Thursday, December 22, 2011

Fourthcore and Pathfinder

First I should apologize for my absence. I've noticed most blogsters don't like lots of personal explanation why a blogger has been gone--just get back to blogging, eh? Well said. Let's just say life gave our family a double whammy the past month or so. Happens sometimes. I have been doing lots of gaming though. Our twice a week Pathfinder game is rocking hard. We had one TPK and about 5 other deaths on top of that. Most just made second level now though and these young gamers are starting to get wise as to what it takes to stay alive in the deadly world of an Old School Golarion that is their home. So things are good.

But that's not what I'm blogging about at any length today. No, all this Pathfinder gaming has made me reevaluate alot of things in relation to old school and what it is and what I am. I've written alot about this before, but it bears repeating now, since so much has been better assimilated with time. I've always wondered if old school meant rules lite. I personally have never been a rules lite gamer. I liked a depth to the rules that in my opinion enriched the game. I suppose that's why I always played AD&D instead of BX, even though I had both sets. But so much of the old school community are into rules lite role playing. Where did that leave me?

Well, not really out of the genre. I knew I preferred a hard core game. And by that I mean a deadly and extremely challenging sort of gaming that caused plays to dig out the best in themselves in order to stay alive. This often takes the form of sinister traps; incredibly intelligent, responsive and evil adversaries; horridly adverse environmental challenges; a weird and wonderful fantasy world full of newness and bizarre magic; magic items are rare, dangerous and powerful and unfortunately often cursed or tainted. The tropes that drive my adventures aren't really the high fantasy of Tolkien as much as the weird strangeness of Jack Vance, HP Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Arthur Machen, Michael MoorCock, Star Trek TOS, Dr. Who, Lin Carter, L. Sprague DeCamp, Robert Lyn Asprin and others. If it gives you any idea of what I am talking about my favorite adventures were the S series from the AD&D period. Especially Tomb of Horrors and Expedition to Barrier Peaks. I am famous for inventing monsters not in the books, magic items that while they give a powerful ability or two, also tended to be possess by evil spirits, cursed by twisted magic or linked to some nasty demon or two; and for my blatant over use of dismembering traps; and save vs death poison. Good stuff that.

So where the heck did I fit? Hard to say, but my games had a certain old school feel reminiscent of early Greyhawk from what I could surmise based on reading old accounts of such gaming and talking to gamers even older than me. I wasn't alone--just a bit of a rare bug. A love of baroque, gothic rules structures as twisted and labyrinthine as the dungeons they spawned. I personally loved the massive expansion of the 2e period, even if I didn't like some of the rule changes.

Well, not long ago I ran across Fourthcore. Fourthcore is a concept or gaming genre that supports 4th edition dungeons and dragons, but from more of an old school mindset. In fact for a detailed summary of what Fourthcore is all about read their manifesto. To summarize here Fourthcore basically consists of the following assumptions:
  • Adventures should be DIFFICULT
  • Adventures should be DEADLY
  • Magic and treasures should be GREAT
  • Everything should be OVER THE TOP
  • The world should be BLEAK
  • One word: DEATH TRAP DUNGEONS!!!! Okay three words with lots of exclamation points
  • GAMIST
I must say that I really like this approach. not as something I will adopt, but as a good explanation of what I am about when I game. It's sort of like what I already am. I struggled a bit with the Gamist approach, but when I realized the way I game I had to admit my penchant for detailed and complex rules really fostered a gamist approach in my campaigns. You have to know the rules and use them to your advantage. While metagaming can detract from the story, one of the surest ways to death was focusing too much on the way you think things should be and not taking the way the game works into consideration. After all gaming IS about GM vs Player. Some might say that my focus is more story oriented or Narrativist than pure Gamist, and they might be true to a degree. But put a contest up between the two and Gamist would come out on top. How? Simply because I am not going to rescue players from their own stupidity or bad die rolls simply so the story can go on. The story unfolds with or without the PCs. The story does not drive the game the game does, but the story is what is generated by the game. I've spoken to this before also.

So what does this have to do with Pathfinder? Well it has everything to do with my Pathfinder. Because this is the way I play, and currently I am playing Pathfinder. So I suppose you could say I'm playing "Pathcore". Which was the point of my last few published posts back in early November. That gaming sweet spot for me that combines the best of various resources that support my style of gaming. Just built on a Pathfinder base. There are a number of gamers doing just this right now. Check out the Fourthcore site and also new adventure designers like Stephen Newton at Thick Skull Adventures. Goodman Games did the same thing for 3.5 with their DCC line of adventures. Though Goodman is now headed more towards his new game DCC RPG.

Which, btw I'm really looking forward to. I've already got my copy ordered. It will give me all sorts of food for my style of gaming. Even Stephen is thinking about heading that direction. But I'm sticking with PF, and it's rule heavy gamist structure--I'm coming to like it quite a lot. It's just that the DCC RPG will be in my stack of add ins that make Pathfinder Pathcore for me and my gamers. Good stuff that.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

My Hybridized Pathfinder Game--Take 2

Second session two days ago. We've broke the groups up into two, and three people didn't show up to the Tuesday session. That means we were down to five, which is pretty darn close to ideal. We all fit at the table anyway. Tonight's group is listed as 10, but I'm hoping a few drop out there too. The first group I'm running (on Tue) is going through: DCC #28 Into the Wilds

They are having a blast so far. The dire bat riders were quite a challenge but they made it to Wildsgate for some healing and made alliances so they can try to talk with Lady Aborn. Can't wait until they get underway to the caves.

My Thursday group is going through my bastardized refit of Hackmaster's version of B1 Quest for the Unknown, which I mentioned previously.

And my troubles with my players being a little concerned about my houserules for PF has waned considerably since I clarified what I had changed and why. We are using a highly modified critcial hit and fumble table. Multiclassing can only be done back in civilization under a new master for the first level; but leveling up is fine during the adventure. I have restricted certain armor and weapons; taking of a prestige class must be roleplayed between adventures. And to start we are only useing core rulebook races and classes. But that will be expanded as we go. And I'm finding out that as I read through the PF stuff and get more familiar with the rules I'm out rules lawyering my rules lawyers!  so, bring it on Baybeee! I got GAME!


Saturday, October 29, 2011

18 Players At The Table!!!


Thinking about buying this table for our weekly game : )

We had a good gaming session yesterday. Noone died, but one of the thieves lost a hand (insert appropriately evil laugh here). And get this, we had 18 players at the table! Yeah I wrote that right, 18 freakin players. I was worried we would lose some from last session because there was 12 at the table. Nope, now we're at 18! Blew my mind. Well, actually it doesn't break out record of 22 players a few years ago. And truthfully this is the whole reason we split groups.

So, as chaotically crazy as the the fun was, we decided to split into two weekly sessions. We'll now meet on Tuesday with a group of 8 and Thursday with a group of 10. Still really large groups, but finding time for one more day right now has been really tough for me. I did offer to allow someone to step up and DM a third game, using my room to game while I worked at my desk. Two of the more experienced gamers were willing, but noone wanted to leave the other groups to to go to their games. I'm limiting sessions to one per week per player. Otherwise we would have 18 in every session we ran. Crazy, huh? But crazy in a good way.

And I've been getting my horror on lately. Reading through the 3.5 book Heroes of Horror to spice up the campaign a bit. And this is really significant for me. After my last post about not being able to read any PF books I took a hard look at my gaming from a purely practical standpoint. I of course felt like running back into the arms of 1e and play with my toys by myself. But I reconsidered. Truth is I haven't really given PF a fair shake. My players love the system right now and the newbies are just starting to get into it. They do love the game, and I should really stick to my word this year and play PF like I promised.

