Monday, October 31, 2011

November is Solo Tabletop Gaming Appreciation Month

November marks Solo Tabletop Gaming Appreciation Month! (Yeesh, between this and NaGaDeMon, November is going to be a busy gaming month!)

So go out and play some board game or wargame solo. Snap some pictures, and submit it to the Solo Nexus site. There's really nothing wrong with playing with yourself. (Man, I am such a child sometimes.)

For myself, I'll be digging out some old SPI hex-and-counter goodness.

Top Ten Favorite Horror Films

In honor of this auspicious day, here is my personal list of top ten favorite horror films:

10. Halloween (1978 version). Most of the film is just building... building... building... to that last half hour or so. You couldn't do that today and make it work. And the music is just unforgettable.
9. The Howling. This was just about the perfect werewolf movie for me, especially with the notion of how the werewolves would attempt to deal with modern society.
8. The Omen (1976 version). Creepy kid and a terrific Gregory Peck. I'm one of the few people I know who also likes Damien: Omen II and The Final Conflict.
7. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978 version). This movie absolutely creeped me out when I first saw it.
6. The Mummy (1999 version). Indiana Jones meets Christopher Lee. Great fun and some gross effects.
5. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984 version). What made this movie for me was the fact that the dream sequences were so much like real dreams. When she's running up the stairs and her feet are sinking into them? Terrific visual.
4. The Haunting (1963 version). What I love about it is that even at the end you don't know what you just saw. Was it really ghosts? Was it Nell experiencing a subconscious telekinetic event? Or was it all an hallucination? It really could be any of those; I love the ambiguity.
3. Alien. I maintain that this is just as much a horror film as it is a science fiction film. The mood and tension are extremely well done, and there are plenty of "gotcha" moments to make you jump.
2. Horror of Dracula. I love all of the Hammer horror films, and chose this as a representative. It's all about atmosphere with them, and they do it right. Even the worst of the films plot-wise make up for a lot of it with their great atmosphere.

And my all-time favorite horror film...

1. The Bride of Frankenstein. Of all the old Universal monster films, this one is far and away the best. It's a terrific sequel; it expands the original material and takes it to new places. Plus the touches of humor and the wonderful characters just make this a joy to watch.

Please feel free to share some of your own favorites in the comments!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Now Available: The Witch

Just in time for Halloween, I am pleased to announce the release of Darker Paths 2: The Witch. Like the Necromancer class that came out earlier this month, the Witch contains a plethora of new and unique spells for a very different sort of witch.

This witch is not a sexy nature-worshipper. Nor is she a misunderstood and unjustly persecuted healer and herbalist. This is the witch of the Brothers Grimm, the Malleus Maleficarum, and Medieval folklore. It features approximately fifty new spells such as Hand of Glory, Blight Field, Candle Magic, and Masse Noire, plus full descriptions of spells that are shared with other classes, so players will have everything they need at their fingertips. Cover art and an interior character illustration is by veteran OSR artist Jason Sholtis.

The witch can be used as either an optional player-character class or an NPC class in any campaign that uses rules compatible with the basic or advanced versions of the world's most popular role-playing game.

The 25 page pdf (plus covers, license, etc.) costs $5, but you can get both the Necromancer and the Witch together for only $8. That's a 20% savings off the individual price. (Customers who ordered the Necromancer when it first came out will be contacted and told how they can take advantage of this offer-- I don't believe in punishing folks for buying my stuff early.)

Take your campaign down a darker path with the Witch!

Now available at the BRW Games online store.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Trap of Prophecy

Frank Herbert's Dune books are one of my favorite science fiction series of all time. Every two or three years, I try to re-read the entire thing (ditto Lord of the Rings, I should add). I realize it's not to everyone's taste, but it most certainly is to mine. I am also a huge fan of Avalon Hill's game (perversely, it was a love of the game that led me to read the books in the first place), but have never had the chance to read the role-playing game. I understand the latter goes for astronomical prices on eBay. The less said about the attempts of his son to continue and expand the series, the better.

One of the many themes of the series is the notion that Prescience (the ability to accurately see the future, granted by a combination of both the Spice and the genetic engineering of the Bene Gesserit over countless generations; a variation of the same is used by the Guild Navigators to predict safe flight paths for their enormous Highliners as they travel through space) "locks in" the future. Without a Prescient observer, the future is open and in flux, and thus subject to human Free Will.

However, once Prescience is used to observe the future, much like Schrödinger's cat, its unknown state becomes known and the future becomes locked into place. This becomes a central theme of Children of Dune and God Emperor of Dune, where Leto's "Golden Path" is seen as a path of liberation from the Prescient trap that his father, Muad'dib, has inadvertently laid by seeing too much of the future. Leto is attempting to free humanity of the future that has been locked into place, and does so ultimately at the cost of his own life*.

In RPG terms, the same effect can be said to take hold, when it comes to divination. Spells that predict future events place the game master in something of a bind, but it should always be remembered that it is a bind of the spell caster's own making. In Adventures Dark and Deep, this is brought out explicitly in spells like "Luck", which states "This spell allows the caster to know when someone is going to have a “lucky streak." The spell is not, in and of itself, creating the streak of good luck, but rather is simply observing it, and having done so, the lucky streak is becoming ingrained into the fabric of reality, granting the creature observed certain bonuses.

