Eye of the Beholder

Designing for your players is tough – especially if your players aren’t always on the same page as one another (let alone on the same page as the GM). When I recently made up a questionnaire for a game I’m planning, I asked “what do you, as a player, want from this game?” For three players, I got widely these different responses…

One player wanted to “fight things we don’t usually fight.” OK, sounds like an easy request. “Like and aboleth or something.” Oh. Damn. We’re starting at second level, by the way…

Another player said they wanted elements of horror, terror, and the “alien.” Awesome. He too spoke up about fighting unusual creatures, or at least avoiding typical fantasy game tropes and villains.

The third guy left the question blank. I hope I am reading it right that he’s open for anything, rather than wanting “nothing” out of the game.

Your players have desires, whether veteran gamers or first time noobs. They want the heroic battle against the dragon, or the race against time to save the world, or in this case, the chance to do something they’ve never done before. I had a story in mind before I asked about their characters. Then they told me about their characters. The story I had in mind went back into the mental filing cabinet, waiting for another opportunity.

Instead, now I am designing for what the players want. You have to find a balance between your story and their characters and their desires. If they don’t want to save the world, you can still destroy it, but you’re going to have to figure out something else to entertain them along the way (actually, that’s backwards – figure our their stories first, and if there is a way to blow up the world in the process, work it in if you must).

Along the way, don’t be afraid to beg, borrow and steal (and cheat, too!) your way to a great story. Borrow ideas from published sources, reshape them to suit the group’s needs and tastes. You’re only limited by how far you can stretch your own imagination.

Creation is in the eye of the beholder – and the eyes of its eyestalks too. The lesson here is don’t forget to see things from the player’s perspective… and from other views, too. Imagine your world, then imagine it from the perspective of the monsters, blacksmiths, kings and beggars that live there.

Just beware the disintegrate ray.


The Dynamics of Design

So, far be it from me to never learn anything from opening my big mouth, and I’ve been thinking lately about how I go about role playing game design – be it and adventure, a campaign, a character, and so on.

How much do you design from experience, and how much do you design from a standpoint of doing something different? Sub-question: If you’re designing from the standpoint of something different, is it different for you (something you’ve never tried before), or is it a reaction to things you commonly see (something you feel is unrepresented)?

I ask because, in my latest rant, I politely suggest that one could change the minor details of an adventure of other product to suit one’s desires. But how often do you do that?

For me, the answer is “quite often.” I have no problem with changing a product, however slight or large, to fit my gaming needs and to fit the personality of my group. I will fudge details just like I will fudge rolls, if it suits the needs of the story I want to tell.

Case in point: Monte Cook’s Ptolus, one of my all-time favorite RPG products, has some setting details that I don’t particularly like. My solution? Creatively throw them out/replace them with other details. The way I did this was pretty simple. I advanced the timeline of the world.

What I was left with was a Ptolus where the empire had fallen, technology had leapt forward in a big way, the planar focus of the world had shifted mightily, crime lords waged open war in the city, and one whole district (the Warrens) had been swept clean by city officials and is now the home of outcast races like Aasimars, Tieflings, and creatures who use Psionics.

That’s some pretty heavy editing, with some far reaching consequences and ramifications for the setting – some I am sure I don’t even see yet. But, all in all, it was pretty easy – just took some creative energy to tie it all in together. It makes something as simple as changing a character’s gender or an adventure’s setting a cakewalk.

How and why do you change material you use? Is it a matter of taste, of wanting to do something new, of wanting to represent yourself and your desires for a product more clearly, or something else all together?


John Carpenter's "The Thing"

Of late, I have recently been on a kick to rectify some of my "card carrying geek" resume omissions. Things like, oh, the movie Conan the Barbarian (which I coincidentally watched the week after the Governator's affair became news - so good timing on my part), or reading A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, which I'll follow up with reading Saga of Old City by Gary Gygax.

There's too many things to really fill out your geek resume completely, but hey, at least I'm trying to hit some of the bigger ones. One movie I had neglected for a long time was John Carpenter's "The Thing." I liked Carpenter's other work (Starman, anyone?), love Kurt Russell (Tombstone, anyone?) and shit, the two of them together? Solid gold! (BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, EVERYONE!!!)

So, The Thing had to be awesome, right? Well... yeah, it kind of is. It doesn't hold up well in comparison to today's sci-fi thrillers or creepy crawly flicks. But, for it's time, it was a pretty cool use of technology, puppetry, and movie monster magic.

Of course, it's a Carpenter movie, so there's some cheese, some quite liberally spread around (the Norris head running around after Norris gets fragged always gets me in stitches). And I am still a little unclear as to who all is an alien, and when... even after the blood test, I think with the ending of the flick, you could make a case for both the incomparable Keith David (love that guy!!) and Kurt Russell are aliens. Are both aren't... or one is, but which one? MacCready (Russell) is suspect at points in the movie. Childs (David) disappeared before the final act, before strangely returning at the end.

