Archive for June, 2011

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4E: Lost Alliance Set-up

June 29, 2011

Concept: Heroic 4E Essentials game set in a non-european culture – a balance of combat and skill challenges, with players self-directing goals.

What Players Need to Know:

1. Lost Alliance- core setting and class. Read First! Conceptually classes and culture is very different than vanilla D&D. (I’ll need to do a write up of the other classes and races later).

2. Human-centric. Dwarves and halflings are minorities in the Masara, Elves rarely heard from. No other core races available as PCs, initially.

3. Sometimes there may be places/random encounters with monsters beyond your ability. Good time to run!

4. Mearl’s Damage Hack: Don’t roll for damage- normal hits do average damage, crits do full damage.

5. PC death? Create a new character 1 level lower than party average.

6. Normal XP awards, Quest XP, personal Quest XP, and bonus XP for good tactics, stunting, or creative actions in Skill Challenges. This may cause the party to diverge in levels- which is fine by me.

7. Monsters will have reduced HP and probably different powers. Encounters will have more monsters to make up the difference.

Same Page Tool expectations:

Play to win? Yes.
Win conditions are making Masara a safer, better place and are rewarded with XP per the Quest xp rules.

This can be fighting back monsters and helping settlements expand, it can also be stabilizing the political groups within Masara or making alliances with other groups/peoples. By sword or by diplomacy, whatever works.

PCs are expected to work together, conflicts are mostly for show

The GM preps a map with NPCs and/or monsters. The players have their characters travel anywhere they can reach on the map, according to their own goals.

The players’ roles are to to set goals for their characters, and pursue them proactively.

Doing the smartest thing for your character’s survival sometimes isn’t as important as other choices (see win conditions above.)

The GM’s role to the rules is follow them, come what may. (including following house rules)

After many sessions of play, during one session, a player decides to have her character side with an enemy. This is something that shouldn’t even happen. This is someone being a jerk.

This one is actually a bit more tricky- given that I expect politics to play in this game. That said, if it’s at the point when people are drawing swords, sides are usually pretty clear – it’s not Dogs in the Vineyard or Burning Wheel, so I’m not going to be having ultra-deep moral issues, so this shouldn’t be coming up often, and where it does, it’s probably time for a Skill Challenge.

DM’s Role

1. Create a map with local things of interest. Start at one settlement, spread further as the campaign evolves.

2. Create 6-8 NPCs with interests and goals. Don’t need to stat them, really, just use them as personages, allies, obstacles, etc. (Build with an eye towards setting and PCs)

3. Create a backlog of monsters using Monster Hack rules maybe 5-6 for an environment type/area, cover 3-ish areas or so for some variety. Steal power ideas liberally from videogames for interesting tactical aspects. Skip statting out attributes and stuff you can make up on the fly.

4. Follow the players’. Set up/Offer Quests according to player goals and NPC motivations. Set up Skill Challenges as you go, encounters as you go as well.

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4E: Bankuei’s Monster Hacks

June 28, 2011

I’m putting together some stuff to run some 4E in the near future, and thinking about some ideas about how I want to run it.

Hack the GM side not the player side

When players forget things, they look to the book. Guess what happens when the rules don’t match what’s in the book? It means an extra layer of confusion and One More Damn Thing to Remember. So, my idea is to do most, if not all, hacks on the GM’s side, rather than the player’s side.

One of the best design ideas that’s not fully implemented is “Monsters don’t need to use the same rules as PCs” – when you extend the logic there, the rules the GM needs aren’t the same as the rules the players need.

Fast Turnover Monsters

One of the recurring issues people have found is that fights feel draggy. Looking closely, here’s the problem:

All non-minion monsters are set up to take at least 3-4 hits, and more as play goes on (see Paul’s Monster Math). Assuming you hit half the time, that means you’ve got to take 6-8 swings at something to put it down.

6-8 rounds to kill a goblin.

We play tons of games that are repetitive – but what makes them engaging? A feeling of advancement, progress.

If you play an FPS, it’s all shoot-shoot-shoot, but the thing is, you’re not shooting the same thing for 5 minutes straight- the endless stream of baddies come, they go down, and the specific tactical situation changes rapidly.