So I was looking through my old 3.5 stuff, which I used to like reading at times (the 3.0 Deities and DemiGods was pretty good) and came across Heroes of Horror. I've been reading lots of horror and dark fantasy fiction lately. Currently the Necronomicon collection of the best of Lovecraft's fiction:
Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey:
About a young kid who is apprenticed to a scholarly monster hunter. And Revenge of the Witch in The Last Apprentice series:
About another young apprentice who is learning to protect his community from monsters, boggarts, spirits, and other more sinister forces that plague the people of the time.

All of these books are giving me great campaign ideas, that I'm really excited about. Of course I'm too busy whining about the fact that noone wants to play 1e with me. Then I picked up Heroes of Horror. And man, I am really enjoying reading it. Some of the campaign creepiness that it suggests, truly wicked adventure hooks, and scary adventure elements have got me more scared than any of the above books, believe it or not. I was reading it last night, and literally had to put it down because a section on story pacing and details in horror kind of weirded me out. All me to quote:

"It's gruesome, and perhaps even a bit disturbing, to describe the dismembered bodies of a family scattered across the floor when the PCs investigate a house. consider instead the benefits of a step by step revelation. Initially the PCs see only an empty living room, barely lit by their torches. They hear only the squeak of hinges and the creak of floorboards. The room appears empty, but successful Spot and Search checks reveal scrapes on the floor and impressions in the dust that suggest the furniture was pushed around recently, then moved roughly back into place. A faint scent, vaguely fruity, hangs in the air, noticeable only as the PCs move away from the front door. T cupboards are fully stocked. Dishes stand stacked beside the stove, in which the fire has gone cold and a bit of ef lies seared to charcoal. As the PCs approach the stairs, the most keen-eared among them (those who make Listen checks) detect the faintest of dripping water.

The stairs creak as the characters climb them, making stealth difficult. Near the top of the stairs, something black scuttles out of the shadows and races across the floor! No, it's just a rat . . . a rat with something in its mouth, something that smears a wet trail across the wooden slats of the second story floor. A strange, flickering light, like that of guttering candles, leaks out into the hall from a door only slightly ajar. The fruitlike scent is stronger here, but it's almost lost amid a much stronger miasma, something coppery and acrid and too familiar anyone who has ever been in battle.

If the PCs carefully push the door open, they find that unlike the one downstairs it doesn't make any sound at all. Examinations show that the hinges have been greased with some sort of rendered fat. Inside the room, on every horizontal surface, jack-o-lanterns glow, lit from within by long-burning candles. In every carved eye socket sits a human eyeball. Every carved mouth displays a macabre grin formed of human teeth. And there, lying on the floor . . ."



And that's just freaking cool.

And of course it couldn't come at a better time of the year, eh? I've been getting into horror more and more lately anyway, but it's all sort of come together in a perfect storm of terror for me. Much to the bane of my players. We are going through my adapted Hackmaster version of B1 and if there's anything that HM does well is it gore. The foyer after the long alcove with the magic mouths is a scene right out of a horror movie and let's just say I used it to full effect.

So, long story short. I'm having fun. Fun with Pathfinder. And fun with 18 eager players at the table. We left the last session with three trash trolls bounding up the towards them. And they were screaming foul that we ended on a such a cliff hanger. But as they gathered their stuff and left they were busily planning their strategy for next time all the way down the hall and out of the building. Good stuff. Well, if you don;t hear from before Monday have a great Halloween and fantastic gaming in truly horrific style.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

How Dragon Magazine Saved My Life ...

Well ... my gaming life anyway. Allow me to explain:

It just seems to make sense that you should play what you like reading about. I suppose that there are some games that read well but don't play well. But generally speaking if reading about a game gets you excited then it's probably a good bet that you will like playing it. Right? Or am I just fooling myself?


So the other day I'm reading some old Dragon magazines from like 1994. The articles ranged from starting a new campaign to making your liches more "alive". Good stuff. Now to be honest I didn't read much of Dragon in the 90s. But I was pleased to see that Sage Advice was still a regular column, and quite pleased to note new features like First Quest, Bazaar of the Bizarre and other such treats. I'll also admit to being a 1e player fairly exclusively. We raided bits and pieces from 2e, but our games were pretty much all 1e endeavors. And of course Dragon in the 90s was a second edition rag. So anyway, I'm reading through the magazine and really liking what I'm reading. I don't know if it's the style, the articles, the approach, the ads, the comics in the back or what, but I'm really itching to play with these rules. I really like what I'm reading. I mean I'm excited like I haven't been in a long time.

So it strikes me after leaving the park where I was reading (my kids were playing, I was sitting on a bench "supervising") that I haven't even been able to get through the Pathfinder Core book. I mean I've skimmed it, and familiarized myself with it's broad strokes, but I'm just not excited about reading it. I have read an adventure path or two, but no hardbacks. And while I'll admit to the good writing and well constructed nature of PF modules, they just don't make me want to play, or get me excited like these old Dragons have. Now why is that?

Well, I don't think it's rocket science really. I think I like that style of play. I think that those old writers were all First edition players that were now wriing for second. They wrote with a certain type of player in mind and that player was me. Even the purpose behind the articles, what the magazine was trying to bring to it's readership was right up my alley.

Which has really thrown me for a loop. This happens to me over and over again. I decide to compromise only to later change my mind. I am simply not going to be happy unless I get back to what I really like to play. I've been fooling myself by arguing that the past is gone and everyone else is playing other stuff. So the hell what? I mean it's all kind of pointless if you aren't having fun, right? I said that too. And when it comes right down to it that's what's most important.

We played PF two Thursdays ago and are due to play another session this Thursday. It wasn't bad, but I find myself constantly questioning what I'm doing, and I can see that the players are sort of uncertain about my approach. I'm trying to "old school" the game a bit, and I can tell the more experienced players are raising their eyebrows more than usual. The last time I played PF with them (over a year ago), we played pretty much RAW. Now we are not quite playing RAW; and my house rules keep expanding. I'm trying to make the game my own, add my own spedazzle. But who am I really helping here? I'm not completely happy because I'm trying to twist a game to fit my style, and the players aren't happy because they were told this is a PF game and they aren't exactly getting what they were promised. That's not good GMing. Heck it's not even good playing.

This has been eating at my subconscious for the last two weeks. I've largely ignored it, but have you noticed that I'm writing less on my blog? I've also read next to no gaming books for the past two weeks, and that is a little unusual for me. It was all good I kept telling myself. I'm just changing with the hobby; it's been long overdue. So what if the books don't excite me, at least I'm playing again. Right? ... Right.

Or is it? It wasn't really until I picked up those old Dragon magazines and started reading through them that it smacked me in the ace. Right now I feel like writing a personal thank you to each one of those authors for helping me to light my fire again. To remind me what I'm all about when it comes to gaming.
Right now? I'm at my daughter's Halloween piano recital, blogging about gaming on my IPad; and underneath my IPad? you probably guessed. Issues 225, 226, and 227 of Dragon magazine. Yep. And I'm so excited about cracking them open and starting to read them for the first time that I can hardly finish this blog entry. I keep writing because I'm excited about blogging about gaming again! Gaming I know, gaming I love.

Oh, and by the way. Yes I did stop blogging when my daughter was playing. Even took pictures. I'm a geek, but I'm not a total idiot.

Game on friends.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

"In case you couldn't tell" & "Gaming Necessity"

I've been busy again. But I have started a once a week game at school again. It's sort of an unofficial trial for the club, pending my workload primarily. I can't really say the club is up and running full force. But it is club members. No one bit at my C&C ad at the hobby shop, so I'm going to be putting out an ad at the local library and community activity boards, see what takes. If that doesn't draw anyone, I'm going to call up a few guys I know want to game, maybe 4e, maybe 3.5/Pathfinder and get a once or twice a month game going at the hobby shop.

