Wednesday, January 31, 2007

We're the kind of pirates who share...

I've written before about the possible use of Google Docs & Spreadsheets in gaming. In the Sky Pirates of Eberron game that I am currently playing in, one of the other players set up a simple Google doc and gave all the players (and the DM) editing privileges on it.

The sheet tracks group resources, loot, and experience (by gaming session). It looks like it will be simple and effective. Just for fun, I'm thinking of writing up brief (1-3 sentence) 'episode summaries' of past games.

Welcome to 2007

I have acquired a digital camera.

It would not be unreasonable to expect more pictures in this blog in the not-too-distant future.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Complete Scoundrel: A second look

Now that I have cooled down from my initial reaction to the Complete Scoundrel, I think I can see some really good stuff in there.

I'm saddened that there were some missed opportunities. I can deal with that.

Here are some highlights:

Prestige Classes: The Master of Masks is one of the coolest prestige classes I've seen. I want to play a Beguiler/Master of Masks. Several of the prestige classes build off the luck feat and skill trick mechanics introduced in the book. This isn't bad, but it isn't my cup of tea. The prestige classes that don't build off these mechanics, though, look pretty cool.

Equipment: There are some clever, tricky, nonmagical items in the book. My favorite is probably the rust monster wand, a hollow tube filled with rust monster larvae. The end of it is perforated (and able to be capped) so as to allow the antennae to stick out. Rub them against something metal and it will eventually rust. Also, you can empty this into the paladin's armor for extra-wacky fun!

Magic: There are some spells and magic items that lend themselves to clever uses. I approve of that.

Background: There's a writeup on the Free League from Planescape. I'm a bit of a Planescape fan, so I appreciated this, even though I think the Free League is sort of pointless.

Advice: There's a big section on running adventures that are based on cleverness and such. I haven't read through it, so I can't speak to the quality of it - but this is an area where advice is invaluable.

Monday, January 29, 2007

About last night

Last night's D&D game was fun. It was our third session, and we finally (sort of) saw some combat.

Combat the first: a guard recognized me as an escaped prisoner. I tried to bluff him with the 'do all dwarves look alike to you?' sort of line, but my bluff score is less than stellar. I'll need to do something about that (and my Charisma is getting a bump at level 4, dammit!). Eventually, he attacked me for resisting arrest, and I whacked him in the face with the pommel of my short sword, knocking him unconscious. We left him in an alley, but didn't loot his body or anything.

Combat the second: we were investigating the home of a wizard we suspect is a Bad GuyTM. We got mistaken for movers (the wizard was leaving the area) and told to pack the place up into crates, but not to go into his study. Of course we did. Unfortunately, he had a guardian construct in there. It wouldn't actually leave the study, but it guarded it - so we did a snatch and grab thing. There was some scuffling, but no one was actually hurt (including the construct). Oddly, we decided to actually pack the guy's apartment up for him. I did raid the guys spice rack, though.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Complete Scoundrel: First Impressions

I'm feeling updatey today.

This isn't really going to be a review. I've skimmed through the book, but I haven't read it in detail.

I've already talked a bit about skill tricks and luck feats - two of the more notable things included in the Complete Scoundrel.

After skimming through it, what do I think? I think this book would have been a much better book if it had been released a year ago. Now it feels out of date.

Essentially, I think it is a direct sequel to the Complete Adventurer. It has support for the base classes in there: ninja, scout, and spellthief. (There also seemed to be a few Swashbuckler-oriented things in there.) This might be the first (and only) place I've seen WotC provide support for the spellthief. If you really like these classes, you'll probably find this book useful. In addition, it has more of the same sorts of things found in Complete Adventurer: expanded alchemical devices, more poisons, tricky/useful equipment, and things of that sort.

There appears to be a lot of roleplaying advice on how to play a scoundrel of any class/alignment. I haven't read it. I can't tell you if it is worthwhile.

There are prestige classes, of course. It seemed like many (if not most) of these played off the skill tricks and/or luck feats introduced in the book. Unfortunately, I don't really like those mechanics... so I'm not sure if these prestige classes will be worth anything to me at all.

There were several things notably left out of the book.

The book has no alternate class features. This would have been a great option. Most of the options in the book are skill-intensive and near-impossible for a character with 2 skill points/level to make use of. Putting some options in there for Fighters and Sorcerers and such would have been nice.

