Wednesday, November 28, 2007

What do you want to play?

I've been getting the GMing itch lately.

Unfortunately, I won't be able to run a game until February at the earliest.

One of my first reactions to the idea of running a game was to think about asking people I play with the following questions:

If you could have me run any RPG campaign for you...
  • What genre would it be? (examples: fantasy, cyberpunk, pulp, kitchen sink, etc.)
  • What tone would it have? (examples: horror, heroic, shades-of-gray, funny, etc.)
  • Is there any setting element that it would have that isn't included in the above? (examples: steampunk, city-based, spaceship-based, interdimensional travel, etc.)
  • What sort of character would you play? (examples: too many to list)
  • What sorts of plots would you like? (examples: conspiracies, politics, dungeon raids, etc.)
Then it occurred to me that no one has ever really asked me all these questions in preparation for a campaign. This made me sad.

Feel free to answer the questions in the comments. I'm curious.

Cool Exalted Link

J.T. sent me a link to this German site for Exalted: It contains character sheets, combat cheat-sheets, the elusive and confusing Exalted calendar, and a pdf book of rebalanced weapons among other things.

Confession Time

I'm not a real roleplayer.

I know people who, while playing in an RPG, will take on a role so thoroughly that their thoughts become, largely, those of their PC. In a LARP, they might sit in the corner giggling madly the entire game. In a tabletop game, only a fraction of their roleplaying occurs at the table. Much of it never leaves their head.

In general, I'm thankful that I am not one of these people. Oftentimes, they aren't great for the game. They usually care more about character integrity than playability and fun... and I sometimes consider them selfish roleplayers. They don't always share plot or make the in-game concessions to group play that are needed for a well-functioning game.

Of course, I'm not a perfect roleplayer by any means. I tend to bring maybe a bit too much of myself to the characters I play. One of the things that I really enjoy about rpgs is the ability to exercise creative problem solving. This means that my PCs should be reasonably good at it and inclined toward it, which limits the sorts of PCs I choose to play.

Similarly, I don't usually enjoy games where I play someone who lacks what I consider to be basic reasoning abilities. Some people like playing with a 'character filter' - an artificial construct that translates what the player hears into what the character hears. This might account for PC prejudices or mental illness. It was very popular among players of Malkavians back when I regularly LARPed. I can rarely enjoy playing a character who requires one of these - I usually run into to much personal cognitive dissonance when I am in a position where my PC would make a bad choice that I know is a bad choice and that I think my PC should know is a bad choice.

There are, of course, exceptions to this. Sometimes I enjoy playing someone paranoid... or a bit fanatic... but those are the exceptions rather than the rule.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Morally interesting plot ideas

...and Depeche Mode (because I'm listening to my 1980s station on Pandora).

Get the Balance Right
Premise: The PCs set out against a foe only to find out that their foe is holding another potential foe at bay.
The Problem: If the PCs defeat their enemy, they run the risk of setting loose another danger.
Explanation: Two dangers are locked in a struggle of some sort - each of them is expending their resources on this struggle... and each is being weakened by it. Moreover, their attention is largely focused upon each other. If the PCs intervene, they will likely upset the balance of power between the two. One will emerge triumphant and - without the other as a distraction- will turn its attention to the rest of the world. Will the PCs upset the balance of power or will they restrain themselves and act to maintain this balance even if it means helping their enemy?
Example: I was playing in a Greyhawk campaign once, and we needed to rescue some prisoners from the Scarlet Brotherhood, a nation of devil-worshippers. It turned out that we had the opportunity to strike a major blow against them. Of course, the Scarlet Brotherhood served as a buffer argainst the domain of Iuz, a demon-godling. Did we weaken the Scarlet Brotherhood enough for Iuz to destroy it and begin focusing upon others?

People Are People
Premise: The PCs are set against a foe who ends up not being their foe...
The Problem: The PCs have an ally who has an enemy, but that enemy isn't evil except from their ally's point of view.
Explanation: The PCs are told about an enemy from an ally (or, perhaps, someone they are courting as an ally). Their ally doesn't lie about its enemy and presents it as evil. When the PCs meet the enemy, it may appear threatening if they don't look too closely - but, really, it is far from evil (though definitely dangerous to their ally).
Example: In an Exalted game I ran, the PCs sought help from a powerful forest spirit. This spirit was living in terror due to the fact that horrible monsters were slowly killing it. The PCs tracked these monsters down and found giant beaver-men (who were clearing the forest).

