Category Archive: Playing Harder

Idea's for how to get more out of your game from the other side of the screen

Mar 04 2013

Finding Your Fun

Gaming is a tricky thing to discuss because of how big a subject it is. Just off the top of my head I can pull out War Games, Board Games, Video Games, Role Playing Games, Hobby Games, Casual Games, Party Games, Story Games, Arena Games, Live Action Role Playing Games, and Drinking Games. I enjoy most of them to one degree or another, especially the drinking games. Enjoying them isn’t really the problem though, it’s talking about them. How do you define a certain type of game? How do you rate it? What standards do you use? Is the design solid? How can you tell?

Answering these question is important to me because I don’t think it’s enough to say the game is fun. What’s fun to one person isn’t necessarily fun to another. So how does one define their fun? I think it takes some self-analysis. You need to look back at your experiences and ask yourself why you enjoyed a game. What parts of the game were enjoyable? What parts weren’t? Do you like working with people to overcome an obstacle? Are you more interested in competing to win? Do you like managing your resources better than the next person or do you want that plus the ability to hinder your opponents with clever timing and moves? Should the game be an even contest where skill is the only thing that matters or is the luck of the die determine the difference between victory and defeat more your speed? There are so many variables for games out there I think a large list of attributes could be amassed.

So to assist you in finding your fun I’ll share some of the things I’ve discovered about myself.

I really enjoy role playing games but I’m not as interested in games where combat mechanics take up most of the rule book anymore. What I want from them is a collaborative storytelling experience. This isn’t to say I don’t like the fighting parts of RPGs but I know the games with combat are rigged. In a lot of classical RPG’s (I know I’m taking a big risk by calling them classical, even games from the 80′s and 90′s had what we consider modern mechanics by today’s standards) the GM was a judge, there to impartially rule on the game mechanics based on the adventure written. That was the assumed role regardless of who wrote the scenario being played. I feel this has drastically shifted over the years to the GM being someone who has ultimate authority in “classical” games. It basically means they’re the final authority, not just on rules, but on the stories direction. This means if the players screw up and all die it’s the GMs fault because regardless of what happened the GM didn’t need to let the party die. The commonly accepted good GM provides the illusion of challenge while making the players feel like they’re overcoming the obstacles set in front of them while making choices which change the world. In reality this all goes through the filter of the GM. Nothing of consequence happens without the GMs say so or a clutch die roll. Remember, this is what I’m calling classical games. Games in the ilk of D&D, Pathfinder, Savage Worlds, Traveler, BRP games, and Mutants and Masterminds. Combat, which is the primary form of conflict in many of these games, is the largest offender. The GM can always stack the deck to kill a group or can use his powers to shift an unwinnable fight into something dramatic. The trick is making the players believe it was their decisions which made the event play out whichever way it did. That’s a skill I feel excellent GM’s have. It’s also a problem for me.

Games where I can have my ideas vetoed by the GM, where I can’t make something happen just because I would like it too, aren’t as fun for me. Games where the story is preplanned and my actions only impact the world in small ways aren’t interesting. As a GM I’m starting to find all these games to be formulaic in how they work. So while I like the combat aspects of D&D I know they’re rigged, making the thrill of victory and defeat feel a little hollow. Because of that view I play these games from a different lens. I look to see how the situation plays out. I play to push character stories and internal drama and I watch how the external stories play out as if I’m watching for the Meta plot of a TV show. This happened to me over time and in a subconscious manner. It wasn’t until I started trying to figure out what I liked about RPGs today, and what was missing from them for me, that I came up with a list for what I wanted. Here it is:

  •  Internal character drama supported by mechanics.
  • A story I can be surprised by and contribute too in meaningful ways.
  • A randomizer which doesn’t negate the games progression but drives it.
  • A competitive element because I like to compete.
  • Teamwork

These are the elements of games which are fun for me. I expect it to be different for everyone. For me I don’t think RPG’s can cover all of them. Internal character drama, a surprising story I can contribute too, and a randomizer which pushes progression of the game are very RPG. The competitive element doesn’t work because I know the game is rigged. It’s why I’m fascinated with the OSR because a lot of old school gaming tries to recapture that old feeling of GM’s acting as Judges. I want that fair and impartial judging where being clever could get you past a lot of things. Those games weren’t character in the world stories, they were very much player vs module. That meant a lot of those games were lacking what I was looking for in my first three areas of interest. It’s why I play board games like Descent and Arena video games like League of Legends. They’re antagonistic teamwork games.

With my competitive fix in I started to look at Indy games. Now here comes the tangent. I’m not sure Indy games is an apt term because compared to the larger world I would say all RPG game companies produce Indy games but for the sake of this conversation we’ll say anything not WotC, Piazo, Margaret Weis, or Pinnacle related is an Indy game. Indy games like Fiasco, or Apocalypse World and its clones promote narrative storytelling. Fiasco is almost an improv acting exercise where the decisions you make allow you to introduce or resolve a scene as a player and then the rest of the group gets to decide the other portion for you. The dice rolling at the end just ties together the story you’ve told so far. The Apocalypse World games use the dice rolls to drive story, never letting it stall out. Something always happens when you roll 2d6. That something is either bad, what you want with a cost, or good for your character. It’s never nothing.

Those games both drive the game through their randomizer.

I like Fate because it has a mechanic for internal character drama, Aspects. Aspects can reflect a change in the characters beliefs and mental state over time. Fate also allows me to contribute to the story in meaningful ways through their setting creation system where all the players, this includes the GM, get to help decide what will be a part of the setting of the game. It’s still got some of the problems with its randomizer but Fate points help balance out the problem by giving you a choice of when you want to fail, while also letting your character be compelled to make character decisions even if they’re not optimal for the group. Best part is you’re rewarded by gaining a fate point.

So that’s me, the games I’m into, and why I’m into them right now. But that’s just one person’s fun. So take some time, think about what’s fun for you, and please share it with me in the comments section. I’d like to see your fun and how different it is from me.

Jan 08 2013

Finding Your Fun

I’m a narrative-gamist guy.

Ok. So what does that mean?

It means I like games which have a strong narrative component but have some gamist aspect to them. To break that down further it means I like rules which prompt storytelling or even better rules which require storytelling to make the game go forward.

Now there are other things I like about gaming but those are the big ones. If I can have a game where the story happens because I interact with a rule then I’m pretty happy. Not always happy, but generally. Games like Mouse Guard and Dungeon World have this flow going on and FATE has some of it too with a little more gamist going on.
Now these two aspects aren’t the only things which define a game. I’m not really a GNS guy. Those two terms just sort of make sense to me for the kinds of games I like but if you dig accounting for the rations in your pack and how many arrows you have then your probably into simulation or resource management type games as part of the kit which would describe you. I like those parts to be a bit more abstracted to have some baring on the narrative but not a huge part of the game.

Maybe you like having a lot of challenges thrown at you without having much say what the challenges are or maybe you like to choose the challenges your going to be facing. Maybe you like to pick starting points and ride plots to their end where you can choose another starting point. Maybe you like having decisions come up two or three times over the course of an adventure which change the adventures outcomes.

The point of that rambling was to show you people like different levels of control over the story of the game. You need to identify what you like about gaming and then find games which give you that level of control.

Do you game because you like playing with your friends or is it because there are specific types of games you want to play. Maybe it’s a mix of the two. There’s no shame in realizing the gaming you want isn’t the gaming you’re getting with your friends. All it means is you need to readjust your expectations, find people to game with who share a similar vision as you, some mixture of the two, or a solution I haven’t been able to figure out yet.

There are lots of other vectors you can apply to what is fun about gaming for you. I encourage you to sit down and take some time to figure out what they are so you can discover what fun is for you.

Game On,

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Sep 21 2012

The Frame

Lately I’ve been thinking about how we put games together. I think most things come down to the frame. When I say frame this is what I mean:

The Frame is how you present or set up X. X being the individual game, the scene, the campaign, or any variable you want to throw in there. Yeah, I know it’s just a basic algebra equation and a pretty simple one at that. Still, it’s something GM’s should think about.

Campaign Framing

When you’re setting up your campaign I think it’s important to have a frame, especially if you, as a GM, have some idea’s you want to put forth. To give your idea’s a chance you need to place the players in a creative box. That means you give them some choices but keep the choices constrained. For example if you’re running a game in a city and you have an idea for a conspiracy/noir detective story it makes sense to create the constraint of “You’re all connected to a Private Detective Agency.” Now all the players can create something within that frame and you haven’t made the box so small it’s unworkable. If you think the box is too small here’s a list of character archetypes you could have just off the top of my head. A private detective or two, an informant who’s a little on the shady side, the muscle you call in for hard jobs, the kid who just likes to hang around the PI’s, the tough nurse girl friend of one of the PI’s, the former client who owes one of the PIs a favor or two, the cop who sort of likes the PIs and works with them because they can go places the cop can’t and vice versa.

