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Ian O'Rourke
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4E Campaign #19: The Pool of Radiance

I really enjoyed the session overall. It was just very...enjoyable. One of the staples of the 4E Campaign is the depth of it and the delivery. Awesome though this can be, it can create pacing problems in that we seem to breeze over the detail in favour of the awesome strokes (and the potential for information dumps). This session just felt better paced, smaller in scale and a bit more flexible in how it was delivered. It worked better for me anyway.

We had two encounters in the session. The first was essentially a 'random encounter' despite not coming from a table as we progressed through the Underdark. I can't remember what the creatures were, but they all had prodigious strength, and thus an ability to knock us through the air with their clubs, and the main one had Warlock powers. Their strength was used to knock us into a fast moving river, though they did it to the Warlock a number of times and he could just teleport out. A giant spider also entered the field, but it didn't prove as scary as we wanted it to be. Not sure why. It was a cool miniature though.

The battle at the Pool of Radiance encounter was the clincher though, it will probably go down as a classic encounter of the campaign for the foreseeable future. This is assuming nothing eclipses it in the next session. The encounter took place in the Pool of Radiance itself, which meant the terrain was a mixture of water we could walk in (thus difficult terrain) and deeper water we had to swim in. This meant movement was very restricted. Not good in itself. The guardian at the pool proved to be a Beholder (re-skinned in looks slightly, but that was all), and the Beholder floats, thus not restricting its movement, and has many and various ranged attacks. The encounter broke the 'tank it and spank it' approach to fights that can take place as Morn (the fighter) never got within melee range for virtually the whole fight. In a strange, sadistic way it was also cool being hit with all the interesting rays to see how they worked. It's safe to say the death, disintegration and petrification rays are pretty scary.

One interesting point of note, though I have no idea what it says about the two encounters: I only used Twin Strike twice, and that was during an action point powered burst of double-Twin Strikes. The rest of the time it was mostly encounter powers.

Good stuff. We even got to end the session on a cliffhanger. We ended 'early' and I even think this worked as we got to chat about it a bit before rushing out the door. It was noted that in July we'll have been playing the 4E Campaign for a year. Having checked the facts, we started playing on 27 July 2008. One of the features of the campaign is it has been one of the most consistently run and it even managed to transition between the tiers (something that stalled Pendragon a bit) without stalling. Once we get through the epic tier it'll certainly be the campaign we've played for the longest.

Having a session named after a classic D&D computer game also had a certain appeal.

GM Blog Links:

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 15/06/2009 Bookmark and Share
Balls To The Wall Space Opera
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

I've finished my reading of Starblazer Adventures. Well, I think I've finished it. I never read it in chapter order, and I have just scanned chapters that are 99% re-prints of the advice in Spirit of the Century but with different genre examples.

I like the scope of the game. At it's heart, with everything thrown in it's a mad, balls to the wall game of hi-octane space opera madness featuring mad scientists, killer robot armies, nefarious aliens, starfleet battles, energy nebula storms, ancient death machines and whatever else all mixed together with the usual hi-jinks and melodrama. In Starblazer Adventures you send your ship speeding into the plasma nebula while being chased by the Star Eel looking to eat it while battling the crazy robot trying to destroy the engines in the hope of stopping the mad alien destroying the universe with his ancient device. In truth, the toolbox can can be used for near future space opera (no interstellar flight) to the most ridiculous of over the top Flash Gordon stuff with material like Farscape and flavours of Star Wars in between as well as role-playing games like Trinity and Fading Suns and adventures across time and space to encompass it all. Hell, you could even do your own version of classic era Star Trek (or the film) with Starblazer.

I have to admit, one of the best chapters was starship creation, not since the good old days of the early editions of the WEG Star Wars D6 system have I seen starship creation 'rules' that engender excitement rather than a dry lesson in physics. I think I've read the section about four times, it's just that exciting. It manages to cover vessels from the smallest shuttles to planet size vessels all with a story-driven slant while including neat features that account for a myriad of options in enough detail (I think). It even includes all sorts of wacky stuff like weird alien technology and planet killer lasers all within a framework that is exactly like creating a character (vessels have all the same elements). This means they have Aspects, so yes, 'She made the Kessel run in 12 parsecs!' could be an Aspect. There is a representative list of sample starship Aspects which do a good job of selling the game in themselves. That's what sums up the section, it creates vessels, especially player owned ones, which ooze character, feel personal and lived in.

It's not perfect, a few annoyances exist. I'm still not convinced on how they've done the skills, mostly around engineering, science and burglary, which tend to be the ones covering the new areas not present in the Spirit of the Century base, such as technology elements like electronics and computers. Science, for instance, covers everything from all physical sciences to medicine and computers. All for broad skills but that one just feels odd from a differentiation point of view if nothing else. Burglary could also have done with a name change. Then you have the starships skills appended on, which work well in the starship combat rules, but are less broad then other skills. Still not sure about Drive, Pilot and Starship Pilot being separate skills that need to find a place on the skill pyramid (though I must remember mediocre isn't terrible). This may be to cope with games that focus on different areas and technological development. All minor though.

Certainly an interesting read. It can now join Hero 5 on my shelf and they can create their own gravity disturbance. It may have taken them a while to get it out the door, but Cubicle 7 have created a great product.

Permalink | Comments(2) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 12/06/2009 Bookmark and Share
The Space Opera Tome
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

When I first heard of its existence I was excited in a speculative sense. As time passed I was coming to the conclusion I was pretty much out of the role-playing market as an active purchaser. It's now finally hit the shelves after a series of delays and I've purchased it. I must admit, even if I'd not decided to purchase it I'd have found it hard to resist once I'd seen it on the shelf. It is a very nice book.

I never thought I'd purchase a role-playing game that was thicker than fifth edition Hero, and then I was obviously smoking something when I purchased Hero 5 as it's way too rules heavy for me. Still, while Starblazer is thicker in terms of page count it doesn't have that many rules, they ain't that complicated and the whole product is a lot less dense. It's also true to say the rules that are there are based on a very simple, flexible and common base. Still, it is a very thick book and could cause serious harm.

It's had the initial scan, rather than the in depth read, so what's the initial feel?

It's got all of the Fate 3.0 awesome, a system that manages to deliver what is essentially a very traditional experience, just spinning everything to work on a dramatic, character focused story level rather than a simulative reality or gamist design principle. That's good. I was surprised how much text it had from Spirit of the Century pretty much verbatim, genre examples aside, but then it's very good text, so this is to be expected. The sections on running the game, using and choosing aspects, etc, all seem very familiar.

The other thing I noticed is the game is a lot more lethal than Spirit of the Century. In general, this is a good thing, as Spirit of the Century, even for its pulp antics, probably does need a bit of tweaking in that area as conflicts between equal opponents can last forever. On an initial read though, it would seem a Star Wars or Farscape take on space opera would see some pretty fast take downs based on those energy weapons doing +4 to damage and the genre trope of wearing no armour. An initial take only, the equipment section is very random sample, in truth there is nothing to say a Blaster has to do any more damage than +3, etc. Also, it'll be interesting to see how it plays out, as it may just create less ridiculous action set pieces, as even in Star Wars and Farscape they ran away a lot and used cover, etc. The use of the 'hit point stress track', reducing damage through consequence acceptance and the additional weapon damage is a game changing set of differences though. It may mean social conflicts get used more if they are more decisive and quicker.

The other thing I noticed is how they added to the skills. They have kept pretty much all the Spirit of the Century skills I think, and some of these have become even broader. As an example, Science now incorporates all it used to incorporate as well as all things computers. I have no problem with broad skills, since I tend to favour very competent characters. What raised an eyebrow is what they added. While Drive is still present as it covers land and hover vehicles, they've added Pilot for atmospheric vehicles and Star Pilot for starships. While this makes some sense it seems to be at odds, at least initially, with the broad skills approach. Surely you just need Pilot and Drive at most? Then you have Starship Pilot, Starship Gunnery and Starship Systems related to starships. The other factor is each psychic power is a skill. I could see there being too many skills for too few slots, though I have to keep in mind characters are mediocre at skills they don't have.

There is a lot of player collateral, stuff that is potentially created together and represents stuff the player characters own. This is a good thing, the main examples being starships and organisations. Starship creation is quite good, simple, story-effect driven and allowing for everything from star destroyers and death stars to small shuttles with old junkers and experimental vessels along the way. Organisations are great in two ways, it allows such player creations to be represented in play, but also allows them to engage with other organisations as player characters with their own aspects, skills and stress. This is interesting because it allows for players who like accumulating resources to have them reflected in mechanics and actual create story effects. Still pondering that one. Even on a quick scan I'd change the suggestions on how to handle hyperspace jump distances as a function of the hyperdrive skill and I've yet to read the starship conflict section.

It strikes me the game is very flexible, in that I was expecting the game to fill me full of Star Wars and Farscape style awesome, which it does, but it also instils you with a sense that it could do near future very well also. As an example, a near future setting primarily in the Earth system, with colonies on the Moon, Mars, mining in asteroid belts, orbital cities and a few close systems colonised would be great.

The art work is straight out of the Starblazer anthologies, so it's pretty simple drawings in some cases, but they really work to get across that 'out of control' space opera feel. One of the enemies in the book just oozes atmosphere and sheer awesome. Still got to read a whole host of stuff as I've only scanned them very briefly, but it's looking quite good. I'm interested in some of the big threats and how the game handles those.

It's going well so far.

Permalink | Comments(2) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 07/06/2009 Bookmark and Share
4E Campaign #18: Iceholme

This was quite an encounter heavy session, or seemed it. We entered the city of Iceholme, which was occupied by the sprawling army of the Vampire General Zirithian. We did a few skill challenges to get the lay of the land and discovered that the army was controlled by three forces: Gylda, the Death Hag, diviner and overall leader; Arath Nightcaller, Priest of Amaan and Necromancer; and Baaldaran, a demon. Ultimately we made a deal with Gylda and this resulted in an end run through three encounters to kill the other two leaders and then into the temple to confront Zirithian and get the Heart of Maran Gor.

One of the strengths of the encounters this session was the enemies had style, mostly visual style I have to say, since a few of them seemed to get tagged with our 'status effects then death' strategy, but they were cool. I'm specifically thinking about Gylda the Hag, who was very well described, probably need to see more of her.

I'm also enjoying my power spread at the moment, backed up by the ever faithful Twin Strike I have a range of powers that all seem to do 3D12+15, even the encounters. This works quite well as it means my dailies aren't critical, just added awesome sauce. I'm particularly liking the 'when bloodied' one and the sheer coolness of Combined Fire, and the action point generating one from my Paragon Path.

Regrettably, due to the time the session took, involving three encounters in succession, we seemed to rush the denouncement slightly again. Unfortunate, but couldn't be helped.

The Arath Takedown

A bit of an all or nothing encounter this one. It usual goes like this. The enemy catches us in an unfortunate position, such as being crowded around the door, and they unleash a devastating attack that really causes some damage (it took me down I think). In response, the healing kicks in and then we come back with the +5 round of doom (+8 if human and using action points) in order to unleash the unholy hell of daily powers on the enemy. The battlefield was really good, with a small bridge over a basin in the centre of the field, but it didn't get used as much as it could have been.

