Wednesday, January 30, 2013

My Love Letter to White Wolf

I still remember exactly how I was introduced to White Wolf.  I was in high school, and my gaming group was sitting around the table when I was handed a dog-eared copy of the first edition of Werewolf: The Apocalypse.  It was already looking a bit beaten up, with the claw marks in the cover starting to tear, and the edges of the book starting to curl, like an old textbook.  I flipped through it idly, and asked, "So we're like, hippies?"  and my friend snatched it back, flipped through the pages until he came to a two page splash of two werewolves eviscerating each other, superimposed over text describing combat.  "Fuck that, we're PISSED OFF hippies," he replied.

You have to understand, prior to that, my group had only played AD&D 2nd Edition.  There was very little subtlety to our adventures - 14th level was our 1st level, we all started off with 2 magical items, and we rolled in a flying ship, battling tarrasques and nests of elder red dragons, and our final bosses were gods as often as not.  Our missions were all combat based, with a few traps and mostly given to us by mysterious hooded strangers in bars.  You know - we were that type of group.

Werewolf was something else entirely.

There was nothing heroic about it - the world had gone to shit and it was your own fault.  You fought, knowing that by fighting you were surrendering your own humanity in what would likely end up being a pointless battle - the enemy had already won by the time your troops ever hit the field.  The End Times Were Here, Baby, and you were damned if you did, damned if you didn't.

And yet, you fought - but did you fight because it was the right thing to do, because you didn't know what else to do, or because it was all you knew how to do?  So many questions, so much ambiguity, so completely unlike any of the games we'd been playing up until that point.

And the world - it combined the best aspects of comic books, sequential novels and role playing games - it was a fully realized world (or at least it seemed to be in those heady days), that still left enough unspoken that there was room to breathe.  My only other experience with world building on this level was the Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance, but both of which had been paved over by the stories of others that it didn't feel as though there was any room for my characters - why were they hiring us when Elminster was right around the corner?  The World of Darkness, though, had nooks and crannies, darkened corners and shadowy alleyways with room enough for everyone.

At first, we played it true to what we knew - half the party were Ahroun Get of Fenris basic fighter types.  But as we went along, we started playing around with it - someone put their primary stats into Social, and decided his character owned a bar, and didn't appreciate it when the Gets went full Crinos during happy hour.  Another created a Scottish Fianna Bagpiper, and soon we had a wacky bunch of misfits, none of which were worth a shit in battle, and our GM had to start thinking of... y'know.... OTHER stuff for us to do besides kill formori.

I picked up Mage: The Ascension not long after, and then things got really crazy.  Playing characters who could literally do anything, we got into all kinds of mischief, constrained only by the limits of our imagination.  I picked up Wraith and Changeling, and while we were intrigued by the ideas presented, neither seemed to mesh with our style of play.  Strangely, although we had a copy of Vampire, without articulating it exactly, we could sense that the game was a bit too "scene" for us, and while one of our group talked about playing Wednesday Addams as a Tremere, we never found a good way to integrate her into what had become a MageWolf game.

These were the last games that my original gaming group ever played.  We went our separate ways, and while we got together briefly for a few months six or seven years ago, we never did recapture the same cohesiveness that we had in those halcyon days.

So I wasn't playing any longer, and while I picked up some of the novels here and there, I found them fairly bland, and not representative of the feel that I had gotten from reading the game books.  I drifted - I wasn't gaming, and had mostly forgotten about the World of Darkness.  Then in 1999, White Wolf released the first Vampire Clan Novel, Toreador.  I picked it up on a whim, and was sucked right back in.  It took them 262 pages to completely and utterly knock over the apple cart, totally disrupting the status quo of the World of Darkness, and I couldn't get enough.  To make matters worse, they started integrating their game books into the novels, with the two working in concert - the novels gave personal accounts of the events that took place, while the game books told you what actually happened, as opposed to what was experienced.  This had it's good points and bad (I understand why they didn't spell out the Technocracy dropping a "spirit nuke" on the warring antediluvians in India, but without it, most of the Ravnos novel made absolutely no sense), and in general while it made for excellent marketing, it made it a pain in the ass to keep up with the narrative.

But keep up with it I did, and followed along through the Dark Ages novels, then the Werewolf Tribe books, the Mage novels with the destruction of Doissetep, you name it, I was there.  To this day, I speak fluent Classic World of Darkness, as it's apparently known now.  Gangrel Antitribu, Gnosis, Deathmarks, the Autumn People, the Earthbound, I absorbed it all.