What is a good movie review supposed to say? You should watch the film -- especially if you like science fiction, horror, alien movies, tension, and cheesey '80's movie magic. Oh, and you definitely need to watch it if you like John Carpenter and/or Kurt Russell. It's actually a pretty gripping movie - you get sucked in pretty quick, with the suspense/confusion building from the first scene and carrying the movie through to the end.

Be prepared for some creepy and gross effects -- if gore is not your thing, well, avoid this one. Most of the cheesey gloss is drippy, bloody, and tentacly. Yes, tentacly. But not in an anime/hentai kind of way, thank Zeus.

On my official Geek Must Die Movie Scale (that I just now made up), I give it a rating of 3.5 out of 5 Heads of Tiamat. Check it out!


Organized Play Vs. Home Campaign – Rules Interpretation

Both fighters retreat to your corners. When the bell rings, come out fighting.


Over the weekend, I had a brief conversation with my friend and gaming compatriot Ziz about one of the big problems with Pathfinder Society Organized Play, specifically that characters that are not built to maximize effect are somewhat hamstrung in the games.

In other words, for organized play, you really need a character that excels, mechanically speaking. Since the “role playing” at a table is different from session to session – as much as your table dynamic is different, with likely a different group of players and GM each time out – the best way to have an effective character is to have one that is mechanically sound.

The problem with this is, not everyone likes to min-max each character. Sure, it’s fun to play the dumb, ugly orc barbarian with an axe… but what about classes that need more than one or two high attributes to excel? What about developing a storyline for your character, to carry through from adventure to adventure?

I love Pathfinder Society Organized Play. Love it. It lets me come and go as I please, GM every now and then when I want to, and gives me a standard, organized and easily-understood method for advancement in character levels and wealth. I know what to expect going in. I know what I’m after and how to get it.

The downside is that PSOP, or any organized play, is bound to be dominated by mechanics than by good role playing. Take for instance my 2nd level Elf Illusionist – I character I thought would own. The first session I played him (he already had 3 adventures under his belt, since I applied 3 scenarios I GMed to him), he was by far the least effective character in the group.

Some of that was the scenario, and some of it was the GM (I’d say it was 50/50). But the GM stuff was brutal. I found out why it’s unwise to play an illusionist in the pick-up style game – the rules are at the mercy of the GM and his interpretation of them.

Take, for instance, the spell Disguise Self, which was used by an NPC bad guy against the party. I was the first to speak with the bad guy in question… and apparently fell for the ruse. Except… I got no saving throw, no chance to disbelieve the illusion. Now, as an Elven Illusionist, my save bonus vs. Illusions, even at 2nd level, is sick. Having access to the game material later, I was able to figure out the DC of the saving throw to disbelieve. The GM had asked us for will saving throws before the session began, and I know that my rolls were all in the mid 20s. There was NO CHANCE that I wouldn’t have spotted the illusion.

The problem? His interpretation of the spell. In order to disbelieve Disguise Self, you must interact with it. I take that to mean seeing, speaking with, listening to, etc. If ANY of my senses come into contact with it, then I have interacted with it. His interpretation was MUCH more stringent – that in order to disbelieve the illusion, you had to touch it.

Woah. That’s a pretty radical – and completely in the GM’s favor – way to read a rule. I mean, if I had known that, I would’ve cast Disguise Self on myself, and told everyone I was the Queen of Cheliax. So what if my voice doesn’t sound the same? Bow down or die. In this case, my wizard, who spoke to the “child” at great depth, and spent a great deal of time looking at her, was deemed to have not interacted with the character. Thus, when I stepped through the doorway and got sneak attacked by two thugs (complete with rogue sneak attack damage), I nearly died, and spent the rest of the session pissed off as a player (I did my best to continue, but this wasn’t the only issue at the table with this GM either – he seemed bound and determined to kill us all, methinks), constantly at odds with a GM who cared little for the fairness of his decision, and as a character completely doubting his self and the craft he though he had so painstakingly perfected.

Further, later discussion has done little to temper my issues, but pointed out one critical flaw in my character design – the character is built more for role play, rather than “roll play.” Leaning heavily on mechanics that are unclear, or up to GM interpretation, means that I can’t rely on one effective way to play the character. Trying to sneak, connive and trick my way through a scenario is going to depend almost entirely on the way the GM reads, interprets and implements the rules for illusions. Since I’m not one to throw a fit at a table (I’ll try and seek restitution and further explanation after the session is complete), it also means that there’s really no way to argue or ensure my interpretation is plausible.

Thus, my illusionist is effectively useless unless I’ve played with a GM before, and can be comfortably certain on how he’s going to rule regarding illusions. Unfortunately, the bad experience detailed above left me with a sour taste in my mouth regarding my character, and now, it feels like a wasted dud of a PC.

This is further complicated in that I now cannot apply the same sessions I GMed to another character, nor can I play the sessions I’ve played with him again for credit. Effectively, I’ve got a useless, disliked character I’m unlikely to ever play again. My attempt to do something unique and fun was squashed by the adage that, in organized play, min-maxing and power gaming are the only ways to be effective.


It Takes A Nation Of Mariks To Hold Us Back

What do you do when your favorite game’s setting takes a turn for the worse?