Story Arc Framing

Story Arc Frames I feel are very dependent on the first session of them or the opening act. If you ever watch a TV show, read a novel or comic book, or consume any kind of storytelling media pay attention to the first act. You will usually get introductions to the characters but a tone will permeate this part of the story. The themes will be introduced along with the opening conflict or hook, which should be related to the themes of the story. As GM’s we have some options with which to push forth our themes and feel. First off we get to frame the first scene. In this frame we can set the tone with videos, pictures, music, props or whatever you decide to use but our most important tool for this frame is the words we use and how we use them. This is your first impression, the opening of the movie, the first 3 minutes of a TV show, the prologue of a book. This is your chance to hook them in and push your players to take the same mind-set as you. If I was trying to get the feel of the conspiracy / noir campaign frame from above I would start with describing a camera shot of the office door with the name of the agency on it and then I would turn to one of the private eyes and ask them “How are you sitting at your desk?” Once they described that I would have a knock at the door occur followed by a beautiful woman in expensive clothing walk in. Next I would ask one of the other players “You’re sitting on the couch reading the paper when she walks in? What is your first impression of the beautiful woman? Describe her in first person.” I would do this because it reinforces the genre and tone I’m going for since noir detective stories tend to get inside the head of the characters. Plus I’m also letting the players give some insight into their characters and keeping them involved instead of just talking at them. Now I’ll present the conflict to the PCs using the Fem Fatal as my vehicle for doing so. She offers them a job which they take since they’re PI’s and need the money. PI’s are almost always broke. Tone presented, hook set, and characters involved. Now the game can truly begin and I’ll keep pushing forth the tone and setting as the scenario evolves. As Vincent Baker once said about running Apocalypse World, Barf forth Apocolyptica.

Scene Framing

The framing of a scene is similar to the ideas of framing your story arc. This is only different as the scenes you frame from here on build upon the beginning scene and exist to allow your PCs to make choices to push the story forward and create conflicts for them to overcome, whether it’s shooting bad guys, infiltrating criminal organizations, or hitting instead of standing on that 20, because you know an Ace is coming up as the next card which would give the dealer, showing a face card, a black jack. Your frame in this instance will give the players ideas for the choices they will make so once again the presentation of the scene is important. The words and props you use will spark the imagination of the people you’re gaming with, inciting them to make decisions. Let’s go back to the example of the Noir detective story.

The PI’s find themselves in Terry’s Place at the back corner booth with their usual order in front of them. They’re enjoying the taste of the food having once again barely escaped a death-defying situation. (The third one this week.) I guess the Villi Mob didn’t appreciate them busting up the Villi smuggling operation down on the docks. That’s when a chair is pulled up to the booth and a man sits down wearing a black coat with a fedora. His eyes take in the PI’s as one of them is mid bite. The click of a gun cocking is heard from below the table and neither of the man’s hands are visible. He gives them small smirk.

“Hi boys. Sorry about this but Mr. Villi wants a word with you.”

They recognize the man as Bobby the Hat. A Villi mob trouble-shooter and that means he sometimes shoots the trouble.

Now the scene starts and we play the game of what happens next or act and react.

So that’s how I think about framing and I hope it will get you to think about how we start campaigns, story arc’s, and scenes. If anyone has any other suggestions feel free to comment because I’m always open to new idea’s to expand my gaming horizons.

Game On,

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Aug 10 2012

Entitlement

The Question: Are players entitled to the stories they want to tell in the games we play? Are GM’s entitled to the stories they want to tell?

My Answer: I don’t think players or GM’s are entitled to their stories, especially if they’re preconceived because I don’t think the game should have a preconceived plot, plot being defined as the events that make up a story, particularly as they relate to one another in a pattern. People call it emergent gaming where the story or plot emerges from play. I think all gaming should be like that and we should just build frameworks to assist us in creating these stories. I’m pretty sure this idea is the point of rule books and modules, to help us create the frameworks to tell stories. I think it’s my biggest problem with most people who play living campaigns. They don’t understand that modules are frameworks for storytelling. Once you change your perception of them from being a plot to a framework to create a self-contained story you can manipulate them any way you would like. I suppose this needs an example.

Let’s say you have a city adventure and the first beat of the module has you learning of a thieves’ guild who’s taken a golden fist and the owner has hired you to get it back. The second beat involves a little street work and information gathering. This beat has a couple of divergent points which lead to encounters with the thieves’ guild and battling through the guild to a final confrontation with the guild leader who is defeated and the golden hand is retrieved.

If we want to have emergent storytelling in a module, be it a living campaign of some sort, a Paizo Adventure Path, or a mega campaign we need to know a few things:

  • The beginning and ending points.
  • The important NPC’s and why they’re important.
  • Any locations the scenario can’t do without which I don’t think would be any since you can always change a location to fit the situation the story calls for.

In this module we have a beginning and an ending which is get the job and the golden hand is retrieved. The important NPC’s are the leader of the thieves’ guild since they have the golden hand and the man who hires you since he starts everything off. Everything else is up for grabs meaning it can be changed if you so desire. The thieves’ guild hall might be an important location but may not be dependent on the actions of the PC’s. Actually, as I think about it, if you’re comfortable winging it all then you only need the starting scene which introduces the scenario and the end goal, in this case, gaining the golden hand. If you’re not comfortable just winging everything then having some of these locations lying around to use and extra NPC’s to pull on to help guide the players in the right direction can be very useful. One tip, games often have that emergent play feel when the players are given the free rein to create instead of being forced to follow a module from beat to beat. Let’s take a look back at our example.

Just after the introduction one of the players gets the idea to talk to a guy he knows in the city named Rommy Ten Rings. Rommy a friend of one of the players and knows the guild they’re looking for. They next ask Rommy if he can get them into the guild, their plan being to become members of the guild to steal the golden fist from inside the operation. Rommy agrees if they cut him in on the reward they get from retrieving the golden fist. Next Rommy introduces the players to a lieutenant of the guild as an illegitimate crew who’s trying to get a start in town. The lieutenant gives them a test job. Finish it and get a meeting with the big guy. Now the PC’s need to do this job to get what they want. Instead of theft they go to the person they’re supposed to rob and ask be loaned the object for a period of time. The players also give the person the cost of the item as collateral. With item in hand they return to the lieutenant who brings them to the big boss and are initiated into the guild. Being initiated gives them the chance to scope out the guild hall, its defenses, and learn the location of the golden fist. Now the PC’s can prepare to steal the hand and the item they rented. How they do it is up to them and the rest of the complications that occur during the attempt are up to the GM but in the end the players got, or didn’t get, the golden fist.

If we look at what was described here the players created a situation the GM responded to while always keeping the goal of the scenario in mind to their decisions. The GM complicated situations. The players responded with choice and creativity. This back and forth, while always leading to the goal, created an experience within the premise of the scenario but very different from what was originally given. These are the things we can do to create a sense of emergent story. So no. I don’t think players are entitled to their stories nor is the GM entitled because story and plot needs to happen at the table, not before. After all, we play the game to see what happens. Don’t we?

I’d love to hear what anyone else has to say about these ideas so please drop a comment here or on the Facebook page.

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Jul 25 2012

Introductions

I recently started reading the rules to a game called Bulldogs by Brennan Taylor and Brian Engard. The following is the introduction:

Who could be desperate enough to sign his life away for five long years? Desperate enough to take a job hauling volatile and hazardous cargo to the most dangerous places in the galaxy? Planets where the very air is a corrosive acid. Planets where the locals might cut your throat just so they can turn you into a nice steak. Planets where petty thugs and warlords are engaged in constant running gun battles and you’re just as likely to catch a blaster shot in the skull as get a signed delivery manifest.

You are, that’s who. Welcome to Bulldogs!

Bulldogs! is sci-fi that kicks ass! Bulldogs! is a high action space adventure. Bulldogs! is about freebooting ruffians flying from planet to planet causing trouble. Bulldogs! is about far future technology—sci-fi movie technology that probably wouldn’t work given what we know about the universe today, but who cares? Bulldogs! is about blasters and faster-than-light travel. Bulldogs! is about hopping from planet to planet and running into a vast variety of weird aliens. Bulldogs! is about being shot at and pissing off powerful locals and fleeing just in time. Bulldogs! is about starship dogfights and ambushes by space pirates in rarely traveled star lanes.

Welcome to Bulldogs! You’ll be flying in a starship and kicking ass in no time.

If I could write an intro like that I wouldn’t be doing this. Well, I probably would, but it’d be a lot better. Those words just make me want to play that game and that leads to the idea of introductions and their importance, not just concerning games and their design or any other writing but in how we present games to our players.

I approach pitching a game the same way people pitch screen plays or a book. First I come up with an elevator pitch which is short and to the point. I try to hit genre and style while letting the players know who the characters are in the setting. See the Bulldogs intro above for an example.

If the player or players are interested then you can hit them with system and a few more constraints. That’s right. I said constraints. If you give someone the choice to pick anything they will generally choose nothing or your players will all choose such disparate idea’s that the game will have a lack of focus and be not enjoyable for any involved. Constraining isn’t hard. You’ve already set some walls with your pitch by throwing out the genre and who the characters are in the setting. You can further define where the characters start by making them part of an organization or giving them a goal but not a reason. For example the players could be part of a mercenary company or they’re all childhood friends who have the goal of becoming Agents of the Crown. This will create a creative box for the players to work in and gets their creative juices flowing. This leads into character creation, or world creation if your playing a game like that. This also means you’ve gotten past the Intro and garnered the interest required for your game.

If anyone has any other ideas for how to introduce games I’d love to hear them as I’m always trying to refine and learn new ways to do things.