And then, it all went away.

They wrapped up the cWoD, wholesale.  The novels were fairly good, the closeout gamebooks offered some interesting ideas, even if they were frustratingly vague.  As was their wont, each novel was a personal tale, with little of the big picture that I craved, and while they provided the gamebooks as usual, this time they just gave suggestions on how each GM could end things, should they so choose.  Frustrating, but honestly, it was about as good of a sendoff as the line was going to get.

I remember standing in my FLGS, holding the New World of Darkness book in my hand, and thinking, "Do I really want to get back on this train?"  I had ridden the beast from it's inception to its apocalypse, what more did it have to offer me?  I put the book down, and haven't looked back since.

For ages, my bookshelves had groaned under the weight of the WoD books, but as more RPG books came in, they began to fight for space, and gradually the World of Darkness was edged off of my shelves, and into storage, until there was nothing left.  I still had the trade paperback versions of the clan novels on my shelves, but for the first time in ages, I had no White Wolf game books on my shelf.  It was around that time that I was swept up in the Old School Rennaisance, so I didn't miss it much.

Then last week, I was at my local Half Price Books browsing the clearance shelves, and lo and behold, there were two copies of the Second Edition of Werewolf.  You know, the one with the Tony DiTerlizzi comic book at the beginning of the book?  The spines were a bit loose, but they were otherwise in pristine condition.  Nonetheless, HPB had marked them at $5 each.  Impulsively, I grabbed them, not knowing what I would do with them, but just feeling as though they deserved better than the $5 bin at HPB.  They sat in my truck that day while I worked, but it was as though they had opened a floodgate, and I started thinking about the great times I'd had playing it, how much I loved the world, the charactes.

That night was my Traveller game, and I gave the books to the group, and basically browbeat them into agreeing to giving it a shot.  It's going to be a challenge - they're the type that see a wall, lower their heads and charge.

I'm not sure if it's going to work.  I'm prepared for it to fail utterly.  But I'm playing old World of Darkness again, and I can't wait to see what happens!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Uncanny Chasm

Oh Father Ted, you never let me down.
I'd imagine that many, if not most, of the readers of this blog have heard of the Uncanny Valley, but in case some have not, it refers to the fact that the closer you get to building a robot that simulates humanity, the more "wrong" the robot appears, until it finally hits that point of seamless integration between expectation and reality.

What does this have to do with RPGs?  Well, a game that takes place entirely in the imagination has similar issues.  There is the chasm between the mind of the creator and the mind of the user, and there is the chasm between the mind of the GM and the mind of the PC.  In either instance, the Uncanny Chasm represents the gap between how it is "meant to be" and how it is "perceived to be".

Now, "meant to be" is a loaded phrase.  Some will take issue with it, I'm sure, but at the end of the day, if something is created, that thing has a form.  In order for you to actualize something, you have to conceptualize it, and in order to conceptualize it you have to visualize it.  Basically, the game can inhabit some sort of quantum superposition where it has no direction, purpose or meaning if you like, but as soon as it's actualized, it collapses into a thing, and that thing has form, shape and function.

"Perceived to be" is much easier to to take in - it's the house rules, it's the home-brews, it's the on-the-fly judgement calls that make your game different from any other game out there, regardless of the rules you're using.

So how do you cross that chasm?  How do you get others to play the game that is in your head?

Some will say, "Why would you want to?", and for them, I have no answer.  To me, creation is an act of sharing, and if I'm going to actualize something, I see it as my duty to make sure that my vision is as clear as possible.  So I don't create with these people in mind, and rarely spare them a thought - they will do what they will with what I create, or ignore it completely, as is their right.  My goal is not to create some sort of totalitarian creative space where those who do not use what I have created exactly as I intend are herded into reeducation camps, but rather make sure that those who are looking for something full and alive are able to grok it with as little head scratching as possible.  Basically, if you like what I'm selling, let me make sure you see it as clearly and fully as possible.

So, with that caveat out of the way, the short answer to my question, "How do you get others to play the game that is in your head?" is, "You can't".

No, seriously, you can't.

It is impossible to drag something down from the ether, define it completely, package it and hand it off to someone else without losing something along the way.  Films probably come the closest, but even so, two people can watch the same movie, see the same pictures and hear the same words, and yet come away from the movie with different experiences and understandings.  It only gets harder as you get deeper into the meatspace - two people can read the same book, and imagine the characters as completely different from how the author imagined, or even described, them.  Once you get to roleplaying games, all bets are off.