Work has been so crazy lately that it's hard to plan anything. Lots going on. But that will give me about 4 to 6 sessions a month and that's pretty good, eh? I've also got several trail runs I want to try soon. ADD Grognard's Deep Delve deserves a few sessions just for feedback for him if nothing else. And I want to run a short campaign of Dungeon Crawl Classics. I may also give Crypts and Things a go just to see how it feels. I've always been pretty much a one game man--system of choice and all that. But lately I've had to make some changes. Gaming is gaming (pretty much anyway), and until I get a group of hard core gaming friends I'm gonna be bouncing around alot system-wise.

That was the idea behind the last post. I've kind of have been pulled into running Pathfinder, and may be running some 4e soon. But I'm not too proud to go that way if it gets me at the gaming table. I just like to bring in lots of unconventional old school weirdness and danger to whatever game I'm playing. So for me the "sweet spot" is a combination of the right gaming elements and actually gaming.  Given my druthers and all that I'd rather be playing something lots more like 1e--but hey, it's all good.

So what I though was to try things out with whatever group I play with. Get 'em to play some DCC RPG, C&T, Deep Delve, Munchkin, Gamma World, etc. See if we can find some things we all like as an alternative to what we might be choosing to play on a regular basis. But whatever the case I'm good with what everyone else wants to play, within reason.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Hackmasterizing Pathfinder

Take a Pathfinder Base
With all the resplendent goodness that entails ... 
Add All of 3.0/3.5 D&D
and I do mean AAAAAALLLLLLL of it

Now Season Liberally With Hackmaster 4.0
Amid the screams and jeers of all of those namby pamby wuss players
Now Trick Out Your Game World With Some Really Cool But Scary Stuff





And A Few Handy Resources for Problematic Players
Add It all Together And You Hit My Gaming ...


Saturday, October 15, 2011

The New Old School ... Meh ...

New school, old school, rules lite, crunchy ... meh ... Whatever, right? Well, I consider myself an old school gamer, but I'm not even sure what that means anymore. Some, I'm sure, will think that the New Old School is the old school renaissance movement and self publishing. That's cool. Whatever. Others might think it's about rules lite roleplaying. Awesome. Lots of good stuff can be done in rules lite. Whatever. Meh

What I do is my thing. It may be old school to some, new school to others, just plain screwed up to others yet. It's all really just relative isn't it? And let me tell you I've been all over this argument. Had it, won it, lost it, been utterly confused by it. There are a few wise people out there who'll try and tell you what you really need to hear: "If you aint having fun you aint doin it right." And that's all you need to know. It's a game after all.

The other day I had some kids come to my classroom after school and wanted to run an OSRIC game. The guy they had lassoed was actually a HS kid that had played some OSRIC with a couple other guys and said he would DM the younger guys. They were all stoked beyond belief. Since we had to cancel the game club at that time, they have all been hungering for any kind of game. So I listened in as I worked at my desk as he ran them through creating their PCs and starting the game. Let's just say it wasn't at all what you might expect from an OSRIC game. The DM was telling them all sorts of stuff I knew was not in the rules, and that had nothing to do with OSRIC, let alone D&D. I thought about correcting him, but that would undermine his confidence and maybe lead to a loss of their game if they lost confidence in him. So I stayed quiet and just smiled once in awhile. Because you know what. Noone cared. They were all excited and into it.
Someone might think he was just making it up as he went along, and maybe he was. Who cares? They were gonna go have an adventure and all they needed was common consent. They were all having fun, and that's all that mattered. Now, as time goes on for them, they'll start reading the rules and start rules lawyering and maybe even move onto other games. Who cares. That's cool too. As long as they are having fun.

Because any game and I mean any game is in the eyes of those that play it. It can be whatever you make it. Take for example what Paizo has done with their most recent release:


Now, maybe you might claim they are riding the wave. But honestly the beginner's box is a good example of what a game can be when you are willing to look outside of the box. Even thought the game is billed as an intro to the full core game, I see here a way to play Pathfinder rules lite if that is your thing. I'm not sure if Paizo will put out a separate line to support the boxed set, but it doesn't really matter. A GM and players can choose to play just boxed set rules and keep it much simpler as high as they want to take it. And this is an "official" change of perspective on their bread and butter game. Frankly I love it. Even though I would prefer to play the crunchier full PF rules.

For example, since a little time has opened up, I have started a once a week game for the kids in the school club again. It's a little bit of a logistical nightmare, especially with 12 players wanting to play right now in my game. But I decided to play the game they chose -- Pathfinder, and run with it. But we are playing full rules. We are even allowing lots of 3.5 stuff in if it's approved. But what I'm doing with the game is tricking it out to my liking. There are actually lots of optional rules out there for PF and more coming all the time. I'm ramping up combat and implementing an advanced critical hit matrix, and expanding the information on grievous wounding. I tend to be a GM that requires teamwork by constructing challenges that cannot be overcome alone. Going it alone in my dungeons is never a good idea. Challenges either have multiple layers, or require more than one person to navigate. I also strongly encourage intelligent roleplay. You have to be very careful and considered when confronting beasties in my dungeons. They are not plastic cutouts to simply be knocked over. They think, they strategize and they are evil. I also tend to make them tough. Currently I'm modifying B1 In Search of the Unknown, Hackmaster version. This adventure is excellent for all these purposes. 

Some might not consider such an approach Pathfinder-like enough. But what I see is a game that has maximized the munchkin factor, and it's just gonna get worse. 3.5 and now PF is a player's wet dream if they like an endless power curve. There's balance, yeah, to a point. But I'm not hung up on balance anyway. The fact is I'm a  DM in a system that gives the players maximal min-max power. Alright, kewl. But have you read the Gamemastery Guide? There are lots of prose in there about tweaking things to your liking and adding in little bits that aren't presented as such in the core rules. PF is telling you in so many words, that the GM has some power too. And all those annoying Dragon Disciples and Shadow Blades and War Mages all tricked out and riding through your dungeon like sweetened up low riders through the east side of LA--well, you can meet them on their own level.

Yes it does ...
Well, okay maybe not just kill him. But you have to meet him on his level. The power curve problem that has supposedly plagued D&D from the start has never posed a problem for me. That's because I believe the game was designed not to play RAW and only RAW, but to offer a continually challenging environment for the PCs no matter how far along they got. There are tons of ways to do that, some much simpler than others. But it isn't really hard. Any game worth it's salt allows that and builds it into the system, even if it is an open invitation to make it up as you go along.

Cause let's face it, the one thing that can kill creativity faster than anything is someone claiming authority over your creativity. Someone saying you can't do this or that. This or that isn't allowed. That's why so many artists are avante garde, out at the edge, pushing the limits. Not that it's always good to do so, there is a right and a wrong time. It has to be done artfully, not just for the sake of being rebellious. But artfully. An artists doesn't throw out the rules. She works with them in ways noone has ever thought of before. And in a way, authority is an integral part of this process. so I suppose that in a way authority is as much a part of the creative process as the rejection of it.

Work with your players to challenge them, not against them. Noone can really tell you how to do it. I mean they can teach you the basics of the game, but ultimately you will have to find your own way in RPGs. Along the way you will find people that like the way you do things, or learn to like it. That's cool, and in that way RPGs stay alive for us and the next generation. And remember that if you're not having fun you're not doin it right.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Gaming Buddies

Let's call a spade a spade. True gaming friends are more than just gaming friends. A good example in satire are the Knights of the Dinner Table. Though it is true gaming plays a big part in our collective lives, we also probably enjoy the same kinds of movies, maybe collecting comics, playing video games, reading the same kind of books, maybe even paintball, wargames, LARPing, the marital arts or even the SCA. Gamers tend to congregate in more than just one avocational arena. As a result our gaming companions are often involved in larger portions of our lives. I mean this isn't a necessity, but it often works this way, and if you ask me it's nice when it does. After all gaming is a social activity and expansion of such socialization is nice for people who often have a hard time coming out of their shells--that was the case with me in HS anyway.