People started flying in this encounter, both players and enemies, it's going to slowly raise the issue of how to handle the third dimension.

The Baaldaran Takedown

The problem Baaldaran had was his low armour class, which made him very easy to hit. The best thing about this fight was actually the minions, which were some sort of highly agile ghoul, meaning they jumped around the battlefield hitting people on the run. Each hit potentially immobilising. The imagery of them was really good and they proved quite effective, they kept me from moving for most of the fight.

The Zirithian Takedown

Despite looking like some sort of eighties disco, the encounter with General Zirithian promised to be interesting because of the potential for enemies to come from multiple locations. We had minimised the potential in this by making a deal with Gylda the Hag and killing the other two leaders of Zirithian's forces (thus reducing the forces in the final fight).

We had two major enemies in the fight, Lord Dust and Zirithian. We spent several rounds waiting for Zirithian to enter the field, holding off on powers and the like for the big bad to enter, give a brief soliloquy and attempt to take us down. Unfortunately he entered the field, cast a few 'gloom and doom' powers, teleported around a bit and then the 'status effect and then death' routine kicked in which meant he was always unable to act or on a reduced action economy. He died in short order, kicking and screaming about being conned out of his awesome. Personally, I preferred Lord Dust, he turned out much cooler in actual play, floating around with a myriad of powers. Even the force bubble that kept me out of the fight for about five rounds was great. I'd like to meet Lord Dust again.

The funniest part was when Morn smashed the ever changing statue in the middle of the disco floor and revealed an exposition simulacrum who tossed the Heart of Maran Gor across the room only for my pet to make an interception and catch it.

GM Blog Links:

Permalink | Comments(1) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 26/05/2009 Bookmark and Share
4E Session #16/#17: Heart of Darkness

Well, we've gone from the oceans to the remote mountain of Wintertop and the town of Valberg in search of the Heart of Maran Gor, the second McGuffin on our epic quest. Needless to say, there was much going on. The actual play reports can be found at the bottom of this entry. It involved much history, including that of the character Morn, betrayal, Gods from another world, monks, a strange 'out of time' city known as Iceholme, Tieflings, Vampires and Undead.

I shall concentrate on the encounters since this seems to be this blog's USP with respect to the campaign. There was a number of encounters, though I've only included the ones from session 17 here for brevity.

The opening encounter of session 17 resolved the cliffhanger of the previous session. We arrived on a raised platform about to be surrounded by shambling undead, so we launched our attack into the horde of zombies. We had the option of running into the streets, but were was the fun in that? It was the first use of swarms within the campaign, but I suspect they didn't get to do a lot of their cool stuff like dragging people down and eating them. They did try to do it with Azhanti, but considering the nature of his radiant powers and the ability to turn undead that proved more of an advantage to him. In the future it might be exciting to see some 'swarm awesome' just to see how they work and what they bring to the table.

The second encounter was very good as it was pretty much a mini-game mixed in with a skill challenge. Since I'm writing this a good two weeks after the session, I'm probably remembering it wrong. Basically, the scene was the characters flying via Wyerns to the portal that would take us to the strange place known as Iceholme. The undead horde was attempting to stop us creating a flying encounter. At its heart it was a skill challenge, but we also got to play it out each round as we flew over the city. The actions in the round, across a number of height bands, had the chance of making the skill challenges harder by not allowing certain of us to roll. It worked well and was exciting. It also allowed a great use of Tide of Iron, to bash enemy flyers into crashing.

The last encounter, in order to gain access to the portal to Iceholme, was against Lareen, a Tiefling Vampire who betrayed her people, a few of her minions and a ghost of a long dead King of Valberg (a Wight). This one had an interesting twist in that Lareen used her Vampire powers to mind control the Azhanti, the Cleric. This brought about a brief discussion of mind control being the destroyer of fun, but she never really got a chance to use the power much as people started to kick off with daily powers in response. This resulted in much synergy of attack bonuses and a round of awesome damage. She fled in the face of our assault. Whacking out the daily powers probably wasn't a good idea since, at the time, we still faced the battle with the Vampire General Zirithian. We shall also enjoy the second battle with Lareen when it comes around.

At the end of our session we found ourselves facing the city at the heart of Iceholme and the prospect of beating the Vampire General Zirithian to the Heart of Maran Gor.

GM Blog Links:

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 22/05/2009 Bookmark and Share
When Are Superheroes Not Superheroes?
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

In a long and rambling discussion over instant messaging covering a range of topics from smartphones to the political history of the UK myself and the ex-Iron DM got to discussing superhero games. Basically, I'd mentioned that I wanted to play in a superhero game at some point. You know, it could be any sort of game from classic Marvel to Silver Age through to the whole modern sort of Silver Age re-touching and The Ultimates. I'm a flexible sort of guy. Well, not that flexible, I can probably give the Iron Age inspired stuff a miss.

But then this is the point isn't it? Saying you're going to play a superhero role-playing campaign isn't enough. It's such a wide ranging genre that there is amazing potential for major conflict in terms of what people are expecting at the table. There is a lot of framing to make sure everyone arrives wanting and intending to play the same superhero campaign. Quite complex, possibly more so than any other proposition. There is lots of fertile ground for not finding a set of tropes or a comic era everyone is willing to sign up to. Personally, I'd be up for something like the Fantastic Four or The Avengers in either their classic Silver Age incarnations or their modern interpretations in the Ultimates line, but that's just me. I can see advantages in both.

Then we rambled on to what constitutes a superhero campaign, as in many ways we've played one already in the form of Slaying Days, our Buffy: The Vampire Slayer spin-off campaign that had two good seasons of about eight episodes each. The Buffy: The Vampire Slayer TV show is essentially a superhero series, with a lot of similar approaches to say the Spider-Man comics, just without the costume. The other thing was fantasy superheroes, people who are playing Exalted are largely playing a game of superheroes, it's just the trappings that are different in many ways. Indeed, we essentially played a superhero one-shot during both CottageCons, though the second one comes closer. It's as if it becomes more acceptable without the costumes.

I like my costumes though, it's not the same without the cool outfit, a team vehicle and the ability to toss buses down the street.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 20/05/2009 Bookmark and Share
The Role-Playing Equation

Can what happens at the role-playing table be condensed down to one formula that represents the answer to everything? No. Can one simple formula explain what you tend to like at the gaming table? Probably. As I've been hawking around the internet I discovered the Playing Passionately site and this little nugget:

Fictional Input (Player A) + Fictional Input (Player B) + System Process = Unpredictable and Uncontrollable Outcome C

The above equation and repeated uses of it essentially adds up to what constitutes story in a role-playing game for me. Note in the above equation a player is anyone at the table. The point for me are the words unpredictable and uncontrollable. That's what you want. I'm not interested in what should happen, but I am interested in what could happen. I'm not too keen on always just deciding what happens (though at times it's applicable). You don't want to design how 'everything is going to go' in advance or 'know the route taken at every choice', you want things to spin off in interesting directions and that extra juice is provided by the system process that selects the direction. This clash of fictional input, resolved through system process, is what ultimately comes to constitute story when it all comes out of the ringer.

Interestingly, games can over process the 'system process' element of that equation, and I think it is this element that sometimes puts me off some games. I believe this is one reason the gaming group was turned off Dogs in the Vineyard, as it's so structured it's almost possible for monkey's to play it and still get a 'story of that type' out of it at the end. It's too structured and over processed. In a way, Primetime Adventures is a bit similar, though nowhere near as bad as it's a very basic structure rather than being too processed.

Now, this raises the old hoary issue of should every single moment and scene be a conflict in a role-playing game? Not necessarily, but most scenes should be working towards one in some way, either building it up are acting as an extended form of scene framing for the big bang. It is entirely possible to walk and not run to conflicts when the equation comes into play. This is why I don't overly believe there is 'conflict' in terms of using the above equation and role-players liking scenes with a bit more colour and scene setting. You can have them, I'd just argue excessive use of them without building to something (at some point) would be boring. Imagine reading a novel like that or watching a TV show? I believe they call them documentaries and the like.

I'd also say using the above equation you can't actually ruin the story. It's impossible. You can only take it in interesting directions, resulting in different fictional inputs from those at the table based on how issues have played out and changed and how relationships have shifted. This is what makes the equation, when it is applied after a slow or rapid set-up, so exciting. New directions occur in terms of narrative and character and overall story that potentially no one predicted, or at least they didn't know the outcome. Not saying it's easy, or that it should even happen a lot, but most games will face these crucial moments and when they do I'd rather not 'just decide what happens' and spin things off.

It's also my view that the GM is key in this. The architect in a way. It's sort of ironic that as we move away from 'the great set plot' and the GM as 'the great architect of entertainment and delivery' we actually focus even more on the GM as it relies upon him to create an environment on which the players can put things at risk, engage with the various participants and reach those points when the equation can be applied. He has to put it out there with the tools he has. Yes, the players are free to do it with each of their characters and how they relate to each other, and indeed they should. Yes, they are free to author stuff in the game but, you know what, do that too much and it gets less exciting as it's known, you put it there. It's even more exciting when NPC's with true passions, emotions, concerns and issues come from left field and crash against your protagonist like a dramatic Tsunami. When this happens all sorts of funky and unpredictable results happen that quite often no one expected. The GM has the tools to create the boiling pot of emotions and drama, the crucible in which the ingredients can ferment and explode. Yes, it's collaborative these days, but the GM should still 'infuse it with what is important to him' just as the players are doing with their protagonists, just remember the outcome isn't proscribed. He must engage to the max.

What's most interesting about all this is Playing Passionately is essentially a distillation of all the theories people espoused and fermented while I was in my theory phase in 1996 to 2000. The difference is Playing Passionately puts it down in plain speaking, focusing on actual play. Very interesting site.

I think this also explains why I'm drawn to Fate 3 so much as my system of choice for games I'll never run. It's essentially a very traditional game, but it resolves most things along the lines of dramatic reality, allows for the above equation to be used and doesn't 'overly process' anything. If anything Fate 3 set's up a mosaic of stuff that can have the equation applied in actual play. It creates the boiling pot in enough detail to act as clear flags but doesn't overly process so the GM can still 'infuse it with what is important to him' to ensure there is dramatic constructs, elements and NPC's to clash effectively against the PC's so the dice can roll. It also happens at multiple levels in Fate 3, with the typical moments of conflict, combined with skill use and aspect compelling inevitably sending the story spinning off in unexpected directions for everyone.

This need to not over process means most systems can be used, though admittedly some would make it harder than others.

Unpredictable, uncontrollable, risk. It doesn't have to be complete chaos, but a bit of chaos is good. No?

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 15/05/2009 Bookmark and Share
The Skill Challenge Thing

4E skill challenges. As I understand it the basic principle is as follows: you have to get so many successes out of so many rolls and there is a list of skills that can be applied, but any skill can be used if a case can be made for it. Each player gets to add something to the situation and roll to see if they succeed. The irony is, on average, my character often has the most skills he can apply to any particular challenge. This is because the chances are the skill challenge will be a way to play out an extended 'fantasy adventure' scene and my character probably has most of the skills in that area. This is a good thing since he is a martial character (Ranger) and thus relies on them.