So it's a matter of expectations - you certainly can't hope that someone is going to play your game exactly as you imagine it, and the world in the GM's mind translating well to the minds of the players is as likely as not.

And yet... and yet... it does happen.  Rarely intentionally, but a thousands monkeys with a thousand typewriters and all that.


I don't think there is a simple answer here, only things that contribute in varying degrees to the ability of a project to bridge the chasm.

Some fall into the trap of thinking that it's the rules.  They're partially right, but not in the way they think.  I'll come back to that.

Art is an easier one to point to.  It allows the reader to peek into the mind of the Creator.  Problem is, unless the Creator is also the Artist, you've actually added another Chasm to be leapt.  Art only gives the feel of a setting, though, not the setting itself.  It can tell you what certain inhabitants and circumstances look like in the world, but it is by no means comprehensive, and it is almost impossible to communicate the "meaning" of a game via the art?  Vibrant colors and strong, clean lines may indicate high fantasy, while drab coloring and heavy shadows may evoke noirish sensibilities, but there are other uses for each, as well - Superheroes use the former, while the latter could also be indicative of horror.  So while not perfect, art does provide a viable, if a bit crumbly, bridge across the chasm.

Another way to go about it is with color.  You know, the little bits of flavor text scattered through the book? They drop you into random parts of the world in question, giving you insight into the Creator's vision, without  the investment of a novel.  If you scatter them widely enough, your reader goes away with a good sense of things.

Then there's background.  This one is tricky.  Done well, it makes you ask questions, and draws you into the world.  World of Darkness is a good example of this.  While the conceptual element of their games are simple (Vampire, Werewolf, Mage, etc), it is legerdemain.  Each game is its own rabbit hole, drawing you further and further from what you think you know about them.  Done poorly, and you end up with an RPG that shall remain nameless.  I grabbed the pdf off of DriveThruRPG, based on an intriguing blurb.  Opened it up, and first had to scroll through a 48 page short story, followed by a 14 page history of this nightmare future, taken decade by decade from the present day all the way to the year 3,450 or whatever.  All just to tell me that it is an Aliens-inspired Lovecraftian Survival Horror game.  It took me all of about 2 pages to twig that, before my eyes rolled back in my skull and the tablet dropped from my hands.

Finally, we get to rules.  I saved this for last, because it is such a fiercely contested topic, one which has given rise to two camps, which do battle regularly with the ferocity of a thousand tigers.  Those camps are, of course, Team SYSTEM MATTERS and Team THE PLAY'S THE THING.  I think that both are essentially correct, depending on how you approach gaming in general.  If you want, you can take any rule set and use it to play any type of roleplaying game you can imagine.  You can play a George Bernard Shaw-esque social comedy using basic Dungeons and Dragons.  You can take the rule set for Classic World of Darkness and use it to play survival horror in space.  You can bend, twist and house rule any system to make it do what you want, if you only want it enough.

Now, with that being said, there are some systems which make it easier for you to do this, and require less acrobatics on your part in order to make it work.  For instance, while your characters may want to play an RPG version of The Importance of Being Earnest, you can either have them roleplay it out, in which case they have to possess the voice and vocabulary necessary to make it feel like an Oscar Wilde game, or make a lot of Charisma checks.  But what if there was a system that was designed specifically to mimic social interaction of that nature?  It allows those who enjoy that sort of thing to play along, without actually having to do it themselves.

While you may love OD&D, how many contortions must you perform to get it to work in a modern day setting?  Clips of ammunition, the relative speed of a car vs. a horse, computers, etc.  Can you do it?  Sure, absolutely.  You can figure out how to use those rules to make all of those things work.  Or, you can use a system that is designed with specifically that in mind, and have it all there, no houseruling required.

So my point regarding rules would be, I think, that SYSTEM CAN HELP YOUR PLAYERS DO THEIR THING.  There is no roleplaying game out there that can only be played by one system.  You can always take your own approach and adapt some other system to do it.  You can dig a ditch with a shovel, or you can dig it with your hands.  Either one will get you what you want, but one is going to make it easier to get it done.    In keeping with the theme of this post, you can build a bridge over the Chasm, or you can tie a rope.

Now that we're past that hurdle, it's worth it to mention that some systems make it easier to leap the chasm.  Some systems operate in such broad strokes that the worlds described are instantly recognizable to almost anyone who plays them.  I believe Dungeons and Dragons' initial success was due in no small part to the fact that the setting was generic enough that you didn't need too much background to be able to play.  You say "Fantasy", and just about everybody thinks, "Dwarves, Elves, Magic, Dragons."  There's no need to cross that chasm, because you're already on the same side.  Pull out BECMI and start talking about the trenches of Verdun, and the Chasm widens between you and your players.

