to the concept of the extremely skilled normal. All superheroes systems cover this base, but since comic books cover such a wide range of character types most superhero systems have a natural comfort zone and very few of them have that comfort zone set at this level. Take Mutants and Masterminds, for example, I really like that system but its comfort zone is really set at the Marvel level of Spider-Man and the X-Men in the new Silver Age sort of feel you get in the Ultimate comics. Things are 'realistic', fights tend to be over relatively quickly, but heads don't go flying when Iron Man punches someone (superhero physics are still present). Wild Talents covers the extremely skilled normal through hyper-skills and hyper-stats, which are levels beyond that of the normal person. If you give a character hyper-elements and then throw in some hard and wiggle dice you basically have an enhanced level of ability verging on the superhuman.

Wild Talents also reminds me of Aberrant in a couple of ways. It's default realism level is set at realistic, in that a laser beam to the chest is likely to cut a big hole, a super-strength punch to the head is likely to knock it off, etc. It's also similar in that it's possible to design the normal character and then add the super-powers later. It doesn't have this as part of its character creation structure like Aberrant, but it's quite easy to do just by using so many points and then giving out an extra so many. While I don't see this as essential to any superhero system, it does have some advantages. As an example, if you are going for an Exalted-style game of just extremely skilled normals there is nothing stopping you making them normals on so many points and then providing more after the 'Exalted event' to boost things, specifically adding hyper-skills, hyper-stats and hard and wiggle dice. In truth you'd probably do both at character creation and just use the non-hyper one for the appropriate part of the story.

While the system needs a deeper read it does seem to do the amazingly skilled normal very well. Since the system is one for superheroes, it has all the rules necessary to throw those heroes against ancient sorcerers, mad scientists, robot armies from the future, psychic cults, hopping vampires and whatever else in a sort of trashy-pulp, hyper-kinetic Saturday morning serial-style idea complete with melodramatic conflict, bloody battles with hordes of mooks, martial arts, gun-fu, mystery, mayhem, revenge, lurid episode titles, grainy film and a sort of a Fengshui RPG meets John Woo meets J.J Abrahams Fringe meets Quentin Tarantino extravaganza.

The realism level might need toning down a bit if you want a game with a bit more action, but I'm sure that's possible with a closer look. It actually gives three realism levels in the book, just not what dials you tweak to set them.

The question will be finding the time to give it more than just an initial pass, especially since it's purely a self-indulgent, theoretical excercise.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 22/10/2008 Bookmark and Share
4e Session #7: Masters of Fire and Iron

We left it on a cliffhanger last session, with the four heroes heroically swashbuckling their way through the complex of Paldemar and his various lieutenants in order to free the people of Rothaar so he would guide us to their ancient city. What was interesting about this session is it was the first straight up, slug out, combat session since session three and the assault on the Cabal to rescue Kallista and assassinate Althea.

The first four hours of the game were taken up with the heroic battle into the second half of the complex and defeating Paldemar. It was great stuff and represented everything that 4E combat is supposed to be I think. We put the whole sequence on a timer of ever depleting poker chips, as we entered into the different colours we had less options regarding avoiding Paldemar and / or getting out with the Dwarf slaves. The big assumption was that we wanted to 'avoid' Paldemar. It was good stuff, as it put a bit of pressure on. The sequence was also good because it flowed and wasn't just one set piece battle after another as the enemy could come from different routes, which added an element of the unknown. We also had to make decisions on whether we took the time to recharge our encounter powers as that caused quite a lot of poker ships to go from the pile. It was exciting and the exchange of arrow fire between Artemis and two crossbow firing guards was pretty cool. The session again managed to merge exciting, cinematic combat, with a gamist and MMO mix to create something great.

We did decide to continue with our 'Star Wars' approach to planning our assault and after the 'Chewbacca Strategy' last session, we decided to communicate with Paldemar through his own scrying sphere this time (also using the illusionary circlet we found last session) and persuade him that our assault had failed and that he should come and check out the magic relics we'd left behind (we are carrying around the personal weapons of Gods and Titans). This meant Paldemar didn't bring his golem bodyguard with him, and we set ourselves up around his teleportation sphere to 'gank' the swine when he arrived. This worked well, as soon as he arrived his was grasped by magical hands, held in place and literally pounded on with hammer, axe, bow and spells until he dropped. While it could be argued it might have been more fun with a more tense fight, we were low on healing surges and we might as well get the reward for our good planning.

Plus, he was wearing a metal skullcap and thus deserved no mercy.

We then had to use a skill challenge to flee through the underground tunnels pursued by Paldemar's remaining lieutenants and his small army of Gnolls and other strange beasts. The series of challenges and the mutual authoring (depending on who won and lost) resulted in us being chased by a giant, undead spirit thus allowing Morn to do his 'you shall not pass moment' and smash a bridge across a giant crevasse with his Titan hammer. It did turn into a mini-Moria, which is fine, it just needed the music, which would have been cooler. This took us to one of the last cities of The Makers, literally hewn out of a mountain. This part of the game was really atmospheric, and it had an almost Wizard of Oz feel to it. In a good way. There was a number of conflicts going on but we did manage to persuade The Makers to help us against the Cabal's Iron Golems at the critical time which was the whole point of the trip. It only entered my mind when I got home that I should have had Artemis promise to hunt down the lost Giants to get their help, would have set up some paragon tier story directions. Oh well.

What was interesting about the time in the Mountain City of The Makers was it was like the peeling away of an onion. So far the game has been very much in the heroic tier, in that it's like the smaller scale Conan stories or the Thieves Guild anthology of tales. We have seen the odd oblique image of the more paragon and epic world, such as the history of the Giant in his floating grave in session two, but the heroic tier has been dominant. When with The Makers it was like the heroes got momentarily shown the next layer (or two) of the onion and opened their minds to a world view that just didn't previously enter into their perceptions: giant mechanical telescopes, stars representing physical powers, creatures from beyond time and space, etc. Whether this was the intention or not it worked. It was very well done. It certainly worked for me and my character will change as a result as he becomes aware of this larger world and its conflicts and concerns, this has probably changed significantly how I'll tackle next session. It has also got us thinking about themes and approaches to integrate the characters into the next tiers. It has occurred to us our four current characters fit quite well into being representatives, champions, whatever, of the original primordials. We've not decided to go with that yet but it does have some appeal.

Another great session. I think the only issue from my point of view is the D20's ability to introduce a serious whiff factor at times. While I'd not change this, as it is part of the gamist, edge of your seat experience (and it wouldn't be the same game if it wasn't present), it can be deflating at times to line up the dailies and see them fail due to the rather linear progression of the D20 die. Still, it's all part of the ups and downs of the rollercoaster.

Permalink | Comments(6) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 13/10/2008 Bookmark and Share
A Patch Cycle I Can Appreciate

Historically, the life-cycle of a role-playing game's rules hasn't been something I've invested much in. Virtually any game I purchased I read, and I may have even played, without ever worrying or looking for errata, and in a lot of cases not buying that many additional books. In truth, all the problems that made the game virtually unplayable never really got discovered or influenced the game much. This was obviously a style thing. In a similar fashion the whole MMO idea of waiting for patch notes and consuming them with an all devouring hunger to see what was changing in the game wasn't something I did either. While playing World of Warcraft I pretty much went through the whole game without knowing what was in most of the patch notes, a few high profile cases aside.

In short, the whole 'rules as content' theory of the role-playing game, whether traditional tabletop games or MMO games, has never caught on.

I am finding this is changing with 4E though. I'm sure the designers and Wizards of the Coast would be pleased to here this. Dungeons and Dragons has always had a 'rules as content' business model, like a lot of games, but the crunch focus is particularly heavy with the Dungeons and Dragons line, especially 3E. What is different here is I'm enjoying it. Now, this isn't to say I'm special or some sort of 'unique snow flake' what's important about me liking it is historically I was the quintessential candidate who would just refuse to fall into that trap out of principle. Now I find myself looking forward to the extra crunch to see what I can pillage. Okay, due to time constraints I never turned up for session 6 of the 4E campaign two hours early to devour the two new books, but I still hastily took that feat from one of the new books that allows me to use a bow that does D12 damage rather than D10.

I'm also looking forward to Martial Power, mostly because my character is probably the one who will benefit from it the most due to being the only class that belongs to the martial power source. We've had a sneak peak lately with the Beast Mastery class feature finding its way into the Rules Compendium. This allows my Ranger to have a beast pet that fights alongside him and stuff. It's pretty exciting even if it does make the archery focused Ranger even more like the Hunter in World of Warcraft. It has made us wonder when the Paladin will get his 'Bubble and Hearth' Daily Power.

Waiting for these new books to introduce 'new rules' as 'content' is quite exciting. It will all end in tears over the course of the years though, as the game will inevitably suffer power creep and collapse under its own weight, but the chances are we'll have gotten our use out of it by then and moved onto something else.

I'm still hoping I can adopt the Beast Mastery class feature though, without it being 'incompatible' with my current choices around the archery focus. The patch drops in November and we shall see.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 09/10/2008 Bookmark and Share
4E Session #6: The Forbidden City

Last session, having solved the problem of Clan Antarion's poisoned water, killed the Den Robi (a Dragon) and solved, though largely as observers and catalysts, the political fight over who should be Clan Chief, the heroes set off on their journey south to find The Makers of Iron Golems. As usual, a more detailed breakdown of the sessions plot can be found on the DM's Blog (in three parts: #1, #2 and #3).

The journey to the mountains in the south involved travelling across the desert to find the badlands, a landscape of unforgiving rocks and crevasses. On the edge of the badlands was the mad hermit Udun, a bit like Yoda he seemed to be more than he seemed. The diplomatic Assamber managed to ply him with drink and we got the information we needed, the location of a city at the foot of the southern mountains, apparently a place of much scum and villainy. The city was once a Giant Hold, but is now ruled over by Paldemar, an ex-member of the Cabal thought to have died thirty years ago. We had to find Rothaar though, who would possibly know the location of The Makers.

A skill challenge found the heroes successfully make their way across the badlands and avoiding the People of the Rock, the feral tribes that live in the Badlands. A few failures resulted in the loss of two healing surges each, which is an interesting mechanic that is currently being used. As an example, one failed roll meant we stumbled upon a grave ghost of the People of the Rock, the loss of the healing surge representing our efforts to extricate ourselves without having to go into combat mode.

The Forbidden City and the action around it were plundered from Thunderspire Labyrinth a module for 4E. While the locations had been taken from there it had obviously been liberally laden with elements from the campaign. The underground location was great and very atmospheric, a sort of lawless frontier town ruled by Paldemar with an iron fist based on prospecting for the ancient items of The Makers. The inn was very evocative and very well described. Ultimately, Rothaar agreed to help us if we would kill his brother Rundarr, who had betrayed his people to Paldemar, and free his people, this would mean going into part of Paldemar's complex within the mountain.

The whole action section raiding the complex was brilliant. The location was, again, excellent with a number of features we couldn't wait to interact with due to a load of cinematic imagery entering our heads on seeing the map. The main feature that attracted our attention being two spans crossing a bottomless underground crevasse. We had to fight on one or make a dramatic escape across one in true Moria-style. We haven't done that yet, but I'm sure it's scheduled for session seven. Anyway, we used the 'Chewbecca Manoeuvre', which involves masquerading as 'guards' and slapping chains on the non-human looking character in the group. We got into the complex and then made our way through in an excellently paced, free-flowing series of encounters cutting our way through three of them, with some sneaking around in between, killing both Smith Urvol (encounter #2) and Rundarr (encounter #3). It was a really good action sequence with action points being used, encounter powers being burned, stun tokens being burned and much excitement. It even had some interesting reveals as it was discovered Rundarr was an imposter, and he probably hadn't betrayed his people but had instead been killed and replaced.

We had to leave it there due to time, but the spans await and the battle to free the slaves, and the choice as to whether we flee to avoid Paldemar or stand our ground and take him on.