The book supports a limited field of classes. Warlocks and Hexblades scream scoundrel to me: being both charismatic and treacherous. I didn't see anything that was geared toward either of them (and - with their limited number of skill points - they won't be able to make use of most of the general options). Moreover, the book - as far as I can tell - ignores the existence of, perhaps, the most scoundrel-like (scoundrellious? scoundrelly? scoundriferous?) class out there: the Beguiler. I suspect, though, that it is more that the writers of this book were ignorant of the Beguiler at the time of writing, and the oversight was more of an overlap in writing/publishing schedules. This isn't an excuse, though: I expect major D&D expansions to not only be consistent, but to build upon each other and fit together well.

Brainwriting a Campaign

Today I was in a training all morning. One of the things we covered were some team-based brainstorming techniques. I'd been familiar with the idea of brainwriting before, but this morning I thought of using it for group campaign design.

Here's the basic (slightly edited for my purpose) idea. You begin with a grid/table (a spreadsheet works).

Across the top of the page, you note the basic concept for the campaign. Let's say it is "Cowboys and Chimeras, a D&D game with Wild West tropes."

In the first row of cells, you put in some basic ideas. For instance, "Six-Shooters: cheap wands that only hold 6 charges" and "Magic Railroad" and "Airborne Cowboys."

In the second and subsequent rows, you expand on each of the things above. Under "Magic Railroad" we might have things like "John-Henry-like legend of man vs. magic" and "Train Robbery!" and "Kobold conductors" and "Trapped trains - robbing a train is like a moving dungeon!"

Check here for an example.

So, the DM might add a few things to the first row or so, and then pass the grid around (or use a Google spreadsheet and add players as collaborators). A player might add a new basic idea (or five) and/or expand on one or more of the ones that are already there. This can go on for awhile, until the DM has enough ideas to pick and choose from.

Variants on this idea:

  • Using the Google spreadsheet option, you can enlist people from around the world to help you brainstorm on your campaign.

  • Use this for things on a smaller scale than an entire campaign: A culture (the main idea at the top of the page could be Goblin Eugenicists), an organization (Evil Overlords Anonymous), or an adventure (Return to Swamp Castle).

Game Drama

Last night's Aberrant game had some player-drama. We are still less than a half-dozen sessions in to the game. Some of us are coming together into a cohesive group. Others, less so.

One of the players believes that his character's concept is dependent upon him having a secret identity. Another character is a telepathic spy who revealed the first PC's identity to her government. (For the record, neither of these are my characters. My PC is being sloppy with his identity, and I fully expect it to come back to haunt him.)

The player of the first PC is upset. Why? (1) There wasn't any way for him to effectively remain a secret from her while participating in the game. (2) Knowing that and that the secret ID was important for character integrity, she revealed the ID to her government anyway.

Now, the second PC is a spy - and a loyal one. Should the player have kept quiet out of respect for the player, even though it would be out of character for her PC not to report such a secret?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Dumb Luck

Who is it that decided that a character in an RPG who is extraordinarily lucky should have that luck modeled by re-rolling dice?

I know that White Wolf did this - both in their World of Darkness games (in which Luck was a Merit) and in Aberrant (in which it was a power). I am fairly certain that I saw it that way before, though.

Recently, D&D released their Complete Scoundrel book, which includes Luck Feats, which are essentially feats that allow re-rolls in particular instances.

I understand that re-rolling dice models luckiness on the player's level. To me, though, this doesn't translate to luckiness on the part of the character. When you have an available re-roll, you tend to use it in order to counter an unusually bad roll. What does this mean to the character, though? It means that the character is more consistent than other characters. Does consistency equal luck? Not so much.

When I think about someone who is unusually lucky, I think of the person who makes that one-in-a-million shot. Twice. I think of someone who wins the lottery... with a ticket that she found on the sidewalk. I think of someone who succeeds due to chance occurrences in the environment. A lucky warrior doesn't defeat the orc barbarian because he gets to re-roll his failed attack. He defeats him because the orc trips over a fallen branch and impales himself on the warrior's sword.

Re-rolls don't do it for me.