I don't really have any grand idea to wrap this all up with, there is no "solution" to the problem.  There's a problem, and different things you can do to address it, but you'll never do away with it completely.  As a GM, you will always care more about your world than your players will.  As a designer, you will always care more about your world than GMs will.  It's the way of the world - the Uncanny Chasm is littered with the scattered remains of tons of great ideas.  While your ideas are more likely than not to end up there, there are things you can do to make it (slightly) less likely.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Session Report: DCC Interlude

This picture will make sense, promise.
I have been neglecting my blog of late, mostly because I have been on a creative streak, and haven't needed to write about creating, as I've actually been doing it!  Imagine that!

I did, however, want to immortalize the events of my the most recent DCC RPG game that I run.  Ark, from Rather Gamey, participates in it, and did a fantastic writeup of the last session, which can be read here.   This past Saturday, one of the players was unable to make it, and while we toyed with the idea of a one-shot of some other system, we agreed that we were all in the mood for DCC, and having some time between when the last session had left off and the group was meant to stop the ship from departing (did you click that link?), we decided to run an interlude session, where the one character was off doing whatever it was that they were doing, and the rest of the group had an adventure without him.

It's important to note that the group is supposed to keep a low profile, so they decided that they should find a way to get from the district in which they were residing to the Docks, where the ship would be.  They discovered that although the house was on stilts, these were hollow stone stilts, and they also served as privy-tubes.  Lowering a rope, they began their Trek Through the Poo.

The halfling quickly determined that there were drawbacks to being a halfling, when he realized that there was 2.5 feet of waste in the sewers, and he was only 3'2.  So it was slow going as he walked sideways along the curve of the sewers.  They stumbled upon a group of Kobolds in Brown Capes, which are indicative, in the city in which they are residing, of the Servitor Class.  Yes, these Kobolds worked for the City's Sewage Department.  These kobolds also all sounded like Big Boss, the head of C.R.O.O.K.S, the organization of evil in the breakout hit cartoon C.O.P.S., from around 1988.  What's that?  You've never heard of it?  Allow me to enlighten you.  Some might say that Big Boss actually sounds like Edward G. Robinson, but I digress.

The Kobolds had inadvertently caused a cave in, and then lost several of their fellows when they were sent in to tunnel through the mess.  They were trying to figure out who to blame when the party came along, offering them an easy out.  The party crawled into the passage to find that another tunnel had been created adjacent to the one they were digging, and it appeared the kobolds had headed down that tunnel.  Heading down that tunnel, they were attacked by a creature made of bone, with a vole of some sort at the center of its mass, pierced by numerous bones of various animals.  They fought it off, but all but one zero level party member fell into a small pit.  While the group was attempting to climb out, something grabbed the zero level character, and dragged him off without a sound.  They continued on, those with infravision detecting heat, even though none felt it.  Eventually, they came to a room with a pit in the middle.  Red light spilled forth from the pit, along with several large tentacles, that seemed to be responsible for all the new tunnels.  Two of the kobolds were huddling in a corner, along with Paul the Zero Level Guy, and another two kobolds had been jammed into the bone creature things.  The party attacked, and, by the skin of their teeth, managed to defeat the bone creatures, and drive the tentacle monster back into the depths.  The kobolds were grateful for the assistance, and provided the PCs with a trinket that would lead them through the city's byzantine maze of sewers to the docks, going forward.

All was well, except for poor Kaye.  Kaye is the party Cleric, and was called upon frequently to heal his fellows.  As is apt to happen in DCC, Kaye failed several checks, and had invoked some disfavor.  One result was that he had to go on a quest to heal the crippled.  Problem is, in this city, the crippled get tossed over the wall (you did click that link above, right?).  The party decided that the best place to find cripples in a city that doesn't like cripples would probably be at the docks, where perhaps they could find some cripples that had not yet been tossed.

Lucky for them, or by the grace of Kaye's god, there happened to be a plague ship that had just tried to dock.  It had been tied off, then pushed back, while the dock master tried to figure out what to do with it.  The party decided to take care of it.  Of course, Ark's characters are not nice people (you know that because you clicked the link, right?), so they decided to remain above decks in burkas adorned with red crosses (keeps the plague out, donchaknow), arranging a triage area, while Kaye and the Halfling descended into the ship.  From there, it was pretty much a zombie movie, except the zombies flesh was tumorous.  Lots of empty rooms with signs of violence, an ominous barred door with blood smeared all around it, that sort of thing.  It turned out that a successful lay on hands from Kaye's cleric reversed the effects of the disease, but there were so many of them, Kaye's disfavor quickly increased even more.  I believe that, by the time the ship had been cleared, he had gained a new quest to heal the crippled, was required to convert someone by sundown, was deafened for two weeks, had to meditate for several hours, you get the point.