For D&D, it feels draggy because even “easy monsters” take a lot of work. And very often, even if you’re an optimized damage dealer, it’s like you end up bragging, “Wow! It only took me 7 rounds to put something down, instead of 9!”…

This is one of the play aspects of older editions where the heavy hitters could one-shot a lot of weaker monsters and do much more significant damage to higher ones, on the basis of damage to total hitpoint ratio.

So my suggestion is less hitpoints but more monsters. (Archon also has a similar hack in his Classic Style 4E) Most monsters should take 1-4 hits, depending on their toughness and the damage dealing focus of the PCs.

The Maths

For the most part, monster stats stay in line with what is current – you can use the MM3 stats on a business card for easy reference.

Hitpoints and XP

Notice that this still gives a faster XP/HP ratio than you’d normally get per vanilla 4E, but that’s fine by me. Weak monsters are typically artillery/lurkers, average monsters are soldiers/controllers, and tough are typically brutes. I’m versed enough in D&D monster-ness I just think weak/average/tough based on concept. (Goblins are weak, Hobgoblins are average, Bugbears are tough. The end.)

Minions (1 HP, XP = 1/2 minion in DMG)
Weak Monsters (15 HP +1/level, XP = minion in DMG)
Avg. Monsters (30 HP +2/level, XP = 2x minion in DMG)
Tough Monsters (45 HP +3/level, XP = Standard monster XP)

Ramping Up, not Dwindling Down

One of the core problems is that fights often turn into foregone conclusions- once one side starts losing combatants, it just snowballs from there stops being all that interesting (at least when the PCs are winning). Having monsters drop quicker should make it easier and be anti-climactic.

The trick is, of course, designing monster powers that become more dangerous the LESS of them are on the field. This can range from a rage that goes up every time an ally is dropped (also: put a maximum cap on the bonus, or it will get stupid) to a massive area effect spell that would damage their own allies.

Think of this as a broader version of the bloodied status powers- you want the monsters to step up their game as they’re losing, not become weaker.

I’ll have to think up some specific powers, later.

Elites & Solos

Elites and Solos provide the most problematic aspect of 4E design. I’m totally unsure about these numbers and will need to playtest them a lot and adjust, so be warned.

That said, first, Elites & Solos get extra actions to give some more parity with PC parties. Second, they get stronger resistance to status effects. Third, I’ve given a Defense Bonus all around, to make up for the HP loss, but it disappears when they hit bloodied- this gives players incentives to save their finishing attacks towards the end, instead of firing them off first thing on a target.

Elites

+1 Additional HP/level, +3 to hit, +4 damage, Status Resistance 5 or 10, and +2 to All Defenses (AC, Fort, Ref, Will) – the Defenses bonus disappears after being Bloodied.

Finally, Elites get an additional Standard Action they can take at their Initiative Roll -5.

Solos

+3 Additional HP/level, +3 to hit, + 6 damage, Status Resistance 10 or 15, and +3 to All Defenses (AC, Fort, Ref, Will) – the Defenses bonus disappears after being Bloodied.

Finally, Elites get an additional Standard & Move Action at their Initiative Roll -5, and an additional Standard Action at their Initiative -10.

Status Resistance

One of the big problems for Elites and Solos is status effects. Status Resistance is basically similar to old school “Magic Resistance” in terms of game design- it’s a roll to see if Status is ignored when it first hits. I’m thinking monsters basically have a SR of 5, 10, or 15 – roll a D20 and if it’s equal or under the SR, the status is ignored outright.

ETA: Looking through the Essentials Monster book, it looks like they have some solutions to the action count/status issues. I’ll have to play with those, too, and see what turns out to be the most elegant answer.

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RPGs, writing, and money

June 22, 2011

If anything, I’m a fan and a gamer above all else. I’d like roleplaying to do well for what it can, I’d like gamers to have fun gaming, etc.

Years back, Ron Edwards pointed out that the 3 tier model of distribution was destroying the ability for publishers to stay afloat. Problem was, a lot of people were invested in the idea of “real publishing” meaning you had to go through that system, and that anyone saying anything else was a crackpot (see also: music publishing).