Game On,

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Jun 07 2012

Identifying Expectations

I don’t think gamers do a good job of identifying their expectations well enough because we understand what we want out of a game. The problem is we don’t think about what the other players, including the GM, want out of the game. This gets into discussions of social contracts, meeting in the middle, and all that lovey dovey hippy tree hugging stuff. Nothing wrong with that. Really. There isn’t. I love a tree hugger as much as the next person, plus, my girlfriend is a tree hugger. Sorry. Got off point.

So where was I. Ah yes, identifying expectations. This seems self explanatory, you identify the expectations of the game and share them with your group. First off how many of you do that. Now be honest with yourself. Ok. Good. Now the real question is how is this done effectively? My preferred method is an expectation blurb. It’s a blurb because it’s pretty short. You should be able to explain your games expectations in a paragraph and reinforce the paragraph with a bullet point list. Here’s an example of an expectation sheet I should have made for an Eberron game I ran until I killed it because of too many unmet and divergent expectations.

This is an Eberron 4e D&D game of gritty pulp-noir action. Expect to be in over your head a lot of the time and feeling like the whole world is against you. Deciding who to trust is as important as how well you can fight. You’re the little guys and the “Man” won’t hesitate to take you out. Your problems aren’t something you can walk away from. You need the truth, either for salvation, a clear conscious, or to clear your name.

The Game will be:

    • Tough – Don’t look for balanced encounters
    • Filled with mystery
    • Gritty – There is a system in place for damage beyond hit points. Broken legs and concussions won’t be fixed by spending healing surges.
    • Loose with the rules – Trying things outside convention is encouraged and I will be trying different house rules to get the pulp noir feel.

I hope to use blurbs like this in my future games so my expectations can be understood but for it to be useful to others I’ll try and break down what I did. I identify the style, feel, system and setting of the game, I push a few ideas I feel are important to convey the style and feel, throw in some of the weird things I want to try, and give the players an idea what role the characters will fill. The hope is this prepares the players for what is coming. Once they’ve read this a discussion about what they expect should happen to answer questions and see if things match up or need a little tweaking. This is also a good way to find players who are interested in a particular style of game and to keep players from getting involved in something they won’t have fun with. This can be done with a discussion but I like having a document to reference back to and allow the players to reference if any of us ever need a reminder of what the game is about.

This method may also be effective for building a new gaming group. It’s short and packed with a lot of information so potential players should read it all be it on a message board or Facebook post.

If you have any ideas about this topic please leave a comment below, hit me up at Chris@misdirectedmark.com, or drop a note on the Facebook page or get into the Misdirected Mark Facebook group.

 

Game On,

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

May 31 2012

Taking the Crawl out of Dungeon Crawl

In episode 12 of the Misdirected Mark Podcast the chat I had with Shawn Merwin covered a little bit on dungeon crawls and how to keep them interesting. I thought it was some good advice so I decided to try and put together the discussion into a list you can look at and use for your games.

Make Your Players Think

If your dungeon crawl is fight after fight the players will probably get bored. If this is happening feel free to throw something in there your players can’t just kill with their big guns. Give them reasons to think about alternate ways to overcome certain enemies  and obstacles. In Rappan Athuk, a very cool mega dungeon created by Necromancer Games, there is a mindless magic slime roaming the 1st level you just can’t kill. It’s mindless and not very quick so you can run away from it, work your way around it, or trick it. It’s also hilarious when someone gets murdered by it. In any case something like this should get your players thinking with more than their sword.

Get Them Talking

Instead of something to slay give the players someone to speak with. NPC’s in your dungeons, whatever shape they may take, can provide more than just breaks from fighting. They can foreshadow things to come, provide an interesting decision for the players to make as in what to do with them, and even providing alternate goals such as saving the NPC for a reward or finding a dying NPC who begs them to save someone close to them deeper in the dungeon.

Change up the Environment

One of my favorite tricks when running a dungeon crawl is to change up the dungeon whenever the players decide to leave and come back. I don’t mean move the areas around or anything quite so drastic but do things to the previous areas the players would notice. For example, in a dungeon I was running the players would kill and leave their enemies bodies lying around. Every time they left and came back the bodies were gone and there were blood stains and drag marks leading deeper into the dungeon. I had my big bad take the dead bodies down into the temple and raise them as zombies. Eventually he had an army of them since the players never did anything about the bodies.

If you want your dungeon to feel like a living breathing thing have the denizens of the place react to having their space invaded. If the dungeon has intelligent creatures have them react as their intelligence and motivations dictate. If the things living in your dungeon work more by instinct then take a look and figure out what would happen if the ecology of the place changes. If one of the alpha predators in an area is killed what would the beta predators do? Where would they wander? How would the areas of dominance change?

Puzzles, Mysteries, and Telegraphing

I like rooms with stuff in them which hint at things to come and provide mysteries for the players to solve. For instance I created a three level dungeon that was actually a bunch of steam punk mage labs around a giant sized boiler. The boiler was so large people could crawl around in the fire tubes, furnace, and water reservoir. The furnace was powered by a bound fire elemental and the water levels and return lines were maintained by a water elemental. They were both bound in this place by the steam punk mages who built and experimented with their clockwork and steam creations. The place was a giant puzzle where the players had to fix the boiler so they could enter the laboratory/tomb of one of these steam punk mages to get the MacGuffin. I never told them the place was a giant boiler but the giant pipes, workshops with gear relating to clockwork constructions, and a control room for the boiler which they eventually found, along with the elementals could clue them in. So how does this all relate to Mysteries, puzzles, and Telegraphing?

The mystery was in figuring out what this place was for as well as why it was abandoned. The mystery wasn’t necessary for the players to figure out to achieve their objective but an option for them to engage in if they so choose. I also included some extra useful information if they pursued this course of action in dealing with the clockwork guardian of the tomb they were trying to get into.

The puzzle was fixing the boiler, it was a relatively simple puzzle once you had all the information but getting the information was the challenge. I spread the pieces around so they needed to explore and learn about the place.

Telegraphing is like foreshadowing but more direct. In this boiler dungeon the first thing they encounter is a steam powered clockwork door. It pretty much telegraphs that they’ll be dealing with steam powered clockwork things which they did.

I always try to break these things down so here I go:

Mysteries in the dungeon are there to give players a sense of something happening they can try and figure out which will probably help them in the long run.

Puzzles are things for the players to overcome. I suggest making them not to difficult as long as all the information is present. Think of Wheel of Fortune. As the contestants get more of the puzzle it becomes easier to answer but if you can figure it out earlier it’s better, usually. If you also want to throw some crazy hard puzzle in your games then I suggest you make the puzzle something optional to the story. Getting it is a big bonus to the characters but not getting it doesn’t hurt them.

Telegraphing is preparing the players for what’s coming. If you can be more subtle and use foreshadowing then more power to you. In my experience subtlety at the game table doesn’t always work so well.

Well there are some of the things I’ve managed to garner from my conversation with Shawn and from thinking on it these past few days. If you have any interesting ideas for how to take the crawl out of the dungeon crawl please feel free to leave a comment here.

Game on
Chris “The Light” Sniezak

May 17 2012

Storytelling and Pacing

This might take a second but I promise I’ll get to the gaming part of it in a sec. So I had two interesting developments occur today. The first was having one of my sit downs with my mentor/professor from my college. The second was seeing some of the things we talked about in a movie I watched.

I go to Empire State College where most of the classes are independent study, and you meet with your professor once every couple weeks to talk about your progress. You can also email or call them any time if you have questions. I’m taking Screenwriting this semester and that’s it. I graduate with a bachelors in Creative Writing which I can then use to go back to school for my masters so I can teach. Yay. In any case the conversation was interesting because we were talking about the screen play I’m writing for the class. It’s based on a game scenario I helped write which will be published in the future. This led to a discussion about RRGs and what they are. I almost always use Fiasco as my example of an RPG these days because of its minimal rules and relation to movies I can reference like Fargo, The Hangover, The Big Labowski, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, or any movie in that Coen brothers or everything goes to hell style. Once I got that out and explained how the game is like a long form improvisation with a few simple rules for guiding the story she understood and actually was sort of interested in the concept. We spoke for a few more minutes and in the end I pretty much let her know some of these games have more rules but the premise is all about storytelling. In essence, gaming, and the way most of us game, is about storytelling. I’d like to talk about the bare bones of storytelling. I’m sure I’ll leave things out and a lot of this stuff will just be my opinion so you’ll disagree. That’s cool. I want you to disagree and bring your own opinion to the discussion so I can see what other people think. It’s a great way to learn.

So I watched a movie with Jen, she’s the woman I live with and love. It was One for the Money, that movie with  Katherine Heigl, where she’s broke so she becomes a bounty hunter and is chasing down this cop who skipped out on his bail. She gets caught up in something way over her head and blah, blah, blah… You still with me? Good? Sorry, but I do want to explain. Jen and I enjoyed the movie because we like movies. It entertained us for a couple of hours and it told a story. That means the movie had a beginning, middle, and an end. It introduced characters, developed them over the course of time, and gave them choices to make, some good and some not so much. There was an established setting, world building, and there was a pace. All these things are part of storytelling and I’m sure I’m leaving out a bunch of stuff. The question is how do I use these bits to allow for the creative explosion of storytelling at the table. I’ve covered some of this stuff in previous posts like From the Other Side – A Players Perspective and Worlds of “Our” Imagination. But I wasn’t explicitly talking about storytelling. Now I’ll try.