What can I say, the life of a DCC Cleric, is not an easy one.  And to think, Ark is going out of his way looking for a patron.  Oh the fun that we shall have!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

FtA: Character Creation (Revised)

This is the beta character generation system for From the Ashes.  It currently only applies to Baseline Humans. Rules for Mutations will follow, as will rules for Mutated Animals, but this is the template on which the other processes will be built.  I ran my wife and I through this process last night, and while we didn't select mutations or equipment, it seemed to go pretty well, and move fairly quickly.  I'm planning on running my home group through the process this weekend, hopefully, and we'll see what happens when professional gamers get their hands on it, in particular, our resident min/maxer Kaye (to give you an idea of his skill, he managed to min/max TRAVELER last weekend).  While I'm not naive enough to believe that this is perfect (I have a feeling Kay will show me exactly how to break it), I think it's a fair beginning - it seems a good mixture of random and custom generation - while you may know what type of character you want to play, if the dice don't roll right, that character just isn't in your future.  One thing that did come up last night was the realization that, while I don't want to have a definite, limiting list of Skills, I probably do need to create example Skills for each Stat - my wife asked me what an Acuity-based skill would be, and I came up blank.  Anyhow, feedback is always welcome!
Stats: There are 9 Stats for each character, divided up into three Stat Blocks.  The three Stat Blocks are: Meat, Mind and Heart.
  • The Meat Stats are representative of your physical capabilities: Strength, Constitution and Dexterity. Strength is a measure of your muscle, Constitution indicates your general health and physical well being, and Dexterity is indicative of your flexibility, agility, hand-eye coordination, etc.
  • The Mind Stats are reflective of your mental capacity: Knowledge, Observation and Acuity.  Knowledge reflects your "book smarts" - it is representative of all the facts that you have learned.  Observation is a measure of your awareness of your surroundings, and Acuity reflects your ability to think on your feet.
  • Finally, your Heart Stats show how socially adept you are (or aren't).  Geniality, Persuade and Intimidate are your Heart Stats.  Geniality is basically your all purpose First Impression roll, based on a composite of how you carry yourself, your "neutral" expression, etc.  It's how people react to you when you're not trying to make them react to you in a certain way.  Intimidation is your ability to force someone to do what you want, and Persuade is your ability to convince someone to do what you want.  

Step 1: Discover your Baseline.  For each of your Stat Blocks, roll 1d10.  On a roll of 1-3, you have a Sub Par Baseline in that Stat Block.  On a 4-8, you have an Average  Baseline, and on a 9 or 10, you have an Exceptional Baseline.
  • Sub Par - Roll 1d10 to determine each score
  • Average - All three Stat Scores are 11.
  • Exceptional - Roll 1d4+11 to determine each score.
These represent your natural abilities, as determined by genetics.

Step 2: Determine your Concentration and Dilutias.  This represents the direction you have taken in development throughout your life thus far.  If you have had a Meat Concentration, you have focused on honing your physical aptitudes, while if you've had a Heart Dilutia, you have neglected your social skills.

Choose one Stat Block to be your Concentration, and add distribute an additional five points among the Stats.  The other two Stat Blocks are your Dilutia - subtract three points from the Stats within both.

Alternatively, you can choose to be Well Rounded, in which case all of your Stats remain unchanged.  

Step 3: Choose Skills.  There is no list of Skills.  The Player can choose to have had their character develop any Skill they can think of, provided it is consistent with the environment in which they have been raised.  Each Skill, however, must be tied to a particular Stat.  As far as the actual nature of the Skills are concerned, however, anything goes -  from Seduction (Persuade) to Underwater Basket Weaving (Acutiy) can be selected, provided the Player and the GM agree.  

Each Skill has a Ranking of between 1 and 5 Notches, with one Notch indicative of a basic understanding, and 5 Notches reflecting a complete Mastery of the Skill.