The problem is, I'm not fully sure why they don't gel with me. It's like they sound more cool in theory than in practice.

I think a part of the problem is they feel like a mini-game. They are part of the 'gamist challenge' fabric. Quite often what results is a series of discrete events that are pass or fail and failure will result in the loss of resources. When this method is used it feels odd because it's purely a risk / reward game with no reward. It also tends to be a bit by the numbers.

The better use is when the skill challenges make something in the future harder, but even this can have less impact than one might expect. For example, it makes something harder in a conflict you have yet to get to for a reason you don't yet know, one might question the point. This again ensures the skill challenge operates purely on the 'gamist challenge' level as it has made a challenge harder.

Another element is to what extent skill challenges should create new content? This comes down to how much scene setting is done and how this relates to the skill challenge. I think when the scene is too open, the setting too sparse and the framing very open, the skill challenge can lack a sense of urgency or intensity. They have no conflict and the very random D20 just gets decide two different routes each lacking player investment (loss of resources for failing aside). The risk is you create a series of events that just happens but doesn't serve any dramatic purpose (beyond resource loss). I also think they sound better written up then they do in the moment in a core of cases.

The randomness of the linear D20 is magnified by the fact you have no way to alter the roll. The majority of systems that use less granular resolution with clear stakes provide a mechanical method to control the outcome. Obviously, 4E is trying iron out the linearity by attempting to turn it into a strength by having success be based on say 3 out of 6 rolls, thus having the benefit of involving all the members of the group. The trouble is this tends turn it into a sequence of discrete tasks, thus increasing the granularity of each roll. This tends to cause repetition and most skill challenge sequences have common elements inserted into them. It is inevitable, you only have so many skills and the 'adventure situations' that need to be overcome are very similar. We decode runes (Arcane), follow the path of fungi or avoid dangerous plants (Nature), sneak passed authored enemies (Stealth) or various set ways to allow Morn to use Strength, Athletics or Intimidation.

This brings up the issue regarding the scope of skills as some have more scope than others. As an example, certain skills are very physical and as such are more limited to the physicality of the location and what the character can see, hear and touch. This is not the case with other skills (possibly also linked with established spheres of control), such as Arcane, which can transcend character boundaries. These naturally enhance the potential for creating conflict in skill challenge. My character is focused on the physical skills that have a more limited scope. While I may lack a bit of imagination at times, I still hold that some skills are more limited in scope than others.

Discounting the linear nature of the D20 and the lack of a currency to iron out the roll, since this is just a facet of the system, I think a lot of it comes down to the framing of the conflict. If the framing essentially sets up a sequence of events that diminishes resources or makes a future conflict harder, the skill challenge may result in either (a) some good narrated scenes that define character and / or (b) scenes that set up future conflicts. It may result in neither. In terms of (b) these are often through the skills with a wider scope or due to events in the skill challenge providing scene framing for the next skill roll. This can happen and compensate for the lack of more focused scene framing initially. It doesn't always happen.

Overall, I think a more open scene framing, with a focus on resource loss in the challenge itself can be very random in the return on investment. This has resulted in the odd comment of 'just accept the consequences' because the return of the skill challenges is being seen as lesser than the combat encounter for failing. It can also be odd that the consequence of failure is lost resources but in truth such a skill challenge should contribute to the break points for action points.

You could ask the question: why have a skill challenge unless it's dramatically important? If it's not and it's only about resource loss or a future combat becoming slightly harder isn't just worth skipping forward? Is the skill challenge valuable in itself? Is it worth it for the chance it produces something exciting and dramatic? Possibly, but then we are back to the scene framing to ensure that is embedded in the challenge itself?

As an example, the 'failure' on the mountain in the Fellowship of the Ring film could be seen as a series of skill challenges, but the point was it resulted in a fateful choice of Frodo deciding to go to Moria despite Gandalf's fears. They faced that dramatic choice because they failed the skill challenge (Aragorn lost his ranger awesome and Gandalf failed a battle of wills with Sauruman) which made continuing their current path more difficult. It changed the direction of the story. I think that's key, it should change how things go, limit character choices or push fateful decision one way or another. The other option is to make the skill challenge more personal by framing the scene better. As an example, could the skill challenges be used for chase scene with something critical on the line? The problem with some of these is the simplicity of the discreet D20 roll. If you said first to beat the other by three skill rolls you could be really dredging the skill list by that point?

It's for these reasons they've just not clicked yet. It's like they haven't reached their potential. It may be they have reached their potential and they just aren't up to it or whether the elements around the mechanic, such as scene framing, need tweaking. It probably also depends on your outlook, I'm generally less interested in the continual authoring of the discreet events in the challenge, and more interested in the results of failing or succeeding in the challenge and what spins off from it.

Permalink | Comments(6) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 27/04/2009 Bookmark and Share
Gotta Love The God-damn Bling

I was thinking about something today. Well, it was more of a passing thought while analysing the liquidity of a well known supermarket and the influence of how it recorded it's banking arm. Who said I can't multi-task? Anyway, the thought related to how my view of magic items in D&D has changed. It's gone from a position of 'I cannot be arsed and keeping track of them is a pain' to 'give me some more bling!'. What took a bit longer was how the difference has come about. I think it comes down to three things.

First, the use of legacy items in our 4E campaign has to be given some credit. It took what is already a pretty cool system in 4E (see reason two) and made it even simpler and provided an iconic piece of equipment at the same time. This is one reason why I used to not like magic items. I never liked the idea you would inevitably throw a magic item away because a better one would come along. The legacy item will never be thrown away because it provides the core magic item bonuses as we level and, at least in my case, the bow is so iconic it'd be sort of like losing a left arm or something. It isn't just an item, it represents the character's awesome. He's so good at what he does it he took the personal magic item of Ashura (a Primordial God), known for being a great bowman (I assume) and uses it himself. This also links in with his lack of respect for such entities. It helps I always envision it as some sort of grand, Exalted, Orichalcum forged device of Battlechasers awesome. Great stuff.

Second, the 4E magic item system is pretty cool. It's cool in two ways. First, it makes the item slot system a bit more front and centre. It's probably true to say other versions of D&D had the same system of slots for head, neck, feet, etc, but 4E makes it more obvious. Like World of Warcraft obvious. Not only that, it's clearly stated which slots provide the core bonuses for attack and defence. Once you have those core bonuses sorted (the legacy item in our case) the rest tend to do funky stuff rather than provide more bonuses. That's the second reason the focus on cool stuff rather than another bonus to something. The 'does cool stuff' nature of magic items makes them more interesting and more likely to be used for longer as you'd pick something cool for the character.

Third, World of Warcraft has undoubtedly been an influence. This is especially true as our characters move through the Paragon Tier. It has the feel of getting great magic items in World of Warcraft but divorced from the grind and the arms race instead its more thematically appropriate stuff and has a sense of history, age or a personal touch to it. The use of well themed magic items can really up the Paragon feel as the heroes move away from being street level to travelling around the world shaping it's future by their very action. I'm waiting to get Displacer Armour at fourteenth level, it's not just about forcing any attacker to roll twice and take the lowest (cool though that is), it's the fact he's killed a desert beast took it's skin and now is the desert hunter that hides in his own sun haze effect. Sweet. What about boots that allow movement as a sandstorm? Specifics aside, it's all about defining minor powers, just like you'd do if playing a superhero game.

It's great that magical bling has finally become cool. Superhero cool.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 25/04/2009 Bookmark and Share
The 140 Character Limited Scene

Twitter got me thinking again. It got me thinking about how things change when you move from a verbal medium to a written medium. I've sort of touched on this before when I've talked about role-playing in Neverwinter Nights, which is entirely done through the written medium. What it essentially does is move the focus to the player being a writer rather than an actor. I know where people sit on this scale is quite complex and a bit fluid, but having to role-play purely through the written word does offer more opportunities to the authorial stance than it does purely acting a part (don't get me started). If you've got a knack for writing, it's powerful stuff.

I view the scene as the principle unit of measure in a role-playing game. A role-playing session should be a series of scenes with some value component, whether it is moving a character forward, the story or introducing an exciting action component or all three. We largely do this through some level of conflict with added trappings like atmosphere, great description and anything that draws the players into the moment so they can better author, or if they must, act their socks off. Things people can touch and feel work quite well in these situations. In the past I've used printed out reports from computer systems players can read rather than me go into exposition mode. I've also used a mini-recorder with those mini-tapes. It had information pertinent to the adventure as it was the last few recordings of a scientists who had taken a few steps too far and released some creature from beyond the bounds of reality. It was very good, certainly beat me going into exposition and explanation mode. It also meant the recording was open to interpretation by the players, allowing for the story to go in a different direction than I might have envisioned. The information came free of my 'understanding the facts' exposition. Basically, these methods tend to result in more actual playing of the scene occurring.

This brings me back to Twitter and communicating in short, 140 character bursts. The same principle would apply to SMS messages on mobile phones. I'm specifically thinking how it would change scenes in a role-playing game. What if a scene occurred where the players could only communicate through 140 character bursts?

It could happen for numerous reasons. They are possibly communicating with a remote outpost of some kind, either underwater or across the vastness of space and as such capacity is limited due to technology or faults. What if they are speaking to someone in dire straights with a broken mobile phone, but they can still text? Yeah, like something out of the Orange adverts before films, but it has some value. This is especially true in a mystery or horror game, the final moments of that poor soul could play out via 140 character bursts with the players left to read into what they will. This would be especially cool if the character on the other end was someone they cared about. It would have been a great construct in the Buffy game for instance, which featured so many mobile phones we almost started putting our hand to our ear (or considering props). Hell, in such a supernatural game, maybe things get even more surreal and some poor soul has been bound to a broken mobile phone and can only communicate outside via text! In fact, to quote the language of the game: "We should have so done that!". You can also play with it in other genres, in the science fiction example it could all play out with the characters realising they are not just communicating through space but time. The key thing is this would foster role-playing, as the players would role-play around the textual conversation being conducted as it occurred.

Plus, everyone probably wants to run a such a scene that ends with: "Oh my God, it's coming. I love you" (or something else of similar dramatic importance). No more messages. Though you might have to format the communication in less than perfect grammatical English for effect. Got me thinking.

Permalink | Comments(2) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 14/04/2009 Bookmark and Share
4E Session #15: The Belly of the Beast

Since one of the players was away in the US it was decided not to move on to retrieving the next Primordial Heart, and instead deal with some lingering issues from the last two sessions, expand the defeat of the Kraken and explore the potential for dream sequences in the dream powered floating vessel we are currently jaunting around the known world in.

It was quite a dense session, and in no way could be considered second rate filler. In fact, it was a very good session, the dream sequences being very effective. They allowed for some major character depth to be added and also set-up things for the future as well as detailing parts of the larger world and its history. The characters are truly breaking away from the heroic tier and becoming principal players amongst the various powers vying for dominance.