And, as I've mentioned before I don't have gaming buddies right now. Although it brought a smile to my face to have one of my old gaming buddies comment on my last post. Unfortunately we're now over 1500 miles apart. Until we both get Skype, gaming aint happening.

And I should clarify slightly. I would love to play a game of my preference. As I've said before I would play Castles & Crusades or Hackmaster, if anyone wanted to play those games with me! But my Castles & Crusades game flyer has been up at the hobby shop for weeks now and no responses. Noone has even taken a call-back number. (You know--those little number tabs you can rip off at the bottom?) So what's a guy supposed to do? Well, I know that there are 4e gamers out there looking for games and there's tons of teenagers right now who want to play PathFinder. So I'm having to consider cashing in my memories and starting to build some new ones. I mean before all this came up I was doing pretty well anyway.

I've written about three entries now on "it's not what you game it's who you game with". Rarely does a game seem to be the problem so much as the people you are gaming with. I mean there are exceptions. Some people really dislike certain games. That's cool. If I could find enough who dislike 4e and Pathfinder maybe they would consider a change. But for now, I just want to game. And I was doing fine with both PF and 4e previously. Time to do so again. I suppose the rest of the gamers out there aren't Jonesin bad enough to play an unfamiliar game. Once a game is solid and friendships start to form then we can talk about trying out some other systems.

Lots has been made of tabletop gaming's power to bring people together. It has been called a social tool for the socially awkward. I don't think that's the case at all. I think certain people have similar interests, what they need is a forum to bring them together. Gaming has created that forum and it has expanded the interest base for many of us. As a social vehicle gaming does something for us beyond the fun of gaming itself. It creates friendships. And not just casual friendships as evident in so many other hobbies. Let's face it you can;pt crawl the much of a heavily trapped dungeon, sweat, bleed and often die together fighting off hordes of evil monsters and not come away better friends. Even beyond this however, is just having someone that is a little like you. To know that you are not the only one in the world who loves Tolkien, comic books, Star Trek, Star Wars, swords, magic, dragons and make believe. To know there are others like you that still want to play, have fun and imagine what could be. When you connect on that level you've often got friends for life. And you really need those, 'cause you never know what's just around the corner ... or under the ground ... waiting ... lurking ... just about to eat you ...

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Back in the day ...

There was one game. It was the game we all played. Not that others didn't try and break into the scene. Even the main game company was coming out with variations. But in the day I started it was with AD&D. Sure there was Basic and Expert, but they were "less of a game". At least it was in our eyes. AD&D was more expansive, filled with more possibilities--why play something that had less?

Gamma World got some table time, as did Star Frontiers. But not nearly as much. Top Secret once or twice. Space Opera, Rune Quest, GURPS, Champions, Shadowrun, Traveler, Marvel SuperHeroes, Call of Cthulhu, a tiny bit of Rolemaster, some Car Wars and we tried OGRE. They were all on the market. But what did we come back to? What was our collective world? It was AD&D. That was our game, and it was really the only one. We could tell even then which were the cheap imitations. Which ones were trying to make their own game different from but the same as AD&D. Everyone was following on the coat tails of a giant. And we could see through most of them. The ones we gave the most alternate play time, and it wasn't much, were non AD&D games. Gamma World mostly and Car Wars. But why play an inferior version of the fantasy game we all knew and loved? No, when it was fantasy it was AD&D.

So now, in this non-AD&D world, I look around and things haven't changed much. Still a bunch of copy cat games, variations on a theme and still no AD&D. Some new tricks have been introduced to the market. A few game changers, but not many. RPGs are the new board game. And like board games we are just reinventing the wheel. Over and over again. A board, some dice and a bunch of pieces. RPGs seem to be no different.

Maybe I'm stating the obvious, but aren't we all just trying to recapture the magic? Making our own variations because we can't play what we used to play. That wasn't the original purpose of the OGL. It wasn't was OSRIC was about or Swords & Wizardry either. At least not at first. They were supposed to be tools to publish materials for the original games. New adventures, new campaigns, new ideas that fit into the original model. Now? Well both Stuart Marshall and Matt Finch have both spoken to the fact that their clones have become something very different. They drive the market now. They have become an end unto themselves.

So look on the shelves now? Where is the game? What stands out above the rest? Nothing. It's like the game has disappeared and all that is left are the variations on a theme. It's like it never was. Everyone says, oh, but there are new and improved games. We've taken out the "fiddly bits" and cleaned up the contradictions, streamlined, rewritten, reorganized, re-re-re. Bullspit. They've erased it. It's gone and not a hint of it remains. Not even in OSRIC.

...   ...   ...   I have wondered if it's just the fact that it was the game I started with. I've wondered if it's just that everyone was playing that game. It's what all my gaming buddies preferred. And that I just went along with the crowd. If I could find a bunch of players right now playing say Tunnels and Trolls and they refused to play anything else that I would just jump on the wagon and play that. That would become the game, because it was what we are all into. It's the collective framework for our imaginings. But I can't really come up with any answers to that. Mainly because I don't have any gaming buddies.

I'm a convention organizer. I've got to keep over 20 different gamers happy. Offer something for everyone. Please the gaming masses. Now it's recurring at the hobby shop. Owner is more interested in me supporting the current editions and helping to organize weekly play for everyone else. Doesn't matter what I want to play. Matters what attracts everyone else. But in the end does it really matter what I want to play? I mean if a group can get together collectively and build a game the system is irrelevant isn't it? I mean in an ideal world if would be great if we all wanted to play the same game. But how often does that happen? Hasn't happened to me since the 80's.

My brother called me last night to tell me about his 4e session. Went 5 hours and very badly for the PCs. they went against all the signs in the Pyramid of Shadows, ended up with almost 3 party members dead and facing an ethical dilemma of alignment changing proportions. My brothers words? And remember my brother is a GM who has been fairly anti-4e for awhile; he was roped into the game by his players. Want to try and guess my brothers words on my answering service? "D&D is the best game ever!" He felt like it was one of the best sessions they have ever had! It was, in his more extended explanation when I returned his call, what D&D was all about. That kind of session was the kind of session he plays the game for. And he's technically playing a version he hates. Well, if you ask him now, he would say that he really doesn't hate it. He dislikes some of the combat mechanics, but he'll tell you now that he's making the game work. He's tried restricting races and classes and making other tweaks, but more and more he is playing the game as written and making it his own.

So in the end, when we all played AD&D back in the day, was it because it was the best game? Or was it because it was what we were all playing? Was it the game we played or the people we played with? What was it really? I know back in the day I didn't worry about systems, or editions or debates on which game was best. We just played. we tried new games and went back to the game we all had the most fun imagining within. It didn't matter that it was AD&D did it? It could have just as easily been GURPS or Rolemaster or whatever. Does 4e have problems? Yeah it does, so does Pathfinder and Castles and Crusades and Hackmaster. But am I going to be a stubborn ass and refuse to play what everybody else wants to play because I miss how things were back in the day? And if so, who's the real idiot here? Yeah ... me.

Not too long ago I thought about switching to 4e. About running a Wednesday night encounters game and playing 4e at the school club. I read through the books and got myself all in a sweating nausea over playing something I "didn't like". Despite the fact that I had played it less than two years prior and had some pretty good games with it. You know what switched my mind back then? Yeah, it was about a year after I started my blog. I was busily and successfully playing 4e and started my blog as a school club website to keep track of our games. Go ahead and read back to my 2008 entries. You can tell how much fun we were having. How much fun I was having. Does this sound like a guy who hated 4e? Sure there were things I didn't like, but we were having a good ole time. So what happened?