To some degree, this can be solved by description. If, when you successfully use a luck re-roll, it is described as something truly lucky happening rather than you simply succeeding where you otherwise wouldn't, then you can at least maintain some of the flavor of luck. This still rarely models good luck that results in miraculous benefit, though. I mean, you might skewer the orc instead of yourself, but you aren't going to find a winning lottery ticket.

Is there a better solution? In part it matters how you conceive of luck in your world. Sometimes, luck is conceived of as a limited resource: someone lucky might push their luck too much and either run out or even end up with bad luck for some time. Personally, I like to see luck be less mechanical and more descriptive.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Surprisngly good gaming

Last night was Aberrant. I've been skeptical about it, mostly because I am worn out on White Wolf and there are some system elements to the game that I really dislike.

That's okay. Last night it was about the roleplaying.

Considering that most of the game was a big fight scene, that's pretty cool.

The campaign is set in 1998. People have just started erupting with superhuman abilities. My character is a social worker/journalist type who is essentially a tank: he has superstrength and density increase (which increases his strength and toughness). He also has some minor emotional control powers.

So, we're in Vegas. The previous night (and game), this lunatic Nova (another tank, this one more literal - his body has become metal) busted up a casino and hospitalized a PC. I beat him down. He got up far too quickly (NPCs with regeneration suck) and ran off. We followed him, and I tried to reach out to him, but we had to let him escape after he took a hostage.

Last night, I showed up to game late (work committments). When I got there, the crazy Nova was robbing a bank. The other PCs where either on-scene or en route (I was tossed into the latter category). The police were there, but they didn't really know how to handle a situation in which a perpetrator is insane, bullet-proof, and capable of juggling their squad cars. We showed up to help. The fight scene was long and tense. Throughout the whole thing we were trying to handle the situation with the crazy Nova while keeping the cops calm. It didn't help that we didn't know what to do either - the guy kept getting back up and my PC refused to hit him while he was down. (I should note that my PC had never really tested the limits of his strength, which is potentially Hulk-level.) When he did get up, I slammed him hard enough to leave an impression of my fist in the back of his head, a three foot crater underneath him, and several
shattered windows in the surrounding area. He didn't get up for awhile after that. I was terrified that I'd killed him.

We ironed things out with the police (i.e., blatantly lied to them) and used some connections to house the guy at a decommissioned military base in Canada, where I tried to bond with the crazy guy whose head I'd dented.. One of the better exchanges of the night:

Crazy Nova: So. What about Miranda. Habeas Corpus. My rights and crap.

Me: This is Canada.

Crazy Nova: Canada. Shit.

Maybe you had to me there, but it was beautiful.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Game Bloat

I've become increasingly disenchanted with White Wolf's Storyteller system and its variants over the last year or so, but I find that I am still most annoyed with my original pet peeve with them - I call it skill bloat.

In the Storyteller system, characters have a number of skills that range from 0 to 5 points. At character creation, you get a certain number of points to distribute among your skills. Skills can be increased with experience points. This is pretty clear-cut and basic.

The problem? Every iteration of the Storyteller system has a different skill list. If I am playing a Vampire, the GM might call for a roll that requires a skill that is on the Werewolf character sheet, but isn't on the Vampire sheet.

Worse than this, though, is that source books for a single game line often include additional skills. Every time such a skill is published it dilutes the skill points and experience points of the characters. If a skill is focussed such that it is only of use to certain characters (but crucial to them), it dilutes the points of those characters without having an effect on others. This, to me, is just poorly thought out.

What brought this rant on was the posting of an excerpt from a new D&D book, Complete Scoundrel. This excerpt introduces the notion of skill tricks. Skill tricks are sort of mini-feats that cost skill points and let you do new things with skills.

Skill tricks aren't, strictly speaking, skill bloat. They do, however, worry me in similar ways. In part, I feel that D&D characters are often starved for skill points. Mostly, however, many of these skill tricks are the sorts of things that I would have previously allowed a PC to try (and set a DC for) even without the trick. Now it dilutes their resources to accomplish something that they could already do. It also strikes me that those PCs capable of pulling off these tricks should be the most skilled of characters - but due to the fact that the skill tricks require an investment of skill points, they often won't be.

I'm tempted to talk about feat proliferation here, but I'll leave that for another rant.

I should note, though, that I like the idea of new uses for skills. If I run a D&D game in the future, I may well adapt skill tricks. My initial thought is to allow a skill trick to be used by a PC who meets the prerequisites for it and spends an action point.