Each character is given Skill Points initially, with which to buy Notches.  
  • Someone who is Well Rounded receives 15 Skill Points to buy Notches for each of their Stat Blocks.
  • Someone with Concentration and Dilutia will receive 25 Skill Points to buy Notches for the Concentrated Stat Block, and 10 Skill Points for each of their Dilutia Stat Blocks
  • The more Notches the Player wants in a Skill, the more Skill Points it costs.
    • 1 Notch = 1 Skill Point
    • 2 Notches = 3 Skill Points
    • 3 Notches = 5 Skill Points
    • 4 Notches = 7 Skill Points
    • 5 Notches = 10 Skill Points
  • For every Skill that has 5 Notches, the Stat associated with that Skill should be increased by 1
  • Remember that Weapon Training is a Skill.  Any sort of Ranged Weapon training should be tied to the Dexterity Stat, but Melee Weapon training can be tied to either Strength or Dexterity, depending on the manner in which the Character is trained to use it.  

Gamma World... Is Here! Brazilian Treehopper Edition

What the hell is this thing?

This can't be real, I think, I mean, it's a drawing, so surely someone made this up, right?

Well here are photos!  Not saying that they couldn't be 'shopped, but it provides a little certainty anyways. The best part about these things/  Scientists have no idea what those balls are, or what they're for.

Read about them here and here.  It's also worth going to the Italian Wikipedia page, as for some reason, they have different pictures associated with them.  

And you know what, if they don't exist - they should....


Thursday, January 3, 2013

FtA: Redefining Risk and Reward

I compare RPGs to comics quite a bit in my head.  I imagine that the Venn Diagram of the two fanbases has quite a bit of crossover, and their underlying principles are much the same. I'm not going write a dissertation comparing the two, don't worry.  There is one key point that both share, that I want to touch on - the fact that both presuppose a world where problems can be solved with violence.

I'm not sure if I've brought it up on this blog before, but as anyone who has ever gamed with me can attest, I'm not a fan of combat.  Margaret Atwood said that war is what happens when language fails, and that seems to be a recurring theme among the characters that I play.  The first time I met an earlier iteration of my current gaming group, rather than participate in combat, I threatened to sink the ship we were fighting on unless the enemies stood down.  I later realized that 4E was not the game for me when I attempted to build a pacifist cleric, and found that it was literally impossible to do so, using the game as written.  I briefly considered asking my GM if I could inflict the damage upon myself in order to heal others, but that seemed a bridge too far, and while it was interesting concept, I felt it was better just to take the not-so-subtle hint that WOTC had left for me.  Pathfinder was better, I created a character who was nigh impossible to be detected.  He shadowed the party for several sessions, pilfering and making mischief before being discovered.  In the current Stars Without Number game, I play a character who has no combat ability whatsoever, more akin to a Microsoft Tech Support desk jockey than a traditional hero.  No, given the opportunity, I would rather avoid combat altogether at best.  With no other choice, I prefer to do as Sun Tzu advises, and make as many calculations before the battle as possible, stacking the deck in my favor.   I want to pick the battlefield, lay traps, arrange the PCs in the most advantageous position, stack as many bonuses as possible, so that when the combat occurs, as little is left to chance as possible; because while many people find exhilaration in hitting the right number on an oddly shaped piece of plastic, roleplaying is all about problem solving.  The less randomization involved, the more certain victory becomes.

When I GM, this presents me with a challenge.  I need to cater to the expectations of my party - there's no use setting up a chess board if folks show up wanting to play checkers.  When I do set up combat, I have to fight against my nature to stack the deck unreasonably in favor of the monsters.  Every time I pull out the Ogre Magi and have them using their flight, invisibility and cones of cold concurrently, player's jaws drop, and at least one PC usually dies.  As a GM, my goal isn't to kill the PCs - it's to present them with problems, and challenge them to come up with solutions.  But every time I get into a combat situation, I have to fight my natural inclinations, and make sure that I leave them some daylight.  Otherwise, I start thinking thoughts like, "Why WOULDN'T the Storm Giants have a pack of Elder Red Dragons on chains, guarding their treasure horde?"

No, I would much rather present the PCs with difficult situations that challenge them.  In a perfect world, those situations would have nothing to do with combat, but so many game systems are set up with combat as a presupposition that it makes it difficult to strike out in another direction.  I'll come back to this in a minute, though.

First, what does this have to do with comics?  For a long time, comics were effectively exercises in Monster of the Week style storytelling.  Villain A has an EVIL PLOT™, Hero X discovers it, they fight, and Villain A is defeated, his plan thwarted.  It's the basic storytelling arc - Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action and Resolution.  Sound familiar?  It should - it's the basis for the majority of adventures ever created. Over time, comics evolved somewhat - the combat became contextualized, with less panels devoted to the actual fisticuffs.  The violence became implied, and took a back seat to character development, and soap-opera style theatrics.  Alan Moore sounded the death knell for these style comics with Watchmen, which puts the ultimate futility of violence on full display.