I'll tell you what happened. The OSR happened. Because for the first time I had begun reading about the old school movement, the rhetoric and the nostalgia and it hit a nerve within me. It brought up lots of good memories. It made me want the old days back. So I began thinking about maybe trying 1e again. And that seems to be when everything went to pot. I began to build myself as an OSR guy, and have been dissatisfied ever since. I feel like a gaming goth sitting around in the graveyard thinking about dead games. It's been depressing really. And I've spent the last couple of years wandering around from system to system, making my club members crazy, spouting old school rhetoric, trying to figure things out and feeling foolish thinking like I've got it when all that I've really got is my own tail.

I'll tell you one thing for sure. All this jazz about getting back to that feeling of being "back in the day" feels nothing like I felt "back in the day", when it was just me and a bunch of friends gaming the hell out of a game and telling stories to each other about our exploits. So I ask you, what was it really like "back in the day" and what are we all trying to recapture? 'Cause I for one aint found nothing yet but heartache and angst. And I'm getting a little sick of it all.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Creating the Perfect Game

For me that is. Now, I can't say I'm particularly interested in creating a new game. More about putting together the game I'm interested in playing. But the fact is Advanced Dungeons & Dragons is not alive. Recall my rantings about gaming being dead? Well, all day I've read and contemplated and written various things about how to address this and I've encapsulated the matter in a series of logical premises:
  • 1e & 2e are no longer in print
  • HM 4e is not longer in print
  • OSRIC, ADD & other 2e clones are in print but are different from the originals
  • C&C & HM 5e are in print, but with issues
Which leads me to the following possible options:
  1. You can play out of print games without commercial support
  2. You can play out of print games and adapt open source support
  3. You can play clones (OSRIC, ADD et al) and use oop material as support only
  4. You can make your own new game blending the elements you like
  5. You can adapt to the new games and deal with issues
Each of these possibilities have problems that  cause me to stumble in my forward progress. These problems I can summarize as follows:
  1. Playing oop print games without commercial support doesn't capture the whole experience for me. As much as I might rail against it at times, community is very important to me. I like an avid central core organizing the direction of play. Even though our game runs the gamut of imaginative possibilities there still needs to be for me, a central organizing core and authority that unites us all. In this way the collective power of imagination can work in ways it otherwise can't. You can have other guys playing separate game sessions, but what they imagine is a part of the whole tapestry of the game united by the central core and mechanic. With everyone doing their own thing this collective contribution isn't possible.
  2. But isn't that what the OGL solved for us? People who wanted to keep playing oop games could produce their own support material and unite on a grass roots level. Well, yeah, but it doesn't work in the same way. A grass roots movement has no central authority, no organizing capacity because noone speaks for the whole. Their is no court of common consent. And due to this anything can go within a particular game and noone can say anything but state their own opinions about it. Instead of appealing to an adjudicating party to determine what is and what isn't a part of the collective whole. So just playing oop games and using the open source gaming community to feed this need is not the same thing.
  3. Neither is playing clones. The same argument stands here as it does for sticking with oop games and using open source content. So this doesn't solve my dilemma either.
  4. And making your own game does give you some more control. But the danger is that a new game in the current environment competes with all the other offerings out there and either ends up trying to make an island in the open source ocean. Or you try and make it distinct and commercial and garner your own community around your version of the game. Which is trying to recreate what was lost so long ago. The only reason to do this is if your game truly doesn't exist in any form possible. And in order to play it you need to write your version down so others can play it with you. And even then you don't avoid the problems mentioned above.
  5. Which leaves trying to find a game that suits you currently in print and supported with like minded individuals. The building of community has already started so that works in your favor though it will never reach the status of TSR back in the day. I find the best example of this in the Troll Lords and KenzerCo. But both games have issues that keep me hesitating on committing. I recently tried to commit to C&C, but at the last minute held back. I think it was the fact that C&C did not include elements I really like from games like 1e/2e and HM. There wasn't quite enough depth or crunch. Though I could add it if I liked. HM causes me to hesitate some, because I'm basically unfamiliar with the structure and it sort of gets in the way of my gaming verisimilitude. I've been reading over the HM4e PHB and GMG though and much of the elements seem variations or expansions on mechanics already embedded in the original games. So I'm turning this over in my mind.
I'll admit, when I decided on C&C recently I had allowed myself to be unduly influenced by other forces. It's funny because I blame myself entirely. I didn't even really here what I was hearing, but what I thought I was hearing and went out to find clothes to fit the new style. Now, this is not to say that I don't like C&C, I do. But it has issues for me, and I have to be honest about those. I wasn't being honest with myself. I'll also admit I let the OSR influence me. I really admire lots of people in that community and truly take their words to heart. But I have never really been a rules light gamer. I read Basic and expert and though I used their modules I never prefered that style of play. I always liked AD&D and we used most of the rules therein, with the exception of some of the weapons rules (speed, armor factor). I liked the rules extensions that came out of Dragon and adopted some of the 2e rue changes because they added to the game.

I've even allowed myself to speak out against Gary Gygax because of the supposed decisions that brought about AD&D. I want to publicly apologize for that. I always played Gary's game. For whatever reason he didn't see 0e as "his" game, and it appears rightfully so. There were lots of input and hands in that pot. It was a wide open and free wheeling creative process that brought 0e together. Gary took a deliberately different direction with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and he talks about this very fact in his introductions to the PHB. So whatever the background and reasons and causes AD&D is the direction Gary went. that is the game and the spirit I was familiar with and knew and loved. But  wasn't just AD&D and the books under it's heading. It was a spirit. And that spirit Gary speaks to at length in the DMG and in his later work Role-Playing Mastery. I'm sorry I ever doubted you Gary.

So where does that leave me? I'm not sure, but I'm still thinking and for the first time in quite awhile it feels like I'm headed in the right direction. I can see the castle again through the mists ahead.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Keep it Simple Stupid

Here the stupid would be me. And I'm not talking about keeping the gaming simple necessarily, although some people really prefer that. No, I'm talking about keeping the whole discussion simple. I think I've complicated the issue unnecessarily. I've over analyzed the game situation to the point that I'm paralyzed. Analysis -- Paralysis. That's me all over. So, let's go back to simplicity.

I like AD&D. I like the relatively expanded class selection available over other simpler systems. Even the somewhat esoteric and finicky elements like the way Bards were done, Druidic orders, the Monk, and Psionics. I like the 9 alignment system, and I like separate tables for different classes. Tables for experience, for HP, for abilities, etc. I like the to hit tables, but not as much as I thought I did. I like descending AC, but could be okay with going the other direction cause it opens up the top end. I like base races, but am open to select other races if they aren't monster races. I like 3d6 for ability scores in order as a GM; I like 4d6 drop the lowest, arrange as you like if I'm a player. I like critical hit tables, but I can understand how they might suck if they could kill a high level PC in one hit. I like the concept of threshold of pain rolls, but realize realism in combat can really bite. I like d10 for initiative in a 10 second segment. Spell casting time and weapon speed added to initiative accordingly. I like weapon proficiency in a guarded way, feel only straight fighters should have that advantage generally. I'm not sure I like double specialization though, but a more fighter specific table based on weapons used or choices made. I kind of like the way HMb handles this. I like an honor system used in sort of like HM uses it. The main purpose being the enforcement of alignment and role playing. I like the baroque nature of AD&D with stuff added on at uneven angles, odd ephemera jutting out here and there, forgotten hallways or rule expansion that end in dead ends or require secret rules doors to navigate out of. I like the option of character development tables being used to randomly determine background, social class, starting wealth, quirks, flaws and talents; height, weight, eye color, hair color,  even sex. The idea being of course that we don't know how we end up coming into the world. We deal with what we get. I like this as optional only. Character development should also be player driven should they so choose. The extreme benefits possible on a random table perhaps being offset by more severe penalties. Choose your own not allowing these possibilities.