Master and Servant
Premise: An evil ruler's subjects do not want him to be overthrown.
The Problem: If the PCs overthrow the evil ruler, his subjects will be unhappy - and potentially far worse off than they were.
Explanation: This one could go a number of different directions. Perhaps the ruler is good to his own subjects, but conquers, tortures, and enslaves others. Perhaps the ruler is only tolerable because he maintains a strong army that protects his subjects from neighboring dangers. Perhaps the ruler has enslaved the minds of his people - whether through brainwashing/propaganda or actual mind control.
Example: Ummm... I can't come up with a good example of this one from my own gaming history off of the top of my head, but I think the problem is clear enough.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Spell Synergies

I had a neat (and probably unworkable) idea yesterday about the d20 spell system that would likely require too much work for me to actually write up fully, but I thought I'd share it.

Here's the idea. You cast a primary spell and (assuming you know a spell that has synergy with it) you can cast the secondary spell at the same time (expending both spell slots). The trick is that the secondary spell modifies the first one in some way.

When you gain a level (or every third level, or whatever) you can take a single spell synergy. Some spells can synergize with other specific spells. Here are a few examples:
  • A large number of buff-type spells (Mage Armor, Bull's Strength, Haste, etc) can synergize with any of the Summon Monster spells. When you cast a Summon Monster spell that is synergized with one of these spells, you cast both spells and the buff spell is cast upon the creatures you summon. If the buff spell has a range of touch, then the creatures summoned must be within your reach for the buff to be cast upon them.
  • Most Detect X spells can synergize with Prying Eyes or Scrying spells. I think it is obvious how that would work.
  • Hold Person might have synergy with, say, Shocking Grasp. You cast both at the same time, and if the Shocking Grasp does damage, the target is subject to the Hold Person effect as well.
It is the whole going-through-the-entire-spell-list thing that would be too much work for me.

Why I think this is cool: it would be an easy way to allow arcane casters to have some fairly unique effects. I'd allow generalist wizards to have complete freedom in picking their synergies. Specialist wizards could only use spell synergies in which at least one of the spells was from their specialty school.

Personally, I'd probably allow sorcerers as much freedom as wizards (since I think sorcerers to be a bit underpowered), but I would worry that spontaneous casting and these synergies might be a bit too nice. Perhaps I would just give them less of them - or require extra casting time.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Update, of sorts

Games I am playing in:

I'm still playing in Nick's Mage: The Ascension game (I'm playing a Hermetic slacker), Angela's D&D game (Dwarven chef), and Jenn's Exalted game (clueless kung-fu kid). Each of these are on a more-or-less every-other-week basis.

Jeff's Star Wars game is on hiatus or something, as he is going through a bit of (totally understandable) GM burnout. I'd pick up the slack if I had the time. I wish I did. Our Monday game is shifting from Aberrant to a Morrow Project-inspired post-apocalyptic game using the new World of Darkness base rules.

I'm curious about the nWoD rules. I'm sort of burnt out on the Storyteller system, but this variant might be different enough for me to deal with it.

I'll let y'all know.

In gaming project news:

My magic-cyberpunk-project is gestating. I still need a name for it.

I've been working on Gourm more. I was stymied a bit by the 4e announcement. My solution: focus less on the stats and more on the setting. Get the text done. When I'm there, I can worry about statting everything for 3.5 or 4e or both.

Next Post: Real Content. I promise.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Productive day off

So, today is Veteran's Day, and my office is closed. It seems somewhat random that my office is closed today, but I am not going to complain. Now, I am sitting in a coffee shop. Angela and I had lunch and talked some Gourm stuff. We came up with a neat/weird idea (involving poetry and technical manuals) that will give us an excuse to fill some sections of the city with weird tunnels.

I'll probably do a bit of work-related work later, but right now I'm going back to Gourm...

Thursday, November 08, 2007


I probably should have just stayed home sick today, but I came into work this afternoon to prep for a couple meetings tomorrow.