The action scene this week was to help the soon to be epic hero Captain Strom kill the Kraken. It involved descending down the very throat of the beast on a ship in order to destroy the pumping heart of the chaos infused creature. The scene involved two encounters on the ship as it descended into the depths of the Kraken and then one battle at the location of the heart. The battle to destroy the heart involved a fight with a great being of chaos within the belly of the beast, and the betrayal of Captain Strom as my character is a rival of his to become the epic hunter of awesome, a much revered figure amongst my character's people. I stole the destruction of the heart from Captain Strom, thus closing the door to immortality for him and removing him from the competition (to be resolved early epic tier). He died as a result, which I wasn't expecting. I must admit I'm still not sure about the decision, but it did sort of fit with my character's rather callous attitude to getting what he wants.

The battle was also good because I think everyone got to be awesome. The warlock was particularly effective this week due to being largely responsible for keeping the great chaos monster ineffective, and applying the +5 to hit of doom which combined with action points and daily powers can lay down some serious hurt.

Great stuff.

GM Blog links:-

Permalink | Comments(1) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 06/04/2009 Bookmark and Share
Solving The Non-Problem

If there is one thing you encounter a lot on role-playing forums it is people seeking answers to non-problems. The scenario usually goes like this: how do I set-up the dynamics of the world or implement specific rules to stop players doing X? These are often non-problems because in a lot of cases the problem isn't a mechanical or hard problem, it's actually a soft problem of mismatched desires or a breakdown in communication.

One of the pieces of advice in a gaming book I've always remembered was from a GURPS source book. I probably remember it because it came from an unlikely source. It was a Time Travel supplement, and the book was making the case as to why you didn't need all sorts of complex mechanical or setting rules to stop characters bringing modern weapons into the past (in a particular campaign concept). The reason being the campaign wasn't about shooting up the past with modern weapons so if players insisted on bringing back modern weapons and going postal they obviously wanted to play a different game. As a result, continually engaging in an 'arms race' to stop such activities was pointless and dysfunctional.

As the more observant of you no doubt realise, these non-problems invariably show up when players are asked to 'just accept' the narrative logic of a setting or drama rather than what could be argued would to be 'realistic'. One of the biggest examples of this is Star Trek, which is probably one of the most renowned shows for setting up its various rules and conventions to facilitate a specific type of morality play storytelling, with a lot of the background purely being trappings. Needless to say, a lot of role-players have a problem with this because they can't accept narrative norms trumping 'realistic' norms, or because they are constantly seeking to win the situation rather than milk it for the potential narrative. It's full of soft problems like the use of transporters and the fact you have tens or hundreds of security personal on board, etc. Even shows that are more realistic in tone utilise technologies for the sake of narrative, such as artificial gravity just being fact in Battlestar Galactica so the 'aircraft carrier in space' analogy worked. Notice how the Galactica always got damaged in a similar way to a traditional ship? That artificial gravity never failed. Why explain it? It just is.

Having to deal with these non-problems can influence the game significantly. Take an example from the current 4E Campaign, we have a floating vessel that literally moves across the world powered by nightmares and dreams. It has a crew. The non-problems associated with this are unique ways of using the vessel, or bringing the crew into combat encounters and whatever else. I am sure there are many others. The other non-problems are related to always making sure the ship is safe in case 'the GM takes it out'. The truth of the matter is it's only a problem if you make it one, we don't bring the crew into the game because that would be boring and the ship is safe because everyone values it as a 'transition tool' between exotic adventure locations. It only exists to allow the red line to travel across the map. It's like the GM's torturing themselves over killing the horses because it's realistic to do so, but then getting tied up in knots about what happens afterwards. The answer: don't kill the horses. They are a tool that doesn't need justifying, just like Galactica's artificial gravity.

What always amazes me about the whole thing is you get some gamers who seem to get really confused. I can understand people who just have a different view, they like games that are more about 'going for the win' or have to have a certain level of consistency based to some extent on 'reality'. I can understand that. What I never grasp is the tortured souls on forums who obviously want the game to work like the source material or how they narratively intend it to work, or don't want to suffer the fall out of following through on 'realism demanded actions' but then raise all sorts of barriers in front of themselves. They constantly search for an answer. The true answer is not to ask the question. It's painful to watch. These people just cannot except the equivalent of Galactica's artificial gravity even though you suspect they'd like to.

The only answer is this: it will work like it should if everyone at the table wants it to. That's what it always comes down to. So just like in the GURPS Time Travel source book, if the players want to 'shoot up the past' or if in a Star Trek campaign they constantly use the transporter in ways other than as a form of scene transition (or story hook when it goes wrong) then the chances are you just have to play another game.

It is as simple as that.

Permalink | Comments(2) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 25/03/2009 Bookmark and Share
4E Session #14: Into The Deep II

Last Sunday we played session fourteen of the 4E Campaign. After dealing with the cult that was raising the sea bed last week, the task now was to delve beneath the ocean, go to the temple of Mael, at the bottom of a deep crevasse, and retrieve the Heart of Mael. There was also the issue of Vedris, one of the first daughters of Mael who sit at the heart of the seven Lakaronos city ships, who is rumoured to be a Lich after the city ship Maelstrom was lost. There was also an issue of a stolen Dragon egg. We travelled down into the depths via our floating ship, wrapped in various arcane rituals to protect us from the ocean depths, only to be welcomed by the Kuo-Toa priests and their various undersea guards. Needless to say, it soon all descends into chaos as it is revealed Vedris has stolen the Heart of Mael and has a Mind Flayer ally monitoring the occupants of the temple and in turn Vedris is trying to create her own legion of dragons to get revenge on the Dragonborn Emperor.

We had two combat encounters, and both were very good due to the interesting opponents and the complications. I particularly liked the complication of the Kraken in the first combat as it appealed to my everything bigger than everything else principle. The use of a Mind Flayer was also cool as was the complex environment involving rapidly flowing water which had the ability to suck you outside into the ocean if you couldn't get out (though travelling to the exit would have taken a while depending on where you fell in). The second fight was just as good because it had an enemy that actually talked to us, plus it was an enemy we didn't actually have to fight (she handed over the Heart of Mael without conflict) and it was character narratives that pulled us into the combat. We even decided to 'take her out' and not kill her, which was good as it revealed some great information regarding the loss of the city ship Maelstron and allowed us to form a tenuous alliance.

How did the the new, stepping up, approach to the game go? It went very well. The spreadsheet is relatively simple and just does three things: creates an easy reference, makes levelling up automatic (feat / power selection aside) and ensures I have every last bonus included. It felt different at the table, I felt I caused more damage and contributed to the game much more. There is something cool about giving people an automatic plus one. I never got to go 'all out daily' this session as we saved them in the first fight and circumstances in the second fight kept me doing other things. I remembered to use Reckless and I remembered to track the AC debuff from Withering. I also used different dice, so I'm not sure what difference not using 'Old Orange' brought to the occasion. It has occurred to me the 'years of collateral damage of bouncing along tables' may well make 'Old Orange' a weighted die in the wrong direction.

Also, is it me or do the fights involve more 'swing'? During the heroic tier I felt the fights had a more steady feel to them, with less wild results. They could be predicted a bit more. Now it seems to be a bit more towards the all or nothing end of the scale. They can be predicted less and unlucky rolls can cause a pretty rapid collapse (potentially). It seems to be related to damage and hit points, to overcome the hit points and healing you need a certain amount of damage, but this seems to make it less 'steady'. The magical items are probably an influence as well: what do you have to do to overcome the healing powers on Morn's armour? How spiky is it with me causing +15 per hit with Reckless on? Etc. It may be that things have moved from a steady 'damage over time' model, to a 'burst' model. It may also be just the types of enemies we've faced since starting the paragon tier. I could also be imagining it.

GM Blog Links:-

Permalink | Comments(4) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 19/03/2009 Bookmark and Share
The Professional GM
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

When it comes to gaming forums I don't frequent them as much as I used to and I certainly don't post on them as much. I tend to lurk and skim them these days to keep on top of things and just make sure the same old topics are being discussing that I no longer have any interest in discussing. Again. Every so often something interesting comes up or information on a specific game hits the forum, and that's what I'm looking for. Then you get the 'new stuff' that is just infuriating, like the 101 threads on 'sandbox' campaigns on RPGNet.

Occasionally you find gold, recently this has taken the form of a series of Professional GM threads on RPGNet. The question is asked periodically: can one make money by being a professional GM? Would people pay someone to GM games for them? They usual response is no to the former, and possibly in pizza and pop to the latter. The idea of paying someone a MMO subscription fee is usually thrown out the window. This is despite the fact people will pay for session slots at a convention? You also get the odd GM Consultant. The debate recycles, as usual.

The following threads are about someone giving it a shot:-

I recommend the threads to anyone as they are fascinating. They represent a unique interaction that can sometimes only take place on the web. The threads have everything: delusions of grandeur, tragedy and humour all rolled together. They deserve to be archived for prosperity. They are certainly worth a scan. The original poster even eludes to a 'genetically inherited trait that must be well practiced as well as an individually developed knack that takes years to cultivate' as one of his key selling points that he'll use to 'open each session'. At the current time, we still don't know what this is.

Assuming the whole thing isn't one elaborate scam, which makes the threads even more worthy as it's been continued for so long and is so elaborate, I feel a bit sorry for the guy. Primarily because of the motivating factors that lead him along the path he has undertaken. I can fully understand the weird roots life can take as a result of the lingering effects of a death of a parent.

Still, the threads...interesting to say the least.

Note:The list of threads will be added to, if necessary.

Permalink | Comments(2) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 14/03/2009 Bookmark and Share
The Detail to Trust Scale

When it comes to game systems each one lies somewhere long the detail / rules and trust / social contract scale. Some systems provide an enormous amount of detailed rules to cover how the game is played at the table, while others are more open and rely on interpretation and trust at the table.

As an example, 4E is very much at the detail / rules end of the spectrum. One of the goals of 4E, due to its organised play remit, is to remove the social contract and high level of trust from the experience. Burning Wheel is another good example. These games try and provide a high amount of impartial governance to the activities at the gaming table, to the extent the rules could almost be an impartial mediator.

At the opposite end of the scale we have something like Primetime Adventures. Primetime Adventures relies on the social contract and a high level of trust between participants to function. The very nature of the game demands discussion and putting yourself 'out there'. The middle is occupied by games like Spirit of the Century and Cinematic Unisystem, both two very different games, but they occupy a point on the scale that isn't at the extreme ends.

It's even possible for games to move along the scale with different editions. Big Eyes, Small Mouth moved from the trust / social end to the detail / rules end with each successive edition. It could even be said WEG Star Wars did in small degrees. Mutants and Masterminds certainly made a 'jump to the left' when it went from first to second edition. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it may be for individual readers, of course. As for D&D? Well, I suspect people could argue for all eternity on how each edition moved from left to right on the scale.

Why has this come up? Well, because I've been considering my position with respect to this scale.

In terms of playing, it's safe to say I can accept games at the detail /rules end of the spectrum much more readily than I can if running. All things being equal, I like a bit more trust / social contract as a player, but I cam stomach a lot more structure as a player. I have my limits, I'll not be playing in a Rolemaster game any time soon, or something like Champions. Despite this, I'd never run 4E or Burning Wheel. They just have too many fiddly widgets.