I like deadly campaigns. One in which death is an ever present threat even at higher levels. That being said I do like systems that allow players to tweak their PC creation so as to min max certain elements of their character. I like GM information being only available to GMs. Realizing of course that in practice this is often impossible. Therefore I like the freedom as GM to come up with randomly determined monsters and encounters completely unexpected by players so as to keep them guessing and on their toes. I like a mixture of dark, horror laden adventures, gritty high fantasy if you get my meaning, mostly "high" in scope and purpose rather than in power level. I also like a proper dosage of silliness and fun now and again. Craziness like was present in Gygax's Through the Looking Glass adventures are a blast when done in the right amount. I prefer for players and GMs to be equally empowered to deal with one another. Players should have as many options as needed to maximize their possibilities in the dungeons without short circuiting the GMs control, power and ability to properly challenge the players.

I also like players and GMs feeling as if they are a part of something bigger than they are. To know that their characters and their adventures are comparable to the world at large. Sure there will be differences from table to table, from game to game. But that we are playing under the same social contract, the same game structure enough so as to make PCs comparable to one another and not so individualized as to only be applicable within one campaign world. This is best achieved through a commonality of rules, but can be supported through a degree of community. Conventions, tournaments, societies, fora, game fiction, magazines, supplements, adventures, campaign worlds, fan sites and the like. And this is where the central problem lies.

In order to achieve what I want above I need a flexible umbrella that allows open ended creation but also works under a specific system. OSRIC and Adventures Dark & Deep come close in many respects, probably ADD more so than OSRIC. And both systems are flexible in being able to adapt supplements from other systems and editions; creation of new product is also possible. Numerous gamers are now offering their products for sale to others that cater to exactly such systems, or are flexible enough themselves to be easily adaptable to such a 1e oriented game. However this community is very loose. No longer gathered under one umbrella gamers of such systems are now sort of like outcasts wandering at the fringes of organized play. When will we have a castle to once again call our own.

Some OSR proponents like this freedom and lack of central authority, and I can understand why. However we lose something in such a systemless system as well. Others in the OSR point to fledgling conventions and small groups and communities developing around certain styles of play or at the least around the OSR generally. And I suppose it doesn't matter too much as long as we are playing. But just doing your own thing is fine in and of itself, but only takes us so far. And the horizon still seems so far off.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Gaming is Dead ... Who Killed it?

"Wizards of the Coast? "
"Nah."
"The Blumes? Lorraine Williams?"
"Nope."
"The Gamers?"
"Shya!"
"Video games?"
"Are you kidding?"
"Then who? Who killed gaming? And are you even serious? I mean gaming is alive and well. 4e is going strong, Pathfinder is on the rise, the OSR is busier than ever, print on demand is making Indie publishing more viable than ever."
"Yep, serious as a fart attack in a crowded elevator."
"Well I don't get it--you aint even got a body. There's absolutely no evidence that gaming is dead. In fact there's tons of evidence to the contrary."

That's just it. It's dead but I can't find the killer and can't even point to the scene of the crime. 'Cause you see, it's dead for me. It seems that way at least. It's like I'm walking in a land of zombies, or at least bad clones. Why is that? Everybody saying they are the original, the real deal, they are "it". And they aint it. At least they certainly seem to be bad imitations to me. I just can't figure it out. More games than ever. Games games everywhere and not a one for me.

Lots of people point to the OSR and laud it for it's creative and "do it yourself" spirit. Everyboy creating their own games, everyone writing their own adventures, everyone doing it for themselves. Perhaps this is the true spirit of the original edition of Dugneons & Dragons. The "vision" of what could have been had OD&D never been abandoned. Everyone building their own version on a theme. It's not what I remember. It's not what I loved about the game. For me it's not even what the game was about. I'm not laying down the law or anything. To each his own and all that. But I've been trying on lots of hats lately, and none of them fit. Funny thing is it's like noone makes my hat anymore. It's almost like it didn't exist. My style of gaming. My game. Where did it go? Nobody is doing it. And don't say it's just me. It aint; because there were tons of people doing exactly what I was doing in my neck of the woods back in the day.

It did exist, it did! And sometimes it feels like it was a figment of my imagination. Can you see how frustrating it is? Everyone seems to be abandoning the idea, leaving the dream behind. Well, I mean maybe they are chasing their own gaming dreams recreating their own magic and making new magic in their own realms. But where are my guys? Where are they?

Who killed my game? Or maybe, since I can't seem to find the body or the killer, maybe it was just game-napped. Hidden away. Spirited to some other realm? And if so how do I find it?

If I get some time later this eve I'll let you know where I have found the most evidence of it. You might be surprised.

I Don't Know ...

What the heck I am talking about. I mean not at all. Half the time I'm confused and the other half of the time I'm confused. Blasted gaming industry. Bless their greedy little hearts. Forget that too. I'm liable to break into a rant at any moment.

*big breath*

inhale pink, exhale purple ... inhale pink, exhale purple ...

Right now,

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Enthusiasm for Controversy

It has been interesting to note the ups and downs with my blog traffic as of late. I must admit the downward fluctuations started when I was most open about my own doubts of where gaming is going and my semi-ideological-abandonment of the OSR crowd. The entries that get the most hits on my blog are without a doubt those that wallow in controversy and spew rhetoric against the new school. Everyone lauds my praise of anything old school, and my philosophical navel gazing about the which and why fors of what was once long ago.

Put quite simply, people love controversy and they adore self praise. They look for avenues that confirm their own opinions and avoid things they don't agree with. In talking recently with someone I have really come to respect they described such behavior as a cult of mediocrity. We are all striving to be the same, and to be around people that are the same as we are. I suppose I fall into that category a lot of the time. But now, having been judged in the court of popular opinion via blog hit counts it has a different feel to it. Blogging has been called the most self absorbed and ego driven endeavor on the web. I don;t know about all that. I started this blog first as a service to me kids at school for the school club. Unfortunately the powers that be don't like kids and teachers mixing on any sort of restricted basis online. So I changed the approach to be aimed in general towards anyone who would like to read my thoughts. Maybe find them interesting. I'm not really a social media hound. I'm more of a thinker. I think way too much. And this project has been more of a journey of self discovery than anything else. In that way I suppose it has been sort of self absorbed. Anyone who has read it for any length of time has noticed I have bounced all over the place in regards to what I think about gaming, old school, the new wave, 4e, 5e, the first wave, OSR and on and on. My opinions are definitely not set in stone.

During this self reflective phase my blog counts continued to rise and my followers piled up one by one. I'll admit it was gratifying. I assumed that people found what I had to say useful or at least interesting.  And I suppose that may have had to do with the fact that others felt like I did. Lost amidst the new gaming elite and feeling confused by it all. Perhaps they benefited from my self reflection, my own internal gaming struggles.

Now, good blogging PR would dictate that I analyze what drew hits and stick with those themes. That I cater to what my followers want. That I continue to get my ego stroked by the stroking of others. Well, sorry ... aint gonna happen.

When I started this blog I had no interest in making money. No interest in blogging full time--I got too many other important things to do than blog all the time. I told myself I wasn't going to mess with advertising on my blog, nor was I going to cater to writing just what people wanted to hear. For instance one entry I had on Star Frontiers got tons of hits. Evidently there are lots of people out there looking for Star Frontiers stuff. But I barely played the game. I know very little about it, and though it still intrigues me I just don;t have much more to say about it. I could blog tons on SF and maybe get lots more hits. But that just isn't my bag. I'm not here for that. Although if there are some SF fans out there that like blogging or web building, there's evidently an audience for it.

More than ever I understand where I'm at in my own creativity and my own gaming. And that requires that I follow my own path. There are things I love about many different games. There are also strong opinions I have about the nature of gaming and it's potential. I like to play in a certain way and with certain elements at the fore. They are not the only way to game, nor am I intimating that they are the right way to game. They are the way I like to play. Jolly Blackburn and Dave Kenzer helped me to realize that we can make decisions like that. Rob Kuntz helped me realize that only I could tell myself the direction to take and discover what I had to give to the gaming world. ADD Grognard has been very supportive in my quest as well, and has opened my eyes to the fact that it is okay to feel what I feel, think what I think and more than anything else to not give up. It is indeed quite a ride. And I would be remiss if I did not give thanks as well to the Troll Lords for just being there and doing what they do, and being so darn great about it as well. They have been a shelter from the storm.