It's hard to say what this session had that others didn't, especially since all the sessions have been great and any comments by those concerned have been in a 'road to perfection' vein, but it did have something. It was like all the discussions, blog posts, the GM and the characters sort of just gelled. It was really good. It had stunting. It had combats that allowed the players to cut loose a bit without it feeling knife edge (while accepting the boss escalation will mean the final one or two might be). The encounters flowed rapidly from one to another allowing encounter powers to reset while having to manage the risk of the enemy merging one encounter into another (and alerting the rest of the occupants). The MMO elements merged well with the 'action hero' feel to create something unique. When I said that despite their very different agendas the action scenes in 4E and Spirit of the Century need not be that different, this session is what I had in mind. The role-playing was also varied as we moved over the different, and very evocative locations, giving it a great variety, richness and epic feel. It felt more like a typical gaming session than an experiment in gamist combat or an exercise in slightly 'distant' skill challenges, all of which works, and featured in this session, but they seemed to be a part of a much more integrated whole, which I think is the key to this sessions awesome: it brought everything together.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 07/10/2008 Bookmark and Share
4E Session #5: Harsh Words And Harsh Lessons pt II

The first stop on the desert tour (which was very evocative and atmospheric) to help the rebellion was the home of Artimes's tribe, the aim being to secure their help in slowing down the Dragonborn army on its way to the city. The heroes arrived to find a bit of turmoil and skulduggery. It would seem a power struggle was taking place between Isaac, son of the old chief, and his uncle Agamo who killed the previous chief. The result was numerous really good scenes with the various participants involved, a few of them being very atmospheric, especially the scenes involving the Witch Sybelle and the mad Shaman who speaks to the dead ancestors. I was also good because it gave my character a chance to get into people's faces, it would seem the character is morphing into someone who is quite direct and not very diplomatic.

We had two problems: solve the problem of the clan's poisoned water supply (nicely CSI'ed via Assamber) and the killing of the mysterious creature in the desert. We delved into the caverns beneath the sand first, which was done via a number of skill rolls with the player authoring on success and the GM authoring on failure. Ultimately, we found our way to an ancient pumping station and the revelation that the mad Shaman was poisoning the water either due to speaking to the dead too long or due to supporting Isaac for chief (which he did). This battle was against quite a few foes, but the minions soon got despatched, and use of movement abilities kept the two scary ghosts from using their aura ability too much. The Shaman had a load of Warlock abilities, which saw us experiencing the power of a striker, but luckily I opened up on him with an action point powered encounter and then daily which caused a good amount of starting damage. The fact Morn's Paladin mark does aura damage also helped as did turn undead from Azhanti.

We then travelled back and revealed the source of the water poisoning, at which time Artemis announced the heroes would kill the mysterious desert beast, but that the chief should come with us as it was his duty to have killed it already. Isaac then also volunteered, creating a conflict situation as Isaac had previously suggested we take the chief and ensure he didn't return alive.

All the combat encounters we've had have been interesting and fun, but the best one until this session was probably the conflict with Althea. This was exciting in an MMO sense. She was the big boss and she had varied abilities and she really drain our resources and it was exciting. That combat encounter has been replaced, for me, by the battle with the dragon in the desert temple. This had a different focus, it was less like an MMO fight and felt more dramatic, and seemed to have its own narrative and flow. It was one you could picture in a movie more easily, the dragon causing a cave in to disrupt our tactic of holding it at a corridor entrance was suitably cinematic, as was it bursting out of the sand when we had to go looking for it after getting out. It was all a bit Michael Bay, especially as it burst out of the sand. Due to the way the dice went it wasn't as challenging as it could have been (or our abilities are kicking in), but it had other merits. It just shows that both the MMO and cinematic approach work, what's interesting is whether the multitude of factors that make these things happen in actual play will ever produce one that works on both levels (or maybe this one did, just one 'feel' tends to override another). That's more of a theoretical observation though.

As can be seen in the pictures the set for the battle with the dragon is quite large and a bit random, this was because it was created randomly with each player (including the DM) adding a part of it in turn. At first this was elements of the floor plan, and then the second round consisted of adding elements that could be interacted with from an index card. We had sink holes, tombs that had a rotting aura, braziers that enhanced fire damage (which we did try to use against the dragon), a circle that enhanced arcane damage, an alter that could reset powers based on sacrificing healing surges, etc. It made for a very dynamic environment, and while all of them didn't get used the attempts to move the battle so some of them could be used resulted in other things happen (the cave in for example was driven by an attempt to get the Assambar on the arcane circle) and the second phase of the fight was enhanced by opportunities to use the alter. Good stuff. I think this side of things is key when facing solo enemies, they should have an epic environment to match their epic nature.

An observation from this session is that running up against the session deadline can be a problem. The odd scene got cut short, such as the grand reveal of the Shaman as the poisoner, this was largely over aggressive scene framing to ensure we fit the killing of the desert beast in. The balancing of time with these things is always difficult. The same happened at the end due to lack of time, in that the conflict with Isaac and Agamo wasn't tackled directly and happened 'off camera' due to a lack of time and also the logistics of running two non-player characters in the battle with the dragon. Again, an unfortunate consequence of logistics rather than anything else. You can't just play forever after all. The only problem with time pressures hitting such scenes is it possibly adds to the feeling the game has a certain structure: enter conflict situation, get spin-off quests which change the views of people, these involve a combat encounter and possibly some skill challenges and conclude. This is very much how computer games are constructed, again more an observation than anything else (though without the skill challenges, you'd get the map to travel through). The lack of the denouncements possibly increases this feel.

Another great session.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 16/09/2008 Bookmark and Share
4E Session #4: Harsh Words And Harsh Lessons

This session followed a similar format to session two, in that it was split into two halves. We had been called to a meeting with the rebellion, to discuss the fall out from our assassination of Althea, the head of the Cabal's (the bad guys) secret police. The meeting with the rebellion was scheduled to take place as per the requirements of plot so the first half of the session was dedicated to the protagonists working through the dramatic consequences of the first three sessions.

A number of narratives played out before the meeting with the rebellion. Artemis and Kallista spoke, with Kallista proving to be a bit more open minded than Artemis, or so it would seem. Assamber arranged a deal with The Grub to take over the Seawatch Tower, which we have now moved into. Artemis tried to negotiate the release of Kyia, who The Grub now has changed close to a dais as a slave (Princess Leia-style). He didn't really have much to negotiate with, the two options he is considering is betraying the rebellion (unlikely) and Akaran Trak'Ar's head, something he'd do anyway. He could have also gave up his legacy weapon, which I must admit I considered, but reconsidered under group advisement. Azhanti went to meet his people and proved to be a sort of Dragonborn racist wanting the humans to fight it out between themselves so the Dragonborn could be come their overlords in the aftermath. We also discovered in this scene The Cabal has sent for a Dragonborn army to secure the streets of the city. Three of the characters had a religious discussion (which Artemis let them get on with). Artemis revealed to Morn he betrayed Kyia to The Grub, and after much discussion Morn made a vow that if Kyia is not free in a month he'll take his vengeance.

The meeting with the rebellion was interesting, primarily due to all the colourful characters in attendance. The only problem was the central issue in the scene wasn't one that could really be discussed to any sensible degree as the protagonists, or more specifically the players, couldn't really form a view on whether attacking or not attacking was remotely realistic. It lacked quite a bit of context. Ultimately, after some talking with the leaders and their henchmen we decided to support not attacking in favour of us seeking out a way to destroy the Iron Golems. The ancient murals on the walls of the Giants Cradle (session two) depicted the creation of great Golems in the mountains, so the plan was to head there. The other great reveal of the meeting was that Akaran Trak'Ar, in a Palpatine sort of way, was now going to aid the rebellion.

The single combat in the game took place after the rebellion meeting as Nabonidus revealed that Akaran Trak'Ar wanted Artemis to return his mother to him as the price for helping the rebellion. During this fateful discussion it was discovered Nabonidus's daughter looked exactly like the woman we rescued from Althea's tower - she was an imposter of some sort. This was a very good reveal that came from nowhere but felt very natural, which is pretty much the quality seal of a great reveal. She proved to be some sort of Desert Devil so we ended up fighting her, a befuddled Nabonidus and their guards. It was a good combat, with some particularly nasty abilities on display, specifically variants of the spell Flaming Sphere and Wall of Fire. The Wall of Fire being particularly brutal when immobilised within it. I was pleased her 'Psychic Scream' ability didn't regenerate throughout the combat. Still, I got three critical hits during the fight and probably pumped out quite a high amount of damage in a relatively short number of rounds.

It was interesting to note how the competitive nature of the combats is increasing. We seem to be heading towards an environment in which the group self-moderates to make sure no one is taking the piss. A case in point being the DM trying to lay a Wall of Fire diagonally, and a very brief interplay from a number of players suggesting that wasn't 'fair'. I found this moment fascinating, possibly more fascinating than it possibly is. In truth, absent of any gridded map, the wall of fire could go diagonally, but the presence of the gridded map in the first instance and the design of the game that has everything falling neatly into the grid and, potentially more importantly, the perception the players would not have got away with laying it diagonally, meant it got placed horizontally within the grid. In our own small way, the group has started to self-monitor itself to ensure the competitive environment is fair. The raising of the death flag is likely to be raised in the combats that are the most dramatically important, yet as a result of the flags presence they may become the mostly coldly tactical. Not sure how you get around that one.

As we roll into sessions five and six we face bringing the mother of Artemis back to the man who kept her captive for years and going to the mountains to seek out ancient builders of Golems. A part of me wants to not deliver Artemis's mother to the rebellion, it is this I now ponder.

All things considered though, another excellent session. It's going to be interesting spending sometime outside the city for a session or two. We also reached the lofty heights of 5th level and got our second daily power. We may now slow down the levelling a bit.

Permalink | Comments(1) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 08/09/2008 Bookmark and Share
4E Is The Perfect MMO

There is no doubt that 4E has adopted a lot of ideas from MMO games and computer games in general. This was obvious during the design process and is even more obvious in play. While those elements have been present to a degree from the start, as it was Dungeons and Dragons MMO games sourced their ideas from in the first place, anyone suggesting the 'MMO concepts' haven't become more codified, ordered and explicit in 4E is slightly deluded. You just have to look at the very explicit character roles of defender, leader, striker and controller and even specific classes. In part the Ranger and Paladin classes in 4E feel like the World of Warcraft Hunter and Paladin classes, specifically the Paladin which goes for the same tank, holy inspiration and durability mix. The way monsters work, as unique encounter elements, means they have similarities to MMO encounters, staying out of AOE or abilities recharging and triggered events on bloodied, etc. The statuses also feel and play like specific statuses you might see in a computer game.

I think all this is a good thing. It's a good thing because you get the MMO experience without a lot of the baggage. The result of all this is 4E includes everything I like about an MMO and drops everything I dislike.

It has zero grinding. I'm sure some people insist 4E involves grinding, but it doesn't really unless your DM is running you through the same adventure every week or told you just to kill Gnolls in a random cave and the players went along with it. The grinding is reduced even more they way we are playing it via adopting a levelling based paradigm that doesn't involve handing out experience, it's just done to time things with the overall heroic, paragon and epic story arcs.

The game has also significantly reduced build science. While that element is still present, it's also not that necessary as it's quite hard to build a crap character at the moment: it's obvious which stats you should be progressing, different powers don't gimp you that much and the simplification (to the point of being removed) of things like multi-classing and prestige classes, along with the option to change choices on levelling, also makes levelling more fun, rather than a grand plan or a recipe for disaster. In short, creating a viable, powerful feeling character is a result of interesting choices, freed from a lot of the angst and fortune telling ten levels down the road.

The effect of the above is levelling becomes less orientated around the 'excitement' of build science, but more the key to accessing more 'content'. As you level you gain new abilities, become more powerful and this allows new enemies, themselves with more odd and varied abilities to be accessed as opponents. As an example, the fights we had in the last session, most notably the number and variety of them, are probably a function of being fourth level. This opening up of content options will continue as our level goes up. This is why I levelled in an MMO, not to play around with abilities or enjoy the build science game, but just because it opened up new content, it allowed me to see bigger, grander dungeons, fight more epic creatures and see new landscapes (less an issue in a 4E campaign, but often true of an MMO).