Am I repeating myself?

It just occurred to me that my second-to last post here was near-identical to one I'd written back in September. I think I am getting old.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Fun without playing the game

More thoughts inspired by Iron Gauntlets combat...

So, IG combat involves a tactical resource management minigame. Sometimes, as mentioned in my last post, I approve of tactical minigames in combat. Thinking about it, though, I believe they should be somewhat optional. If I'm playing a character who is a competent warrior, my skill in combat shouldn't be wholly dependent on my skill at (or interest in) the minigame. The easy and obvious way to do this is to have the minigame consist in a number of optional choices, but to have the default choices be good ones.

Let's say we implement my suggestion with respect to a d20 variant. You roll to hit. Every X points by which you exceed the DC that you need to hit can be turned into a different sort of bonus/effect: you could (simplifying a lot) do extra damage, wound a particular body part, disarm your opponent, mock your opponent, knock your opponent to the ground, give yourself a defensive bonus, or whatever. If you don't make a choice, it is assumed that you just do extra damage - which is what most people will do most of the time anyway. It is possible that someone really good at tactics will get better results with other options, but the competent fighter who just puts out a ton of damage will be very effective.

Now, it may be that the IG rules did this. I got the impression that in order to be effective in combat, you really needed to spend dice on reaction (initiative/speed). I might be wrong, but it seemed like the tactical choices were more necessary than I'd like. I suspect that a character with a high combat skill who didn't engage in it wouldn't be incredibly effective in combat. This bugs me, particularly because I didn't find IG's combat minigame to be particularly compelling.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Do I know what I want?

I keep thinking about the system in Iron Gauntlets. One of the things that I love in resolution systems is stuff akin to IG's overkill mechanic: if more dice come up successes than you need to succeed at a task, the extra dice represent overkill.

I like it when systems allow this overkill (or its analogue) to be used flexibly. If I attack someone with a sword and hit him really well, I want to be able to decide whether I disarm him or critically hit him or cut off his belt so that his pants fall down. Very few game systems explicitly allow that sort of thing. I think Secret of Zir'an might... and Unknown Armies sort of does in a very limited fashion.

On the other hand, it is the sort of resolution mechanic that can be added to almost any resolution system. Storyteller? Sure. You get extra successes there. d20? Just count every 5 points by which you exceed the DC of a check.

I'm really boggled as to why this isn't standard.

Another thing that I realize in the wake of Iron Gauntlets: I like my combat to be tactical, but I want the tactical nature of game combat to bear certain similarities to the tactical nature of real combat. Combat in IG seemed to have a lot of tactical choices, but they were choices about round-by-round resource management. In general, I prefer tactical choices about the combat itself - like "slowly wear down your opponent" or "cut your opponent off from his allies and surround him." Maybe that's strategic rather than tactical. I dunno.

Goblin Eugenics

Last night I was helping Angela brainstorm about cultural variations for her D&D campaign world. She largely wants to get away from cliches. Here are some highlights:

Centaurs: Her criteria: They should be vegetarians, somewhat nomadic, and not particularly nice. My input: Base them loosely on the Mongols. They mostly graze on grasses, but need a certain percentage of more nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables. They don't farm, however, so they raid villages and steal their vegetables. Also, they should hunt some form of mobile plant-creature.

Goblins: Her criteria: She was undecided between isolationist/xenophobic goblins with a high technology level and viking goblins. She was also unsure of how to make hobgoblins interesting. My input: The goblins have an isolated, highly technologically advanced civilization, but almost no one knows it. This civilization is surrounded by a buffer zone of barbaric goblin tribes living in squalor. The advanced goblins regularly come and take the most intelligent of the barbarian goblin children into the center and leave the tribes with their rejects. At one point, the goblins had kept those on the outskirts far more organized and regimented fashion. In addition to a breeding pool, they were a standing army, always at the ready. While this made for a more efficient eugenics program (and allowed them to control for improved physical characteristics as well), it also allowed the 'rejects' to organize themselves. There was a bloody rebellion that eventually resulted in the hobgoblins leaving the goblin empire.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Birds =$$$

Last night, after the Run Club, we had the second session of Angela's D&D campaign, in which I play Bart Fliegenbart, dwarven chef. In this game we:
  • Accosted a man selling barnacles (who was claiming they were goose eggs)
  • Went fishing with a rather pleasant ogre
  • Performed dentistry on an ox
  • Sold a cygnus horibilis egg to a strange noble with a disturbing egg collection
  • Bathed the half-elf
  • Snuck into a city where we'd been reportedly executed
  • Sold some dire cygnets to kobold gondoliers
Fun times were had.