If someone were to ask me where the blog is going from here I can only say that it will go where it goes. But there are several areas right now that I am interested in.
  • Supporting new gamers: I am still a teacher and a club adviser. Though the school club is on hiatus right now, I am planning on starting up a less intensive schedule before October ends. I will be discussing tips and ideas to help new gamers, young gamers and those looking for a safe haven from the complexities of the gaming world. If you were to point someone who was just starting gaming or looking into it I would hope you could point them to my blog and they would find it useful.
  • Looking for the essence of the old: the first wave of gaming was very different from what I ever believed it was. I am very interested right now in looking to foster a similar approach to gaming and games today. I will do this by looking back, looking at what is now and looking to the future. If I spend time looking at old games or old supps then it will be in the light of what they can teach us about this essence and what we can learn from them now.
  • Castles & Crusades: This is my gaming home for now. For reasons I've delineated before I am playing strictly C&C right now in all of my games. Which will be at least 2 separate campaigns. You can expect lots of C&C goodness on my site.
  • Hackmaster Mentality: I am a huge KODT fan, and love Hackmaster 4e for the ethos it encouraged. There will be lots of HM related commentary and feel and tone here simply because these guys are close to my heart. Even though I'm not currently running a HM game I'm certainly not ruling it out. But even where actual HM gaming may be rare, there will always be a rather HM feel to my ramblings here and my goals in general.
  • A Tribute to AD&D: I began as an AD&D gamer. I will always be in my soul an AD&D gamer. I can;t deny it's influence on me in more than merely formative ways. Though I may move on and play other games now, you can always expect AD&D to hold a fond place in my heart and privileged place on this blog. You can expect from time to time to hear me wax nostalgic even quite sickeningly so about this greatest game of all games. With all it's warts and blemishes it is still, for me, perfection incarnate because it is how I came to gaming.
And other stuff from time to time as well. But don't really expect me to follow the crowd too much. I am what I am and will follow my own path. If you like, great. If you don't that's cool too.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Free Shipping Offer @ Troll Lords!


Got this in my newsletter from Troll Lords and wanted to throw it out there. Just got in a big Troll Lord's shipment myself. And Stephen said in the newsletter they are trying to ramp up production schedules because their stuff is in such demand right now. Especially the Castle Keepers Guide, which I'll be reviewing soon. It did take me awhile to get mine, but I was patient and it was well worth the wait. As many of you know I've been leaning very heavily towards C&C as my game of choice lately and this most recent purchase as well as my talk with Rob Kuntz (bless him) has just confirmed that direction as a good one for me.

And I suppose now is as good a time as any to make this an official declaration of what game I'll be talking about most for the future of my blog. That is Castles & Crusades. This discovery for me has been very liberating. And I owe a great deal of thanks to Rob Kuntz for helping  me to have confidence in myself and my own gifts. Castles & Crusades is a game that begs for creativity and allows so much open to the players and GM (Castle Keeper in C&C) that virtually anything is possible. The core mechanic is so intuitive and adaptable that it easily allows additions to the game should you so desire, but also can be played fast, light and loose. And if you have been reading my last few entries on storytelling you have a bit of an idea of my gaming style. This sort of highly improvisational storytelling is well suited to a game like C&C where things are so open and easily adaptable.

In this way C&C echoes earlier iterations of D&D like the original edition and the Basic Version. Light and simple rules with straightforward character creation. The possibilities are endless. but even better than earlier models, the rules are streamlined even more and the mechanics simpler. Yet C&C also has a flavor of depth that came with later iterations of the game. This is largely due to the great writing ability of the staff. More importantly however, it has to do with the flexibility and potential of the mechanics. You can literally build an endlessly complex game from a simple and innovative core mechanic.

Perhaps the one thing some might wonder is whether C&C and the Seige Mechanic can be adapted to other types of games like Sci fi and Horror. But one need not worry. Though C&C is designed from a fantasy point of view, the Seige Engine has already been adapted to Star Seige and Tainted Lands. So we have a system that spans genres and can allow cross fertilization of various fictional worlds and settings much like was done in the early days of our hobby.

All of these elements weave together to make me feel like the Troll Lords and C&C are creating the kind of system that I can truly get into. For a long time I was uncertain of how to approach this decision. Because I was looking a system that would give me what I wanted. It was after talking with Rob Kuntz that I realized I should really choose a system that fit the kind of gifts and offerings I had to give to others. C&C seems to fit my talents and my style of play. This game will highlight and showcase the creations I wish to imagine and the kinds of games I wish to play. It's not that I fit myself to the game, it's that the game fits me in all my freedom loving, genre spanning, improvisational, story developing, weird and unusual style of play.

So thanks Rob, and thanks Stephen & Davis Chenault and all the other Troll Lords. Some time ago I read the words of Dave Kenzer and Jolly Blackburn that they were motivated in Hackmaster to create the kind of game they like to play. I really respected that. That's exactly what the Troll Lords have done for me.

Game on!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Caveat Lector

The last few entries have been about storytelling in roleplaying. I thought it critical to mention here a point of clarification. The debate over the amount and nature of storytelling that should be a part of roleplaying games is heated enough to declare exactly where I'm standing.

First and foremost I don't tell you how to play your game. Noone should. Your game should be fun and engaging for you and your crew, noone else's crap matters one whit. So keep that in mind. I am not disseminating gaming advice from on high here. Noone should really do that. A recent conversation I had with one of the gaming world's founding fathers, Rob Kuntz, made me aware that noone should do that--not even him as one of the last torchbearers. His advice seems to be that there should be no limitations on the game's possibilities. "The future is wide open" as Tom Petty would say. So when I speak in terms of absolutes on storytelling it is a rhetorical device, nothing more. It is not a philosophical statement of any finality. Except perhaps within my own perspective.

So what kind of storytelling am I talking about? Well I can tell you what it's not a little easier than I can what it _is_ exactly. The best way to experience my gaming flavor is to sit down and my table for awhile. So by storytelling I do not mean a story I write that I think the players might like to participate in. Nor a story in which I try to write parts for the PCs run by my players. There is no outline of events beyond the setting and background I have created. My job as GM is to create place. I tell myself all sorts of stories within that place. And if my GMing comes close at all to fiction it is in the reams of notes and mental imaginings that I create within my world or setting. But as world creator I can't be too attached to these creations or the world in which they are in. I have to maintain a certain distance from the desire to control all events therein. That is because the majority of the active participants in the world are not me. They are the players and their actions will dynamically affect my world.

In one school of thought (and I almost called it "old school", but I don't like that term anymore) the GM is as neutral as possible and the game is simply the player's taking actions and the GMing arbitrating results. That there is no "story", only a place or location or adventure awaiting the PCs introduction. that the players will make decisions to interact with that setting and it's inhabitants, but no linearity of creation exists.

Another school of thought fosters the idea that players desire to be a part of an epic struggle or tale. And that it is the job of the GM to guide PCs through the events that are a part of that story. That the story drives the game instead of the players. Players interact with the story and not so much the setting in which the story takes place.