When it comes to where I sit with respect to the GM side of the table? I'll have to build up to that. The unit of measure I'm concerned about when I run things is the scene. Essentially analogous to a scene in a TV show. Each scene, in an ideal world, should have a purpose, either a conflict, a revelation or an great action sequence. In some sort of nirvana world the best scenes have all three. Not saying this is a unique way of looking at it, but it does effect my choices. As an example, one of the reasons I'd not run 4E, rules complexity aside, is the action scenes tend to be 'great tactical conflicts akin to an MMO fight'. While I like that as a player, as a GM I want my action scenes to be more like a great action film and contain physical conflict and dramatic conflict, if possible. The fact I like action-based stories, also influences my choices in terms of scene resolution. I tend see the possibility of unexpected drama coming from the events in the action scene itself, this tends to make me want to not resolve it at scene level, but see where it goes as it plays out. This is why I like Spirit of the Century, it as the ability, at a rules level, to generate that X Factor within action scenes to the extent what you have at the end is never what you expected at the start both in terms of the action and the drama.

It's this that has usually meant I've sat in the middle of the scale, while looking for games that provide that 'story focus at the rules level' while still sitting in the middle. Lots of traditional middle scale games existed, but I wanted middle scale story games. It's safe to say these systems took a while to appear, due to most system with 'story focused mechanics' deciding to distance themselves by sitting well towards the trust / social contract end of the spectrum.

A part of me is now wondering whether I need to entertain games that exist some steps further to the right. A couple of experiences are driving this, one was the Pulsars and Privateers session at CottageCon II, which used Primetime Adventures. While it wasn't perfect in application, since it was our first try, it showed that it could deliver on the types of scenes I like in role-playing games. The second experience was the play test of Duty & Honour, which was really good, and again had the types of scenes in I like, and actually showed how Primetime Adventures scenes should be framed.

I've also been intrigued for a while by two Prose Descriptive Quality (PDQ) system powered games: Truth & Justice and Zorcerer of Zo. Truth & Justice is a superhero game and Zorcerer of Zo is a game of fairy tales or something like Narnia or the Wizard of Oz. I find the concepts behind these games very intriguing, the question remains as to whether they are too far to the right for me?

In both cases they don't mandate scene resolution, so that's a good thing, it ticks one box. This is especially true for Truth & Justice as you want some scenery destroying slug-fests. The step to the right mostly comes in the form of the generic traits that can be applied to numerous situations, it's the typical Over The Edge, Fudge and Primetime Adventures method. The open nature of this sort of approach is magnified when superpowers are involved. It also means dealing with 'narrative' issues like taking damage to your 'Sexy Model Girlfriend' trait when getting pounded by Dr Destroyer. It's high trust and social contract. Anyway, the sheer wonder of potential Zorcerer of Zo stories is intriguing, while Truth & Justice has the potential to breakdown a lot of the 'entry costs' most superhero systems come with, thus making shorter runs less front loaded.

Since I'll not be handing out cash for them any time soon and I'm unlikely to actually use them, we can put specific games aside for the moment. The discussion has highlighted my weird gaming quirk when it comes to my position on this scale when sitting on the GM side of the table: in actual application I'm pretty high trust and social contract focused, but despite this I like the system to be a bit further to the left in terms of structure. The question always remains as to why? Why are my activities at the table at a different point on the scale than the systems I've historically liked? I suspect it is lingering issues of control, which has come up before in terms of pitching and is probably another reason why I don't like the 'unpredictable' nature of the D20.


Permalink | Comments(2) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 14/03/2009 Bookmark and Share
Death To The D20!
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

If there is one thing 4E teaches you, it is that of all the dice types in the world the D20 is the most vile. The D20 dice in any gamer's collection deserve to be rounded up and melted under a hot flame. You'd have thought some of its less used cousins would have deserved this fate, such as the D12 and the D4, which are both only really used in D&D. The D12 is rarely used, though in our 4E game it's become a regular staple thanks to the Adventurer's Vault 'content patch'. The D4 is particularly pointless as it's not very fulfilling to roll, since it doesn't roll, and instils a sense of inadequacy as it drops onto the table. D4 damage? It rarely seems worth the effort of picking up the dice and tossing it onto the table. The D4 always seems better used as a form of legal caltrop in case of burglars.

The D20 pips all its brothers. It pips them because of its evil standard distribution, an evil sin of all single die rolls, combined with the fact it's invariable used as a 'success roll'. As an example, the hapless gamer relies on it to hit or succeed in skill challenges in 4E. You rely on it to be awesome. Every time you roll that D20 you feel like shouting abuse at it before you launch it on its fateful journey across the table. This is a daily you slightly disco looking piece of plastic! Let me down and it's the cooking hob for you!

In theory, standard distribution means the chance of rolling any of the numbers on the die is equal, but this isn't really the case. You have nefarious things like the die falling more in the upper range and more in the lower range because the distribution of the die is only true over a certain number of rolls. Since 4E is built on the principle of offering about a 50% chance to hit throughout the level range (besides power bonuses I would guess) the whiff factor can, at times, be so strong one does almost feel like you can smell it.

The only advantage of the D20 is it's simplicity. It involves only rolling one die. It's quite easy to work out the statistics present in the system, which isn't as easy for bell curves. It's simplicity is a deception. The advantages aren't enough. Any system that uses a D20 is immediately suspect., especially ones that use it for everything. Look at something like Mutants and Masterminds, with that deceptively simple D20 integrated throughout the system. It sounds cool, as it sounds simple and elegant, but it isn't, as at least one currency system is in place to iron out the cold hearted, standard distribution of the D20 at every turn.

Death to the D20.

Permalink | Comments(10) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 12/03/2009 Bookmark and Share
Stepping Up With Checklists And A Spreadsheet

Despite speculating I'm possibly becoming a casual gamer, my sense of professionalism is driving me to step up at the table. The last couple of sessions I haven't felt like Artemis (Ranger / Battle Archer) has been delivering in the tactical battles. It feels like something has changed in the transition to the Paragon Tier and he just doesn't pull as much weight. I'm sure this is a mixture of a few things that are mathematical, some of it will be perception, a bit of it will be my lack of ability or will to remember things and some of it will be the rise in effectiveness of other characters.

In terms of the character parity, some of the group have certainly become more effective in the Paragon transition, namely Morn, who has changed class to Fighter and just seems to become a package of all round awesome, and Assamber, who is coming into his own as a controller since the synergy of character abilities is making his role more powerful. This is a good thing.

So, how to make Artemis more effective?

First, I need to start remembering the simple stuff that can make a difference. Second the focus in 4E isn't necessarily about the personal awesome, but the team awesome. I can think of numerous things that can raise the effectiveness of Artemis with immediate effect:-

  • Use my Battle Archer ability to mark four enemies (my Wisdom bonus) as that gives ALL the group a +1 / +5% to hit against those targets. We like Bless, but that's a daily, this is almost as good and is free to use! Pretty amazing now I think of it like that.
  • The Solar Bow of Ashura allows me to accept a -2 on my AC to gain +6 in damage. This is a lot and raises my damage bonus to +15 on every hit. That means my basic at-will will causes an average of 20 or 40 damage. This -2 to my AC will represent even less when I get my Displacer Armour made. I wants the Displacer Armour.
  • The Withering ability on the Solar Bow of Ashura is permanent. This means any target Artemis hits receives a cumulative -1 to AC until it saves against it (it's a save ends effect). This means any enemy I hit has at least a +1 to hit on it until it's turn, potentially much more.
  • As soon as the 'use the daily powers flag' is on, slap down the stance that allows me to transfer my Hunter's Quarry to another character, this radically reduces the chance +2D8 of damage will go unused. This is effective as I can give that potential damage to any character in 5 spaces, including fellow range attackers like the Wizard or the Warlock.
  • As soon as the 'use the daily powers flag' is up, and any pluses to hit have been brought into play, use Splintering Shot on the big bad of the fight as it applies a -2 to hit on the creature that it cannot remove for the whole encounter (and a -1 on a miss). Use the Solar Bow of Ashura's re-roll with a +2 on this daily if necessary.
  • Position the pet in a flanking position for Morn as soon as possible and keep it in such a position as it gives him +3 to hit. Besides role-playing uses this is it's only real combat use (a Shimmering effect for me would allow me to gain that advantage as well without incurring an OA).
  • Remember to use my Immediate Interrupt encounter power which allows me to do a 2W weapon attack (average 50 damage) on an enemy an ally has just hit - do it as soon as the cumulative pluses to hit are good as it comes on-line every encounter
  • When I use an action point remember that an attack action born from that action point has a +3 to hit as I often forget. Not only that, action point first not second as it increases the chance of a Withering effect being in place for attack number two.
  • Remember that some of my powers now do half damage on a miss. I think I forget that probably 50% of the time. Check all powers used for a 'on miss effect' as there is at least a couple of them now. Remember when I use a power that attacks twice, which is a lot of them, if the first one has hit the second attack has a +1 to hit due to the Withering effect.
  • At the end of the round ALWAYS remember to roll saves to get rid of annoying and damaging status effects.

In response to the above I'm going to create a personal checklist for my character's combat round. It's not going to be that complicated but it will mean I should forget less in the moment.

I'm also thinking of bringing the Netbook to the table, which I thought was ridiculous at first but now I'm not so sure. Morn's player has his character on his iPhone due to the ridiculous amount of pre-calculated circumstantial bonuses he has as a Fighter, and this seems to work well. It also occurred to me that the Netbook would save space as it's actually smaller than the character sheet, which is often obscured anyway. The main advantage of the Netbook will be for a streamlined character sheet with everything pre-calculated and set-up to remain pre-calculated as I level up. When my stat bonuses change everything else will change, as will all the bonuses that use the bonuses on the Solar Bow of Ashura that also levels up at key points. I can also factor feat bonuses in (and have it clear where that bonus is coming from). Skills will also just calculate themselves. This will mean I'm always operating at maximum ability mathematically and can keep it current easier. This might also mean I'm a bit more on top of what I might want to swap out over time.

That's it. Other than the whiff factor, which I can't control that much (beyond all the group working the maths more effectively), this should allow me to step up and bring the awesome more often. Quite exciting. I'm looking forward to it.

Now the next task is to think up some awesome for my signature two-part session which is coming next as we retrieve the Primordial Heart of Ashura. I'm thinking of locations, which characters to bring in and framing it all within a thematic conflict as well as focusing on what keeps me happy at the table. I want the potential for some major issues and conflicts outside the battlemat or during it's use, if possible.

Permalink | Comments(2) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 07/03/2009 Bookmark and Share
4E Session #13: Into The Deep

The heroes are hunting for the five Hearts of the Primordials, in order to open the Tomb of Sopias so we can confront him before his prison fails for all time and he is released upon the world. The first Primordial Heart is the one belonging to Primordial Mael, Primordial of the oceans and father of all monsters, and it exists within one of his ancient temples below the sea.