From the GMs side of the table I think the most important thing you can do is try and manage the pace of the game. Pacing is paramount in any good story. Track the up and down beats, find those transitional moments where you can move things from act to act whether your using the three act Hollywood structure, or any of the other various storytelling methods. Don’t be afraid to build in choke points in your stories, places where all the strands of your plot lead to. You can do this with out railroading. Just because the strands lead to a single event doesn’t mean you can’t have the world react to the events leading up to this single event and change how it begins, progresses, and/or resolves. Railroading is more about making the players choices feel unimportant than guiding them to a specific event. They won’t care if you’ve let them take actions that matter to the story at hand.

As players we can watch for the story beats too. We can take actions that help guide the story in ways we want for our characters, pace our stories, and exert pressure on the over arching plots. Some people would think of this as a tug of war between the GM and the players but I feel that’s the wrong way to look at it. Groups with excellent chemistry, and I’ve seen this in campaigns and conventions games, will get into a flow, almost like the tide rolling in and out, where each person gives and takes in a rhythm creating that perfect pocket of gaming. There’s no one way to do it either. Each group has their own pocket based on the people involved, the game they’re playing, and the perceived expectations. It’s the groups own personal rhythm.

I know this seems hypothetical but there are ways to help create this storytelling “zone”. I just happen to think pacing is the most important part of setting yourself up to achieve this. To help with pacing I suggest buying Hamlets Hit Points by Robin Laws, but if you don’t feel like it you can always try this. Make yourself an arrow. Whenever there is an up beat turn the arrow up, down beats you turn the arrow down. If you ever have three up or down beats in a row make sure the next beat is different. This will help keep your pace interesting to the players. If you’re a player and notice the games had to many beats in a row of one kind or another push to create that opposite beat. If you’re not sure what up and down beats are I’ll try to explain. An up beat is where something good happens in the story and a down beat is something bad occurring. There are also lateral beats where something happens but nothing really changes. Make sure you don’t have to many of those in a row either.

A lot of storytelling in gaming is about knowing what the parts are so you’re aware of them. Many of us can tell stories intuitively because our society has so many of them. We can flick on the TV, open a book, power up our eReaders, or play a video game. Almost everything in our lives having to do with entertainment has some kind of story associated with it. We’re immersed in storytelling. Now ask yourself what goes into telling a story? What are the parts, the bits and pieces, comprising a story? That question is a lot harder to answer definitively. Hopefully this idea of pacing and story beats helps get you on the road to understanding, and getting more enjoyment out of, your games.

May 10 2012

Worlds of “OUR” Imagination

I’m firmly in the house of world building with your players. I hear tell of the “this is the GM’s story and the players are just following” mentality. Is that still a mentality? Do people still play games like that? This whole idea of the GM deciding what game we play and then building their home brew world in a vacuum so the players can experience their creativity seems a little counter intuitive to the idea of the Role Playing Game, especially the sensibilities of the modern Role Playing Game. I would even argue the games people have enjoyed the most over the years, at any table, are those games with cooperative world building even if the group didn’t realize they were doing it.

Lets take all those people who’ve played the Temple of Elemental Evil, *SPOILER ALERT* the classic adventure written by Gygax and Mentzer. When you read it, there’s nothing there. It’s a town with some people who might have a motivation or two but most of them are blank slates. The moat house is also just a dungeon with a bunch of monsters, mostly intelligent, and Lareth the Beautiful, the shining hope of chaotic evil. It doesn’t say what his plans are or what he’s doing in the moat house with this small army of intelligent monstrous humanoids. There’s no story. It’s left up to the GM to decide and it feels like a mad lib. Some GM’s make decisions right away and lock into those without deviating from the story. Nothing wrong with that and I’m sure those players probably had a good time, but there are other GM’s who waited to see what the players did. By waiting the GM was inspired by his players choices and fed into them making the game about the players characters. These choices not only further the story but make the players feel like the story is about them, giving them authority to bring more ideas to the table and helping to flesh out the setting or build the world.

Think about the interactions the players characters had or could have in your Homlett. They probably created relationships and inspired personalities the GM hadn’t thought of. Maybe the black smith fighter PC decided to befriend the local black smith brother Smyth. They had conversations which brought up topics the GM latched onto and made part of Brother Smyths character. Maybe one of the PC’s got in Kobort the Fighters good graces and befriended him. Maybe this made the GM think Kobort might end up being more loyal to the PC than to Turuko, the Monk who Kobort worked with to ambush weakened adventurers coming back from their expeditions. This makes for a dramatic point where Kobort decides to not ambush the party with Turuko and part ways with him. Now Kobort is a loyal friend. This isn’t in the module and is a player helping to build the world or flesh out a character through their actions. These are examples of player inspired world building and they’re just two of the many examples of incidental world building I’ve seen at my table. I don’t think I’m alone in this.

I think GM’s have been doing this since Arneson started delving under Castle Blackmoor. From everything I’ve ever read and listened to about his style of play it seems about right. This incidental world building isn’t the only kind that has existed from the early days. In GURPS, you can take the Enemy disadvantage. You just created a foe in the world for yourself. It’s something you wanted and now it exists. That’s a little less incidental than the GM just cuing off players actions. The Traveler character creation system also has some potential world building involved with it. Your character can be older with a life path filled with character building experiences. Those experiences probably had interactions with people, organizations, and events. Even if the events and organizations are established by the setting the people may not be. These are things created because of the player.

Today a lot of RPG’s take this world building idea and give more control of it to the players and I think it’s on purpose. I believe RPG’s have more focus. With more games and media we have more choice. If you want a challenging dungeon crawl where you fear death around every corner and you want a less arbitrary feeling to the situation you can play Descent from Fantasy Flight or several other board games in the dungeon crawl category. This is because RPG’s aren’t inherently balanced to make for a fair play experience. RPG’s are built to allow you to tell stories. If you want mass battles you play table top war games like Warhammer 40k or Warhammer Fantasy Battles. If you want the story of being a heroic warrior wading through hordes of enemies then you play an RPG. If you want a game about managing a kingdom and dealing with the month to month of sending out armies, spies, and managing your kingdoms resources you can play board games or viedo games like Civilization or Nobunaga’s Ambition. If you want to focus on being the king and his court dealing with the intrigue, political manipulations, and interactions with the people around you and the story that unfolds then you play an RPG. It’s about story these days and part of the story is creating the setting your playing in. Games like the Dresden Files understand and do this well with the city creation system. The players get to help create the cities important locations, themes, and NPC’s from scratch. Dread asks the players a bunch of questions before the game starts so the fearful things in the game can surround the players. Smallville has a great system for creating relationship maps which build up the story of the setting. In a Wicked Age keeps things vague so the players can build upon the pieces. Fiasco is the same way. Roll up a bunch of elements, but let the players decide as a group what the world is really like and the people present in it. It seems the trend it to give players more authority over how the world is shaped.

One of the best tricks I’ve seen to get players invested in a world is to have each of them tell the GM about the lands they come from. Society, life, commerce, culture, whatever they want, but every bit the players give is a boon to the GM: It’s little less work, more creative material to pull from, and when the stuff a player created shows up at the table they’ll be more invested in those moments. That energy can and will infect your other players creating a win-win situation. I heard this trick from Chad on Fear the Boot. I also have been using this trick without realizing it for a while. Once and a while I ask my players for things they’d like to see in the game which gives me bit of inspiration to work with and lets them assist in building the world.

A lot of these ideas come from things I’ve heard, read, and internalized. Maybe they’re not for every one. I’m not above thinking I’m off here. Inventing relationships between players and NPC’s might not be considered traditional world building. Maybe its plot or conflict construction but I still think anytime a player engages in an activity which creates something, be it a relationship, NPC, plot, race, country, or world, I consider it world building. They’re creating history with every action. They’re creating something everytime they speak in character or act. I just think GM’s shouldn’t just listen to players when they’re acting but actively encourage them to build up the world right along with them.

As always feel free to comment. I love a good discussion and am always trying to learn more.

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

May 03 2012

From the Other Side – A Players Perspective

I GM most of the games I play in these days but a few years back I was playing in a weekly game and running a weekly game. It was pure bliss. All the while I was learning all kinds of things since I got to see how things worked from both sides of the screen. I dealt with the frustrations, triumphs, trends of my dice (both good and bad), the twists and turns of the story, and all the up and downs as GM and player. Today I wanna talk a little bit about the things I learned from the player side such as player expectations, what I can and can’t get away with as a GM, and what gets players excited. I think the most important thing I learned was players have just as much responsibility for creating a fun and exciting gaming environment as the GM. That means we, as players, are not to wait for the GM to entertain us. Let me say it one more time because it’s important.

We are not to wait for the GM to entertain us.

Ok, now that I’ve said it twice I suppose I should explain what I mean if you’re not sure. If you think you know just keep reading to see if we agree. If we don’t leave a comment so I can see what you think. I’m always trying to learn.