Interestingly, 4E also parallels my take on MMO games in that I have a very low tolerance for playing alternate characters. 4E takes this to the extreme. At the moment, despite considering it a number of times, I have actually no desire to play the game again with a different class that I've seen being played. The classes are mechanically different, I'd not suggest they aren't, but the tactical and mechanical focus of the game has been shifted away from the build science and the individual to the group interaction level. This tends to mean after seeing the Cleric, Wizard and Paladin in my group working, it doesn't inspire me to then want to play one. Not because they are boring, but because I've sort of seen it done, and doing it myself, on the mechanical level at least, would just feel like deja vu. It's possible classes not seen in actual play may be more palatable (a warrior for instance), but I'm not 100% sure. It's certainly true that new classes, with different play experiences are necessary, and 4E has focused on this via reducing multi-classing and introducing new classes in new books (content patches).

As well as distilling the MMO game down to the elements I like, it also makes it a scheduled experience. You have no issues with people playing more and having to play just to keep level parity. You've got no need to play when you don't want to (on a Wednesday) just to do something in game you don't want to do (grind for herbs) just to access the part of the content you do like (the raid on Friday). You play on a regular basis, with the same group of people, have an interesting series of 'instanced encounters' with a 'dramatic context' to die for, you level up and do the same thing a couple of weeks later that new level opening up new content options. No crap, just the good stuff. Excellent.

Story. Conflict. Atmosphere. Exciting Encounters. Rapid Levelling. Repeat. It certainly beats playing a delicate game of extracting that play experience from World of Warcraft, as that can take way too much effort. I can also do this with friends, face-to-face around a table. What more could you want?

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 30/08/2008 Bookmark and Share
4e Campaign #3: The Man Who Loved Too Much

As I sat down to write this morning, the first thing that momentarily confused me is I thought this was the fourth session and it was the fifth next time. The reason for this confusion is the dramatic density of the game, which is good. In three sessions we have raided the tomb of a dead God, killed him and took the Heart of Ashura as well as his ancient bow, the Bow of Ashura (all in session one). We've become embroiled in conflicts between ourselves (Morn and Artemis), the local crime boss, the Tieflings and The Cabal as well as raided The Cradle, the floating tomb of a Giant hero and took his ancient Hammer (session two). This session we raided the Northern Tower of The Cabal to kill Althea, Head of the Secret Police, secure the Heart of Ashura (which had been stolen from us, only to be stolen from those who stole it) and rescue Kallista, the half-sister of Artemis.

It's like a fantasy version of Alias, and the above misses out a few other things that are building up.

This session was largely one of action: get into the tower via a network of allies of convenience, go up a few floors and kill Althea, and then go down and rescue Kallista before the rest of The Cabal turn up having sensed Althea's demise. We also hoped to re-secure the Heart of Ashura along the way. We also went into this with Morn wholeheartedly agreeing to help Artemis rescue Kallista, despite Artemis turning Kyia over to The Grub. The action scenes consisted of: defeating the demon Taltos who guards the door to the upper tower, getting through the chamber of summoning, passing through the personal chambers of key Cabal members and then defeating Althea. Once heading down we faced the demon Jacurutu, guardian of the prisoners. A more prosaic summary can be found on the DM's blog.

All the scenes were brilliant. The first combat with Taltos involved Taltos and Morn in a struggle to the death as the demon kept Morn in his tentacle grip but kept failing to pull him into its mouth meaning Morn got to beat on it while getting dragged everywhere it went. The rest of us dealt with the annoying pseudopods Taltos had released to capture and prepare others for feeding.

The second scene wasn't a combat encounter, but an angelic creature of some sort was held within a summoning circle in the chamber of summoning. We decided time was of the essence and we didn't interact with the creature despite its plea. I suspect we lost out on some future plot points here, but the actions did seemed to fit in with the single-minded nature of the characters. It's a pretty grim, single-minded, kill or be killed sort of ethos at the moment, in a dramatic sense.

The battle in the chambers of the cabal was 'hilarious' as we stumbled upon a male wizard in a Jacuzzi with two slave girls, a female wizard browsing books and their three demon allies. The female wizard was peppered with arrows in 1.5 rounds. She did take control of Morn though, which could have been very scary if he'd not made his save. Assambar used expeditious retreat for the first time which saw him move right across the set, which was cool. Assambar freezing the male wizard into the Jacuzzi was also humorous. The male wizard made a run for Althea's quarters, but got shook to the ground by Morn's mighty hammer and then got beat on for two rounds. Great fight, so reminiscent of action heroes stumbling on the bad guys in a compromising position (taking drugs, slumming it with prostitutes, whatever) and getting beat up as a result.

The Althea combat was also good because she didn't go down like a punk, it truly felt like we were in a life or death struggle with one of the major players in The Cabal. She was a solo enemy, our concern with these being they sometimes drag out, but this one was great even though we did end up just pinging her with at-will powers (though for a Ranger this isn't overly a problem as Twin Strike is pretty exciting). It did show that there is still quite a bit of 'swing' in these fights the longer they go. I think the fight was close, and put us at zero resources for the final action scene, but it could have easily gone the other way if Althea's powers refreshed more reliably (summoning Shadow Demons and a nasty AOE life drain). It was good the way it played out though.

The clock was now ticking as the rest of The Cabal was now on their way, a cut scene showing them being alerted to Althea's death.

The fight with Jacurutu was good because we were low on resources, he had a ridiculous amount of minion helpers and Assambar refused to attack the 'possessed' slaves meaning we lost his ability to take many of them out at once. While I was concerned with not getting totally smashed at the time, looking back on it now there was a lot of stuff going on in that fight, and I think sometimes the tactical nature of the game means (a) the great visuals of it don't dawn on you till afterwards and (b) some of the character conflict in the moment gets lost. Still, it ended amazingly, with us being surrounded 'zombie style' by the minions only for Azhanti to crush the skull of Jacurutu before all the minions could pummel us.

The rescue of Kallista was interesting as it brought into focus character conflicts. We first did a flashback to before the raid on the tower so we could cover the group returning to find Kyia gone, having been taken by The Grub. Morn attempted a conflict to crack anyone who had betrayed them his Intimidation skill, while Ambassar used his Diplomacy to weaken Morn's attempts on the basis he honestly believes the group would not betray each other. Morn failed so the scene to rescue Kallista played out without Morn knowing Artemis turned Kyia over. The other conflict was with Assamar, who wanted to rescue all three prisoners, while the rest of the characters were happy to take Kallista and run, in the end we took Kallista, a human female and left the Tiefling prisoner (Morn eventually smashed the chain of his cage sending him plumetting into the sewers to cut short Assambar's attempts to rescue him).

As I say, it was a great action-focused session, with some character conflicts running through it. I like the conflict resolution approach as this focuses the game on points of conflict that spin off the story in other directions. It didn't matter of Morn found out about the betrayal by Artemis or not (it's just a matter of when anyway), it just results in different story direction (though we always have to be sure those directions are options that can ultimately be resolved between the characters).

If I have one minor issue it's that the tactical nature of the game can sometimes seem to preclude other options, and I don't necessarily think this is the supposed philosophy of the game. It's in danger of creating an ethos in which players only (a) try powers or (b) specific actions in the book. In my mind, cool things have been quashed, or tried to be quashed when they should have been ran with: tossing the Heart of Ashura around in session one, shooting the slave cages shut this session, tumbling over the enemy line (which does seem to be possible in some way), etc. If the fight with Jacurutu had gone further, I didn't expect my planned action to hang from the chains in the ceiling by my feet and fire arrows to work, while I'd have thought that'd be great. As players, we probably need to step black from the lust of the gamist game, a case in point being choosing to have Althea not die on 0 HP so we could question her. It's a small thing, but I think the gamist game is making slight, and I mean slight, steps to quashing everything to defined actions alone, and I'm not sure this is intended in the rules or at the table.

The other thing is finding a balance between the pace and dealing with character issues and conflicts. I don't think we've done badly with that so far. We had plenty of time for such things in session two and we did deal with them again at key moments in the action this session when it was imperative it came up (the conflict rolls cut it off for now, but that's the nature of things and just sets up others). I don't think this is a big problem, so far we have done it and I'm sure we'll keep doing so. I certainly don't want to alter the pace too much, we should be able to interweave the two, especially if we allow action episodes to have breaks that amount to the equivalent of Gandalf and Bilbo talking about the nature of fate and heroism during a brief respite in Moria.

Only three sessions? I still find it hard to believe. I know I am keeping in mind that we are looking at 10 (or so) sessions for the heroic tier story, so that is in the back of my mind regading conflicts and their resolution. Keep up the density. I'd rather do that than extend the story out too far, just hit it hard and fast.

Permalink | Comments(10) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 25/08/2008 Bookmark and Share
Sooner Or Later, I Gotta' Cut You Down

I shouldn't gorge myself on game trailers and cinematics I really shouldn't. I'm not sure it does me any good. It gets me thinking, sends my brain shooting off in all sorts of directions which invariable end up as some sort of dead end. Take the Warhammer Online trailer, it resulted in me spending way too much time looking into the game and it's all too easy for me to end up wanting to play it despite (a) not having the time and (b) only getting frustrated with the RvR.

It's not the Warhammer trailer that's the main problem though; it's the one for the console game WET.

The trailer is pretty smart, not because it features the 'next big virtual babe' since Lara Croft (allegedly), but because it summarises in 70 seconds the trashy-pulp Saturday morning serial-style idea complete with melodramatic conflict, bloody battles with hordes of mooks, martial arts, gun-fu, mystery, mayhem, revenge, lurid episode titles, grainy film and a sort of John Wu meets J.J Abrahams meets Quentin Tarantino extravaganza all wrapped in a Tomb Raider meets Kill Bill package.

I'll recover after a nights sleep. That's what it usually takes. I've got The Simpsons movie to watch now so that may also do it, sort of like the film equivalent of taking a cold shower for the imagination.

I'll also cross my fingers WET is actually good when it comes out.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 23/08/2008 Bookmark and Share
4E Campaign #2: Romancing the Stone

It was a dense session this week, and I'm not even going to try and summarise the plot in detail. It's suffice to say it involved a number of personal conflicts, politics and a whole host of double-crossing over the search for the Heart of Ashura which we secured last session and which has now been stolen from the rebellion. By the end of it we had been to the palace of The Grub (a Crime Lord of the city in the style of Jabba the Hutt) to try and secure the gem, been dropped into his (Rancor) pit and raided a Giant's Cradle, the floating tomb of a giant, which was making its way down the river out to sea. Next session also became quite complex as numerous forces coincided around retrieving the Gem and rescuing Kallista, who stole the Gem only to be taken by The Cabal. I can but only hopelessly summarise.

A more detailed explanation of the plot can be gleaned from the DM's blog.

It was a very different session, one might say more traditional. I'm not sure if the skill challenges were working the same behind the scenes or not, as I completely forgot about them. That's isn't a value judgement in anyway, just an observation. It did make it different from the first session though as the skill challenges were front and centre in that. As a result there was lots of role-playing and interaction on all levels and it was good. It was good because the first session set-up how the action part of the game was going to play and the second session has broadly outlined the characters and they are really good, very different characters. I've found it particularly interesting because I usually play the most heroic character of the group, in that I usually end up with the Sheridan (if you follow Babylon 5), Buffy or Captain America analogue by and large. This character is just as heroic in that sense, but he has a driving hatred for something that blurs every other dimension of his personality. Actually, it may not be that different, as virtually 'hero' I play as an obstacle in the way to become who he is meant to be, so it's probably 'same as usual'.