It's not as simple as just going to the temple and stealing the heart from its occupants as the occupants of the temple are at war with a massive Lakarnos city-ship. The city ship is stuck in a rapidly rising series of volcanic islands, including an outer ring which keeps the massive ship from leaving. Not only that, the rising of the islands is being caused by the Cult of Vinga, Goddess of Revenge. The Lakarnos also seemed to have raised a giant Kraken, which they seem to have lost control of and it is repeatedly attacking the Lakarnos vessel.

The heroes enter this situation with the power to change it and the goal to retrieve the Heart of Mael.

The session was good, further enforcing our paragon status to enter a situation and immediately become the locus for local powers, because we change the situation by our very presence and the decisions we make. In this session we chose to arrive at the Lakarnos city-ship by flying our magical ship in and arriving above the cities central park. After some discussion with the leading priest of the Lakarnos and a well informed guard we decided to head out and deal with this Cult of Vinga, with the aim of stopping the earth rising which would destroy everything within the network of islands (including the many Lakarnos on the city-ship).

The Cult was in a volcano, and it contained Lidia, Champion of Maran Gor, who disputed Morn's possession of the Hammer of Maron Gor. Needless to say, this didn't go down well and a battle with Lidia began. It was a great battle, in a very cramped and fiddly location. Lidia herself was was quite tough and she had a number of nifty allies including Magma Giants and Fire Birds with a really dangerous exploding power and the ability to make us vulnerable to fire and apply on-going fire damage. Very dangerous. It looked doomed at one point, but as is the case with 4E, the healing kicks in and all the gauges shoot up again. It was a good fight though. Morn's ability to stop enemies moving away from him, due to being a fighter, is allowing much more combination powers to be used as we can count on the enemies staying in place more.

If there was problem with it? I just seem so prone to the whiff factor. Lidia did happen to be made of stone, which probably had a lot to do with it. It may be everyone is experiencing it in the same way, but it does get a bit frustrating when every power misses. It gets even more frustrating when cumulative effects also don't kick in as a result of missing. Still, this is the nature of the game, and I wouldn't have it any other way, but it is frustrating. I also need to make sure I have my to hit calculated right, as it was at +15 but I think it should be +16 and make sure I used my ability to 'mark' multiple targets as that's another +1 for everyone. Drill into the brain that every +1 is a 5% improvement!

We did try to get away with the second age artefact, a giant cauldron, potentially the artefact Moran Gor herself used to raise the continents and create life, but we failed to extract it from the collapsing volcano.

On our return we got to see Iridalla, one of seven daughters of Mael, each residing in the heart of one of the seven Lakarnos city-ships. My character, Artemis, also met with the a ship captain called Strom, who was set on battling the Krakken, literally diving down its throat so he could thrust living fire into its heart. We agreed to help fight the beast while he tried to kill it from the inside. Yes, madness. Such are the trials of those on the cusp of the epic tier!

GM Blog Links:-

Permalink | Comments(2) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 02/03/2009 Bookmark and Share
1985 Horror Of It? Despite Boxing Boxer Dogs
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

A while back, while considering what games might be available if you suddenly got restricted to role-playing games released in the year 1985 or earlier, I speculated that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness may have been a good option. I have obtained a copy of the game for the purposes of research. I think it has burned the back of my retinas while wiping the year of 1985 from my memory. It was seriously mind numbing.

Okay, as was speculated at the time, the character creation is sort of cool. Well, creating your animal is cool, the rest is an old school cesspit. The rest of the game is a complete horror story. What's with the skill list, it's so long and so...specific. I mean very specific. You have to invest in a couple of skills just to become an expert in one thing. That's okay though, as looking at the example characters around level 6 you'll have pretty much all your skills in the 90% range. What's with all the martial arts skills? All giving you different bonuses by level? I'm sure it's meant to simulate a range of fighting styles but I just have it pinned as too...much...detail. And five attacks per round? Five. Attacks. What the hell is going to happen if every player character gets to make five attacks per round? That's without anyone else getting a go.

I admit it, I just scanned the rules. I didn't have much time for anything else. I have since deleted the file from my computer in case it started to infect files with some nefarious virus encoded into its Byzantine rules.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 28/02/2009 Bookmark and Share
Descent Into Casual Gaming?
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

I never thought I'd find myself asking this question, but it's entering my head with increasing regularity. I know what's driving it, the way I interface to role-playing games seems to be changing. It's drifting and morphing. I'm sure there are a whole host of environmental factors playing into this but the results are the same.

Not going to labour the point as it has been discussed before, but running stuff is pretty much dead. Yes, it can be said this might change as circumstances change but I doubt it. History doesn't really suggest this will be the case. This has a big influence on my gaming at large. The reason being, historically, I've gamed to GM and often got less from playing. It's true this shifted a bit over the years, and being a player did become more important to me, but I sense it may be shifting back. It's scaled back without there being a counterbalancing interest in running things. The end result is obvious, less interest overall.

I don't put as much effort into playing, it's as simple as that. This has been the case for a while now. At the moment, in the 4E Campaign, it's got so bad half the time I'm not even sure how to frame or push my character as a protagonist in the game at large. This is a mixture of my lethargy, the nature of the miniature set-pieces and just a feeling of their not being enough space to do these things. It's mostly me though, if I wanted to solve the issue I could. I'm not knocking the miniature set-pieces either, it's those that tend to get the best reaction from me these days, probably because it has that unexpected factor while not demanding that much effort. It's not just at the table, my drop in effort between sessions is positively exponential. I feel I'm rapidly descending to audience stance.

I can't be arsed with systems any more. They don't interest me. This leaves me in a quandary. I can't be arsed with systems. I don't want to just sit around and tell stories around the camp fire. I'm not even interested in something like Primetime Adventures. If you've not got the game element in role-playing game it feels a bit weak. That natural result of all this is: why bother? Watch a TV show instead? Play a different type of game?

I absorb less gaming stuff. I don't buy role-playing games. I don't read role-playing websites that much. I certainly don't contribute to discussions that seem to be repeats of everything I'm already aware of and have come to my own conclusions on. No value comes from the discussion. It's not challenging me with new ideas. This lack of inputs naturally results in a distinct lack of output as well.

Gaming used to be something that challenged me, provided a good deal of personal development (in numerous areas) and pushed me to refine my approach to the hobby and actually be better at it. I'm not sure it delivers those things any more, and I need to find it elsewhere, and I suspect that's the problem. I think the element of it that was intellectually challenging and rewarding has completely disappeared.

I may be becoming a casual gamer. The horror of it.

Permalink | Comments(6) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 19/02/2009 Bookmark and Share
Less Is Sometimes More

A while back I was listening to the Sons of Kryos and Fear the Boot, two gaming Podcasts. While Sons of Kryos actually covered gaming topics more in line with my way of thinking I actually started to get a bit bored with it. The main reason being, while it was aligned with my thinking it wasn't actually telling me anything new. It's a bit weird listening to a regular Podcast just to get your views and thoughts confirmed. This meant I actually liked Fear the Boot better, it often covered topics I'd not agree with, or go into areas I'd not considered (albeit quite surreal to me) and the people behind it had some ideas on gaming that were at odds with mine.

Then Sons of Kryos just vanished and I sort of drifted away from Fear the Boot. Not sure why. Probably time.

Now the Sons of Kryos has returned and it would seem they've been holed up somewhere with the vision of turning the Sons of Kryos into a video Podcast. I've watched the first one, and unless they do something quite radical the question has to be asked why? The problem the first episode of the video podcast has is it makes it less dynamic. There was a dynamism to their discussions when it was just sound, now you can actually watch them you can see it's not that dynamic at all but rather mundane and a bit banal. It's a case of less is more. The only way it's going to actually be better than the normal podcasts is if they start doing stuff with the video format that couldn't be done with sound alone. The little comedy sketches they've done at the moment really don't count.

Permalink | Comments(2) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 16/02/2009 Bookmark and Share
Gaming Marvel
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

As I've used the Netbook over the last few weeks, it's been resting on my knee on top of the Marvel Universe Role-Playing Game (to give it some space for cooling). It's a strange game, but before we get to that it got me thinking about the other two Marvel games that have been released over the years. What's surprising is all three Marvel role-playing games have been quite innovative for their time.

Marvel Super Hero Role-Playing Game

The first Marvel role-playing game came out in 1984, followed by the advanced edition in 1986. The game used the FASERIP system, which was an acronym for the seven attributes used to define characters. The system used cool adjectives to describe attributes, born out of descriptions like Spider-Man's amazing agility. The attributes did also have numbers, for example Amazing was 46-62 , but I only remember the adjectives coming into play on the universal table. This use of adjectives rather than just hard numbers was pretty innovative in the early eighties.

It didn't stop there though, as the system also had a universal resolution system based on percentile rolls and a single resolution table. This was also pretty unique at the time, with the eighties being mired in systems that suffered from subsystem proliferation. You rolled against your adjective on the universal table and got a result with four degrees of detail (white, green, yellow and red). This wasn't only used for combat but even for more nebulous concepts like popularity and resources. That's another pretty clever thing for the first half of the eighties, abstract attributes to govern popularity and wealth that can be rolled on to achieve things. Not only that, popularity could be attacked by super villains as well as being used by players. Golden Heroes also had various campaign ratings to control popularity, but like the Golden Heroes system itself, it was a rather clunky subsystem.

Amazingly, the game also had a currency of sorts. Karma was both a reward system and a currency. You could use it to improve attributes and powers, but you could also use it to improve rolls in play and as a mechanism to pay for the privilege of attempting a power stunt. A power stunt being the use of a power in a unique way or the temporary use of another power in theme with your superhero. If you did this enough the power stunt became permanent. I do remember advancement via karma being slow, which is interesting as that means pulling off power stunts and amazing feats was easier than permanently advancing via straight karma 'saving'. While that frustrated the hell out of me at the time, it was actually simulating comics very well. This has lots of broad similarities with Mutants and Masterminds.

Speaking of Mutants and Masterminds one of its much lauded elements is the damage save mechanic, but the original Marvel Role-Playing Game used a damage save mechanic as well, didn't it? You rolled against the universal table and got a white to red result which applied statuses like injured, stunned, knocked out, etc. While the applications are different in principal they are both damage save mechanics.

Despite all this, I preferred Golden Heroes over the Marvel game at the time, but then I was undoubtedly a product of my time. The character creation system was weak, since even with the advanced set there was always a feeling they wanted you to play established Marvel heroes. I didn't like the experience system, though looking at it now it seems cleverer than I gave it credit for. I also didn't like the very random nature of the combat system, which is something I'm not sure on in Mutants and Masterminds. It strikes me both those games rely on the currency to smooth out the randomness of the damage save. Truth be told though, the Golden Heroes choice was largely a product of me purchasing it as my first role-playing game.

Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game

Ironically, I remember less about the next Marvel game even though I owned it and really liked it. The Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game, which decided it needed to use the card-based SAGA system in order to be more innovative than its predecessor, was released around 1998. I'm racking my brains but I really don't remember much of the details. I do remember liking it though and of all the games I cleared out at the end of 2004 this is one of the ones I wish still I had.