In the world of tabletop and rp gaming, our favorite settings become the homes where we tell our stories, where characters live out grand adventures, where kingdoms fall and nations revolt and the people taste tyranny or freedom. BattleTech was no stranger to these concepts in its heyday with FASA Games.

Set in a bleak, run-down sci-fi universe where petty lords fought over a long-lost and nearly forgotten unified humanity, BattleTech was a game of armored mechanized combat, and in the future, the rulers of the battlefield were BattleMechs, giant humanoid war machines that walked, punched, kicked and blasted their way through the galaxy.

Resources were scarce – not just war materials but water, food, and transportation from planetary systems. Realms fought tooth and nail over water worlds or a small cache of lasers and spare parts. Society had sunk to feudalism, and the ancient science of the gameworld was positively Aasimovian. Before the end of FASA, the company introduced the Clans, the returning warriors of that golden-age Star League before them, with vastly super technology.

And then… FASA folded, the game was in limbo. Soon, WizKids picked up our beloved robot mayhem franchise, and promptly destroyed the story-lines.

The line’s a little blurry in my memory – I’m not sure where officially the FASA produced story ends and WizKids’ begins – but I can tell you that it was they who first used the word jihad. A popular word in those early 2000’s, let me tell you. A few terrorist acts, and it became a HUGE buzzword, and all I could remember was it sure seemed like my favorite game was capitalizing on that buzz.

The story-line? A once-thought dead maimed leader is saved by technophiles, who secret him away while he becomes mad and, once the world knows his communications organization have been playing them for fools, breaks part of it away rather than face their secrets. After the golden age of humanity is poorly resurrected, these mystic technophiles – and their super duper new cyborg army! – are about to be inducted into the new Star League, but at the last moment, the League dissolves, leaving them with their peckers in their proverbial mechanical hands.

So they decided to destroy everything. And in the process, absolutely ruin a gorgeous, richly detailed setting that, while already somewhat suffering because of the earlier Clan technological revolution, was still worth saving.

Now, Catalyst Game Labs produce material for the game (still owned by another company, though). Another company owns other parts of it, and further ruined the story-line by advancing it by 100 years or so, making it nigh impossible to ride out the shitty ruin of the Jihad to a better, more satisfying conclusion. And Harmony Gold still owns the “unseen,” and those bastards still won’t let me have my damned Warhammer.

This game used to own. Thanks to idiots and buzzwords, now it just collects dust on my shelf.


GM Tips: Getting Started

So, you’ve found a game you want to play, and talked a few friends into playing it with you. Guess what? Chances are, if you bought the game, you’re going to be the game master. Now, this doesn’t necessarily apply only to role playing games – go ahead and figure on this for tabletop wargaming, collectible card games, and even board games and more.

In any event, what should you do first? Read the instructions. Then read them again. And, if at all possible, read those suckers a third, fourth, fifth and sixth time. You are going to be responsible for the level of enjoyment your friends/family/group of complete strangers get out of this game, so BE PREPARED. Read it. Know it. Love it. Recite it better than you did the Gettysburg Address in 3rd grade.

Trust me on this. I bought Munchkin Quest because my normal group loved Munchkin, my wife played Munchkin once, and we both thought it looked cool. I opened it and glanced through the rule book, and attempted to play it based off of that quick glance. We’ve played it a total of two times, and both times, we house-ruled our way through most of it. (This game also brings me to another point, which is probably better served by a whole post that I won’t later write: research a new game before you buy it. Please.)

Back on track – let’s assume you bought yourself a bright and shiny new role playing game. Hooray! Read it. Read it again. Read it ad nauseum, if you ever want your investment to take root and grow. KNOW YOUR GAME.

Now, it’s not entirely, 100% necessary to know (and understand) every rule tucked into every cranny of a 300-500 page rule book. But you have got to have a basic understanding of the rules.

If you’re trying to sell your group on changing from an old system to a new system – such as from 3.5 D&D to 4th Edition or Pathfinder – pay special attention to the details. Nothing is going to convince your friends/family/group of complete strangers that this game “sucks” quicker than saying, “Well, this situation resolved itself in THAT way in the old system, so let’s just do that.” Why change systems or try a new game if that’s the case?

Gamers are stubborn, skittish creatures. They are like territorial deer – they don’t want to leave their comfortable wooded homeland, and when they venture out, if you spook them, they're either darting for home or getting run over by your ’96 Cavalier, thereby ruining your shiny but kind of flimsy new compact car.

If you want to turn back the clock even more, ASK your group before you buy the new game if they want to play it. Then buy it, then read it. And read it again. And again…

Nothing kills a game, for the first time or the second, 99th, or the last, than not knowing what you are doing. Breathe. You haven’t lost them yet. But after you’ve gotten over your own deer-in-the-headlights look… read the damn rules!

Be like a boy scout. Number one rule of Game Mastering: BE PREPARED.


Jobbin' Out.

Daddy didn't raise no Mandolorian. But those eyes and those lips remind me way too much of the Huttese.

Still, nothing beats the ol' victory pose. Hands raised towards the sky. You can almost hear the celebratory Ewok music...