As more folks, published, though, we saw a lot of data indicating that indie publishing was solid for a small hobby- you could make games you wanted and not lose money:

A few years of the Forge Booth Sales
The Collective Endeavor’s post on first year sales
Ryan Dancey’s Guesstimates on indie sales
Lumpley Game Sales in 2006
Lumpley Game Sales 2010-11
Evil Hat Sales 2007
Evil Hat Sales 2010
Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple Kickstarter

As this was going on, in parallel, the situation for the mainstream, or “traditional” publishers was not looking good at all.

Sales were definitely larger than indie games, but the fact was the writers were at the mercy of the publishers who were at the mercy of the distributors. I’d often go to convention panels and hear designers and writers talking about 3-4 cents a word is “good money”. (In the 30’s and 40’s, 3-4 cents a word is what pulp writers got paid.) It’s 2011, and it looks like nothing has changed.

It’s not that I’m “Go Indie!” because it’s some hip bullshit. It’s “Go Indie!” because I want creators to get paid for their work, I want creators to own their work, I want gamers to be able to try out a variety of games and not the 4 that the chain store/distributors will carry, I want games to be full of variety and options, I want good designers to be able to keep making games.

ETA: 3.5 Private Sanctuary’s Paizocon Podcast on Small Press Publishing

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4E: Lost Alliance

June 21, 2011

A fun little setting idea for 4E Essentials.

Where?

The Masara people have carved out more than simply “points of light” in the darkness- theirs is not a great empire, but it is a nation, prospering through hard work and courage, and that is much these days.

Over 3 centuries of work, they have fought back the monsters and beasts, and left the land relatively safe- safe enough that in many places, there are towns and villages without walls, merely a simple watchtower to serve as warning.

Imagine a mix of the architecture of Thailand with Moorish Spain- intricate carvings, expert engravings, beautiful plazas and courtyards. The wealthy have water gardens in their compounds, the less wealthy build their clan houses in a circular pattern facing inward – to a common yard where fruit trees and small gardens sit.

Who?

Your mother and your aunts hold council for your clan, they make the decisions. Your families live near by, more from tradition than need at this point, and the traders and travelers are the few who live distantly, though alliances hold families from generations ago, which allows you a network of connections should you travel to the outer settlements.

Your clan, your status and your deeds are worn openly with colored patterns of beads in your hair. Women may wear them in any direction, men only wear theirs on the back (they are not allowed to sit facing forward – usually only to the side, so their beads are always visible at gatherings.)

When you pass, your hair will be cut, and placed on the ancestral shrine with your beads on display – this will be the altar through which your family prays for you, personally. If the beads are lost, prayers cannot be made to you, or for you specifically, but only for the family as a whole.

Mask Keepers (Fighters- Knights)

The mask is a tool for summoning- with a mask, you can bring the spirit or a god into your body for dance and ritual. With armor- you have a mask and full suit – you bring them in for war.

The Mask Keepers are the warriors who keep the land safe from the most dangerous threats, though fewer people study the old ways, and the mask-makers also dwindle in numbers.

The tradition was a marriage of customs- the mask rituals of the Masara and the armorcraft of the Dwarves. The Exile Clans of the Dwarves who still live among the humans, they consider themselves the last defenders of that alliance long ago.

Trance Fighters (Fighter- Slayer)

The other tradition of defense are the Trance Fighters, who use a combination of chanting and mudras to bring their minds into the appropriate state for war. It’s said that their arts come from the Song of the God of War, and each stance and chant is but a part of it.

As the peninsula has become safe, their ways are forgotten around the older towns, but further out, by the frontiers, you can find the masters in the wild, practicing their arts with their disciples and fighting the beasts without.

Divines (Clerics – Warpriests)

The High Temple has 888 Divines at work at all times. During initiation, their name is carved on a tree trunk, which is planted in the Temple Grounds- the tree lets the temple know of the Divine’s life force- when they die, the tree falls.

Then it is time to initiate a new Divine.