One of the key elements, and the most innovative from my point of view, is every action was resolved from the hero's perspective, so even if the super villain attacked the hero resolved the action with a dodge (or block, etc). The GM didn't have to do anything, all actions resolved at the player side of the table. This had an amazing effect on the running of the game as it liberated the GM to concentrate on all sorts of things with the knowledge resolving actions was 100% in the domain of the players, which is probably where it should be. The game also managed to model characters like Captain American, as invariable his high 'skill' meant they got more cards, and this went some way to allowing them to go up against characters with less cards but more powerful powers. Damage also reduced cards in the hand.

Like it's predecessor the main weakness of the Marvel Super Hero Adventure Game was character creation, though I do remember this game had an interesting way of marking advancement through a quest-like structure (though probably called something different related to comics in this instance). The proliferation of Marvel art on the cards, sensible and quite cool in the context of the game, also seemed a bit distracting if using it for a non-Marvel game, though that criticism seems a bit short-sighted these days. It really would have been a great game for a short, superhero mini-series.

Marvel Universe Role-Playing Game

What can I say about the Marvel Universe Role-Playing Game? It was actually commissioned and published by Marvel themselves in 2003, and it is either a complete train wreck or an actual work of genius. A part of me thinks it could have been a work of genius, but just didn't go mechanically far enough, iron out its mechanics well enough or communicate the approach effectively enough.

The aim of the game was to use a resource, namely a nebulous concept called energy, to drive a level of author control (sort of). The game was completely dice-less, and didn't even have the random element of cards, it all came down to player choice and the use of energy stones. The player could use a number of energy stones based on his attributes, powers, skills and equipment and he would allocate stones as effort while the GM would allocate stones as resistance based on a universal chart (or NPC abilities). Stones would refresh at a certain rate per page.

This brings in point two, the game tried to dispense with tracking real time and instead digested the actual role-playing session into issues, missions, pages and panels. An issue was an adventure, which has numerous missions. A mission consisted of numerous pages and a page consisted of a panel for each character. A panel was supposed to represent what an artist may represent in one panel of a comic. It may be a single-blow, a journey across town or a whole battle between a character and a horde of mooks. It was a flexible measurement to be defined between player and GM. A player character regenerated stones equal to his regeneration rate per page. This meant a character could invest a larger number of energy stones in a task to complete it in a panel or less, say lower or the same as the regeneration rate, to complete it in three panels (and pages). If the group was split, three panels of activity could happen for the other characters. Once a mission the player could also create a flashback panel designed to further his character's story and potentially give him bonuses for current actions.

The panels and the energy stones were a core idea that in one breadth seemed to be a work of genius but in another something just 'not quite right'. A part of that problem is due to the way the book is written. It could have been framed and delivered better. The other problem is the game occasionally discusses the idea of stone use as narrative intent, but doesn't necessarily frame the whole book that way. This leaves the actual use of stones as a bit of a muddled middle ground between some sort of representation of real world effort and narrative intent. After all, even though it represents narrative intent to some degree, as the player makes the decision, he is confined in the number of stones he has purely on 'real world' aspects like attributes, powers and equipment. The other thorny issue was when to tell the player how many stones he should invest to succeed? As while rolling a dice to see if you can pull your love interest out of a car about to explode seems 'fair', spending three stones only to have the GM say 'sorry it needed four' seems a bit odd.

As with all Marvel role-playing games a big weakness was character creation, each game successfully made the decision to design a system that felt tacked on while at the same time providing a roster of pre-created Marvel characters for people to use. This list of Marvel characters comes before character creation is introduced in the Marvel Universe game and no guides are given on creating more powerful characters than the initially suggested 40 stones (which the system admits is weaker than most Marvel characters). In a similar manner the experience system was a bit weak as well.

The Marvel Universe Role-Playing Game is such a genius or trash proposition, that it does appeal to my need to be challenged to see if it actually works. I've not risen to it yet like. It's certainly got me thinking I should give it another read through, you know, with an older and more experienced mind? Possibly.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 03/02/2009 Bookmark and Share
Flirtations With Miniature Armies
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

It's interesting that two members of the wider gaming group are getting into Warhammer Fantasy Battle, they've even taken the brave step of using the facilities at a Games Workshop store to run their initial games. This is happening while my brother and nephew are getting into Warhammer 40K and have built some of their own facilities in the shed (along with a Scalextric set). It's interesting because getting seriously into Games Workshop miniature wargames has always been something I've flirted with but avoided.

Warhammer Fantasy Battle was never really something I flirted with, but I did often sit on the extreme edge of Warhammer 40K. The reason for this wasn't really anything to do with the world of the game, though it was interesting enough, it was mostly to do with the supposed scale of the game when it was first released. The idea was Warhammer Fantasy Battle was for big battles while Warhammer 40K was aligned with smaller skirmishes with each figure representing a specific individual. I have no idea what the proposition is now, or whether it was actually true, but that was one of the selling points at the time. You need less miniatures to play the smaller battles of Warhammer 40K. On this basis I did buy the rulebook for Warhammer 40K.

I never did much else with it, a handful of basic games aside. I think this was for a couple of reasons. The first reason is the game tends to rely on network externalities as you need other people to play with who have armies painted and built. The game never really took off significantly among my social circle. I do remember one strange occurrence. I went to a local wargaming club with a friend, to play a small skirmish with our miniatures on a table with some scenery. It was an interesting culture clash as we were in our twenties and everyone else was in their forties and with a beard, as if having a beard was an entry requirement. Not only that, our game was the odd one out, as everyone else was playing historical wargames with bigger armies of historical miniatures. They were doing real wargames. They found us a bit odd, and our game not that serious and we'd committed the cardinal sin of not having painted figures. Still, we got on with our game and it was fine. I believe some of the games being played at the club had been going on for weeks.

This brings me to the second problem, it wasn't really a hobby you could do casually. You needed to create point controlled armies, buy the figures and paint them. The figures were not cheap in terms of money or time. I am not a very practical person, physically at least, and as such the chances of me painting a figure in a way that wouldn't look like a complete disaster was minimal. There was also the issue that I wouldn't find going into isolation and painting figures that much fun. The game I might have been interested in, the essential activities surrounding it, I wasn't. Even the scale of Warhammer 40K battles, a few squads and the odd vehicle, was too much. Looking back on it now, it sort of has the same issues as an MMO, in that you can do it casually, but the maximum benefit is achieved by it not being a game you play but almost a way of life or a hobby.

This wasn't the end of it though, as Games Workshop released the Epic range for Warhammer 40K which allowed for battles with a larger armies, but had a much reduced buy in cost due to the size of the figures. The other advantage was, the miniatures were so small it was almost pointless painting them as the standard vehicle was smaller than a standard Warhammer 40K miniature. A typical soldier was represented by a diminutive 6mm figure. This had the advantage more figures could be used and some of the bigger units would be represented on the battlefield. I think I had the rules and miniatures for both Space Marines and Eldar. Regrettably, the game got played even less than my handful of normal scale Warhammer 40K games.

After all this I came to the conclusion my future was with boxed games that are pretty much complete in and off themselves. The main reason why this worked? It meant that I could play the game and the additional activities to engage with the hobby didn't exist. This seems to be a common theme in my life as I've avoided hobbies with these 'supporting activities', either financial or time related, that are required to take part. The result is little exposure to miniature wargames and hobbies such as collectable card games, etc. This also meant I stayed away from games that might have worked for me, I'm thinking of stuff like HeroClix, which had the advantage of working on a smaller scale and coming with painted miniatures. The problem was you had to collect the miniatures, you couldn't just buy them.

As for now? Well, I suspect the closest I'll come is our battles in the 4E Campaign, which are interesting and I don't have to collect or paint miniatures.

Permalink | Comments(2) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 22/01/2009 Bookmark and Share
Hard, Gobble And No Wiggle
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

It's been a while since I last looked at Wild Talents after buying it on a whim for 3 GBP. It had some good ideas in terms of a fancy dice mechanic and it was pretty cool in terms of how it handled people who are just extremely skilled. In fact, as superhero systems go this was probably it's main advantage.

I still don't like it though, largely because it seemed just too fiddly in ways that I don't really value that much. While the dice mechanic is clever it's just clever for the sake of it if you don't overly value what it produces. That wasn't the main problem though, something else was lingering that I wasn't able to put my finger on until now.

My main problem with it is it ain't a facilitating game on a couple of levels.

The first problem is the characters come out as a load of powers at the system level and there isn't much detail in other areas. There is a few details, around the use of willpower but it's a far cry from aspects in Fate or the complications in Mutants and Masterminds which drive the hero point system. This means they seem a bit dry. It's true that players can add all this stuff but I've become a bit enamoured of these things being at the system level. The power system in Wild Talents makes it even worse because the way the powers are constructed is....mechanical and devoid of all excitement.

The powers brings me to another point. The way the power rules work means the game isn't a 'just say yes' game, mechanically it constantly forces you to say no. The reason for this is the way the powers are constructed. As an example, you can take flight, but you can't attack with flight unless you take the attacking option. It doesn't matter what the player wants to do or the enterprising things he thinks off he cannot use his 'rating' in flight to attack without that extra option. It just can't happen. The player wants to ram someone utilising his high speed flight? The Gm would have to say no. It's this, above all other things, that I find criminal. This is a far cry from more open systems, or even structured ones like Mutants and Masterminds which effectively allow the use of any other power for the use of a hero point (though the intention is for it to remain within the character's theme).

I finally pinned it down. Despite the fancy mechanics, which does allow for some clever ideas, the game is about as old school and limiting as you can get.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 19/01/2009 Bookmark and Share
5 Great RPG Campaigns
A while back, and I mean a while back, I sat down and decided to pick out the best role-playing campaigns I've played in. I think the first draft of the article was done around six months ago, and it's loitered around on the hard disk since then getting the odd edit. I've meant to put it on the site and then never got around to it.

Finally, it's been added to the site.

Permalink | Comments(2) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 16/01/2009 Bookmark and Share
Five Doctor Who Serials

One of the random things I encountered while clicking around the web is the Doctor Who Serial Title Generator, which is a very basic website but it's cool to play with for about 5 minutes. I generated a few single titles to see what the lay of the land was then decided to hit the generate 5 option and see what I got. The result was the following lurid serial titles:-

  • Talons of Horror
  • The Death Warrior
  • The Horror of the Universe
  • The Keepers
  • The Fury of the Resurrection

Obviously it's working by throwing certain word combinations together based on previous Doctor Who serials and the types of words that might appear with a bit of imagination. I'm sure if you did it for long enough, or possibly not so long, you'd encounter a very common theme. If you tell it to generate 20 in one go you get repeats, so it's database might not be that fantastic.

I'm sure someone buying the Buffy, sorry, Doctor Who role-playing game would find it interesting to generate a batch of titles and extrapolate them into ideas for a Doctor Who series. It'd be a challenge anyway.

In my mind the Fury of the Resurrection is already a sequel to Talons of Horror

Queue music....

Permalink | Comments(2) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 13/01/2009 Bookmark and Share
4E Session #12: A Paragon Tier Prequel

We started the 4E campaign again yesterday and it was an experience. We've basically split the campaign into the three tiers defined by the rules. We finished the Heroic Tier just before Christmas and we started the Paragon Tier last tonight, though it was more a small prequel.