I didn't really get to cook anything this game except for some cabbage soup, but I did get a tour of the noble's kitchen and chatted with his chef for awhile. I also earned enough money to buy some really nice kitchen knives.

Run Club, Episode I

Yesterday was the first installation of the C-U Run Club. It had mixed results. Socially, it was a success. Game-wise, not so much. Dave ran Iron Gauntlets, a fantasy rpg that he'd never run, but was planning on running at Winter War, an upcoming local con.

After yesterday, he changed his mind.

Strictly speaking, I don't think that Iron Gauntlets is a bad game. I do think that it is a bit more complicated than it was presented as. The big problem, though, was that the rulebook was poorly laid out (and/or edited). Crucial information on a simple combat with a monster (the monster's armor rating) couldn't be found after a good five minutes of searching. Unless Dave was looking right past it, this seems inexcusable.

That said, the system had some niftyness to it. The game claims to be classless, but there are some sort of character roles that seem to function like quasi-classes. We didn't go through character creation, so I don't know how they work.

Magic is freeform, and reminds me a bit of Ars Magica/Mage and a bit of Talislanta. This isn't a bad thing. The character I played (Harald the Frog - a name that rocks) was an adept, which is a lot like a Physical Adept in Shadowrun (and a bit like a D&D Monk).

The basic game mechanic seems solid and flexible. Like many games, you have attributes (in this case Fitness, Awareness, Creativity, and Reason, I think) and skills. Magical abilities are treated as skills. The two are uncoupled like in White Wolf games: you usually apply Fitness to an Athletics roll, but there are situations in which you might apply Awareness or something else. You roll a number of d10s equal to your attribute and attempt to roll under your skill rating. If you get more successes than you need, you gain overkill, which provides variable benefits depending upon what you are doing.

I like the basic idea here. Straight adds between attribute and ability (as in White Wolf Games) have always bugged me, and static modifiers to skills based on attributes (as in d20) seems like an inflexible oversimplification. The mechanic is also flexible. In combat, you get an armor soak roll in which the damage dealt to you is treated as attribute dice and your armor is treated like a skill. Your successes indicate how much of the damage you ignore.

Combat involves a lot of resource management. Fortunately, it wasn't the sort of rapidly-depleting-resource-conservation stuff that I hate. It seems more tactical, and - with practice and tinkering - could be cool. I don't know. I'd also have liked to see a 'sit-tight' option that wasn't wholly suboptimal for those who don't want to mess with the tactical resource management stuff. (Maybe there was one, I don't know.)

I could see myself tweaking these mechanics and playing with them as an intellectual exercise, which is cool. They didn't work for us in the context of Iron Gauntlets yesterday, however. All in all, though, I had a good time, met some cool people, and was exposed to some nifty game mechanics. Not a bad day.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Putting things down on paper... or in words...

Some time ago, I wrote about the possible use of inconstant geography in gaming. I don't want to rehash that here, but it has been rumbling around in my head since then, and I recently added a new twist that I think solves some of the issues in the right sort of setting. Imagine a world where the path between two locations is inconstant due primarily to story concerns. This is likely a world in which narrative concerns are part of the fabric of reality (such as some depictions of Fairy, some virtual worlds, some worlds that gain their shape from the imagination, etc.).

What if, in such a world, following a map (that was created through a proper process) would always work? Fixing the path down on paper (or whatever) fixes the path itself.

I thought this was sort of cool. Given the right setting, you could have the best of both inconstant and fixed geography.

A related thought:

It is a staple of fantasy that fairies always tell the truth, but often mislead.

The common manner of dealing with this is to assume that, for some reason, fairies are bound not to lie.

What if, instead, the world bent in order to make the words of fairies be true?

Not a Resolution

I have noticed that the percentage of this blog's content that is D&D/D20-based seems to be much higher than it was initially. I don't think I'm going to cut back on that stuff, but I should probably try to write about other things as well.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Open Game License

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