This brings me to my second interesting about the session: player versus player conflict. We like it, but in the past we may have shied away from it a bit. The player versus player conflict in our regular games is certainly much lower key than it is in our shorter games, this is only inevitable as the characters have to find way to share a dramatic space together for a long period those in the shorter games don't have that restriction. At the same time, it's all about setting up conflicts so the resolving of the conflict is a growth opportunity for all characters involved. This is how happens in most TV shows, the conflict is only really an invitation, at some ultimate point, to resolve it. You have to find a way to navigate a conflict toward being a conflict, but not one with a particularly redundant dead end for both or one party.

This was the dilemma this week. Mourn, Neil's Paladin character, is romantically involved with Kyia a Teifling Princess. It's a bit more twisted and complex is he was a slave to her father and subsequently her. My character, Artemis, has had swathes of his people and his family destroyed by Kyia's father and his supporters, and hates all Teiflings with a blinding, all consuming passion. This is made more complex by the existence of Kallista, his half Teifling sister. Obviously a conflict arises when Kyia comes to the group, Mourn is open about sleeping with her, and she wants help getting out of the city. If it only involved myself, in a particularly vicious streak, Artemis would have probably killed her (assuming success) and sent her body to her father as a message. Obviously, this would put the conflict between Artemis and Mourn at a point of no return? Instead, I had Artemis betray Kyia to The Grub, who will use her in his ploys against her father and if she gets roughed up along the way he'll not lose any sleep over it. It may also put the future conflict with Mourn in a place that is dramatically interesting, but not a dead end. This is especially true when he's helping Artemis rescue Kallista next session in the honest belief Artemis was going to help him get Kyai out of the city (though we'll 'discover' she's been taken next session).

It was interesting because I don't normally do the player versus player thing, not via such betrayals anyway, I've made noble decisions that get the same result, but not so much underhand ones.

There was two combats this session. One was in the aforementioned Grub's pit and the other was during the raid on the Giant's Cradle. The fights offered the usual variety and surprises, though it is probably about time we varied it up a bit with more opponents. In the first fight we selected the Thri Keen Warrior out of The Grub's choice of him, a Naga Witch and a Carrion Crawler. It was pretty cool that I got to use my Nature and Dungeoneering skills to assess our possible opponent before we made a choice. The Thri Keen Warrior had a nasty invisibility power which he used on us in the opening round, causing lots of wild shooting to try and find him. The fight in the Giant's Cradle was a Mechanical Golem guarding the door of the tomb. The Mechanical Golem had a rather humorous ability to run around in a mechanical panic swinging his arms at everyone once he got bloodied. Rather annoyingly I got knocked to below zero hit points twice. This session seemed to be the ignore the defender and pound on the striker week, which is deceptively easy to do when terrain can't stop the enemies from just ignoring the defender. It makes life interesting though.

Looking forward to next week: We 'discover' the abduction of Kyai and we set off on the heroic rescue of Kallista, against The Cabal, hopefully getting the Heart of Ashura back and possibly killing a Cabal notary along the way. Are we striking at the heart of the enemy? Helping the rebellion? Or are we just pawns to our own loves, hatreds, desires and the political whims of others? I'm sure we'll find out in the future.

Permalink | Comments(2) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 11/08/2008 Bookmark and Share
A Ranger's Bucket of Dice

If there is one thing I like about the 4E campaign it's that I've chosen the right class, the Ranger's focus on a relative simply tactic of keeping moving and causing lots of damage works quite well. One thing the first session has got me doing is looking through my available dice. I have to say it's a bit of a paltry and ancient selection.

I've managed to rustle up the selection pictured above as part of my dice set-up: it's about speed and the glorious feeling of rolling a handful of dice. Basically, the attack I use most of the time is Twin Strike, this allows me to hit things twice. The quickest way to do this is to throw two sets of dice, each set containing: 1 D20 to hit, 1 D10 for bow damage and 1 D8 for Hunter's Quarry damage. I also have two D6's for the odd time I use Sneak Attack (I have the Rogue multiclass feat). That's what I was doing last week, apart from when I forgot I was trying to save time and re-rolled the damage dice on hitting. It occurred to me during the week, during a slow moment, obviously, that I need two sets of dice, each stream a different colour, one for each strike. This way I know which bow damage and quarry dice apply to which hit, and which set belong to which target. My available dice weren't up to two distinct colour streams.

As I dug through the dice though it was interesting to note some of the contents. The first thing that jumped out at me was the selection of Vampire dice. I'd forgotten I had them, the old black dice with the red text and the rose where the 1 should be. It's easy to forget that Vampire was more than just a role-playing game for some people and more of a way of life. I was just a sucker for merchandise. Then you have my old orange D20, pictured in the top right of the picture, which holds pride of place in my collect as I'm pretty sure it came in my Golden Heroes box, the first role-playing game I actually purchased. If I'm wrong, and didn't come in the box, it was certainly being used when running that game not long after purchasing it.

Still, I feel the need to invest in some colour coordinated dice for my 4E adventures at some point in the future. We shall see, I may become enamoured with the mix of colours and venerable age of the selection.

Permalink | Comments(2) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 10/08/2008 Bookmark and Share
No Barn Is Safe!

After the first session of the 4E Campaign, in which the Solar Bow of Ashura was obtained, I can safely say, no barn is safe!

If that doesn't do it for you, feel the angst of Hank instead. I suspect it could even have a daily or encounter power in which it entangles a foe and causes a status effect! I jest, honest.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 01/08/2008 Bookmark and Share
The Starblazer Adventures Barometer
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

So, Starblazer Adventures is essentially out, available as a PDF from RPGNow, and going by a thread on RPGNet, some sort of pre-order shenanigans for the hardback which also allows you to download the PDF immediately. The book finally came in at 623 pages, and it's hardback, so that's one serious book. In fact, I've just checked my Hero 5 tome, which is one seriously heavy book, and that's only 375 pages. Starblazer Adventures is enormous. It probably counts as some form of circuit training reading the damned thing.

Despite my previous gushing, the key thing is I've not purchased it. I'll admit a part of the reason is I'm not the biggest fan of PDF purchases, especially one 623 pages long. This isn't it though, as I don't want to purchase the hardback book either. The other reason is I just don't see the point. It look gorgeous. I would no doubt love to read it, but that's the key, as that's all I'd do with it.

As a barometer of me as an active participant in the role-playing hobby as a commercial and DM'ing entity Starblazer Adventures is a barometer, and it's telling me my reading is at an all time low. I'm not even buying the odd game anymore.

Permalink | Comments(1) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 31/07/2008 Bookmark and Share
4E Campaign #1: The Heart of Ashura

Last night, four heroes delved into the crypt of the long dead Sun God Ashura, deep within the Plaza of the Dead Gods, to retrieve the Heart of Fire, a mythical gem said to have been carried by the God while alive. The Gem is to be used by the resistance fighting the Cabal in charge of the ancient City of Kings in order to banish the foul Hounds of Shadow on the Summer Solstice.

The heroes are:

  • Morn, a Human Paladin of the Unfettered God. A former slave of the Tieflings who bought his freedom with a terrible promiuse to his God.
  • Artemis Antarion, a Human Ranger of the Pashtun, the nomadic people of the desert. Artemis is looking for vengeance against the Tiefling nobleman who destroyed his tribe and enslaved and raped his mother.
  • Assember Kell, a Human Wizard of the Lakarnos, an ocean going, caste-bound people undergoing major social change. Assamber is a devotee of Mael, a resurgent Sea God who promises change.
  • Azhanti, a Dragonborn of the High Lightning Clan and Cleric of Vulcan, the dead God of Thunder. He is the outsider barbarian trying to find his way in this strange human world.

The first thing to say is: it was as an excellent session, and I really enjoyed it. The great thing about it was, for five hours, it let me forget a whole host of issues in real life that are bogging me down. That was brilliant.

The first thing is 4E combat is brilliant. It's dynamic, fast (or fast enough) and varied. This is because the battles involve lots of movement, often against adversaries you know very little about. This is especially true when the DM is re-skinning and re-imagining monsters from the Monster Manual, not that any of us have the Monster Manual. This, combined with the fact monsters are designed to be interesting encounters in 4E rather than part of an ecology, makes for an interesting game. You never know whether you're going to be glue-potted to the floor, dazed, blinded or set afire. At one point the living mummy remains of Ashura and his two skeletal fire priests had 3 out of 4 of us taking on-going damage due to being on fire. It was fantastic. Mix in teleporting enemies and it all gets a bit crazy. Even the randomness of the dice add to the mix. The action game element is great, and hopefully this will continue. The various images depict the climatic battle with Ashura. The real awesome of this session? It was done at first level.

I also got my legacy item, which is a set-up we are using to minimise the assortment of magical items characters have to carry around. While this is minimised in 4E you still have three items you need, and since we are planning on levelling every session (roughly), that'd mean giving out a lot of items all the time. As a result, we have one item that covers the three, core bonuses and it levels up with us. Artemis earned the cool Solar Bow of Ashura in this session, stolen from the God's very own tomb.

Skills. I was looking forward to skills meaning something. This was achieved in the game, and skills became really useful, character defining and atmospheric. Basically, we had challenges, such as traverse the Plaza of Dead Gods, Travel through the Tomb, Retrieve the Gem from the Sarcophagus, etc. We had to use our skills, in a way that was appropriate and the DM had set guidelines like needing 3 successes before 3 fails and certain skills were easier to use than others (though I'm sure that was open to persuasion with an enterprising case). This approach has a big positive, but also an interesting negative (at least for me). The positive is you get those cinematic scenes that define characters by action as much as by words, that is good. While my character might sneak through the Plaza or use Thievery and Dungeoneering to 'Indiana Jones' his way through the Tomb, other players might use knowledge of Arcana or Religion to ward off the Plaza's denizens or decode magical rune traps. In all cases the skills are declarative to the intent success gives narration of the scene and defines that portion of the skill challenges content in its entirety. This did result in some great scenes, but I never realised how much hard work it is on the players when running the odd session of Spirit of the Century (though to be fare, this often declaratively resolves content by adding to an existing tapestry rather defining it whole cloth unless the player chooses to - more on that next).

One of the main problems with this approach in this session is it seemed to minimise characterisation and role-playing. That's not strictly true, as I think people may have been missing how much characterisation is added through action rather than just interaction with words, but it's true to say interaction and role-playing got minimised in the face of exciting dice rolling and that was a bit unsettling (if exciting!). I'm sure this will change over time once everything (system, setting, characters, etc) isn't so new. I think part of the issue is no 'content' exists until the dice are rolled, though this is more true in some challenges than others. So, we could have role-played before traversing the Plaza of the Dead Gods (I made an attempt but it was misinterpreted as an attempt to define the gamist landscape) as we knew the content so to speak. The beating of the tomb was difficult though, as we only had potential content until we'd rolled the dice and what content we got depended on if the players won or the DM, so you're sort of left describing the actions resulting from the skill. Again, this is great in an Indiana Jones beats the ancient tomb cinematic, but sort of makes actual verbal interaction difficult. It also exclusively moves thing to third-person, and while I'm fine with third-person as a valid tool, and it is role-playing, it became a bit too exclusive in the session. Balance is good. There is probably a bit of balancing work here for the people at the table.

I thought the preparation was excellent and all the widgets really worked. The battle mat was great, again. This was enhanced by dungeon floor tiles, which worked really well. While I wasn't so bothered about miniatures before, and was happy to use simple tiles, I have to admit they are quite cool. I really liked the power cards the DM had created, each player getting his own box of complete power cards. This meant I could fill out the bonuses on the cards so I wasn't scrabbling around for stuff. I could use the power and instantly see hit bonuses, shift distances and damage or whatever else. It ensured the players could handle this part of the game with ease and it flowed like a dream. I never needed to refer to the rulebook once.

I'm sure the role-playing intensity will ramp up, as our very action-based (hopefully always an element) first session has no doubt sent ripples through the relationship map the DM has, witnessed by the epilogue cut scene which had my character's half sister, we are guessing, steal the Heart of Fire from the rebels.