As grim as that sounds, they are the relentless mystic warrior-lawgivers who travel the lands aiding the people and driving back evil spirits. They are a major reason the Masara have survived the times of Evil and the monsters.

The Night Blades (Rogue- Thief)

They came to Masara during the time of Evil- their own lands destroyed and corrupted- a mysterious order of mystics and warriors – and they swore fealty to the Queen. They are the hidden society of justice, who have helped keep Masara from falling into disunity and destruction throughout the generations.

They take lives to save life itself- “Many must die so that all may live” is their words of assassination, and their words of sacrifice.

The Mystics (Wizard- Mage)

Before the age of Evil, there was a book with the Knowledge of the World, all the Gods’ knowledge, which the High Mother held and passed down from Queen to Queen. When the Last War broke out, the book itself was shattered, and it’s pages flung across the worlds.

Someone found that page, someone wise, someone who knew their duty was to protect it’s knowledge, until the day the Book would be reassembled. Though the pages are hard to find, the finders would copy the knowledge, and pass it down from adept to adept, each person learning a little bit about the magic of the universe and it’s creation.

A spell is not just a set of words- it’s several ideas changed to the moment and the exact situation- doing the same spell twice entails doing different movements, different words- a mage doesn’t cast the spell as much as line up exact forces of stars, celestial bodies, elemental influences, and ideas, which revolve around a compass always moving.

The spell book doesn’t “teach” you the spell, it teaches you how to calculate these complex forces- the time isn’t memorizing spells as much as checking the times of sunrise/sunset, tides, the exact position of the sun to your current location, so when you actually need to cast the spell, you’ve worked out a lot of the major factors and only need to figure out the finer details in the moment.

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Why is there hate in my fun?

June 17, 2011

For all the talk of “Politically Correct Censorship”, it seems that you can say a lot of misogynist stuff and still get paid to write about how to bring women into roleplaying.

They’ve just pulled down the article, but it really says a lot about the whole process that it got put up in the first place.

“Best person for the job”

I’m totally against employers digging through people’s blogs, tweets, and facebook pages, but let’s be honest: if this guy is spewing these views semi-publicly, I don’t think it would have been that hard to figure out with a simple conversation or two.

“We’re doing an article on bringing women into gaming- why are you more qualified than the women who already work for us, and have written articles for us, on this subject?”

That’s not PC-policing- that’s trying to find someone qualified for the task, which is something an editor should be doing at some point the process.

This is one of those cases where you could easily assume that a woman probably would have more knowledge on the subject… but I’m sure it probably never really came up or was considered in the process – just slammed through to make sure DDI has enough content.

“We’re following the market!”

It’s always interesting the way “following the market” is used as an excuse, but only in one direction. When people ask why (games/movies/books/whatever) pretty much focus on straight white males, they say, “We’re following the market!”

But, if the people who aren’t straight, white, males, complain and take their money/viewership elsewhere, then suddenly they’re in the wrong? I thought they weren’t part of the market you were going for, anyway, right?

And, when companies do decide to listen to people complaining, who are threatening to take their money elsewhere, aren’t they, indeed, following the market?

I’m reminded of David Gaider’s inclusive market comment on Bioware Games:

The romances in the game are not for “the straight male gamer”. They’re for everyone. We have a lot of fans, many of whom are neither straight nor male, and they deserve no less attention. We have good numbers, after all, on the number of people who actually used similar sorts of content in DAO and thus don’t need to resort to anecdotal evidence to support our idea that their numbers are not insignificant… and that’s ignoring the idea that they don’t have just as much right to play the kind of game they wish as anyone else. The “rights” of anyone with regards to a game are murky at best, but anyone who takes that stance must apply it equally to both the minority as well as the majority. The majority has no inherent “right” to get more options than anyone else.

When we look at the use of “following the market” it’s used as a good thing when it’s about marketing to straight white men, and it’s never mentioned when talking about marketing to more than just straight white men – instead we get stuff like being “PC police”, oversensitive, censorship, etc.

When 51% of all people are women, 10% are LGBT, and, at least in the US, 28% of us are folks of color… straight white men aren’t actually a majority market (more like 31-32%). Shouldn’t we be flipping that terminology around?