It's gotten to the point where, in a recent Major Story Event, Avengers vs. X-Men, the actual fighting was relegated to a second book, AvX.  The main book was all talky character drama type stuff, with the fighting there perfunctory, more representative as a visual metaphor for the conflict than anything else.

To a certain extent, we've seen some of that go on in gaming, but to a large extent, it's out on the fringes, in the indie games corner of the market.    By and large, if you're starting an RPG, it means that somebody is about to get shot, stabbed or beaten.  Much as in comics, the language of conflict is violence.

The main difference between comics and RPGs, though, is in the nature of Risk and Reward.  According to Alan Moore, Stan Lee once said that readers didn't want change, they wanted the illusion of change, and that policy has become de rigeur.  Hence Spider-Man being in his mid twenties for thirty years.  Hence the revolving door of death in comics.  It keeps the franchises viable, but at the same time, it puts a time limit on the buy in of the readers.  Once you've seen your favorite character get resurrected from the dead, defeat the unstoppable villain, etc.  You start to realize that there is no Risk, so you settle into a cycle of diminishing Rewards for your investment in the story.  

In RPGs, there's no need to create the illusion of change, change can happen whenever.  While players can become attached to their characters they aren't franchises - rare is the player who pushes back from the table after their character dies and says, "Never again!  I'm done with RPGs!"  On another level, though, our community is just like the comics community, retelling the same stories over and over again, just with different window dressing.  Our heroes wear chain mail, not spandex, but the language of conflict and resolution is the same - if you hit it hard enough, you win!

Even "new" games perpetuate the system.  We're all on the grind, killing monsters to gain experience, which gives us the ability to kill more monsters in new and exciting ways.  The risk is all tied to the character's mortality, and the reward is tied his ability to kill.

When I was sitting down to design an RPG, I wanted something different.  I wanted a game that was designed around the idea of problem solving, but using a different language than what players have become accustomed to.  The problem being, of course, how do you get somebody to play such a game?  I saw a g+ thread awhile back talking about a group of PCs were using their dancing skills to thwart an invasion or some-such, and while it made my heart glad, I can't imagine that you could design an entire game around the mechanic, and even if you did, would there be any functional difference between my dancing roll vs. your dancing roll  and my combat roll vs. your combat roll?

So I've accepted the fact that combat probably needs to be a part of From the Ashes.  With that acknowledgement came the question - if you can't change the game, what about the rules of the game?  Rather than try and convince people not to fight, how about making the rule set drop a hint, a la 4E style, that combat is pointless?  If the point of combat is to perpetuate your character's ability to fight, why not set a hard stop on the development of your character?

So yeah - in From the Ashes, you're on the clock.  Kind of like Spawn back when Spawn was relevant, every character sets off knowing exactly how much power they have in them.

Remember this?

Except that rather than being a countdown, there will still be the normal leveling system.  They'll gain power as the progress, but once they hit the cap, it's over.  They will never be as powerful as they are at that moment, one second before they die.  Changing the language of conflict - if you know that you're going to die, what risk does combat have?  Death becomes, rather than an obstacle to be overcome, a fact of life that must be accepted.

But if the risk is fundamentally altered, so too must the reward be altered.

As I envision From the Ashes, it's a cooperative world building RPG.  The world itself starts off tabula rasa, and the actions of the PCs shape its development.  Without the constraints of a fight/level up/rinse/repeat paradigm, what can they do with a new world?  Will there be combat?  Sure, of course, but does killing any who oppose you make the new world better, or perpetuate the problems that led to the end of the world before?

If From the Ashes works out like I hope it does, there will be an emphasis on self sacrifice and creation, rather than violence perpetrated upon others and destruction.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

FtA: Genotypes

I've been on the fence regarding different genotypes for From the Ashes.  At first, I went full out, and was talking about mutated animals, mutated plants, the whole nine yards.  Then I swung all the way back around and was thinking only mutated humans, no mutated animals, no mutated plants, nothing.

I think I'm going to settle into somewhere in the middle - there are mutated animals, but no mutated plants.  Further, Mutated Animals are rare, so there will have to be explanations made if the party is comprised entirely of Mutated geckos, or whatever.