I know I'm really looking forward to it!

Permalink | Comments(4) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 28/07/2008 Bookmark and Share
A Quest For Situation

The role-playing group's new main campaign goes live on Sunday. I suspect the GM is stuck in some vague no man's land between excitement and trepidation. The truth of that matter is it's going to be great, because those involved won't let it being anything else, and if any issues do arise he'll have four other people helping to improve things. Up until now the forums have been used to construct the game and we have both a Wiki-based repository and the GM has a blog. One of the things that has come our way recently is the main quest and via a private messages the personal quests for the first session. As a form of promotion it's been particularly effective, but then I'm very prone to such things.

What's more interesting about the use of Quests, note the capital Q, is they were a suggestion a while back, and it may well appear in the DMG, and it caused quite a furore.

The suggestion that the DM give out Quests goes to the heart of the new Dungeons and Dragons game, which plays a very interesting game, if you pardon the pun. The game 4E plays is the art of pitching elements and ideas that are no doubt gamist challenge inspired, but also have a way of appealing to the story game crowd. I fully suspect there is an element of genius to this, and part of it comes from the mind of Mike Mearls. On one side the Quest concept can be taken as a purely gamist challenge construct to define objectives and rewards for the series of encounters ahead. In this way, as some people pointed out, it's similar to a board game, or the quests in games like World of Warcraft, all you're missing is the yellow exclamation mark. It's probably safe to say that's how a lot of people took them, largely because it broke their idea of a simulative sandbox in which 'the adventures' should come from actions within that sandbox.

You can look at the Quest concept in a different way though: an aggressive way of establishing situation and, to some extent, minimising the 'myth of reality' that needs to exist. Frame the Quest as the situation, essentially a crucible of drama for a temporal period, and define the rewards for successful completion. Why not? It seems amazingly effective to me, as it allows for the sessions to gain some semblance of the advantages other media have: they don't piss about getting to the action and the critical decisions. That's all established. We know why we are there, what is in play, what we have to achieve and what we get for succeeding. Queue up the drama as we make our way through that crucible. In short, it's a story game tool incorporating a core of those principles.

What will be interesting is how this set-up, which I have to say I like, holds up as the campaign builds up momentum. As it does the natural tendency is for players to want to do things outside of such a razor-focused situation. I don't see this as a problem, it's just going to be interesting to see how we keep the advantages of both, as while I don't want to see avenues cut off, there is some advantages in the direct Quest structure I think would be worth keeping.

I'm not even getting into the whole idea of player created, personal quests yet. If this isn't a structure to allow player authoring in a way that more players may find accommodating I don't know what is. As I say, a gamist challenge game which, in its own way, can be rather seductive in its story game elements.

Again, the only people who lose out within this idea are the simulative crowd. I'm rapidly seeing more and more advantages, as I always have, in dropping that crowd.

Permalink | Comments(1) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 23/07/2008 Bookmark and Share
The Connected Nature of Everything

Well, not literally everything, as that would be beyond a blog post, and deep down we already know the answer is 42. It's a micro-theory to everything, with it's own boundaries, and those boundaries roughly equate to things like role-playing games, fiction, other hobbies and careers. What? Heh?

Okay, I've discussed approaches to role-playing games I favour numerous times here. I've also discussed what other people seem to like and the degree to which I understand them, enjoy them or don't get them at all. Away from this blog the role-playing group has also done the same to one degree or another and it certainly manifests in the games we play and they way they are delivered and the degree to which each of us enjoys them. That's been on-going for a while, but then comes a trigger event, or two trigger events. The first one was one of my responses to a member of the gaming group when commenting on the Building and Crafting Shit entry and the second trigger was my current MBA studies.

Basically, before the second trigger, which happened today, I wrote how the way I approached role-playing games is influenced or dictated by almost every other aspect of my life. The core element being a love of fiction and dramatic stories. I find meaning and enjoyment in them due to the choices people make and the relationships they form. I tend to favour life affirming or choice affirming stories. I tend to see life as a story with it's own dramatic decisions, consequences and ups and downs. I very much see elements of my job as dramatic fiction. It's not that I live in a fantasy world, I'm not insane and I'm well grounded, but major business change, how organisations work and projects are to me moments or constructs of great drama with their own architects and decisions that can, in big or small ways, swing success. The common element of all this is people, with their own influences and stories, all making decisions. I see it this way and I think it helps me manage such things significantly, as it leads to understanding, a great willingness to listen, a healthy dose of foresight in terms of what issues are going to come up, concerns people will have and leading it all through to a conclusion. The fact I believe I can influence, change and lead in such circumstances is also an influence. Hence I see my role-playing games as grand dramas in which people make meaningful, and fateful choices, the joy of the role-playing game is I can succeed or fail and both are good (which isn't often the same in your career).

The second indicator was fascinating, as up until now I thought my way of viewing such things wasn't so much unique, but possibly something that would seem slightly deluded if ever mentioned among my contemporaries (or as an answer to a work / life question in an interview). I've read numerous things on Organisational Behaviour recently, one of those was the opening sections of Organisational Behaviour by Andrzej A. Hyczynski and David A Buchanan. In the opening section it defends their approach to naming pieces of fiction to read for information on organisational behaviour. That was excellent, as while it put in other ideas, it was to a great degree, an affirmation of my thoughts that I've gone through my career with.

All this has sort of been discussed by the role-playing group before, though in my experience more the ex-Iron DM and myself, though it may well have been more rampant I just wasn't involved. As an example, the individual careers of the role-playing group and how that influences or has influenced the delivery of role-playing games? As an example, the Call of Cthulhu game at Cottage Con II had some elements of a training session, some elements got stolen to be used again even. The Iron DM's games have in the past tended to be broad stroke, big picture, grand scheme affairs potentially related to his marketing background.

Another has an amazing eye for detail (be it rules, setting colour or potential conflicts), and being able to use that detail even when he's being spontaneous, it has been suggested this is linked to his career as a lawyer, which involves incredible amounts of detail and being able to apply that detail even in unplanned situations. I believe we are all moving on and changing how we do things, so these things move, but the influences are true.

A similar case can be made for how different people approached the MMO experience. As an example, one member of the role-playing group is always focused on conflict avoidance, and it's suspected this is related to his team leader and training career. This makes him interested in the social and guild building element of the MMO genre, it also means when faced with a dramatic choice in a role-playing game he'll seek the road of least conflict and most compromise, even if this can be an effective avoidance of the decision. In difference, I'll choose one conflict laden option or other based on often having to make decisions that can't please everyone at work and the fact in a role-playing game I can't lose (while at work I could) and it makes good fiction either way. Different stokes.

Personally, I can see my career influencing how I approach things. I tend to feel the need to have a model in my head for how the session might go. This isn't necessarily a highly structure plot, but more a model of what the overall point is and what might happen. Until I have this model and purpose it hasn't clicked. I need to understand. Then in actual delivery I can take on the mantle of grand presentation, in terms of setting scenes and trying to sell the grand, action-based, dramatic nature of it all. Whether I do it well is another question and depends on a number of factors, some unique to the day. This is no doubt related to my job, which is part sales, whether products, strategies or ideas and change. It sounds bad here, like some mad sales man at the gaming table, it's not that bad, it's just you can see how the concepts are shared. The fact my job is often a mad mixture of the detail (project management, business analsis) and sales, concept and change (project management, relationships and change, etc) probably also explains some of my gaming preparation dichotomies.

In a way this was the point of the Building and Crafting Shit blog entry, as I'm constantly fascinated with the reason why people like the things they do, do things in the way they do, etc. As understanding that is always interesting, and useful, even if you sometimes don't like the answer.

In closing I'd like to say I've always thought my hobbies have been directly applicable to my career, and I still thank they are. I've always thought my career had a direct influence on my hobbies, and I still think they do. They are reflections and share a philosophy of life in a way. This in turn is a product of my fiction-focused life from a young age (be it novels or TV shows). What's interesting is to find it affirmed in an MBA text, as now this will be one of numerous ways in which my attitude to things has already been changed in a number of small ways.

I apologise now if I've mis-represented anyone who recognises themselves in this post. No offence was intended.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 27/06/2008 Bookmark and Share
Building And Crafting Shit

This touches on the whole 'simulative sandbox' approach to role-playing games which I've touched on before with regards to the fourth edition of Dungeons and Dragons. This isn't about Dungeons and Dragons, but it focuses on an element of that 'simulative sandbox' that I don't understand either. I don't understand it to the degree I just don't get why a healthy proportion of gamers get their rocks off on it.

Why do do some games love building and crafting a variety of shit?

As an example, let's look at MMO games first. There are people who play MMO games purely for the crafting. They log in day after day, week after week just to craft stuff. That is why they play. Like all people in MMO games they suffer the rest of the game to play the part they like. So they suffer all the action parts of the game purely to progress their ability to craft shit. They'll run dungeons until a pattern drops that allows them to craft the Dagger of Icy death, and it's fantastic to them they can craft it. They will grind up characters just so they can create the their own economic stronghold and factory system. An accomplishment. I just don't get it.I get crafting as a necessary evil to create items you'll use but as the main reason for playing the game? There was a guy in The Dungeoneers at one point when I played World of Warcraft who seemed to base his whole playing experience on this. It's true you can earn a lot of money this way, but its virtual money and unless you're enjoying any other elements of the game what's the point?

I find it even more surprising that building and crafting shit can be a major focus of people in tabletop role-playing games as that even seems even more futile. It used to always amaze me that people used to buy the various editions of the Star Wars role-playing game that have been released over the years and obsess over the starship construction and modification rules. The reason being so someone could specialise their character in technical skills and build and modify starships. How is that interesting? I can understand the interest in having the ship as 'an additional character' but obsessing over time and resources needed to make modifications and being that guy who can do them? Isn't that like real life and work? Which, of course it is, as part of the reason such people want such rules is so 'they know' when the players have earned enough money as traders to make those modifications.

The lack of any rules for crafting in 4E is also causing all sorts of angst and debates. How can the game survive without knowing how long and potentially what materials it takes for a woodsman to make a bow? What is the typical Dungeons and Dragons character doing that demands crafting skills and rules be front and centre rather than just colour? If your character grew up as a Blacksmith that's great, just note it and I'm sure the people at the table can factor it in. Apparently it's necessary when you're running a low-magic, early stone age campaign. I'm sure that's true, but do people really want to spend their hard earned free time playing being a contemporary guy pretending to be a stone age man were it is important to know how long it takes to craft a stone hatchet? A stone age game could be fun, but I'd be wanting to rescue my sister from the strange, alien ever-living psychic overlord that crashed to earth on a meteorite and now has an army mounted on Mammoths, not worry about crafting a hatchet or my latest abode to show on 'Stone Age Cribs'.

The builder mentality also manifests in another way, as instead of it being about crafting specific items it's about building an empire. It could be free traders in a starship wanting to become mercantile barons, wizards in a tower wanting to expand their buildings and influence, knights expanding their realms. Innumerable variations exist on this theme, but it ultimately comes down to the game becoming like a tabletop version of Elite to one degree or another. The acquisition and expansion of stuff. What's interesting about this is I can get on board with some of it, but only from a certain perspective. I have no interest in the game of acquiring such stuff, but I am interested in the story potential of it. As an example, I'm fine with owning an Abbey if it results in a great story about Nuns worshipping demonic forces in secret, but I'm not interested in owning it as an economic asset or the game of acquiring it as an economic asset. I use that example but it's the same principle in any milieu.

So, what is it? A history of MMO or MUDS coming into tabletop role-playing games? A liking for strategic resource management games? The collecting gene? A strange willingness to turn role-playing into work?

Permalink | Comments(6) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 21/06/2008 Bookmark and Share
Adventures Across Time And Space
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

A while back, due to an excellently written proposal by the ex-Iron GM, we got involved in the Doctor Who play test. We were looking forward to it, though we did have numerous discussions on how to run the series. We even created characters which seemed quite interesting. Since we didn't drop everything and play immediately we got dropped from the process. This was probably a good thing, as I got the feeling it was going to be torturous. This did leave me with a lingering feeling of how to run Doctor Who or something like it.