I believe it’s the players job to help engage the GM and the other players at the table and here are some of the ideas players can use to do so:

  • Bring energy to the table. If you bring energy to the table as a player and believably to your character then any GM worth their salt will feed on that energy. Now energy doesn’t just mean be over bearing and bouncy. It mean come with an interest in what’s going for all the characters and be supportive to the story.
  • Give the other players at the table insight into what a characters belief structure is. So you’re bent on vengance because your father murdered your mother while you stood by and watched helplessly. You probably have some issues. How would a character act if this was their defining moment? What other defining moments does this character have? How would those affect their development? Once you answer some of these questions the only thing you need to be aware of is this game is about cooperative storytelling. That means you need to find a way to open up this information to the rest of the group. It doesn’t have to be all at once. It doesn’t even have to be nice, but try and remember the basic structure of the game your playing and work your story into it. It helps to find another character who is most likely to help you tell your story which leads to the next point.
  • Help each other bring out the backrounds, quirks, and stories of the characters. If you find ways to relate to each others characters stories or create sympathetic strands between the characters lives the information goes from being something in the backround of the game to a tool binding the characters together. This helps drive group decisions and creates group cohesion. This also gives the GM’s fodder with which to work. Now the GM has more tools to create compelling situations specific to things the characters care about.
  • Make a declaration and roll with it. Just because you haven’t said it yet or don’t have it written on your character sheet doesn’t mean it can’t be true. There are plenty of times in storytelling when we find out something about a character that we didn’t realize before but in retrospect it makes perfect sense. Trust me when I say writers don’t always have these connections and background bits in some master outline they write from and never stray off of. Sometimes they just write in things that make sense for the character and help drive the story forward. You can do that too. Things aren’t truths about the game world your playing in until they’re stated and even then they can be changed through perceptions and preconceived notions.
  • Don’t dominate the table. If you have a big mouth don’t take the spotlight all the time and when you do take the spotlight try to share it with others or shine it on someone else. I know a guy who shows up all the time to games and is a decent player but he’s a spotlight guy. When the spotlight is on him he’s engaged and doing his thing but when it’s not he’s just sort of sitting back and waiting for his time to come around again. There’s nothing wrong with this but I always think of games as ensemble casts. Sometimes the ensemble is helping build the scene together, sharing ideas, and including people in them. Recognize those moments. Push to be inclusive and not a solo act. It will allow you to act more often and engage the other people at the table.
  • The GM should not be the sole creator of content for your games. Depending on the game you can suggest things you’d like to see in the game. This can be through character conversation and action, asking the GM, or you can just declare it if the game give the players that much narrative control. Some GM’s will chafe at this style because they aren’t good at improvising but those GM’s will hopefully realize this actually makes their lives easier. It means they don’t always need to come up with the plot or the story. The players can take some of that responsibility for starting these arcs and it’s on the GM’s to help the players resolve them for good or ill.
  • Don’t be afraid to give the GM idea’s, especially if they would cause you more trouble. RPG’s are about telling stories which is a kind of fun. Stories are about drama and drama is created through conflict. Since trouble is just a kind of conflict that means trouble equals more fun. So giving your GM idea’s to cause you more trouble is actually giving your GM ideas so you can have more fun. Can you ken it.

That’s all I got this week folks. Let me know what you’re thinking and if you have other ideas to bring more fun to the group from the players seat.

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Apr 05 2012

Gaming as a Conversation

I was reading someones post as a referral from the Old School Gamers group on Facebook. I lurk there and read stuff but don’t say to much. In any case the blog post had some comments in it about skill checks being like buttons the players can press similar to video games. In other words the players will say things like

“I want to roll diplomacy to convince the guy.”

or

“I want to roll athletics to jump over the gap.”

That’s a viable play style. I know people who play their games like that. I’m not interested in that kind of game at all. I’m also not interested in games where the mechanics get out of the way of the game. Like those sessions people talk about where no one rolled a die and we “Role Played” out everything. I don’t even know if this is a play style. It’s more like an improv exercise, which can be fun, but where’s the game. If your GM made you make some decisions, like forcing you to choose between things your character values, and there were repercussions, then sure, you were playing some sort of game, even if you weren’t engaging the mechanics of the actual game you’re playing. I’m not so interested in this game either. Sure, it can be fun, but it’s lacking something for me.

Somewhere in the middle is a blend. Games where you’re telling a story and the mechanics support the story being told. I especially like games with the idea of having a conversation and the mechanics of the game intercede at points of drama. I got this idea from Vincent Baker, creator of Dogs in the Vineyard, Apocalypse World, Kill Puppies for Satan, and other great games. Apocalypse World has the game set up as a conversation where the GM has an agenda but the agenda is about creating an interesting game for the players while staying true to the setting and fiction. In play the GM and players have a conversation, trying to stay immersed in the world as much as possible, and when something in the fiction occurs that requires resolution the mechanics engage, dice are rolled, the situation is resolved, and the conversation continues with the aftermath of the conflict to be reacted to as part of the fiction. There’s a lot more to it in Apocalypse World than that, but the idea is the game is a conversation, and the mechanics engage when necessary to support and move the story.

Apocalypse World works as a rule book because it tells us how we should play the game. A lot of other games are more vague. They give us mechanics to resolve situations or actions but they don’t tell us how those mechanics interact with our stories. They’re more like tool boxes. I like tool box games because they’re freeing. They leave it up to us as GM’s to design what we want out of the game. It’s important to realize what these tool boxes do well and what they’re weak at resolving. Once we understand this we can change our games to achieve the feels we want or pick a different game that does.

I try to run games with a conversational feel. Even in the midst of super tactical gridded combat I insert conversation. When the initiative rolls around to an NPC and the bullets are flying, or spells are being flung, I would suggest you don’t stop the conversation. Engage your mechanics then go right back to the story every time. When you don’t quite hit your target number give it a moment in the fiction to say how your character just wasn’t good enough or how the baddy you were going after was really impressive in that moment. Maybe you’ll find an aspect of the game you never realized you were missing.

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Mar 16 2012

Missing isn’t Fun. Never Missing is worse.

“So, what kind of character would you like to play?”

“Some kind of barbarian guy. I want to get in their face and do lots of damage. Definitely not a human either. I want an interesting race.”

Back when I helped my friend build a character, there was no barbarian race available for 4th edition D&D. We ended up settling on a Warforged Ranger. I had also just learned how much missing sucked by playing a wizard who failed to hit about 70% of the time. This was also before the wizard encounter powers had a lot of miss effects.

So, I went in with the approach that I wanted my friend to have fun, and not have to experience the lameness of my previous wizard. I started with giving him the high-proficiency bonus longsword. I gave him the expertise feat that gives +1 to attacks with a heavy blade. We upgraded to a Bastard Sword later on for more damage but still having that high proficiency. I gave him a warforged racial feat to give him a bonus to Attack whenever he had an ally next to his target. He always flanked. His strength was maxed at 20 and kept getting better. He started out with a base attack bonus of 5(str)+3(prof)+2(flank)+1(wfg tactics)+1(expertise)+1(half lvl) = +13 at level 2. Most Soldier type creatures at level 2 have an AC of 16-18. My friend had to roll a 3-5 in order to hit any of the most heavily armored creatures in the game at his level. Any thing that wasn’t the most heavily armored had no hope of surviving.

With twin strike, he regularly rolled twice, hit twice, did quarry damage, + 5 str damage each. His damage roll was 2d8+d6+10. That averages to 21. If he action points, he kills anything that isn’t a brute, or an elite/solo. When he upgraded to Bastard Swords, with that magical ability that does an extra d6 when he’s bloodied (and he was always bloodied), he went to 2d10+3d6+18 for an average of 39 on Twin Strike. Probably more there that I’m forgetting.

By the time we were done, this character was the living embodiment of destruction. He didn’t miss. He only rolled the dice to make sure he didn’t get a critical failure. It was an epicly amazingly awesomely fun character to play.

For about 2 levels.

After awhile though, it became a little monotonous. When his turn came around, I would end up asking him ‘Ok, who do you want to kill? Did you crit fail? No? Ok, it’s dead. Don’t bother rolling damage. It can’t possibly survive.’

Failing every time was boring. But there were ways around it. I could have fun during the role-playing scenes. I was useful during skill challenges because of my knowledge skills. And every so often, I could drop a daily power, or hit something unexpectedly, and get a little thrill in combat. My Rituals even came in useful on rare occassion.

Succeeding every time seemed like a fun for awhile, but it got boring too. And even worse, because the character was such a combat monster, his skills in the other areas of the game were weak. He didn’t do well in skill challenges, unless athletics was involved. Even then, he was just someone with good athletics. Other people, like the fighter, did just as well. The player wasn’t much of a role-player, so he faded to the background during those scenes. And when he did miss, he would usually just action point, or use some other resource to get a reroll and kill it anyways.

You need to have a niche to fill in each of these scenarios, in order for your character to give you the most enjoyment possible.

Mar 09 2012

The Dice

I’ve been reading the new Marvel RPG by Margaret Weis Productions, and I’ve found the dice mechanic to be interesting and engaging for the player. This is only conjecture as I haven’t seen it in action yet but I’m hopeful. This thought has got me thinking about dice mechanics in other games and how they help enhance the play experience.

D20

In d20 all you do is roll, add a modifier, and see if you beat a number usually called the DC (Difficulty Check). This is a pretty simple dice mechanic. You either pass or fail. There’s no choice and the mechanic can fade into the background. It’s just a randomizer for the tough decisions you make. It’s like a logic switch. Pass or Fail. On or Off. All the d20 games I’ve ever liked had a bunch of other stuff going on which affected the d20 roll or had nothing to do with it. The most interesting thing about the D20 dice mechanic is the critical hit and critical miss. Roll a 20 or a 1 and something interesting has the potential to happen. Sometimes this is mechanized; in D&D a 20 means you do extra damage where a 1 is always a miss. This can become more interesting if you start adding in rules like the Piazo Critical hit deck. The critical rule also matters because one of these numbers is coming up ten percent of the time. That means one out of ten rolls something interesting outside of the expected should happen. That’s a bit nifty.