For my part I strike a middle ground between these two. There are events constantly unfolding in the campaign world. Some small and insignificant, others epic and world spanning. PCs become involved in those events to lesser or greater degrees. But the game doesn't focus on campaign events per se, but rather the lives of the player characters. And inasmuch as each life is itself an epic of struggle between opposing forces the PCs lives will be as well. It is my job to weave a story out of the PCs lives. Whether they choose to become involved in the assassination plot to kill the emperor and summon a God-King, or to hang out at the city's river docks and get in brawls and cause mayhem there. Either path leads to a story, and neither more engaging than the other. Both are engrossing, filled with danger and intrigue and treasure to be won. The Emperor's assassination will still be attempted, the cult will still seek to summon their new regal deity and the thugs and smugglers will still prowl the docks. Events will affect the PCs directly and indirectly. But the story is where the player characters are at, in what they choose to do. It is my job to focus on events that directly affect the players and help their stories unfold.

I may have spent months writing out the behind the scenes structure of the Emperor's holdings and political landscape. But the story is where the PCs are, not where I want them to be. For this reason much of my planning is loose and constantly in development. A GM must be prepared to unfold the landscape between games based on where the PCs last decided to go and what they last decided to do. But the next installment in the story happens when the session begins again and the PCs decide to take action.

That's the kind of story I'm talking about. And for me gaming wouldn't be gaming without it. We've all been in games where the story is no more engaging than the planned encounters on the paper. And those games can often be dry and lackluster. And we may have also experienced those games where it is so obvious where the GM wants us to go next, that we could simply have him tell us instead of deciding for ourselves. This I call railroading. Just as unimpressive are those games where a GM is so wedded to the idea that PCs make all the decisions he will wait around giving us nothing to work with in order to make informed decisions. Those adventures often feel as if we have to write them for the GM.

The games I prefer and the way I game is to invite PCs to enter a world where danger will confront them at every turn. Where the happenings in the world around them are real and in constant motion, and open to their influence and input. Where each life is a tapestry unto itself and they all weave into the greater story of the imaginary world history that is the creation we are all a part of.

Just wanted to make that clear.

Making the Story Important Now: Immediacy & Immanence

We all know that backstory enriches PC roleplaying as does campaign background enrich play overall. However, notice that both words have something in common: the prefix BACK. Both these elements are behind the scenes forces that should rarely rise to the fore. Certainly they bubble up or peak through at times, but ultimately they are setting related. They should not take the role of primacy in any game. Endless discourses on background, history, personality and motivation can become quick game killers.

Take for example when you walk into a new room or building to meet someone or for a party or some sort of conference. Seldom are we totally absorbed in the design, decor, colors, structure, history, and architecture of the place. You do notice it and it lends important feel and tone to whatever you are doing. But instead of being totally absorbed in the setting you are engaged with what might be happening in the room; who is there that you might interact with; what activity you might join in or generally what you will be doing in the room. Especially pertinent would be any assessment of dangers or things that might challenge, threaten or thrill you. The focus is on the action in which you are or will be involved. Less so on the setting, which while important, only represents a background with which you will interact peripherally at best. (A possible exception to this is an environment that might represent the whole challenge, such as climbing a snow covered mountain.)

So no matter how lovingly and painstakingly you may have designed your world or scenario, don't bore your players with long irrelevant descriptions. There are numerous reasons for this, but first and foremost it rarely has immediacy or immanence. What we mean by this is that it isn't important right now. Players need things to engage right there, right in front of them. Playing of active roleplaying games requires that players get to do something. Don't let the play drag through boring or irrelevant descriptions of the surroundings, campaign history, royal lineages or the like. No matter how engaging they may be to tell or read or were for you to write. They are flavor and texture that come up now and again, usually in the form of tantalizing hints. For instance, the PCs are about to head off into the woods beyond the edge of the town and are asking a local villager for directions. The grizzled old man explains the way and mentions they should be careful crossing Black Foot bridge, "It's cursed doncha know." The relevance to the story at hand may be minimal, but it's relevance to the villager is high. He lost his child there once to a mysterious drowning accident. And the rumor that the bridge was cursed rises from ancient lore that plague ridden villagers were driven out of the village over the bridge into the woods. The oozing black wounds of their feet leaving behind blood stained, shadowy footprints on the bridge's stones. Hence the name black foot bridge. The feeling villages then pronounced a curse upon the village from the far bank of the river. And ever since strange drownings and disappearances have occurred there.

What this little tidbit does is expand the game beyond it's distant boundaries. It is immediate and immanent. The only way out of the village to the woods is across the river, and the only easily passable trail leads across a cursed bridge. What may happen there when they cross? Which cross they must if they wish to be able to achieve the woods and their adventure beyond. This immediacy of importance, the immanent nature of the threat moves the story along and enriches it, deepens it. This level of engagement is desirable if done in proper measure and does not become a distraction from what the party is trying to achieve.

Focus on encounters of immediate relevance to the PCs. Either because it presents an immediate danger or must be faced presently as a challenge or point of interest. Such immanence catches PCs attention and focuses them on the story at hand, at what is happening right now. They should, therefore engage with the scenario and your story will unfold. The trap right in front of the PCs is much more important than the sorcerer at the bottom of the dungeon. Don't cut the trap short. Give it its due. This is the time for that trap to shine. Someone could very well die right here. Make it memorable in its immanence of danger and urgency. If you want the sorcerer to be important then you had better weave him into the PCs lives' right _now_. Or at the least seek to make the PCs so interested and confronted with getting to the bottom (where the sorcerer is) that they want to go there.

Storytelling should focus on action not plotline. As GM you should know how the campaign structure and history will impact the PCs as they move along. Truly engaging events come up because they are important to the PCs right now. That is immediacy. Your job as GM is to weave important encounters into the scenario. A simple dungeon populated with miscellaneous monsters that exist solely to fight along the way to the end of the dungeon does not for a good story make. Not that it can't be a foundation for a good story however. The way that happens is to make each encounter unique and present enough to continue the engagement. Otherwise a story is in danger of fading into forgetfulness.

For example let's take the example of the dungeon above. Level 1 is inhabited by goblins, level 2 with hobgoblins, level 3 with more unique randomly determined creatures and level 4 with the evil sorcerer and his personal minions. Instead of having the PCs just plow through room after room of goblin fodder make the threat more immanent. The goblins are afraid of their sorcerous boss, not to mention their hob overlords. so they seek to actually do their job of keeping PCs from getting to the bottom levels. But they realize that the PCs outclass them in all but numbers. So our goblins choose to set up some ambushes and some blockades once they find out the PCs are exploring their demesne. They seek to lead the PCs on a merry chase through the trapped regions of the 1st level, wearing them out and exhausting their meager supplies. And now we come to the trap mentioned  previously. It's significance is much greater to the PCs for several reasons now. They just chased a band of fleeing gobs down this corridor to be confronted by the trap. Up ahead the flickering remains of their last torch reveals a T-intersection. They think the little buggers went left. But if they stop and listen they can hear many more goblin whispers and scuttling apparently coming from both passages. They have already been ambushed several times. The goblins set fire to the exit passage and the PCs know that attempts at escape just means a suffocating death if they retreat. The threats are very dire and immediate. Moreover these gobs are hiding something for sure. Just what the PCs don't know, but they certainly want to find out. They've spilt too much blood already not to. That is immediacy. The threat is now, and it must be faced. They will never forget this adventure, and they aren't even a third of the way through yet.

So, good GM storytelling isn't just about developing a cool scenario or setting everything up ahead of time. It is about presenting immediate and immanent threats to the PCs in the context of the land, area or situation in which they find themselves. Developing and setting up this tension requires a mind that is itself present in the scenario. You must be in the action as much or moreso than the PCs. What would scare them, challenge them, make them struggle right now? Shifting the development of the adventure at a moment's notice is fine if it keeps the players engaged and their PCs challenged. There are of course dangers with this element. The idea is not to run the PCs ragged or to kill them with constant unending challenges and trials. There must be a careful balance that is best achieved by being in tune with your players and the current state of their PCs. I have always done this by feel, but numerous helpful record keeping tools are available for the GM who prefers these aides. Whatever the case, keep your players guessing, keep them engaged and keep the action high.

Good Gaming!