The idea is, just as Humans were affected by the miasma of chemicals and nanites that caused such devastation during the Last War, so too were the various animal species, and just as a select few humans have been changed by the experience, a small number of animals have stepped forward as well.

Key to making this work, though, will be enforcing the idea that these are not humans with animal traits, but rather animals with human traits.  Playing a mutated animal should feel different than playing a mutated human.  They should have different goals and ideas on how things should be run, and the direction things should go in as life struggles from the wreckage.

For instance, a mutated cat should be a loner by nature, with a bit of a hedonistic twist.  A little lazy until a target presents itself, at which point it adopts a laser-tight focus, hunting and stalking.

Mutated dogs are loyal to a fault, obeying orders unquestioningly.  Favored as bodyguards, they will never allow harm to come to those they have sworn to protect, so long as they live.

Mutated bovines tend towards labor.  Plodding and slow to anger, they tend to be taken advantage of by the more quick witted.  If they discover that they've been tricked, however, their anger can be terrifying to behold.

Mutated eagles are arrogant.  They see themselves as apex predators in a world full of prey.  They claim a broader, wider vision than "groundlings", as they refer to anything earthbound.

Snake-men are shy and reclusive.  They defend their homes, but otherwise prefer to talk their way out of most trouble.  Back them into a corner, though, and you'll feel their bite.

Further, Mutated Animals, while having certain advantages in terms of stats (Mutated cats are quicker than humans, mutated bovines are stronger, etc), their mutations tend to me more endemic to their nature, as opposed to Mutated humans.  All mutated animals possess the following: intelligence higher than what is normal for their race, speech, and some sort of opposable thumb-type apparatus which allows them to work tools.  They also possess mutations, of the more esoteric sort, but these are fewer, and less powerful than those possessed by the humans.

If a player wants to play a mutated animal, the GM should talk them through the decision, asking questions like, "What traits do you see as typical of this animal?", and "How do you plan to let those traits shine through as you play?"  Remember that From the Ashes is, at its core, about the development of this new world - what would your animal see as the best possible future, the best type of society that could be built?

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot

What a trip - I received an email from myself, 10 years ago, via  I was a very different person 10 years ago, living somewhere else, doing other things, with different hopes and dreams.  Quite honestly, I'd forgotten all about it, which was probably my intent in sending so far into the future.  This combined with typical New Year reflections and the fact that I've recently seen Les Miserables has put me into a contemplative mood.  I'm going to go all Live Journal here, so if you came here looking for a light hearted gaming post, you're excused.

As I've mentioned previously, I'm a big fan of Les Miserables, and in particular the character of Javert.  The knee-jerk reaction of most is to label him as a villain, but when questioned, few can find any action that he's taken that is wrong.  He is inflexible in his application of justice, but holds himself to the same standard, at one point offering to turn himself in for filing what he believes to be a false report, for instance.  In fact, he raises a salient point - Jean Valjean, nominally the hero of the tale, uses poverty to excuse his crime, but Javert points out that he was born in the gutter as well, and made his way in the world by adhering to a code.  There comes a point, though, where Javert is presented with a situation where what is Right is not Just, and is unable to resolve the conflict.  As a result, he throws himself into a river, unable to accept the fact that the system that he has used as a guide throughout his life, the bedrock upon which his life was built, was flawed.

To me, there is nothing more pitiable.

The email I received yesterday reminded me of some mistakes that I had made at that point in my life.  Not to be melodramatic, but those mistakes changed the course of my life.  Had I made different decisions at those points, I might be elsewhere, on a completely different path.  Looking back, I'm glad that I made those mistakes - they, and the experiences that came as a result, were formative in my development as an adult, and of course had I ended up elsewhere doing other things, I wouldn't have met my wife.  So while I'm glad that things turned out the way it did, I ended the email to myself with some advice, which sent chills down my spine, and touched all this off.

"Ask yourself - What If You're Wrong?"

There is a bit of Javert in all of us, myself included.  There are things we take for granted in our life - for instance, go through this list and I guarantee you'll find at least one thing that you thought was true that is not.  And if that bit of trivia that you were so certain about isn't true, what other misconceptions are out there, lurking deep in your mind, pulling your strings, setting you ablaze with wrathful fire?

What If You're Wrong?

My New Years Resolution is to listen more and talk less.  It's to question more and assert less.  It's to seek more and be less.  More importantly, it's to assume as little as possible, most of all that my own certitude is indicative of objective truth.

I don't want to be Javert.  I don't want to live my life under the care of a misconception, and only realize it when it is too late.

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming.