Tuesday, January 21, 2020

New Toy

My darling bride of 20 years got me a new toy for Christmas -- my first digital art slate!
Here's a quick experiment with it ... the head of a froghemoth of course.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

A Rambling Conversation with a Chum

JB: Is there a perfect gaming system? A pinnacle beyond which everything else is needless obfuscation & busy "refinement?" 

I mean, probably not, because of individual preference & otherwise, but still. What's the most versatile, streamlined, essential system?
JP: Game system informs game play, so it depends on what you are trying to emulate. We are playing lightly house ruled B/X D&D right now via text (happens to be my favorite version). Observe how it impacts your play: you are very cautious because you understand that the mechanics make you much more like Hudson in Aliens then Hawkeye in Avengers. 

A fair fight is folly ... rather, this is a system that rewards cagey, meticulous, yet decisive play and the application of every dirty trick in the book (asymmetrical thinking--a player skill rather than a character skill). Knowing when to run is critical too. The system discourages heroism but invites ethical debate. It neither offers incentive nor discourages character development, leaving the choice to explore the psychology of the character or not firmly in the hands of the individual player. The role of the DM is paramount and his power unchecked. It is, therefore, an exercise in trust -- the DM will give you enough rope to hang yourself, but won't go easy or smash you without hope of escape... 

Other systems impact play and stake out their themes in other terrain: more exploration of internal conflict, greater focus on tactical detail, optimizing character builds, management of the action economy, improvisation, etc.

The question is, "How well do the systems selected by the designer inform play in a way that is consistent with the genre or action that the game is meant to evoke?" 

Does the modern horror game create a focus on growing desperation and impotence, or is it an exercise in build optimization so that the player gets to roll the biggest handful of dice possible? (I'm looking at you, White Wolf).

King Arthur Pendragon is probably one of the best genre emulation systems I've met in nearly 40 years at this.  Marvel Superheroes Advanced (the TSR era game by Jeff Grubb) is another. Paranoia by West End Games is a solid entry, as is Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu. 

D&D is an odd duck. With it, Gary and Dave set out to emulate swords and sorcery, missed the mark, and in doing so created an entirely new subgenre!
The other big consideration is the players ... more on them later 😁
As you suggested earlier, the quest for the holy grail of games systems is somewhat quixotic, because of the incredible diversity of experience, expectation, interpretation, and temperament found among role playing nerds. 

Add varying levels of personal development and emotional growth (especially intrapersonal intelligence -- an  area where, along with interpersonal intelligence, gamers show disproportionate deficits) and you've got quite a daunting task.
Player A may *think* he wants to explore a new sexual identity through the safe forum of the game, but instead his first concern is actually rules mastery in such a way that minimizes the unpredictable. 

Player B, meanwhile, hates his job, hates his commute and just wants to kick ass and feel potent for a couple hours.
Robin Laws (who would go on to consult for 5e) wrote a little book called "Robin's Laws for Good Game Mastering". It's quite good. Print copies are north of $50 but it's available in pdf. 

In it he outlines several types of player: method actor, casual gamer, power gamer, etc. It's a handy schema for thinking about how players intersect with genre, and thus system.
Oh, the Ghost Busters RPG, also from West End Games, was something pretty special, though really (and oddly) it sought to emulate the IP as received in pop culture rather than the movie itself.
Risus is also pretty damn amazing -- written by a local boy (S. John Ross) who went on to consult for Wizards of the Coast and 5e. Pdf is free and rules are about 6 pages at most. 
So, coming back to your original question: What's the perfect game system in terms of being versatile, streamlined, and essential?
I'd avow that the qualities of genre emulation and creating the play experience actually sought by individual players (as discrete from the play experience they may think they desire or articulate as preferred) exist in tension with the qualities of versatility and efficiency. They aren't mutually exclusive, but neither are they synonymous.
Steve Jackson's GURPS is built with versatility as its primary aim, and while its core mechanics *can* begin to step back off center stage with familiarity and repetition, there are still genres which aren't best supported by that system. At its heart, it is "crunchy" (though GURPS Lite makes an effort to dial this back a bit). 

The largely forgotten Amazing Engine by TSR likewise reaches for versatility (though with considerably less crunch), but again, it is outclassed in genre emulation by various front-runners.


JB: What is your preferred style as a player?

JP: As a *player* I am, according to Mr Laws, primarily a "tactician," though I can swing "method actor" if I don't find myself among like minds.

The genres which best compliment that include high risk, gritty settings with fragile characters (vs heroic) such as 1920s gangsters, hard sci-fi, old school dungeon crawling, low-tech or survival stories (e.g. Elfquest, stone age, zombie survival, low fantasy post apocalyptic, Bunnies and Burrows, etc.). Even though it fits thematically, I don't actually like hard sci-fi (I don't know enough about physics).

The game systems that hit those notes optimally include GURPS, pre 3rd ed D&D (any of the five versions that came before 2000), and Chaosium's Basic role playing engine.

As a GM, I strongly prefer rules - lite systems that encourage bricolage and heavily emphasize cooperation among the players. 

The system emphasis must match what the game is about thematically ... if the game is about wild west gun slinging, there had better be mechanics for the stare down and fast draw! 

I prefer systems that emphasize player skill over character skill, which don't seek to buffer players from GM choices, in which system mastery isn't critical to success, and which maximize GM flexibility and improvisation. 

I want to be able to respond fluidly to unpredictable choices made by players, and I want the freedom to launch new encounters rapidly without working through sophisticated mechanics or being worried about encounter balance. 

Pre-3rd edition D&D, Chaosium's Basic system (Elric, Elfquest, Call of Cthulhu, etc), Risus, and ... unsurprisingly Olde School Wizardry fit that bill. ]

JB: What's your least favorite system? Pathfinder? The Hero System?
JP: Least favorite would be the worst match of genre to system, right? 

So yes, both Champions and the Hero System are very crunchy with a big focus on fiddly modifiers -- that's the antithesis of four color comic book heroics.

D&D 4th ed is terrible at emulating the gritty dungeon crawl survival genre that D&D created ... 5th *can* do it, but requires modification (keeping it off the bottom of the heap). 

GURPS, rules as written, is painfully fiddly as is Pathfinder. It doesn't do much for me as a player, and I loathe it as a GM. 

Burning Wheel leaves me cold. Um... Mouseguard lic. published with it ... and Torchbearer. It's interesting and does what it does well, but not the kind of circus I'd care to GM.

Warhammer RPG hits its grim dark fantasy tone well (but like Astonishing Swordsmen of Hyperborea, you could cover the same ground with a lightly house ruled AD&D. 

Dungeon Crawl Classics does what it sets out to do very well and in some ways is more of a spiritual successor to AD&D than 3e was.

MERP/Role Master is gawdawful ... a fiddly, Champions - like effort to evoke Middle Earth via what feels rather like doing one's taxes. Somehow they couldn't get out from under the long shadow of D&D, and thought,  "You know what would help? More charts!"

DCC loves charts too--to an almost comical extreme, but that at least is for a specific purpose: to elicit what was most idiosyncratic about D&D when we first learned it as kids, down to our fumbling unfamiliarity with the strange dice, and turn it up to 11.
JB: [regarding Astonish Swordsmen of Hyperborea] I didn't really understand mechanics. I read the world-building & etc. & left the rules largely unconsidered. Now that I have a bit more insight, I should revisit it.

JP: Well that's an interesting point, and a whole other topic (for another time): role-playing games not as games, but in fact as a form of literature masquerading as games. 

Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Pros and Cons of Mapping

Maps and D&D are inseparable, and long before I was a proficient reader, the evocative maps of B2 drew me in (and helped me become a more proficient reader in the process).

Back when there were five channels on the TV, having a party mapper who drew the dungeons as described by the DM on graph paper was a cool feature of the game.  You could even compare maps after the adventure was over to see how proficient a mapper you were!

But now-a-days, there are more options and the charms of detailed mapping are often lost on players.

So here are the choices as I see them:

I've underlined the pros and cons that carry the most weight with me.

Image result for old map

1. I describe, you draw

  • player agency--if players make mistakes or get sloppy they can get lost, but if they don't it's because of their own expertise.  They can go any direction / I don't have to predict their route.
  • players can deduce the location of hidden rooms or secret doors based on features they've mapped, giving them a tactical advantage 
  • player engagement for the mapper(s)
  • this method preserves the "lost art" of mapping and can have some genuine educational benefits for younger gamers


  • this method slows things down at the table, creating conversations about that space that wouldn't happen if the players could simply see from the characters' point of view
  • it creates survey-centric conversations ("You said thirty feet east to west?" "Is the door on the east side or the west side of the south wall?") that don't really fit the tone of many of my adventures
  • players who aren't mapping can get bored pretty fast

Image result for bob ross funny

2. I draw on large paper, you watch

  • player engagement ... not bragging, but from vets to newbies, when I sketch I notice that my players all lean in to watch what unfolds 
  • I'm also very fast at it.  I can draw a section of the Caves of Chaos much faster and more accurately then I can describe it to a player-mapper 
  • I can add visual clues, red herrings, artifacts, monster sketches, and notes as I go, inviting players to do the same
  • the map becomes an interesting and visually pleasing artifact of play [sometimes my middle school players have argued over who gets to keep the map after the adventure!]
  • player agency: I don't have to try and predict their route and prepare ahead of time; their drawings reflect their choices, not my plans


  • with the dungeon laid out before them, there's practically zero chance of characters getting lost or turned around
  • if scaled to minis, these maps get so large as to be unweildy at the table

Image result for dry erase funny

3. I draw in dry erase

  • realism ... I draw only what characters can see at that moment
  • players can go any direction or leave the dungeon and explore a different ruin without causing me to miss a beat


  • when characters backtrack, I may have to draw the same areas again and again ... trying to maintain accuracy, 
  • if characters are moving quickly, then my drawing may slow play
  • these maps are fragile, easily smeared and erased by accident

Image result for dungeon tiles

4. I lay tiles

  • eye-popping visual appeal
  • invites use of minis


  • cool little artistic details on the tile may not match what's actually there, likewise there may be details I want players to be aware of that are missing
  • most tiles have very clean and regular lines and few organic shapes, making the dungeon feel a bit sterile 
  • I waste time looking for the tile that fits the next room, I don't have a tile for a seven sided room when I need one, the pool of water has to substitute for a pool of lava because I either don't have one or can't find it without slowing the game down
  • table space
  • do I remove what they can't see (wasting time) or leave it (eliminating the possibilty that they get lost)?
  • Tim bumped the table
Image result for peek under paper

5. I pre-draw the dungeon, cover it, and reveal select portions when appropriate
  • fast
  • I can draw it to minis scale
  • theoretically I could cover it back up when they move out of an area, but would I ever actually do this?
  • players can imply the shape and dimensions of the dungeon even while still covered.  No need to look for secret doors over there, it's at the very edge of the map and at the table edge.
  • if scaled to minis, I've still run into limits of table space
  • while theoretically a party could get lost back-tracking, practically speaking it isn't going to happen
  • it limits the exploration to areas that I think the players will decide to explore vs maintaining full player agency
So how do you handle mapping at your table?
Do you use more than one method?
How do your pros and cons compare to mine?

All Elves (a BECMI memory)

I was looking back at some photos and found this picture of an old adventuring party.  My then-ten-year-old was running us through the starter dungeon in BECMI and we decided it would be fun if we all made elves.  

Alvin was the leader.  Breet was the crazy one. Darin didn't say much ... I remember that each elf knew a different spell.  I think we rolled randomly and just re-rolled any duplicates.  I recall getting Light and Floating Disc, but don't know if anyone got Sleep or Charm.