Savage Worlds

The Savage World dice mechanic gives the players a d6 wild die to roll with their test die and you choose the higher of the two results. It’s a target number game like d20 but the target number is usually 4 unless it’s an opposed roll. There are a couple more things going on here.

  • Catastrophic failure: If you roll a one on your wild die and trait die you’re pretty much at the GM’s mercy and it won’t be good.
  • Exploding dice: If you roll the highest number on a die it explodes, which means you roll it again. If you roll and get the highest number again it explodes again.
  • Raises:  If you hit your target number by four or more it’s called a raise and you get some extra benefit.

I like this dice mechanic even though there are things I don’t like about Savage Worlds; you get to roll two dice, they can explode, there’s a moderate and major success level, and the probability for catastrophic failure is related to your characters skill. Skills are rated to dice type so it’s more unlikely to fail catastrophically if you have a high skill level. It’s kinda nifty.

Dice pool mechanics

This is a little weird to talk about because I’ve seen dice pool mechanics used in a couple different ways. In the newest edition of Shadowrun you roll a dice pool equal to the characters skill plus relevant attribute modified by any modifiers. Hits are equal to the number of fives and sixes rolled. If you get enough hits to equal the threshold you succeed. Any hits beyond the threshold make whatever is being tested a more extraordinary success but the rules are a little vague leaving effect up to the GM. On the other side if more than half the dice rolled are ones you’ve glitched and something bad happens and the GM has the final say. That’s Shadowrun but Mouse Guard is similar with some interesting additions.

Mouse Guard builds a dice pool from the skill in use but this game is a team game. The first person to speak has to make the check, it’s actually a rule. Everyone who wants to help can give one of their own dice to the player but they must narrate how they help in relation to the skill they’re using to help. Very cool and engaging, everyone can participate in every check if they’re clever.  This game also has counts successes on a d6 roll of 4+ and has the threshold success mechanic found in Shadowrun. Furthermore, if you fail in this game the GM has the option to give you some kind of stress or twist the story to create some complication. I know, it’s not really a dice mechanic but it’s a neat idea.

The New Marvel RPG

Now we come to the Marvel RPG. This game uses Cortex plus as the engine. In the past Cortex used the take your skill and attribute die, (This game had skills and attributes equal to die types similar to Savage Worlds) roll them, add them up, and see if you beat a target number. The Cortex plus engine takes this idea and messes with it. In Marvel you build a dice pool based on what your character is trying to do. This dice pool is built from your character sheet which has a bunch of things on it like distinctions, powers, affiliations, specialties, power stunts, stress, scene distinctions, scene attributes, and a few other things. All of this stuff has dice type ratings which you build your dice pool from. Then you roll it, set aside any 1s for the Watcher (Marvel’s GM) to use as opportunities, which could also gain you plot points (One of the storytelling currencies of the game), choose two dice as your effort, then decide if you’d like to spend plot points to add more dice from your dice pool to your effort. On top of that, if you beat opposed roll number by 5 you can step up your effect die. Your effect die is chosen from what’s left. It’s important to note the effect die is the die type and not the number rolled. For example, if you rolled a 2 on a d10 it can still be used as a d10 effect die. You can also spend plot points to add more effect dice, but you can’t ever cause the same effect to the same target twice. It’s a neat option when you want to take out a bunch of mooks. This becomes even cooler when you get to your specialties because you can trade dice down. For example you can convert a d10 Master specialty into 2d8 or 3d6. That’s kinda nifty.

To end this though about dice I want to ask you folks out there if the dice mechanics in your game are interesting to you? Do they enhance your gaming experiences or do they just fade out of the way? I’d really like to hear from someone who plays GURPs or Hero and people who play Vincent Baker games like Apocalypse World and Dogs in the Vineyard. How do the dice mechanics enhance play in those games?

Mar 07 2012

Encounters

I’m going to play Encounters tonight. Encounters is a program initiated by Wizards of the Coast. It’s purpose is to provide players with a regularly scheduled bite-sized portion of D&D. It’s also a great entry point for new players. I’ve been playing in and running Encounters sessions since the beginning of the program, and I’ve learned a few things.

  • Tokens

Using Tokens is a double-edged sword. They are fantastic for cheap, portable markers. They are terrible for immersion, and description. Of course, if you are using a bugbear mini in place of a hobgoblin anyways you aren’t losing much. Where this really hurts is with the characters. Each character should have its own mini that gets close to what the character actually looks like.

  • Poster Maps

I love the Poster Maps concept, but it seems to fall short when every map is made from Dungeon Tiles. The maps that come with printed modules like Thunderspire Labyrinth are amazing and wonderful. The maps that come with Encounters are not wonderful, but they are appropriate for the Encounters format.

  • Character Restrictions

One thing I don’t enjoy about Encounters is the restrictions placed on character creation. I understand that Wizards is trying to support their product, and the store, but I don’t see it doing a whole lot in either area with my group. I’ve started allowing experienced players to bring in any character they want, as long as its thematically appropriate. I encourage the use of Essentials characters, especially ones that use the source from the book associated with the current season, but don’t restrict it to only that. For newer players, I try to guide them to follow the rules, and I always make sure those who break the rules have a backup character which does follow the rules, in case they get a DM who isn’t as lenient as I am.

  • Prizes

I’ve started a tradition of giving away prizes at the end of each Encounters season. I usually buy the book associated with the upcoming season of Encounters and give it to whoever earned the most Renown Points. I then buy a 2 packs of Fortune Cards and give them to the runner up. I think a store would earn a lot of credit with the players if they did this regularly.

If you are looking to get involved in some D&D, Encounters is a great way to go about it. Find your local store at  https://www.wizards.com/dnd/event.aspx?x=dnd/4new/event/dndencounters

Mar 06 2012

Podcast Addict: Happy Jacks RPG Podcast

Hey there folks. First I need to go drink a 6 pack of craft beer then I can write this thing…

Ok, I’m back and ready to roll. The Happy Jack’s RPG podcast is a group of friends and musicians who reckless venture into the RPG hobby…with beer, and they do it with as much awesomeness and douchebaggery as possible. In fact Stu Venerable and his collection of Boggarts bring the douche each and every week to a podcast that has rabid fans, and is about as unfocused as this paragraph.

In all seriousness the Happy Jacks Podcast did something I hadn’t heard many podcast’s trying to this point, a lot of listener feedback. They read a ton of email and give their opinion’s on the listener’s problems. This did two things for them. It gave their audience a voice, which made them pretty popular, and gave the Jackers a lot of content they didn’t have to come up with. Combined with the variety of craft beer they drink and talk about along with the excellent music by gaming podcast standards, (to be honest the music is pretty good by any standard) and you have some serious popularity.

I have another theory as to why this podcast is well loved. They embody the gamer who left the hobby and has come back. Stu decided to start gaming again after a long layoff. There are a lot of people who seem to be doing this since new technologies make it easier to find games to play in. The Jackers also do a fantastic job of showing how gaming isn’t geeky. Yeah we’re all geeks to some extent, but it isn’t a bad thing, and maybe geek isn’t what we stereo-typically think of anymore. I think geeks are more like the Jackers. They’re sociable, decent people, with jobs, families, hobbies, loves, and passions like the rest of the world. The douche crew helps show a portion of the world this truth. I’m not saying they’re saving the world or anything but from a pen and paper stand point they’re just every day guys and girls in the world. I have the conversations they have at my own game tables. I’m kind of a pervert just like those douche bags. I like craft beer as do they. I can identify with them, and I think a lot of other people can too.

Now that I’ve praised Happy Jack’s I do have a few things to say about their show. It can be a little hit or miss. Sometimes they’re unfocused with a lot of random chatter and tangential conversations, and the content suffers for it. Worse, and this is because they’re just a bunch of guys shooting the shit around some microphones, is they sometimes make statements that are ignorant. For instance in one of their most recent episodes Stork was talking about how D&D is trying to be WotC’s big money maker and the 5e situation is something they probably can’t afford to screw up. Now Stork is just guessing from what he’s seen. Unfortunantly he’s wrong. Magic the Gathering has doubled its profitability in the last three years from a hundred million dollars to two hundred million. Magic is the money maker and it’s still growing. I don’t know why. I’m not a magic player nor am I a fan of the game. I assume people like the game and WotC does a good job promoting it. I’m just trying to express the point that Stork “Storked” it. You can read the article here

WotC also has a substantial game catalog to pull from and are a subsidiary of Hasbro so I don’t think they’re hurting in the game publishing category. You can see the list here. Also the Duel Masters property is the largest card game in Japan between eight and twelve year old’s and they’re bringing it back in America as Duel Masters: Kaijudo. To go along with the game Hasbro’s TV network, Hub, is launching a new Duel Masters cartoon. For the full article I’ve gotten this information from you can click here.

My point is WotC probably won’t fold if 5e doesn’t do well. On the other hand if 5e flops then WotC and Hasbro might sell the D&D property which would be kinda of cool, but this isn’t the place for conjecture. I just tangented to give you the feel of a Happy Jacks Podcast.

To close I do want to say I like Happy Jack’s. Stu, Tappy, Stork, Kimi, JiB, Bruce, CADave, Tyler, and anyone else I missed do a fantastic job of entertaining and informing gamers, new and old alike, with douchey debauchery and little to no class. Keep on drinking.

P.S. The Happy Jack emailers like to put post scripts at the end of their emails.

P.P.S. Did I mention the emailers like to put post scripts at the end of their emails.

P.P.P.S Ok, this is just ridiculous but maybe I can make up for it. Just imagine Kimi saying “Fan boy penis” in a sexy Russian accent. If that doesn’t work for you then you’re a douche bag.

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Feb 28 2012

Podcast Addict: Fear the Boot

I have a hard time describing Fear the Boot. This podcast just doesn’t stick out in any way. It’s not flashy, the production value is pretty basic, and yet I always listen. The booters are just so solid and consistent. They’d have to be since they’ve put out over 250 regular episodes, 43 bonus ones, conducted 21 interviews, and have a smattering of other content including an excellent series on introducing non-gamer’s to RPG’s.

Dan is the defacto leader of this bunch but it’s more of a quorum than a dictatorship with Chad and Pat backing him up. Chris Hussy gets in on the action over the internet while John and Wayne bicker about how cool bards are and Johann shows up about once a month to give his two cents about the topic at hand.

Fear the Boot has a nice simple format. The show bills itself as a round table discussion about RPG’s and a little bit more. They begin with news, if they have any, before moving into a banter topic. After about ten to fifteen minutes of banter they transition into the main topic for twenty to thirty minutes and then end the show. Like I said, simple but in the simplicity is an effective show. These guys are excellent at sharing the issues they’ve discovered over their RPG careers and give sound advice on ways to solve any problems you might run into. In earlier shows they tried to give generic systemless advice but in their later episodes they’ve started to use in game examples to show how their theories work in practice.

Another nice thing about the show is the hosts have very different styles of gaming and they rotate GM’s. This means the hosts have experienced different styles of gaming and have all GMed games at one point or another. Because of this dynamic in their gaming groups you can see each of the hosts as a caricature of a player type at your gaming table. Chad is a Thesbian who doesn’t care about the rules as much as the story. Dan wishes to find the balance between rules and story, Chris doesn’t trust his players but he’s working on it, Pat likes rules, he feels safe and comfy with them around, Wayne is that ADD gamer just wanting to absorb everything because it’s all new and shiny to him, John is a power gamer, and so is Johann. They’ll twink out characters to annialate the opposition but they both still seem to enjoy a good story. The only thing they don’t have is a watcher but I suppose Pat could fill that role since he’s very quiet during many of the episodes.

I like Fear the Boot. It’s not my favorite podcast but it’s up there. The sound quality is very good, the content is very good, and the diversity of view points is probably its strongest aspect. It’s a clean podcast so you can actually listen to it while your kids are around and each episode only runs from about fourty minutes to an hour. I don’t rate podcast’s on a scale or anything but if you’re looking for a general RPG advice podcast Fear the Boot is one of the staples of the genre and it’s a good listen. You can check them out here.

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Feb 21 2012

Podcast Addict: The D6 Generation

Question: Is the D6 Generation an RPG podcast, a board game podcast, a miniatures game podcast, or a video game podcast.

Answer: All of the above

Response from Questioner: You’d think after listening to over fifty of the D6G’s episodes that’d be right. Well due to not listening to the other 40ish episodes you have gaps in your knowledge and are WRONGGGGG!!!!!! The D6 Generation isn’t just a gaming podcast but Craig Gallant’s and Russ Wakelin’s bid for global domination. If you’ve paid attention at all these two have conscripted, cajoled, and coerced numerous people in the gaming industry to talk with them and send  products their way. They take these promo copy’s and give’em away in insane contests asking listeners to build diorama’s (to be fair that one was Raef’s “Hollywood” Granger’s idea but Russ and Craig didn’t stop him) or produce mini audio drama’s for there amusement. That doesn’t count the sponsor’s from all over the gaming world giving them stuff, some which produce Kevlar bags (I’m telling you they’re getting ready to out fit an army or maybe store an army) and they have a base where they meet to plan their world dominating machinations in the form of Myriad Games. I’m sure Dan from Myriad opened up his second store so they could store more gear for the global take over. It’s coming folks. They’re lone wolves, working like (or for) Spartan’s as they prepare for the day when they can show everyone their Warmachine’s and take over the world.

That’s a short taste of how a D6 Generation episode starts. They call the segment Rapid Fire with Geekly McNerdigan. Craig Gallant takes a few shots of adrenalin, dons his McNerdigan persona, and blasts Russ Wakelin and whoever’s in the rotating third host chair with questions relating to the topics covered in the show. Next comes the “Hello” intro where Russ and Craig say “hello” in interesting and poorly musical ways with the third chair chiming in or being taken off guard as Cody and John from Game On with Cody and John were in episode 97. After introductions they roll into

ACHIEVEMENTS IN GAMING

GAMING

gaming

gaming

gaming

There’s always an echo effect. They like the echo effect. In any case, Achievements in Gaming gives the hosts a chance to talk about the games they’ve been playing since the last show without getting into a deeper review. They save the deeper review for a later segment. They cover games played, what they’ve been up to in Modeling, such as putting together or painting models, and any terrain they might be building. Craig is really skilled at this stuff, he’s built a ton of terrain and tables for wargaming, but my favorite is the wild west town he put together for a game called Gut Shot. I wouldn’t care how much the game sucks if I’m playing on a table like that. After Modeling comes the Other section where they hit any video games, books, and other interesting geek culture stuff they’ve been up to.

The rest of the show is split up into six segments, four mini segments and two main segments, the first main segment is something to do with gaming or the industry, for example they do interviews with a gaming personality or designer. Another segment they’ve done more than once is called Mulling Mechanics where they break down the mechanics of war games, board games, or RPG’s and take a look at how they work and how they might be improved. One of my favorites is Inside the Podcaster’s Studio, a fun parody of Inside the Actors Studio where former host Raef “Hollywood” Granger takes the persona of the fictional Peter Lipton, yes folks, that’s a play on James Lipton, and asks Russ and Craig a bunch of “interesting” and “diverse” questions. Pretty much anything is up for grabs in this segment. The second main segment is a review of a game where they really get into whatever game they’re talking about beginning with how it sounds when they open the box, book, or tin. They examine the components and their quality along with the rule book, this is very important to the D6G. A good rule book can shift a rating a whole point in these reviews. They cover game play, pretty much explaining how to play the game so you don’t have to read the rule book and finish with some strategies they’ve seen before giving their ratings using the patent pending D6G rating system. It’s mathematically flawed and immensely interesting when Russ starts adding in his derivations on his d6 roll rating. What’s the rating system? I’ll tell you at the end when I rate the D6 Generation using their own system.

In between and acting as bookends to the two main segments are four others; The News, The Hollywood Minute, Total Fan Girl, and Do You Ever Noticed. The News has News guy, I don’t think he’s ever been named but it isn’t Russ since a hyperactive Russ will always pipe in his two cents about a story or two. It’s an informative segment with humor that’s not too shabby and a nice presses rolling sound effect in the background. The Hollywood Minute is by Raef Granger so he’s still a regular part of the podcast if not a regular host. This is random Raef’s chance to talk about whatever he feels like. Sometime’s it’s comics, other times the games he’s playing, online and off. I especially like any time he talks about practicing law since he’s a lawyer and last time I checked was working privately as an IP lawyer for hire for game companies and publishers. Total Fan Girl is by Nicole Wakelin and deals with nifty little things going on in the gaming world generally, but not always, concerning women in gaming, you can check more of her stuff out on the Geek Girls Network or at her blog at totalfangirl.com. And last but not least is Craig Gallant’s segment Do You Ever Notice. It’s Craig’s chance to make some introspective commentary on the things he notices in the world around him. It’s the shows last segment, and a nice way to to wrap things up since he starts it off with Geekly McNerdigan’s Rapid Fire. It gives the show a cyclical feeling, almost like a hero’s journey. You’ve traveled the great expanse known as the D6Generation, arrived at the place you began, but are not the same, having grown in knowledge and gameitude.

The Rating

So now I need to explain the rating system of the D6 Generation. I’ll be giving the show a rating from 2+ to 6+. What that means is if I gave a podcast like The Bear Swarm a +3 any average listener would like the Bear Swarm on a d6 roll of 3 or higher. For some reason, that makes no mathematical sense, I can assign a re-roll which equates to a half, don’t ask me why, it’s not my rating system. Onward to my rating.

