Archive for October, 2010

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Jono’s Big Flowchart of What Game Are We Playing?

October 27, 2010

Jono’s been digging around the Forge Archives and making visual aids:

Sad and true

It’s not hard to see how many of those steps disappear when you talk to each other from the beginning or how many of those steps are unnecessary hassles that come from, and create more, broken social issues amongst the group.

What’s kinda great and sad about this chart, is that I can probably start digging through “give me advice!” threads on forums and following the process that gets people to, “My game/This play has problems, what do I do?”

Sadly, most of those questions have answers people don’t want to hear.

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D&D: Eternal Lunar Lich War

October 24, 2010

There’s an rpg.net thread, innocuously titled, In 4E, can you still live on the moon? where the question is asked, can you put together enough magic to live on the moon?

Someone points out that you could become a lich, thereby ignoring that whole oxygen, hot/cold, food, water thing.

Then someone else points out, if you can do it, others can too. Which… leads to premises too metal to consider without some portion of sanity loss.

Go. Enjoy!

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4E: Masana Style Sheet

October 22, 2010

After having picked up the 4E Essentials Heroes of the Fallen Lands, I’ve been thinking of putting together a semi-sandbox-y campaign.

Seeing how most of what trips up D&D games in general (4E or not) is people not being on the same page about how the game works, I figured I’d pop together a style sheet along the lines of Apocalypse World, How to Play a Sorcerer, or Shreyas’ Radiant .

What the Players Do

Build a character that cares about Masana. The people, the land, the nation. You don’t have to be a blind patriot, but you care and adventures will come of this.

Tie your character into the setting- you’re part of one of the organizations listed – maybe they mentored you, maybe you earned your way in. Tie your character to other player characters – childhood friends, partners, relatives, etc.

Work as a team and pursue your goals. Feel free to make new goals on the spot- ask the DM if they should be Quests. You are responsible for making action happen! Don’t be a turtle and expect the DM to prod you.

Pursue the conflicts that make sense for you – pass up the ones that don’t. Don’t assume there’s a “right way” to fix any problem – you can negotiate with a dragon and fight a prince to the death in a duel – all if it fits with the situation.

Ask questions – about the setting, the history, anything. Sometimes the DM will ask you questions in return- make up the answers and go with it.

Things everyone should know

There will never be NPCs who befriend you, or send you on missions just to betray you. It’s weak and played out.

As a sandbox game, sometimes you’ll run into things that are too powerful for you – feel free to run.

Status matters- NPCs will expect you to respect their social status, and will likewise respect yours.

There will never be random traps sitting about. Don’t waste time checking for them. Also- no random cursed items either.

What the DM does

Life is happening!

Anywhere there is people, improvise freely! Come up with rumors, events, NPCs, goals, etc. Everywhere is in motion- a mudslide cuts off a road, a noble is getting married, a merchant house is about to go under… all of these things are background… and adventure possibilities.

Ask players half-loaded questions to build on- “This village is having a festival – what is it?” “Your favorite food is a specialty here- what is it and what’s it known for?” “What was your uncle’s reputation when he studied here?” etc.

Motivation before Action

Always establish a motivation for NPCs to the players before taking it to action. Never have some bullshit where the heroes are jumped by “mysterious mercenaries or assassins” who then have clues to “who’s behind this”. Always show a reason for why action is happening- even if it’s a hungry tiger, show it stalking, drooling, etc. (yes, tigers would just attack first, but use some movie logic and go with it).

NPCs are mostly reasonable

Most NPCs can be reasoned with! Obviously, the party can’t convince the queen to give up her throne or a guard to simply let them into the treasury, but for anything approaching a reasonable request, make the NPCs reasonable. Even NPCs in combat will run away if they’re losing!

Random Encounters with Reasons!

A random encounter means encountering the person/group/monster in question- it doesn’t necessarily mean combat! Improvise a reason the (encounter) is there, and what’s going on. Tie it into rumors or events you’ve established, or new things you’re making up on the spot. Use the random encounter as a springboard for possibilities.

Requests = Quests. Quests = Escalation

Follow the players. Whatever goals they decide on, ask them if they want to make it a Quest. Break down larger goals into more immediate steps – and make those Quests.

If something IS a Quest, add pressure to it if it’s being ignored. Have more stuff happen, increase the danger, make things worse. Make the Quest alive and active. (Non quest problems can also evolve, they’re just not immediate and in the face of the players as much).

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D&D Essentials: Heroes of the Fallen Lands

October 20, 2010

Heroes of the Fallen Lands is an alternate Players Handbook with different takes on the classic 4 iconic classes- Fighter, Wizard, Cleric, and Thief. The rules remain solidly 4th Edition D&D rules – so rumors of “D&D 4.5” are pretty much off the mark – the small adjustments are identical to what you can find in the free Errata from the Wizards site.

The alternate builds have less choices a player has to make to get a working character, and less choices a player has to juggle in play. This makes it easier to jump in and easier to get to playing. It’s an excellent jump-in point for new players.

I think one of the pitfalls 4E fell into was the “trap of the hardcore” – although one of the initial goals was to reduce the amount of character building mastery that would be necessary, with the flood of supplements, they were effectively repeating 3E’s pattern of encouraging players to obsess over optimal choices in character generation rather than focus on play itself. Essentials is actually a really good step back in the right direction.

The book has a good chunk of rules – skills, some basics on combat and conditions, without covering everything. It’s enough for a person to play with, without having to master everything.

It’s a $20 softcover, in a smaller format that makes it easier to carry around. (Also, the character sheet is much better laid out and designed than the core 4E character sheet).

I’m thinking I’ll probably run 4E using these classes rather than the core book classes- it cuts down on the character generation time by a lot and helps shift players towards play, rather than “pre-play” as a focus.

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Reward Systems

October 18, 2010

Seeing the “I don’t reward roleplaying” thread on rpg.net got me to thinking how much people don’t understand what reward mechanics do.

Action vs. Organized Action

So, kicking a ball can be fun. But the kind of fun you get from playing soccer/football is based on organized kicking of a ball- and the thing that organizes it is “goals”. There’s a value attached to a certain action, and all the tactics and strategies of play come around that one reward system*.

Kicking the ball, or kicking the ball into a goal isn’t fun by itself, the fun comes from the whole game, and the whole game organizes because you have this simple reward system in place.

Now, if you’re playing a roleplaying game, the fun isn’t the reward system, the fun is what you get from the game that organizes itself in light of reward systems.

In old school D&D, the gold isn’t fun, figuring out how to get the gold, which monsters to avoid, which monsters to fight, which to ally with, which to trick, which treasures to take, which to leave behind, when to turn back, when to press forward- that’s the fun that comes out of gold = xp.

In Burning Wheel, the Artha isn’t fun, the drama around pursuing your Beliefs, figuring out how the heck you can live up to them, fighting against them, figuring out they’re completely wrong, trying to deal with your friends and allies who have Beliefs that conflict, deciding when and where to draw lines, deciding to give up one Belief for another, that’s where the fun comes from.

The point of the game vs. optional

Notice, too, that when you have a reward system that organizes the game, those things become “non-optional” to deal with in play. In D&D it’s about character effectiveness in the dungeon crawl, in Burning Wheel it’s about dramatic beliefs.

In D&D you’re probably going to roleplay because all roleplaying games depend on playing with the fiction, but it’s going to be incidental to the character effectiveness. In Burning Wheel you might deal with the issues of gold, or combat, but only as it fits with the situation of Beliefs.

If the game isn’t organized around it, in any fashion, the whole issue is optional. How many D&D characters have names for their parents? Notice how this ends up shaping EVERYTHING, including character creation.

This is often why the easiest and most direct method for game design is to directly reward the thing you want players to do: “I want players to fight to protect their friends, so they get a point everytime they fight to protect someone on their Relationship List”

Indirect, but intersecting

By no means do you need it for these things to happen. In fact, it’s quite possible to make game goals that aren’t quantified systemically at all. BUT for those to work, the actual reward systems need to work in a way that they do inform and affect the player’s choices in face of the actual goals.

For example, Dogs in the Vineyard, the goal is to try to help people and be a decent human being while doing so. The reward systems promote two things: putting up with other people’s drama (getting hurt, insulted, etc.) and pulling out guns when you REALLY want something to happen. Notice that, both of these things impact the idea of both what it means to help people, or be a decent human being. Rather than rewarding either helping people or being a good person, they challenge them and create divergent goals.

“Awesome roleplayers don’t need rewards!”

This is one of those myths that comes out of a poor chain of logic:
1. I play a game where the system gets in the way of roleplaying
2. Therefore ALL systems get in the way of roleplaying
3. Good roleplayers never need a system

Of course, if you shift your view to look at reward systems as organizing factors to play, maybe it’d be a lot easier to find people who play the way you want to play, when the rules of the game explicitly point you towards that kind of play.

It has nothing to do with “skill”. And as much as roleplaying can be artistic, pouring in the ridiculousness that there is some nobility in doing art without regard to something as “petty” as reward is pretty much the height of pretentiousness. The reward organizes play. Nothing more, nothing less.

If you have awesome roleplaying without reward systems- great. But also consider if you’ve had to go through several players who “just didn’t get it”. Maybe they were too focused on what the game did reward. Imagine if there was less confusion and more clarity from the start about what game they were playing and how it was supposed to be played.

*ETA Ron Edwards states the idea of reward as an organizing tool concisely in this post:

…although I may want my character to level up, what makes play fun is whether the mechanics reward cycles are contributing to the relevance of leveling up, and whether play is socially validating my efforts – so play can indeed be fun when my character is totally fucked over by events.

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D&D 4th Edition is JUST LIKE AN MMO

October 14, 2010

I bought my books and every month, in order to hold the books and play, a monthly fee comes out of my account.

Because it’s important to keep me playing or they don’t get any money, the first 10-20 hours of play are always about teaching me what the various things I see on my character sheet are, and I end up fighting rats for a week and collecting 100 pelts. I can only talk to certain characters and they always say the same things.

The optimal way to play is to go to the same sections on the map and do the same things over and over and over to maximize how fast I’m farming gold, experience points, and to get the best random drops.

Nothing I do ever has a permanent effect on the world.

Everyone goes through mostly the same adventures, so if I’m having a hard time, I can look up online exactly what I should do to win each section. After I’ve played a while, I need to organize a time to play with several dozens of people in order to even play a mission.

Because I’m forced to play with strangers, I have to listen to people who I’m supposed to be working with, fling racist, sexist, and homophobic slurs at me. The books don’t do anything about it, but if I try to play an openly gay character, the books take my money and and I can’t play anymore.

I pay to do this in my escapism.

When I stop paying, my books become unusable, and I cannot play.

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I feel like “D&D4 is an MMO” is the equivalent of “Obama is a socialist!”… a bunch of folks who don’t know what they’re mad at, or why, found a word they can use to fling randomly to say something is bad, without thinking about why, or what kind of games they DO prefer.

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An example of indie publishing: Universalis

October 14, 2010

Ralph Mazza put up an Excel file of the sales for his game, Universalis, going from it’s launch in 2002 to current. In total, he’s moved a little over 1700 copies in the 8 years.

For context, Universalis is one of the most amazing and innovative games out there, but sadly, never really caught on.

Players collaboratively build a setting and characters using tokens, and play itself is through a combination of spending tokens, and producing challenging conflicts to earn back more tokens.

The secret design bit that makes it amazing to play is that the best way to “game the system” is to utilize and support the contributions of other players AND to make things everyone else finds interesting so you can also benefit- the game rewards the group getting on a common page and supporting each other creatively. It creates a whirlwind of fun once the group gets into it.

All that said, the game has only been available in hardcopy, so it hasn’t actually gotten to take advantage of PDF sales yet, which hopefully will give it a second life (and, maybe, folks posting actual play reports never hurts either).

There’s a thread on the Forge with more details and a place to ask questions – if you’re looking at doing game publishing, it’s a good chance to talk to someone who has successfully done indie publishing and learn some lessons and avoid pitfalls.