The request for proposals for a big mega-grant that I'm working on was just published yesterday. The applications are due February 1, which means I will be crazy-busy until then. This probably won't detract from my blogging, but it does mean that I miss out on some good gaming possibilities. Jeff is needing a break from GMing. Under other circumstances, I would totally just step up to the plate and run something (hell - they could probably even talk me into running Exalted), but the timing on this is all kinds of bad for me.

Also, I need a good name for my magic-punk project. I don't want to add "-punk" to something. That's overdone. I've been using "The Street" - but that's not terribly descriptive. Any suggestions?

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Exalted: when virtues aren't

White Wolf games have a habit of using dubious morality mechanics. As far as I can tell, this began with Vampire - as a method of tracking the loss of humanity and the dominance of a vampire's inner beast.

In Exalted, characters have virtue scores (nearly the same ones as in Vampire): Courage, Conviction, Temperance, and Compassion. Each of these are rated from one to five. Nominally, higher virtue scores are better. In reality, though, I'd never call anyone with a 5 in even a single virtue to be a virtuous individual.


A few reasons.

First, in Exalted, virtues often conflict. There has been a lot written in moral theory about the possibility of conflicting virtues. My take on it is that if virtues conflict, then looking at virtues as morally important is stupid. Virtues are human constructions - they are handles that we put onto sets of character traits. When we say Courage is a virtue, that's really shorthand for "there's a virtue related to facing threats - somewhere between cowardice and foolhardiness - we'll call it courage for short." I'd take that a step further and say "there's a virtue related to facing threats in such a way as to not conflict with other virtues - somewhere between cowardice and foolhardiness - we'll call it courage for short." Anyway. This is fairly esoteric virtue theory that no one is likely to care about except for me.

Second, in Exalted, virtues often compel action. Exalted virtues don't model morality - they model deeply flawed heroes of stories. If an Exalted character has a high virtue score, she must roll (or spend willpower) to act against that virtue. You have a Compassion of 5? I hope you don't live in a city with too many beggars, or you'll be poor very quickly.

By acting against high virtues (and doing a couple other things), Exalted characters gain points of Limit. When they get 10 points of Limit, they have a Limit Break. This results in them acting according to a flaw that is listed on their character sheet. The flaw is related to a virtue. A high-temperance character might go on a debauching binge or, alternately, give away all material goods and fast for a month.

The idea here is to model things like the berserk rage of Heracles or the sulking of Achilles. In-setting, limit breaks are a result of a curse placed upon the Exalted by the Malfeans for rising up against them (and winning).

The problem with limit breaks is that they're no fun.

Most of them either set the PCs against each other in a remarkably predictable manner or they essentially take a character out of play (often for an extended period of time).

Also, it is certainly possible for your limit to hit 10 at a relatively non-dramatic point in the story.

The other day, Jenn and I were discussing the lameness of limit breaks. One possibility of fixing them that we came up with was to get rid of limit breaks, but say that every time your limit hits 10, it becomes more difficult to act against your virtues.

I'd take this one step further, adding the limit breaks back in as limit stunts: if you manage to incorporate extreme virtue-related behavior into a dramatic scene to the general detriment of your character, you can then reduce that difficulty to act against your virtues.

This brings back the same modeling of heroic flaws, but it puts it into the hands of the player. Rather than having his character's behavior be determined based on die rolls and the actions of others, the player can decide how it would be the most fun to play his character. This makes sense to me.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Ticking goblins

What differentiates goblins from other creepy little monsters?

I think there are a number of possible answers for this. I'm just going to focus on what makes goblins tick for me.

To me, what makes goblins special is their adaptability. I see goblins as highly mutable. Hobgoblins and bugbears are, in my world, essentially mutant strains of goblins.

The adaptability of goblins is important to my Gourm project. It includes some of the nastiest goblins around - goblins who revel in pointless malevolence. It also includes what are, possibly, the most civilized goblins written about. The civilization they have certainly isn't a human civilization, but it is a fairly sophisticated and orderly community. The goblins who live there aren't intrinsically evil (in D&D alignment terms, it would be more along the lines of a lawful neutral city).

Yet the nasty goblins live only a matter of miles from the city goblins. What's the difference?