So, here is an attempt....

Imagine a space opera setting: humanity has long ago reached a third (fourth or fifth) golden age, gigantic fleets patrol the vastness of the star lanes bringing trade and conflict to every corner, aliens devise Machiavellian plots to bring the downfall of man as well as enrich the human condition, mad but brilliant scientists unleash the most fiendish of horrors on the Universe as well as inventing the most astounding of life affirming inventions. It all then begins to end as the suns begin to fade. It is the end of days and the final darkness approaches. It becomes an apocalypse as war and chaos erupt as the once boundless universe gets 'smaller'.

Some try and make a difference of course, doing what they can to save who they can, for as long as they can in the hope a solution can be found. While others, the great geniuses of the time try and solve the problem of the fading stars or even more radical solutions like punching wholes through dimensional walls to find worlds in other places in which the stars remain pure.

It all fails, so one such individual who tried to save mankind by the pure power of his intellect decides to flee, in a machine he devised for this very purpose, when all else was lost: a time machine. In it he could travel the length and breadth of time, from the Universe forming, to the dying days he witnessed. For him the brilliance and stupidity of mankind would exist forever. For he was born in the last decades of the Universe and had only seen the Universe as it died.

As he watched the last of humanity die on a handful of planets near the last suns to fade, and the dying days came to their ultimate end, he pushed the button vanishing into the void between space and time.

Roll credits...

In typical Doctor Who fashion it allows for pulp-style adventures to take place across a vast time line from the creation of the Universe right through to its final days. This allows for adventures to include strange Earth civilizations that pre-date the dinosaurs, space opera adventures during a golden age or one of the dark periods in human history, pulp adventures in Earth's known history, murder mysteries on vast space liners and more out there stuff to do with time travel, dimensions and alternate worlds and histories. I'm sure there are also others I am missing. Indeed, one of the problems is the vastness of it.

Time Travel will have to happen via a social contract of what's possible, and will no doubt follow a similar model to Doctor Who, with certain things just being 'not done', such as solving mistakes by going back again and again, and certain points in history just not being mutable (I'm sorry, the Titanic did sink) and others strangely open to change, such as stopping a mad scientist from destroying the world in 1889. In short, Time Travel is purely story-driven and it will be all too easy to punch holes in it but that's not exactly the point. In typical pulp fashion people just accept the heroes help and don't spend ages puzzling about where they came from, or getting all dastardly and trying to steal the power of the Time Machine - unless that's the point.

A similar view would have to be taken with the setting, since it deals with the whole 'history of the Universe' all that can exist is the broadest of time lines awaiting for stuff to be placed in and everyone to ultimately relish in the idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies that will no doubt result. One of the more interesting elements of such an idea is handling the ability go anywhere? Again, this would have to be some sort of understanding over how these things are handled and will involve a mixture of plots just deciding where they go, rather than choosing to go somewhere and then coming up with a plot, dubious reliability of the time machine, on occasion, and discussion in advance, etc. The campaign could also be given a home location, such a space station exiting 'out of time', a weird place, home to many plot devices due to its unknown alien origin.

Normally, a system for this sort of thing would be a problem, assuming you're not going with something like Primetime Adventures. Due to the need to broadly cover everything from stone age man through to the far future and all that encompasses. It's possible now there is an option though: Starblazer. This seems to be a pulp view of space opera, and by virtue of its 'setting' will cover everything from future technology to ancient technology with simple rules (hopefully). It'll also hopefully engender the pulp feel with declarative-based skills and the use of Aspects which tend to go some way to provide the 'genius element' of pulp characters and escalating the madness. You could even fiddle with power levels, fate points and refresh rates if you wanted a 'heroes' and 'companions' dynamic, or you could also accept only the dynamic and heroic sorts enter the time machine and bring the awesome in their own ways.

A group of heroes adventuring across time and space. Run it? Unlikely. Play in it? If only.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 19/06/2008 Bookmark and Share
A Spirit of the Century And 4E Similarity

A while back before 4E was released and various threads were discussing the nature of encounters in the game, I came to the conclusion that Spirit of the Century and 4E have some similarities. I've said it a few times since on the web and face-to-face and I usually get an incredulous 'look'. Having had our little encounter play test I actually think it's still true.

First, let's establish that in many ways 4E and Spirit of the Century are very different. One has a whole host of mechanics for flagging and generating story both in the preparation phase and in actual play. These things mechanically exist and can be used to define character in many ways by all those around the table. In contrast, 4E has zero tools in this regard and virtually everything on the character sheet is an ability for combat. So, they sound like games totally at the opposite end of the spectrum, right? True, but they share one common element: their focus on action and specifically the action-based encounter as a strong feature of play.

Still not sure?

Okay, Spirit of the Century is a game designed to ensure the play experience plays very much like an action-orientated drama. Hopefully there is a whole host of character defining stuff going on in the action, and decisions of great consequence and internal conflict, but like an action film these things are meant to happen while the characters are in some sort of action scene. As a result, one of the key features of the system is to be able to dramatically define encounters that are action based, allowing the scene to be established, along with the environments and the opponents and for it to play it in an exciting way with the players and the system acting as an escalator. In a way, these scenes do have a tactical element, with minions aiding the villain, obstacles influencing the fight, people being able to conduct manoeuvres and block actions, etc. It may be a very abstract, descriptive and narrative form of tactics, but it's still tactics. A feature of the system is to be able to lay down these relatively complex encounter down very easily.

Now, the goal of 4E is exactly the same. I'm not saying it does it in the same way, but a core design goal of the system is to be able to lay down complex and diverse encounters very simply and hopefully on the fly. After playing our encounter play test I don't see this as any different to Spirit of the Century in concept, you have various enemy types in various positions and a host of interesting geographical elements to interact with and then the encounter plays out. True, it is more tactical than Spirit of the Century, as it's more exact rather than abstract, the choices are more tactical (when to use that encounter or daily for best effect) rather than dramatic and the system is possibly more unforgiving (possibly the most problematic one) for a bad choice and when things don't go your way, but I still believe there is a core element that is supposed to be similar: an exciting, action movie-based encounter focus.

Since I'm very much a fan of good action films, and very much a fan of weaving character defining actions and conflicts into grand action scenes, this is a good thing. Now, based on our play test, which was a first attempt during which the rules were new, I think it needs to some extra work, but it could be fantastic. We need to make sure our characters have scenery to interact with and have mechanical ways to do things that aren't covered by our at will, encounter and daily powers. I believe there is rules for such things in the Dungeon Master's Guide. In this fashion tactical element remains, but the tactic are enhanced by dramatically swinging across pits, shooting braziers off walls into oil slicks, throwing boiling water into people's faces or whatever else. The interesting part of this will be how that interacts with the very focused tactical abilities. I think it's necessary though, as even after one test it's obvious my character is best just spamming twin strike at everything, so without exciting ways to interact with the whole of the encounter, this will get old fast and be surprisingly un-tactical.

So, this is where I think Spirit of the Century and 4E are similar, they both have a focus on exciting, action-based encounters as a common type of scene in actual play. They may bring them into actual play with very different rules, but I think the goal is exciting and dynamic action, they just come at it from slightly different perspectives.

It will be interesting how such scenes play out in 4E once the drama and atmosphere of the campaign is added to the encounter mix as well as a bit more flexibility in using the whole encounter space.

Permalink | Comments(2) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 14/06/2008 Bookmark and Share
A Small 4E Experiment

A change of plans meant yesterday's session went from Thrilling Tales (Wiki), to a brief prospect of Duty & Honour to actually creating 4E characters and giving the system a bit of a spin. Our three intrepid heroes (Lego figures) entered the dungeon in the back of the book, and from their place at the bottom of the stairs ended up facing Kobolds (various dice) and a White Dragon (four dice together).

The first encounter we did quite well on, largely due to a great use of a spell by the Wizard (thus becoming the 'boom class') to blast two of the Kobolds into a slime pit which took them out of the fight long enough to make a difference. We did quite well in the second one, though it did exemplify how quickly fortunes can change as the Paladin got immobilised by a trap, flanked by two Kobolds and quickly despatched. That whole sequence was over in two rounds for the Paladin. It was at this time we learned a class with healing powers, or even someone with the Heal skill would be useful. The final one was with a White Dragon, a tough monster for a group of five, so we didn't stand a chance. Still, we did do a surprising amount of damage.

The odd thing I took away from the brief experiment:

  • People looking at the hit points of first level characters and thinking it makes the encounters easy need to think again.
  • Movement, movement and more movement. If you can't move then look at options to move others. I learned to always keep that Nimble Strike power in mind (albeit it's per encounter), to shift 4 squares, attack and still be able to full move.
  • Anything that stops you from moving, holds you in place or slows you down is damned scary, and this happened a lot in our little experiment. It happened to the Paladin a few times and resulted in his death once.
  • Due to the focus on movement the maps always look too small and confined!
  • Based on the above, I have no idea how the Rogue works who has the same function as my Ranger but actually has to stand toe-to-toe. Frightening.
  • You need the power cards with all data on and bonuses calculated, as that will make the tactical game much more fluid (though it got quite fluid in this test even without them).
  • Positioning may be key, as the only way any defender class is going to keep the focus on him is if they can't get around him, though this then reinforces the need for a healer as it then becomes tank and spank.
  • It's a myth you don't need a healer. I suspect you do if you're following the defined XP budget for encounters. The only difference is there are two options. The management and use of Healing Surges is critical.
  • Enemies with action points are damned scary. As they allowed the White Dragon to kill the Wizard and move and rip apart the Ranger in one turn!
  • I think you need the 'figures' and the board otherwise a lot of the game is actually lost and you might as well be playing something else (as the richness of what's on the character sheet would be lost).
  • The tactical side of the game is going to take a bit of time to master and for the final group to ease into how their powers interact.

It's the last one that's particularly telling, as I took a beating once due to not knowing Nimble Strike would have allowed me to shift out of the way effectively. The Paladin may have died when flanked due to me not using Split the Tree to shoot the Kobolds on both sides of him for high damage (instead I saved it due to it being a daily, but in truth that moment was the best use for it). It may not have killed both of them, but then it only needed to kill one of them.

While the 4E game isn't going to be an endless series of combats, and will have doses of mystery, romance, politics and a myriad of scene types, when the combats do happen, and the board comes out, it's certainly going to be rich and varied I think. The other interesting element of the test is 2 out of the 3 players are going for different character options, so it was handy to weed that out as well.

Permalink | Comments(20) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 08/06/2008 Bookmark and Share
24-Hours And Little Prep

Well, it's roughly 24-hours until the third serial of Thrilling Tales (Wiki), The Lost Kingdom, and I've done hardly any prep. I've got no A4 sheets of scenes, no index cards of scenes or no diagrams representing a structure that may happen. No stats for adversaries. No maps. Basically, nothing. This is a change in circumstances as I always prepare. Even if only half of what I prepare gets used I still prepare. My preparation for such things has diminished over the years but this is a ridiculous all time low.

At the moment I'm relatively calm, we shall see if the preparation vacuum sucks the air out of my lungs in the morning.

It's not that I've not thought about it all, it's just a bit of thought here and there is all I've done. The lead up the serial has also involved some...unknowns. The last serial left the players at The Hollow Earth after restoring it's Queen to power, but one of the players never went due to not being able to play. Then, compounding this split situation there was flux over who would be present for the next session: one player was constantly missing (Dr Kloner), but two others were either present or not present depending on exactly when the session fell (Pemberton or Charlie Ashcroft). This has the usual problems of identifying who the characters are that are going to present, combined with them being separated. It has come to pass we've lost one player relatively permanently (Charlie Ashcroft), which is a pity as she was a major part of the weaving.