Isn’t doing stuff like turning characters of color into white people a form of censorship? Isn’t removing gay male relationships from media and games a form of political policing? Isn’t getting upset that people asking for more than a constant focus on a “minority market” being a little oversensitive?

Putting white male gamers on trial, or something

I think NK Jemisin says it best:

I’m getting really, really sick of the idea that respecting your fellow human beings is somehow restrictive or oppressive or damaging to creativity, productivity, the genre, whatever….When you complain about political correctness, we hear “Man, if only we were still back in the good ol’ days, when I could stomp all over other people with impunity!” That’s what you really mean, so why not just come right out and say it?

If the point of gaming (geek media, fandom, whatever) is about having fun, why is it always a problem when we ask to be included in that fun and not abused in the process? Is fun a limited resource that we have to conserve like we’re going to hit Peak Oil or something?

The idea that other people being respected, or included, is a problem, only makes sense if you’re saying your fun relies upon disrespecting and self-segregation.

And if that’s the case, the question is who’s really the folks making unreasonable demands here?

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Creative Agenda by way of Grognardia

June 13, 2011

I find myself reading Grognardia less and less these days, but it’s really neat to see a parallel understanding of Creative Agenda:

…I do sometimes think that even less is gained by pretending that someone who plays D&D and someone who plays My Life with Master are involved in the same hobby. That’s why I’ve never seen it as contradictory that someone might — gasp! — enjoy both hobbies, much in the same way that someone might enjoy baseball and football. At the same time, I’ve never met any sports fan who pretended that baseball and football were the same activity or that baseball might be improved by importing into it rules from football.

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Ching Chongery

June 8, 2011

So, over at Story Games, there’s Avoiding Ching Chong Ting Tong at the Table, a thread started with good intentions, about… not using ChingchongLOLS in your game.

You know the bar is set super low when you have helpful play threads about how NOT to spew racial slurs.

Anyway, I wanted to talk a bit about that whole thread and how it highlights problems even as it’s intended to solve them.

For instance, SG has a pretty good history of silencing people of color or women – which, is why the thread is basically a lot of white guys talking about how NOT to be racist with other white guys as an intellectual exercise – well, except for all bits that are fishing for reassurance that what they’re doing isn’t problematic (or the players in their games, etc.).

It would be like if you could only have “reasonable” discussions of sexism after you’ve ushered all the women out of the room, and one of the major discussion threads is asking other men, “…but I’m not sexist, right???”

The reason these kinds of discussion spaces fail for that is a matter of what is, and isn’t permitted. The social contract mostly boils down to a vague “Be Nice” (“Zen” EXTRA IRONY), which, when played out in practice over the years, means when someone says something really fucked up and sexist/racist/etc, but “politely” (rather, with faux-humor, whatever), then it’s all good, and when people call them on it, it’s the latter who get piled on.

And while I know Andy doesn’t intend that, the fact is it ends up becoming the kind of space where Derailing for Dummies rules the day, and you end up with conversations like this:

“Um, is that what you meant to say? That’s pretty messed up.”
“I don’t believe you! I challenge you to prove it to me.”
“(Lengthy explanation)”
“I don’t believe you! Explain term X to me/Justify this hypothetical edge case which only exists in Bizzaro Land.”
“(Lengthy explanation)”
(Repeat x10)
“I don’t believe you! Explain the term ‘the’ to me.”

And then the headdesk taiko begins.

This is also the same problem for rpg.net, Enworld, The Forge, and even Knife-fight (which is why that site became talking about recipes and childhood experiences, rather than, you know, it’s namesake).

Why White Men Should Refuse to be on Panels of All White Men is pretty relevant here. People point out that they play with their friends, and I have to ask what kind of life you’re living where all of your friends are other white men?

I mean, it’s 2011, I’m glad we’ve reached the point where people can publicly say, “Wow, Ching Chongery is wack.”

I’ll be even more glad when (self segregated) gamer culture can figure out how sad it is to have to be happy about that.

ETA: And now I just read the thread which spawned it which basically is a ball of white man defensiveness. Fucking awesome.