The original characters have changed a bit from their Heroic Tier selves, so we now have:

  • Morn: Former Paladin of the Unfettered God. Morn lost the woman he lusted after and his faith in the City of Kings. He wields the Hammer of a Titan with an attitude to match. After overthrowing Darius he declared that he had had enough of Gods and Demons and walked off into the desert. As the game starts he is the Lord of the Pit, Arena Champion of the City of Daal (Fighter/Pit Fighter).
  • Assamber: Mage and one time devotee of the Primordial Mael. Assamber is a member of the ocean going Lokarnos people. He has plumbed the depths of the Maelstrom, the font of all magical power and returned changed. Once a worshipper of the Gods now he sees himself perhaps as their equal (Wizard/Spellstorm Mage).
  • Azhanti: Dragonborn Priest of Vulcan, Lord of Storms and father of the Dragonborn race. Vulcan is a dead God but his spirit lives on. Azhanti intends to correct that mistake and elevate himself to the position. He seeks allies in various elemental Courts (Cleric/Radiant Servant).
  • Artemis: A wanderer, Ranger of the Pashtun desert people. Artemis came to the City of Kings to seek revenge on Akaran Trak'Ar for kidnapping and raping his mother. Trak'Ar is dead and Artemis has sought new purpose for his life. He has wondered into the vast dune sea and communed with the great spirits of his people with the goal of becoming their chosen champion, the legendary hunter of his people. They have gifted him with a spirit of the desert winds and rolling dunes that takes the form of giant desert tiger (Beastmaster Ranger/Battle Archer).
  • Chiniko: An Orcale of a strange people of the freezing lands of the south. They are worshippers of Sopias in his aspect of the Lord of Dreams. Chiniko has been dispatched to help the group to find the Heart of Sopias and the other Primordials. It is unclear yet whether Chiniko seeks to free the insane Sopias, kill him or cure him (Warlock/Radiant Servant).

Six months have past since the end of the Heroic Tier and the battle at the City of Kings. Four of those heroes, plus a new member, are already hunting down the 5 Primordial hearts in order to keep a mad Primordial in his prison under the city. This session involved going to the trade city of Daal, home of the Masked Lords, and a legendary gladiatorial arena. The aim being to recruit Morn back into the team who has been drowning his loss of faith in the celebrity of being the arenas champion. Needless to say we recruited Morn back into the fold only for the Masked Lords to betray him in the arena, thus all the heroes joined the fight in a grand gladiatorial battle. It was a bit like a fantasy version of the set-up in Attack of the Clones mixed with Gladiator, complete with some sort of giant displacer beast. It was a great miniature anyway, and annoying enemy as you'd use daily powers on it only to find it had displaced itself! Still, it's power shall be mine as we are turning it's hide into some displacer armour.

As we move through the tiers we want the campaign to change, mostly the goal is to change the theme and scope of the campaign. The theme has certainly changed as we are now heroes of great renown and ability, striding across the known world in a floating ship having adventures of a grand, melodramatic, pulp nature along the way (and collecting the hearts). What was also quite a shock, to me anyway, since I didn't overly think about it, was how the combat has changed.

There are a number of reasons for this:

  • A change from Paladin to Fighter for one of the characters
  • The introduction of a Warlock as an additional character
  • The introduction of Paragon and Paragon Path abilities
  • The enhancement of our Legacy Items with magical properties

All this has changed how the group works and we are effective in a different way. Since the tactics in 4E are based on the interaction of powers these dynamics add up. We also have a number of things in the mix that last beyond a round or place on-going effects on enemies. These things need recording and tracking. As an example, I have a 'Withering' power on my legacy item that means I reduce a targets armour class every time I hit it, but this needs remembering and whoever controls the target needs to remember to save against it. It's very powerful ability, if you track it, and also it could be a very strategic ability since my Ranger can now not only be used for damage but as a damage enabler by working to reduce AC on key targets for a period (every +1 to hit is quite powerful).

The combination of elements actually make our team 'power output' much higher, it's a bigger than the sum of its parts thing. As an example, in the first half of the heroic tier the Wizard never really felt as effective as he should be. As we've gained more powers, the Wizard has become much more powerful as we can now keep the enemies within the area of the Wizard's spells. In the fight today we managed to keep enemies between the Wall of Fire and the Fighter thus punishing them for whatever they did. If they tried to move out of the Wall of Fire they would potentially get hit by the Fighter which in turn stands a chance to hold them in place.

The combat scene felt a bit like the first one we did as a practice before the Heroic Tier, so it seems like there is a bit of re-learning needed both in how we use our powers and track them effectively. At one point it even seemed like it might be too much effort. I suspect it's just going to take a slightly different approach, with the players ensuring they take on some of the burden of tracking their own powers. It's certainly worth giving it all a go. I know I'm wanting to re-organise the way I manage my powers in the game, I'm just not sure how yet.

It's going to be good.

Permalink | Comments(3) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 12/01/2009 Bookmark and Share
The Shared Module Culture
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

One of the interesting aspects of role-playing games in the ancient days of yore was the availability of adventures. A lot of games released at least one or two while some like Dungeons and Dragons had loads of modules, actually created as a number of series, resulting in 'classics' like The Temple of Elemental Evil, Keep on the Borderlands and Against The Giants (and no doubt many others). The odd game, such as Call of Chuthulu and Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play had adventures that arguably outstripped the 'fame' of the games themselves. The whole 'module culture' isn't as prevalent these days as most games don't release adventures at all. The argument is they just ain't economical.

What's been lost is the module culture. Gamers of a certain age all have a shared memory of playing these modules. They may not have all played them at the same time, in the same place and with the same people but play them they did. It's often interesting to see games who didn't game together discuss 'common' experiences playing through modules, some of them more than once. It has a bit of an MMO feel to be honest. I missed all this, though I won't go as far as to say I regret missing it, as my gaming history just didn't encounter them. I think I was gaming during their popularity, it's just we had a focus on creating our own stuff (and my lack of a Dungeons and Dragons apprenticeship also feeds into it).

I did encounter a few though. I remember we set out to play The Enemy Within campaign but I think we only managed to play through the first adventure (which had the same name as the campaign). Have to admit, I don't remember it being that special, but maybe what made it unique was encapsulated in playing the whole series. I'm also pretty sure I played the Isle of Dread, though 'played it' is probably stretching the use of the term. The GM of the time used the location for a few sessions. Interestingly, I think Isle of Dread was one, if not the first, to be significantly focused on wilderness adventuring, with the focus being on dungeon modules up until that point? I've also played in a couple of Golden Heroes modules, specifically Legacy of Heroes and Queen Victoria and the Holy Grail. I've only got dim memories of them, but I remember the Queen Victoria one being a bit odd, but the GM wasn't exactly great so it may have been that. I seem to remember a battle at the top of the BT tower in London? I'd probably find that a lot cooler now than I did then. I suspect I've also played parts of one Call of Cthuhlu adventure or another, most probably the opening parts without going much further.

I've used modules even less. In fact, the only two modules I think I've used have been West End Games Star Wars modules, specifically Tatooine Manhunt and Starfall. I particularly liked Starfall as it put the characters on a Stardestroyer just as rebels attacked it creating a Poseidon Adventure affair with them trying to get off the vessel in the chaos before the rebels came back to finish it off. It was quite a clever premise. I possessed a few modules I never used, some of the big ones, those modules that came in boxes, and they had heft and weight. I remember having Lords of the Expanse and The Darkstryder Campaign. I also have a vague memory of a Judge Dredd boxed set that ended with the Judges trying to stop some nuclear missiles launching? It may have been called The Water Margin.

All gone though, whether missed or not depends on the individual. It's certainly true that gaming has gone from a more homogeneous experience with a lot of common ground for people, to one that is more diverse and fragmented with a lot less common experience.

Permalink | Comments(2) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 01/01/2009 Bookmark and Share
Keeping Me Happy (In A Role-Playing Game)

I've probably explained how to keep me happy at the gaming table before. Possibly in bits and pieces, across comments or possibly using too many flowery terms or theoretical bollocks. I'm going to consolidate it in one place and keep it simple. It can all be thrown in with my 'screw it just game' philosophy and in line with that I'm going to keep specific system elements out of it as well.

So, I can summarise how to keep me happy at the gaming table with the following key points (in a sort of order, but don't take the order too seriously):

  • Relationships
  • Decisions and Change
  • Motion and Unpredictability

It's all about relationships. If anything can be said to be consistent it's this. Any character I create may bring in a whole host of things, but at the core are a set of relationships on which everything often hinges. There is usually a family element to this, but it may not be the entirety of it. If due to circumstances this isn't presented before actual play starts, it will be a few sessions in as I get a feel for the game and flesh out the background then. I may add stuff to my background later to support relationships in game, something I've done in both D&D campaigns the group has (or is) playing. Ideally, great dramatic relationships would exist between player characters as well, but we often have these in existence but don't tackle them. Relationships that aren't necessarily 'of great dramatic weight' but have 'something' are also cool, examples of such relationships would be Bethany's society friends and her strange relationship with 'The Geeks' in the Buffy campaign. They have a chance to create some humour, introduce things from left field or push interesting buttons.

It's about making decisions that changing things just because the character is one of the stars of the story therefore that is what he exists to do. These changes may be internal or in the web of relationships that surround the character or both. He may change. Relationships may change. Great failures and successes should spin off from these decisions causing the need for more decisions and more change. It's all good, it's just new story being created. If there is anything I dislike it's a feeling something predefined has been established with an expected result that is being worked towards. Situation is better, with no one knowing the effect on the characters involved or the new situation afterwards. Ultimately, the player decides the type of story he wants and the rough direction he wants it to take via his character's decisions.

Motion and unpredictability are good, because they result in decision points coming from nowhere, often in ways no one involved envisaged. This can be through action scenes or just dynamic, interesting scenes that don't involve any action but have sense of momentum and motion. This is why I always want to avoid 'playing' the game away from the table, as the natural result of doing that is something expected and just 'playing what has already been decided'. I like scenes to have a bit of motion and excitement based on interesting interactions. Mix it up, see where things go! I tend to switch off in scenes that I think are happening just as part of a 'solve the plot' dynamic. It's about motion.

I'm a big fan of the Star Wars principle of why blow up a base when you can blow up a planet? To me, this holds true at every level. The player characters should operating at maximum capacity in terms of their relationships and actions. Always add that extra 'X Factor' to scenes. Why have a scene with a player character and the princess he loves in a corridor when it can be in a grand ball with his love rival looking on? If you have a web of relationships in place why have scenes on an individual basis, mix it up in a grand conference? If two ex-lovers, now enemies, are going to have a conflict, have it while a city burns to the ground around them? In short, you should always be destroying planets, and this works for all games and genres in their own unique ways. That scale and motion provides the framework for unpredictability as it provides opportunities for other things to happen.

Ultimately, the brilliance of role-playing games for me comes down to the fact you can get some good scenes but with the unpredictability and excitement of 'where is this going to go' that comes with playing these things out in the moment at the actual table with no set ideas of the end result (general purpose / conflict aside).

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 22/12/2008 Bookmark and Share
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
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