The preparation I do have is a concept of the conclusion, to set up the next serial. I have a few locations and set-pieces that I want to include and some scenes I want to happen as well. That's about it, but they are a bit vague in my mind and the exact things that connect them are a bit woolly. I'll either have to be inspired by them in the next 24-hours, hope they come to me as inspiration during the session or the actual play results in some magic.

In the medium term, the goal is to have this serial, and the next one, Day of the Destroyer, complete the establishing process. The point being to take some aspects and set them up by introducing the characters implied in them, the organisations and have the enemies appear in actual play. This then allows me to have a middle phase and then run to a conclusion. In short, it's the beginning of the weaving process. What's interesting about this is it is quite an undertaking as the breathless pace of the game, so far anyway, means it's all too easy to lose out on things or not have the time. At the end of these four serials the characters will hopefully gain a bit of breathing space, so that aspects that have been squeezed out so far can be re-introduced or brought in (assuming they're not brought in anyway in inspired ways due to invokes or compels during play).

The end of the beginning so to speak.

To be honest this is a bit of an experiment, or it's become a bit of an experiment as the current place I'm in wasn't intentional, but I have to break the back of preparation. I'm not sure I could ever do the 'game from nothing', making it all up as I went along just from a set of flags, however they may come about, but I have to somehow shift the balance from preparation more towards events at the table. I suspect the shift involves me putting less effort into making sure I know every possible detail about the way it 'could go', and instead have ideas that, to some extent, come into focus only when they hit actual play. I don't exactly make it all up by the seat of my pants, I just may have the ingredients and half the recipe. Not having a recipe at all, is still a step too far.

It's going to be an interesting experience one way or another. Hopefully not a painful one.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 07/06/2008 Bookmark and Share
Ranger Pawns Rogue And Warlock

The Dungeons and Dragons 4E books are out in the wild either due to Internet retailers releasing them early or people managing to find the perfect PDF copies on the web. It's safe to say a lot of interesting information is coming through on the various forums. Interestingly, the class wars have begun, specifically the striker wars.

There are three classes with the striker role in the game, since that means their primary purpose is damage, people have instantly jumped on them as a form of comparison. A few people have also jumped straight to the obvious comparison: damage, essentially DPS (or more likely DPR in a 4E sense as a measure of potential damage per round). It would seem the Ranger, without any complex combination of events, is the God among damage. He consistently scores higher than his Rogue or Warlock counterpart and can quite often apply this higher damage to more than one enemy if he hits. I've not got the rulebook, but I suspect this 'king of the hill' for direct damage is counterbalanced in some way. As an example, the fact the Ranger is always attacking armour class, often the highest defence of any particular enemy, while the Rogue can attack Reflex and the Warlock has attacks across all the defences. If the Ranger, Warlock and Rogue came up against a highly armoured, slow moving and dim target the damage output may swing in favour of the other two. I also suspect the Ranger might lack some level of utility, as some of the Rogue abilities at higher levels sound fun and even at lower levels the Warlock can banish enemies, self-heal (I think), teleport, effectively become invisible and all sorts of other wacky stuff.

If this sounds like discussion from World of Warcraft in which people constantly want one class nerfing and another buffing because of perceived DPS(R) issues then you'd be right, they constantly ignored additional effects and utility advantages in those debates as well. It sounds even closer to World of Warcraft because its the Rogue, Warlock and Ranger (Hunter) in the debate. One thing the debates have made me realise is my initial trepidation of picking the Ranger have gone. I think he's going to be very cool and fits the character idea well. The various bow-fu powers sound great.

What's also become obvious from the previews is it's going to be difficult to play without a battle mat. In fact, I'd hazard to suggest that apart from the most simple of combats, such as two opponents fighting each other (and even then it'd depend on the environment), not using a battle mat means you might as well be playing a different game. This is due to the amount of movement powers, even a core of the utility powers in the game are related to moving around the battle, especially for Strikers. I don't see this as a disadvantage, as while I'm not seeking our future 4E game to be one combat after another grinding through a dungeon (though I'd like lost crypts and the like to feature), I am looking forward to combats to be interesting tactical affairs in which we get to use our funky abilities in interesting ways and add our own dynamic flavour and descriptions - the two aren't necessarily 100% mutually exclusive. After all, if we don't what's the point as it's 75% of what's on the character sheet? It's part of the game, that's how I see it.

Even more interesting, since it was a part of 3E I thought was a complete waste of time, is I'm looking forward to having skills in 4E. In 3E you either had hardly any skills out of a massive list, or you played a Rogue which had loads of skills. They took ages to assign and you never really felt they had much purpose anyway just due to the nature of the game or the fact a spell made them redundant. Why be the perfect infiltrator when the Wizard can cast a spell to make everyone the perfect infiltrator including the fighter in plate armour? Now, I have a feeling skills are going to define the feeling of the game, especially at heroic tier, and possibly beyond. If you need to sneak into the fortress, only the characters capable of doing it will go? If you need to track someone across the vast desert you better have someone skilled enough to do it? As someone who isn't normally a big skills person when actually playing, 4E has transformed my view of them and I'm looking forward to them being used in interesting ways to add flavour, create scenes and define the direction of the story. This is a good thing. This also works out quite well for me with a Human Ranger as I get quite a good spread, which plays into the self-reliant, well-travelled aspect of the character. A few wrinkles have already occurred to me, such as if I want to be trained in the Thievery Skill I'm best taking the multi-class feat for the Rogue Class rather than Skill Training as I then get sneak attack 1/encounter.

This brings me to the rituals, they sound great. All characters can cast rituals if they have the ritual casting feat, each rituals seems to be cast using a skill, and it's not necessarily always Arcana. A spell to use an animal as a messenger may well be cast using the Nature skill. This is really good, as not only does not allow more diverse casting, it ensures different people will be better at different rituals assuming more than one person takes ritual casting, which I think will be the case. They also don't get in the way of skills, as why spend a fortune (represented by components) to cast a ritual to do something when you've got people with skills who can do the same thing? At the same time, when the need is present, the rituals are there. I'm still not sure I'll take the ritual casting feat, but I'm open minded. As an aside, they also provide an interesting 'treasure' for characters interested in this area.

I'm still very much looking forward to the game the more I hear. My character is also coming into focus, I'm adding NPC's in my relationship map and by the time I get to add a few of the other player characters to I'll be really wanting to start.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 01/06/2008 Bookmark and Share
Duty, Honour, Romance, Intrigue And Betrayal

For a while one of the role-playing group (Neil, the ex-Iron DM) has been developing their own role-playing game: Duty and Honour, military role-playing with a Napoleonic flavour, soldiers taking the King's shilling and fighting the good fight. If this sounds a bit like Sharpe and others stories of that ilk than you'd be right.

I was very interested in playing the game, as numerous discussions about the game had taken place at the gaming table before and after games. I'd kept abreast of discussions about the game on Collective Endeavour and some of the ideas were intriguing, improved by an almost unfathomable orders of magnitude from the ideas presented when the game was first proposed as the opening game of the first Cottage Con. I think even Neil has a bit of a 'what was I thinking attitude' to that period of the games development.

Anyway, after a couple of aborted attempts, I got to play it yesterday.

Personally, I think the biggest mark of success that Duty and Honour can hold claim to is this: I'm not a fan of the genre. I'm not a fan of games that involve social standing shenanigans. I'm not a fan of intrigue plots. Duty and Honour invariably involves the first two all the time and this session was an intrigue plot. Despite this, we played a session of the game, totally unplanned, with half the people at the table probably wanting to do something else (including me as Neil had expressed such a wish so I'd sort of gone with that flow and re-focused my mind to watching The Incredibles) and it was fantastic. It's hard to imagine a game starting from such a cold start and turning out really good and I think that says a lot.

I'm in danger of completing paraphrasing and using the wrong terms here, but each character has personal missions made up of a number of challenges. So, my character is a rich Lord bumming it in the army as a private, but despite being a Lord and filthy rich he's also a bit of a romantic bounder and adventurous sort. In the past he had a romance with the Spanish Princess Mercerdez of Aragorn, which got him into all sorts of trouble. His personal mission is to marry her and this involves numerous challenges: convince Mercedez of my honest intentions, discredit current suitor (Captain Alverez), gain respect of family, etc, etc. I have to accomplish these to succeed at the mission, for which I get various rewards agreed between myself and the GM. These rewards are the sorts of things you'd normally spend experience on: increased skills, reputations, etc. These personal missions exist until completed across sessions and military missions and the more challenges they involve the bigger the reward.

Military mission are sort of the GM's plot for the session(s). This military mission also has a number of challenges just like the personal missions. The military mission was to discover a spy before the following morning as then he'd get away with some vital information which would give an advantage to the French (the historical context of this was stronger, but that was the basics of it). I'm not sure if this is the normal process but for this session the players set-up the challenges for the mission: Investigating, Bar Brawl, Discover the Spy and The Grand Reveal. Like personal missions you also establish your rewards for victory and losses for losing. Note it's only the general intent of the challenges that are given? What scene (or even scenes possibly) deliver on these challenges, exactly how and who is involved is not specified, neither is the basis of the conflicts that may occur in those scenes. As most gamers can probably appreciate the game doesn't so much write itself as more structure itself, the rest being added during actual play.

The Investigation challenge involved the characters visiting the skanky brothel right next to where the courier was found dead. This implicated the Spanish Captain Alvarez meeting with a mysterious figure that could have been a slight man or a woman. The Bar Brawl challenge became a fight with some disgruntled Spanish in the brothel (we lost that one). At this point it was a good game, but pretty standard fair in terms of challenge to scene mapping. It then exploded outwards though as we undertook the challenge to enlist the British Ambassadors help, which turned into organising a grand ball to lure Alverez from his home and also act as a way to apply some social pressure and see what resulted from that.

The ball tied into my personal mission as I invited the Princess (due to a critical on my romance attempts in the first scene of the game which was a success on my personal challenge of convince her of my intentions), and Alverez is her unwanted suitor, but he was coming with her Lady in Waiting as the Princess wasn't coming (allegedly). Complex social situations ensue between my character and Alverez but I cannot duel him due to being a Private, but the Captain can and he instigates a duel in the morning. The plan to have the ambassador search Alverez's house discovers implicating evidence but not enough to bring him down. The spy could be the Princess's Lady in Waiting so my character lies to the Princess (which will cause me problems later) about an urgent mission about to begin. The Discover the Spy challenge becomes one character tailing the Lady in Waiting to Alverez's house and discovering she has the courier documents when she leaves and the Capture the Spy happens at the gate out of the city as the desperate Lady in Waiting tries to get the information out via land. The last scenes of the game involve my characters mildly poisoning my own Captain so I can duel Alverez as his second (thus succeeding at personal challenge to discredit the Princesses current suitor, I believe). This is how personal challenges work, the people at the table try and weave them into the military mission.

To sum it all up in a sentence: Duty and Honour is really good. The way the personal and military missions are set-up and weaved together is great. The reward mechanics are very interesting and do away with any sort of experience points at all (and also factor in failure and loss, which in turn generates more plot stuff). The use of skills and reputations make the social standing politics fun, dramatic and interesting even to someone who normally detests them. The rules create an excellent crucible as the plot and the scenes just serve as backdrop for mission challenges either military, personal or both. It demands a very 'seat of your pants' method of delivery, but even this doesn't have to be the case as a GM who likes a bit more 'thinking time' can ask for the military mission challenges a week in advance.

There is also a lot more to the game: skills, reputations, the conflict resolutions using cards, etc.I've also not touched on character creation which involves setting up previous personal and military missions in a new twist on lifepaths (though they might be called something else, but they seem to me to be personal and military missions that have already happend).

I actually think it'll be one of the better story game endeavours on 'the shelves' when it's released.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 26/05/2008 Bookmark and Share
Martial Arts, Magic and a Thousand Bullets!
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

I was looking through my gaming shelf yesterday and came to the usual conclusion that there isn't much on the shelves that will get used. There is about 20 games, which makes a big change from when I had what would have been a whole garage wall of games and associated supplements. They range from Spirit of the Century to Hero Fifth Edition via Sorcerer, Primetime Adventures and Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play. Yes, I still shake my head at Hero. I must have been captured by the books gravitational field, the Hero book is that big. On close inspection though my hand wondered to one specific title. The Indiana Jones music kicked in and I pulled it off the shelf and took about 40-minutes to remember how good this game was.