My answer? Upbringing and diet. Goblins are adaptable - this means, among other things, that they can be shaped into social roles. Moreover, I think that making goblin temperament be strongly influenced by their diet makes a bit of sense. Goblins can subsist on just about anything - but it has an effect upon them. Those who live off of filth are pathetic creatures. Those who live off of the meat of humanoids are vicious and cunning killers. The Goblins who live in the City of Gourm generally eat little to no red meat - their staples are beans, fish, and eggs - and they are far gentler as a result.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Cyberpunk PCs, Part II

Now I am going to look at character types for some Cyberpunk RPGS that I have. I pulled Cyberpunk 2020, Ex Machina, and Shadowrun (4e) off my shelf. Here's what I found.

Cyberpunk 2020
This had the closest thing to character classes out of the bunch. There are more than I remember, though:

  • Rockerboy
  • Solo
  • Netrunner
  • Techie
  • MedTech
  • Media
  • Cop
  • Corporate
  • Fixer
  • Nomad
Some of these are interesting. MedTech is in there largely, I think, because of the cleric-syndrome. (Although you could run a campaign in which the PCs are ab emergency response team - and that could actually be pretty cool.) Nomad seems to fit more of the post-apocalyptic world than the cyberpunk one, but the two aren't mutually exclusive.

Ex Machina
Based on Tri-Stat, Ex Machina doesn't have character classes, but it does have adaptable occupational templates:
  • Hacker
  • Idol (celebrity-type)
  • Investigator
  • Medic
  • Street Punk
  • Street Samurai
  • Suit
  • Tech
  • Teleoperator
Shadowrun doesn't have anything like classes, really... so I am just going to list their template/sample characters. Some of these are magical-types. I'll mark those with a (m).
  • Bounty Hunter
  • Combat Mage (m)
  • Cover Ops Specialist
  • Drone Rigger
  • Enforcer
  • Face
  • Gunslinger Adept (m)
  • Hacker
  • Occult Investigator (m)
  • Radical Eco Shaman (m)
  • Smuggler
  • Sprawl Ganger
  • Street Samurai
  • Technomancer (m, sort of)
  • Weapons Specialist
I'm not sure what results to draw from this stuff yet. One thing that sticks out in many of these is the emphasis on where a PC comes from (usually the streets or the world of privilege) as a defining characteristic.

Cyberpunk PCs

What sort of PCs should be playable in a cyberpunk game? I plan on doing a survey of the cyberpunk-type RPGs that I have around, but I want to ask the question before I really look into what other games have done.

One place to find an answer is to look at Cyberpunk literature and stories. You should be able to play characters like:

Case (Neuromancer) - Hacker
Molly Millions (Neuromancer/Johnnny Mnemonic) - Cyborg streetfighter
Johnnny Mnemonic (Johnnny Mnemonic) - Information courier
Edison Carter (Max Headroom) - Reporter
Max Headroom (duh) - Artificial Intelligence
Rick Rickenharp (Eclipse) - Rock star
Rick Deckard (Blade Runner) - Bounty hunter (more or less)
Marîd Audran (When Gravity Fails) - ummm... drug-addicted freelance fixer/agent
Alex Murphy (RoboCop) - Cyborg cop
Cowboy (Hardwired) - Cyborg vehicle specialist

That is a decent starting list. For now, I'm not going to get into later stuff like Snow Crash or the Matrix.

Some initial observations:

A number of these characters have some serious regrets about their pasts. Others don't have full memories of their pasts. For many of them, the world that they come from largely defines them.

Most of these characters rely on some form of artificial aid to be effective. Some are outright cyborgs. Others rely on drugs. Some are notably "pure" in various ways - but are largely defined by how they aren't artificial. Rickenharp, for instance, sets himself up in opposition to the world of wired music. Marîd Audran has a near-pathological fear of becoming a cyborg (and ends up as a drug addict as a result). Edison Carter has a purely artificial doppleganger that he can be be constantly held in contrast with... Deckard hunts down artificial humans who might be more human than he is.

How might this inform an RPG?

Thursday, November 01, 2007

October is over

...and I have to say that neither Dungeon nor Dragon impressed me.

Ampersand, however...