I think the D6 Generation is one of the best produced gaming podcast’s out there. The sound quality and production are top notch. The ad’s, and yes there are ad’s in there for the sponsors, are entertaining and great bumpers between the segments. The content is also exceptional. The reviews are honest; they won’t review games they think are bad, they walk you through the rules, they give you their opinion, then try to look at the game from the average gamer’s view point, and rate it from both perspectives. The segments are entertaining and the humor is “Not to shabby” as Russ always says at the end of the podcast after thanking the listeners for making it to the end of another episode of the D6 generation. I really appreciate the focus and format. It’s consistent and there’s something nice about hosts who don’t wander off point to much. Finally there’s the chemistry Russ and Craig have. They’re good friends, which comes through in their conversations, and well spoken. They also have a knack for making the third host or any interviewee feel comfortable and part of what’s going on. I can’t think of a single interview I didn’t enjoy even if I wasn’t interested in the subject matter because I love stories about people and Craig and Russ manage to get people to tell them. It is a long podcast but with today’s technology you can listen to it in chunks. If you think about it each segment is a mini podcast so in a single episode you’re actually getting eight of them. In the end I’m giving the D6 Generation a 2+ but no re-roll. In breaking with tradition I’m thinking the re-roll means give it a second listen if you didn’t like it the first time. In the D6G’s case I feel if you don’t like it the first time I don’t think you will with a second listen. I’m also guessing you don’t like podcast’s or games if you don’t like what these guys are doing so go check them out. You won’t be sorry.

Later

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Feb 17 2012

Terminology of Gaming: Traditional Games

If anyone checked out my addiciton to podcasting post and how I’m trying to deal with it, or at least turn it into something positive, then they know I listen to a ton of podcast’s. In doing so I hear a lot of weird terms being thrown around the podiosphere. The guys over at The Jank Cast use “Trad gaming” and “Story Now games”. I heard the Podgecast  talking about character driven games but not in the way that I would of defined them. If your a podcast listener you’ve heard lots of people using various words like Plot and Plot points, Drama, Pathways, interaction, Roleplaying vs Rollplaying, 3.5, OGL, D20, Savaging something, Bennies, GMless games, Mechanics reinforcing your games style, Gamerati, and a host of other terms and concepts which sort of float around while the gamer’s try to figure out what they mean. Since so many people think a variety of things, and I like to take an academic view of everything, I figured I’d define some terms for myself starting with what “Trad” or Traditional games are in my opinion.

Traditional Games

The best article I could find on the web concerning traditional gaming was on the Socratic Design blog from 2006. Here are the bullet points:

  • The GM is imbued with ultimate authority.
  • The GM is charged with creating entire plot and setting for the game.
  • Players play one and only one character.
  • Players are encouraged to stay in ‘Actor Stance’.
  • There is a Task Resolution System.
  • Difficulties are set by GM fiat.
  • A GM receives minimal guidance or tools from text to cary out his duties.
  • Character Advancement is tied to increasing statistical values.
  • Characters can die.
  • Dice are used as the sole randomizer for play.
  • There is an assumption of long term play.
  • A Character’s goals are not mechanically supported in plot/setting creation.

I’m not sure all these point still stand up today but I think it’s a good place to start.

Does the GM still have ultimate authority in traditional games? I think so. I’m not saying a good GM doesn’t make it feel like the players have more control, or even invests his players with power, but in reality the rules of most traditional games state a GM has all the power when it comes to the world at large. The narrative control is his. The players can effect the world, but the GM decides if the players actions have any lasting effect. Players can call bullshit, not play anymore, or even attempt to derail the game, but they don’t have any real mechanical recourse to alter the story besides with their actions. If their actions aren’t taken into account by the GM, which according to the rules is the GM’s right, then the player effectively has no power. I understand people don’t play games this way, but old school games have these rules and ideas explicitly stated. It does raise some interesting questions about games existing today. I wonder if 3.5 D&D is a traditional game. The rules have a bunch of mechanics empowering the players if they act in specific ways: Grapple, jumping, tumbling, killing, spell casting, and a lot of other actions are specifically defined as if it was a war game. The GM doesn’t have ultimate authority over the game so does that mean the 3rd edition of D&D isn’t a traditional game? I’m not sure. I always thought it was. What do you think? Maybe I misread something in the PHB or DMG somewhere.

Is the GM in charge of creating the entire plot and setting for the game? I would say yes. I can’t think of a single traditional game exception where the players have control over the plot of the game mechanically. Call of Chuthulu, Runequest, Paranoia, 1st Edition and 2nd Edition D&D, and any World of Darkness game would be considered traditional. They all rely on a GM to create plots and settings in their rules. Can a GM be influenced by a players idea’s or a characters actions? Sure, if the GM lets their players influence them but the players have no mechanical recourse to influence the story. So a game like 3.5 D&D fits the bill, but a game like The Dresden Files by Evil Hat Productions doesn’t. The game has the players help with creating the setting at the beginning and can influence the plot by helping to decide on which themes the game will revolve around. Kicking it back to the first point The Dresden Files has something called Aspects which can be placed on scenes and NPC’s. Characters also have them. These aspects can be leveraged to create scenes the players want but not to such an extreme where they have real control. The GM is still in charge. I would conclude The Dresden Files is more of a hybrid, but only because of the setting creation segment of the game, not the scenario play. Is 3.5 D&D the opposite where the players have a lot of control over the scenario play but no control over the setting and plot creation? What do you think?

This is getting a bit long so I’ll be cutting it here for now. Feel free to chime in on the first two points and when I come back with part two I’ll question some more about what makes a traditional game.

Feb 15 2012

Podcast Addict and The Bear Swarm

I’m a podcast addict. There. I’ve said it so now I can work on getting better, or do I. Podcast’s are my way of entertaining myself at work while getting the low down on what’s hip in the gaming scene and industry. I’m a custodian by day and the job isn’t all that much fun. In fact it’s pretty boring. Without my Ipod nano I got from my brother and his fiancee a few years ago for Christmas I think I’d have gone crazy by now. (Thanks for saving my sanity Ed and Amanda) With it I’m just about as happy as one could be; cheerful to all the teachers, administrators, and staff I work around, and general pleasure to my two co-workers and boss. It’s because I can engage in listening to what’s up with my favorite hobby while making money. I feel a little guilty since I believe I listen to more podcast’s than a lot of other people. To get rid of my guilt I thought I’d write a little about my favorites, what they’re about, where you can find them, and what their formats are like. I suppose you can call them reviews. Today I’ll start with The Bear Swarm.

The Bear Swarm Podcast is an Explicit Geek Podcast or so says the header on their website Bearswarm.com. The title is telling the truth. Rob Justice (badass name) and Mike are the two regulars who drive the show, Rob does all of the editing, which isn’t much according to him, with a sort of rotating 3rd and sometimes 4th chair. I haven’t been listening since the beginning but the two most current 3rd and 4th hosts are Artemis and Darryl.

The best thing about all the hosts is they don’t take themselves to seriously and they could care less what people think about them. Because of these two factors the show comes off sounding honest. Just guys giving opinions and they’re not so stubborn to admit they’re wrong about something. They hate being wrong but if they are any of the hosts will man up and own it. A perfect example was their opinion of Cortex, by Margret Weis Productions. They felt the Supernatural and Serenity games were piles of crap. I think they’re right personally but when Smallville came out they piled on it as more of the same and not being interested until Cam Banks, designer of Smallville and Cortex+, sent them a demo copy. They did their homework, read the game, and publicly said they were wrong. Now they’re big Cortex+ supporters even using the Smallville engine for a Gotham Nights campaign and spin off campaign called Gotham days.

Did I mention they’re hilarious. Rob is a dick. Because he doesn’t care what people think about him his social filter doesn’t exist so some of the stuff he says is just plain insensitive, but frickin hilarious. Opposite him is Mike the cynic. His dry no nonsense attitude in the middle of a show of insanely inappropriate comments makes you feel sorry for the guy and laugh whenever he sighs at something Rob or Darryl throws out there. Artemis is great for adding in one liners and Darryl is like a the Bear Swarms personal fool. This guy just leaves himself so wide open all the time for Mike and Rob to blast him. While he’s taking dig after dig he just keeps opening his mouth and digging himself deeper and deeper holes. Fortunately these guys all get along and no one’s feelings get hurt. It’s like hanging out with the guys on Saturday playing video games with your boys and rippin on each other because you’re all bro’s. The thing is your bro’s probably aren’t as smart as these guys.

The Bear Swarm knows gaming. You might not agree with everything they say or even be offended at some of the words coming out of Rob’s mouth but these guys understand games and how to tell stories. Check out a  Wrestlecast and you’ll understand what I’m talking about. If the WWE was smart they’d hire them to help write their shows. If wrestling isn’t your thing episode 184 was about linear endings and how they aren’t the devil and 190 was a nice advice piece on how to start a narrative game. They’re also some of the biggest John Wick supporters out there (Rob has a Houses of the Blooded Tattoo) and game designer John Wick is a pretty good friend of theirs. They met because of the podcast. I actually remembered when it was more of an idolization but now Rob, Mike, and Art watch wrestling with John over skype, it’s kinda cute, in a geeky way.

The wrestlecast is a newer addition to the podcast format but a standard show goes something like this. Intro with a little banter, maybe some reader responses, a topic, and then shout outs. Nice and simple but with a whole lot of fun and some good information. Some of the most popular and interesting episodes have been giving the listeners a campaign frame. Check out episodes 190: To Slay a Dragon and 196: The Monster’s Rights Movement for their most recent foray into campaign frames. If RPG’s aren’t your thing there’s still something for you. Artemis always has great suggestions for books, and they’re all into video games. The shout out’s are about things they’re into at the moment like TV shows and whatever fun or interesting thing they’re individually doing at the moment.

Check out an episode. The sound quality is very good and the content is great for a geek.

Chris “The Light” Sniezak