I'm talking about Fengshui.

Fengshui is also interesting as it is one of a number of games that came out between 1986 - 1992 (though towards the end of that period) that had an affect on me both in terms of influencing how I approached gaming or in confirming my existing beliefs by actually seeing a game that had the philosophy written into the rules and the guidelines. These games, largely designed by Greg Costikyan, Robin D Laws and Jonathan Tweet all broke the back of the bastardised gamist challenge, simulative sandbox mix you used to get at the time. Instead their games dropped a lot of the expected norms and baggage in favour of pure cinematic, genre emulation of one sort or another be it action movies, specific fair like Star Wars or even surreal, Twin Peaks-style mysteries.

Fengshui is the game of action movie role-playing. Specifically Hong Kong action movie role-playing of the butt-kicking, kung fu fighting, spell-chucking, pistol-packing badasses variety. It's the role-playing game of The Killer, Face/Off, Big Trouble in Little China, Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain, Chinese Ghost Story, Savior of the Soul and numerous others, and last, but by no means least Kill Bill. Not only that, the 'setting' of the game gives everyone an excuse to have the martial arts student team up with his long, white moustached master, take a trucker along for the ride along with an elite assassin and fight hopping vampires in ancient China or a myriad of other combinations.

It's perfect for a trashy Saturday morning serial style game. Melodramatic conflict. Bloody battles with hordes of mooks. Hopping Vampires. Ghosts. Mad cyborgs from the future. Martial Arts masters with long, white moustaches. Black suited gangsters. Two-gun packing assassins. Revenge. Forbidden love. Close-up eye shots. Lurid episode titles. A sort of extended, over the top, fantasised, multiple time period, shlock Kill Bill. That's fengshui!

I'd imagine by today's standards it's not a perfect system, but it's pretty good. I know one of the problems is you're best not having characters too far apart in skill due to the dice rolling method of a positive and negative D6 (not that different to the positive and negative dice used in Spirit of the Century, but with a much wider and random set of results). It has interesting, pre-Indie game mechanics, such as the Melodramatic Hook, which is a player characters central melodrama, such as the assassin earning money for the girl he loves he blinded in a mission gone wrong, or the martial arts student gunning for revenge on her assassin ex-buddies after killing her on her wedding day. The key with the Melodramatic Hooks is the they have to be over the top and dramatic! Then you have fortune dice and a range of shticks for gun-fu, martial arts, sorcery and the like. It doesn't break completely with the traditional gaming model, it just shaves off the superfluous elements and focuses explicitly on the intent of the genre experience. The goal just being fun.

Strangely, like a core of the games that toned and confirmed my gaming style and philosophy during the period, it never actually hit the table. The only one that did was WEG Star Wars D6.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 21/05/2008 Bookmark and Share
Just Add Tragically Romantic Goth Vampires
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

Having played a game that was written back in the 1980's a lot lately (the Pendragon Campaign for those not keeping score), and finding myself remarkably bored with traditional games like the latest White Wolf offerings, I thought I'd cast my mind back a bit, specifically around the release of the original Vampire: The Masquerade.

If you speak to the average role-player they will say that Vampire: The Masquerade changed the face of role-playing. They may say it changed it in one of three ways, some may even mention all three. They might say that it changed it in terms of the number of people participating, as the game did create a bit of a second popularity boom for role-playing games not really seen since the big days of Dungeons and Dragons. A few of them might say it brought a whole different set of people into the hobby, as the game tended to appeal not to the ex-war game crowd that Dungeons and Dragons launched itself on, but instead it became famous for attracting artistic sorts who loved the angst. It could even be said it changed the focus of role-playing by spending a lot of the main rulebook's page count going on about romance, theme, mood, parallel storytelling and other narrative tools. It's for one or more of these reasons Vampire: The Masquerade in 1991 is labelled by many as a key year in which role-playing changed.

The interesting thing about Vampire: The Masquerade is that it managed to package up an extremely popular genre at the time, the angst driven, politically motivated Ann Rice Vampire into a role-playing game. Even more interesting, the game itself had nothing to do with, and neither did it support, in any shape or form, the many pages spent on explaining storytelling techniques. Indeed, one of the strengths of the game was that it could be used as a 'kill things and take their stuff' Vampire game for some, and brooding, angst driven game of storytelling for others, albeit that was largely done despite the rules.

You have to look at the 1980's to see that Vampire wasn't something that came out of nothing, like some burning torch of an ardent revolutionary. It's a bit hard to believe really, as the 1980's was the heyday of games such as Role-Master (1980),Champions (1982), and GURPS (1986). It was also the time of great games that seemed to have systems with very little cohesion, such as Golden Heroes (1982) and Judge Dredd (1985). Proliferation is probably a good word to describe it, but by and large a proliferation of complexity, detail and, in some cases, very random systems.

If you take a closer look at the 1980's though, it can be seen it wasn't all a gaming ghetto, but in fact a decade with some really good games in that contain elements Vampire would put into a more popular package. As an example, the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game was published in 1981 and it introduced the concept of having a sanity total that is slowly eroded, this isn't that dissimilar from the humanity mechanic in the original Vampire. While being a much ignored stat in most games it was designed to model the slow, inevitable descent into the bestial nature of the Vampire, and the loss of oneself.

Vampire: The Masquerade also had virtues, which represented aspects of your character that bordered on personality, rating such items as Conscience, Self-Control and Courage. These in turn played into things like resisting frenzy, not running away when faced with fire and Conscience tended to define how much a sense of right and wrong you had. What was interesting about these elements is they could influence the play of the character, rolls against these elements could cause a character to take actions the player might be 'resistant to'. This isn't significantly different from the passions in the Pendragon system which was published in 1985.

The Vampire: The Masquerade game popularised the dice pool mechanic, indeed White Wolf games became synonymous with dice pools. Interestingly, this set-up was first used in the 1980's as well in the Ghostbusters (1986) role-playing game initially, and then in the much more popular Star Wars (1987) role-playing game both by West End Games. These two games are interesting because they also broke with tradition in terms of a lot of the baggage associated with role-playing games. It could even be said that Ghostbusters was a progenitor of a lot of small press games now, as it was focused on doing one thing and one thing alone, with a simple set of rules and dropped almost every piece of traditional RPG baggage in order to do it. It probably explained why it wasn't that popular at the time.

The Star Wars game was one of the first popular games to de-constructive the typical RPG session format, advocating not worrying about encumbrance and other rubbish, treating characters as heroes, having them save planets or the Universe, adopting very cinematic, action-based storytelling methods, using odd narrative structures like starting in media res, or cutting to scenes the players weren't even involved in, using cliffhangers, etc. In some ways the advice in Vampire, while different and useful, wasn't as revolutionary for those familiar with the Star Wars role-playing game. While it didn't involve dice pools the genre emulation trumps all approach was also adopted by the James Bond RPG, which was released way back in 1983. A game several years ahead of its time.

Vampire: The Masquerade was a defining game of the 90's and arguably the role-playing hobby, but in my view this is largely because of the new blood it brought into the hobby. In other ways it was building on what had gone before and wasn't that new. It was also the poster child for actual play intent being disconnected from the system by and large. The key thing White Wolf did was package it all together with tragically romantic Goth vampires, and a setting for gamers to lose themselves in. These two elements made the game phenomenally popular to a new market, and did influence the types of stories told, which for some, did break new ground in terms of the content of a typical role-playing session.

It could be argued the game did more damage than good as well, with its focus on the 'on going story' selling books. This became something to be rebelled against by the time Vampire: The Requiem was released in 2004. Indeed, if Vampire: The Masquerade and its ilk can be said to have done one thing, it was to tell some people what was wrong with role-playing, and that further fuelled what we now call the Indie movement.

Another interesting point of note. Over The Edge hit the shelves in 1992. This is interesting because it used a name and design your own characteristics system, and it was on the shelves 16 years ago. Shocking. It actually had just as good guidelines on narrative techniques, and it had a system to back it up. The inspiration for many of the original Indie games released only a year after Vampire: The Masquerade. If you then throw in The Whispering Vault which was released in 1993 then Vampire is already looking like a traditional dinosaur within two years of release.

Tragically, romantic Goth vampires, with a setting to get lost in, ensured a guaranteed 90's success. It made a hacked together game with some flowery sounding advice cool. I'll admit it, I thought it was.

Permalink | Comments(6) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 20/05/2008 Bookmark and Share
Monsters As Encounter Elements...Oh Yeah!

It's a long time ago now but one of the big things about the third edition (3E) was the fact that monsters had the same stats as player characters. It was all part of the unified and consistent mechanics thing. Since I never ran the game in a big way I never put much thought into this, but it did create a unique wrinkle. It created a theory that all monsters had to have an ability or spell to be able to do something and in all likelihood this ability was also available to players (via a spell or a feat). As an example, a Dragon had a whole host of spells to account for the funky stuff it could do and those spells were the same spells players of the right level and class could have. It created problems, as it removed the mystery away from monsters and in turn encounters.

We even dealt with it in our 3E Crescent Sea campaign, with the acknowledgement that monsters, and to some extent NPC's, had special effects rather than the codified abilities the players had. Apparently, some people didn't have it that lucky and their players held them to the rules, thus the 'confining rules' of 3E argument came into being and destruction of GM imagination (or the correct eradication of GM Fiat according to some).

It's interesting that 4E is actually making this the default in the rules, with monsters, and even non-player characters, having a range of special abilities rather than player character rules elements. In this way the Dragon becomes a unique encounter with a range of unique and funky abilities rather than just a big lizard with lots of Wizard spells. It even allows more standard fair to be unique, with goblins having unique powers when fighting in packs (raised defences due to shield walls). I believe there was also a flavour of Kobold that could fire harpoons that allowed them to drag foes across the battlefield. There is Storm Giants that have atmospheric storms around them giving AOE damage and cover from missile weapons. That is awesome. In short, the monsters become unique, challenging and exciting encounters. They stand a chance of becoming awesome. Not only that, the GM need no longer feel constrained by the rules as he can make any monster he wants and just give it any unique abilities he wants. This could be done in 3E of course, and we did it, but it is important that this is the way it's now supposed to be done.

The rules have moved from being the model of everything, to just a model of how the player characters interact with the world. This allows for unique monsters, NPC stats being much simpler, the addition of minion-type enemies and all sorts of goodness. Since I have a very player-centric view of role-playing games and think maintaining a 'myth of reality' can be kicked in the crotch then I'm happy. It basically means when you kick down that door, enter that dark forest or draw your sword against your enemy and his minions you're not going to know exactly what you are going to get. If you combine this with a much more complex and mobile battlefield it's going to make for one hell of a ride.

This has got me thinking about my character for the up and coming 4E game. I've discussed it before, but I think I've made a decision. I'm going to avoid going for the Defender role in the form of the Paladin. I'd like the group to have a Defender so we get to play with all the dynamics, but it's not for me this time. I did play with the thought of going for the Wizard for a bit, but I've decided against that. I've become focused on the Ranger, mainly because I'm becoming enamoured with a character who hunts things down. It may be people, it may be lost places, it may be ancient artefacts or it may even be all three at once. Whether it involves heading out into the wastes, entering a lost city or delving into the depths of a ruin he is your man. A hunter of things for money or personal reasons. He'll track them down wherever it takes him. A killer. A warrior. A bad ass. Aragorn if he was a bounty hunter and acquirer of antiquities.

Unless things change beyond recognition when everyone reads the rules that means we'll have a: Cleric, Rogue, Ranger and Warlock, which puts us at 1 Leader and 3 Strikers with one player still to pick.

Permalink | Comments(6) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 18/05/2008 Bookmark and Share
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