My favorite memory was of loading the (now dead) carrion crawler from the pit onto the Floating Disc, shooting it full of arrows, dousing it with oil and setting it alight before running right at the kobold sentries screaming, "Run for your lives! The beast won't die!"

The Adventure Begins (again)

With the start of the school year, my weekly Strategy Games Club has started back up. and among the two dozen attendees, five of last year's players have returned to continue playing D&D at my table.

Last year we started with 5e D&D, but when the players kept getting bogged down we shifted to B/X to keep things fast and simple.

Dungeons & Dragons Starter Pack GameThis year, we are going to try 5e again in hopes that the students will be able to make the leap to managing more complex characters with more bells and whistles.

Ultimately, I want the girls to be able to join a pick-up game, an A.L. game in a shop, or understand easily what they are reading should they decide to grab a starter set or Player's Handbook in a local bookstore with as little confusion as possible.

In my mind that means using:

  •  +5 to -5 array of stat modifiers, 
  • ascending AC, 
  • advantage/disadvantage, 
  • skills, 
  • bonus actions, 
  • reactions,
  • stat-based saving throws.

Image result for into the borderlands goodman games

Seeing all the extra bits that kick in at level three with each character class, they've actualy asked me if they can stay at level two until they feel ready to handle (i.e. remember to use) additional super powers. 

I'm eager to try out the new content and 5e re-writes from Into the Borderlands, but for now we are continuing through The Adventure Begins, also by Goodman Games.

This gem, now hard to find in print but still around in pdf, packs twenty 3rd edition adventures for low level characters between its covers.  

DCC29Some of these are magic--Lair of the White Salamander is as good as anything Goodman Games has put out over the years--others are railroads or fall a bit flat, and a few are just drek.  On the whole, however, it's like have five issues of the old Dungeon magazine compiled and ready to go.  Conversion to 5e on the fly is a snap for any seasoned DM.

The trickier and more rewarding part is threading these unrelated plots together into a coherent, episodic campaign.  This takes me right back to my high school Greyhawk campaign where, with the Overking and Iuz the Old as archvillians, I was always looking for ways to tie together adventure modules. 

I'm hoping that we can stick with 5e and that turns don't devolve into players blinking at their sheet each turn and saying, "Wait.  What can I do again?"  What's Mask of the Wild?"

Have you eased newer or younger players into 5e before?

What tricks did you use to help them manage all the bells and whistles?

One-Liners: Character Motivations

Over in my biweekly Olde School Wizardry RPG, the cadre of young wizards is exploring the antechambers of a megadungeon which, owing its metal panneling in places, they've dubbed "The Cannery."

For a quarrel of neophyte wizards to undertake such an exploration unaided would mean quick and messy death, so they've brought along mooks to help them out and spread the risk around a bit.

Folks who've gamed with me know that I think index cards and RPGs go together like a bulette and a holiday in The Shire (messy, amusing, an ultimately more satisfying then you would have guessed) and I use them for cities, maps, tables, character sheets, spells, books, and whatever else I can think of, so of course I knocked together a quick NPC card for each of the mercenaries tasked to accompany the spellcasters.

But how to keep them from being generic?

Image result for the monkeysFirst, pick some faces that come with a bit of recognition ("Oh, that's the quiet guy ... and he's the goofy one.").  Photos of music bands fit that bill.

Then a quick one-line motivation on the back of each card was just the trick!

  • To become the one in charge
  • To finally forget her
  • To feel like that again
  • To see if the dream was true
  • To die a rich man
  • To prove them all wrong
  • To kill the man who killed her
  • To show them I was right all along
  • To earn a hero's welcome
  • To seek my fortune
  • To find a way back
  • To earn her admiration
Boom! Quick-build memorable and distinctive NPC mooks.

Image result for red shirts

What tricks have you used to create those rank-and-file NPCs without them just being flat and generic?