In real terms, however, those aren't bonuses. They're simply nudges of probability in game terms to make random outcomes align more closely to the predicted "lucky streak". And once that predicted lucky streak has been predicted, the laws of the universe (i.e., the behind-the-scenes rules of the game) are altered to accommodate the prediction.

This same principle can be used for any sort of future-prediction, and neatly answers the question of free will. There's free will, all right, but once the outcome of the choices are observed (i.e., divined), those choices have become, in effect, already made.
* No, you don't get spoiler warnings for a book that was published in 1981. Hey! Cujo has rabies! Surprise!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Lots of Merchant of Venus News

If you're a fan of the Avalon Hill board game Merchant of Venus, you have a surfeit of good news, it seems. Perhaps not so good for the companies involved, though...

Yesterday saw two announcements regarding this classic game. First, an announcement from up-and-coming game company Stronghold Games:
Stronghold Games, in conjunction with the Designer and license holder, A. Richard Hamblen, announced yesterday that we will reprint “Richard Hamblen’s Merchant of Venus".

We look forward to bringing you this great game during 2012 !
This was also the feature of a live webcast from the Essen Spiel 2011 game fair.

Good news, eh? Well, yesterday also saw an announcement from Fantasy Flight Games:
More than a year ago, Fantasy Flight Games signed an exclusive licensing contract with Wizards of the Coast, LLC, a subsidiary of Hasbro, Inc., to return this classic 1980’s board game of interstellar trade and exploration to print.

Since that time we’ve been working hard to produce what will be a fantastic edition of Merchant of Venus, one that remains true to its magnificently campy core, while expanding the game in surprising ways that will cause even the most hardcore fan to celebrate.
Once they heard about FFG's announcement, however, Stronghold Games followed up with the following:
It has come to our attention that Fantasy Flight Games has laid claim to the license for the reprint of Merchant of Venus.

First and foremost, Stronghold Games bears no ill will towards Fantasy Flight Games over what can only be deemed as an unfortunate situation. In fact, we remain fans of Fantasy Flight's work within the game industry.

However, over 18 months ago, we began negotiations with Mr Hamblen for the license to Merchant of Venus, finally signing an agreement recently. After much research, Stronghold Games feels very strongly that the license is solely Mr. Hamblen's to offer, and he has selected Stronghold Games for the reprint.

In our opinion, the party that has sold the license to Fantasy Flight Games does not own the rights to this license. Mr Hamblen has also expressed to us his firm belief that the license is his alone to offer.

At this time, we are intent upon defending our and Mr Hamblen's claim to this license, noting once again that we view Fantasy Flight in the highest regard and regret that they have been put into this position.
I've got to say, this looks incredibly sticky. Apparently we've got two parties claiming they have the rights to the original game, each of whom has sold those rights to different licensees, at exactly the same time. Yeesh. Obviously without seeing the original contract between the designer and Avalon Hill (the original publisher), it's impossible to tell what's what, and this looks destined to end up in court at some point. FFG (and WotC) has deep pockets.

Although wouldn't it be nice if both companies could just agree to each market their own version of the game and let the chips fall where they may? Yeah, that'll never happen, and honestly if it was my game or I had shelled out a lot of money for a license, I wouldn't be inclined to do so either.

(Full disclosure: I've been friends with Stephen Buonocore, one of the managing directors of Stronghold Games, for many years.)

Nope, Still no Rapture

Well, here it is October 22nd, and Harold Camping is once again just another kook who thinks that some collection of stories invented by bronze-age desert tribesmen is somehow the One and Only Key to the Universe. Schmuck.

Don't have a sense of humor? Don't watch this:

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Best Villains Aren't Evil

At least, not in their own minds.

No matter the genre, the best villains are the ones who have realistic motivations for what they do. We may not, from our external vantage point, agree with those motivations or the goals they engender, but we can at least understand them.

Some villains are simply villains because they like doing evil things. Psychotics are rarely memorable because they are usually so one-dimensional. Of course, there are exceptions (like the Joker or Hannibal Lector), but they're compelling because of their well-crafted personalities, not their evil-for-its-own-sake motives.

Many villains are simply greedy or power-hungry. They desire wealth or dominance for its own sake. Such villains could be interesting characters, but their primary motivation is too simplistic to become really top-notch villains. Emperor Palpatine was a much more interesting character in Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi because we still weren't sure about his ultimate motives. Mystery adds to interest. The Star Wars prequels really cut him off at the knees as a character (on top of all their other flaws), because he was reduced to simply wanting to be in power for the sake of being in power, no matter how interesting and convoluted  the plot was that brought him there. Why did he want to become Emperor? Who knows? He just wanted to. A decent motivation would have given him (and, indeed, all of the prequels) a lot more "oomph".

The best villains, I think, are the ones who call themselves heroes. Think of the absolute best villains from literature, movies, and comics. Michael Corleone doesn't really like having to do the horrible things he does; in fact much of his interest as a character is derived from his inner struggle against the things that his family honor and tradition forces him to do. Magneto considers himself a hero, and so do many others, because he's fighting against oppression of his fellow mutants (real or imagined). He's willing to become exactly that thing which he fears and hates most, and a lot of his own interest as a character derives from his inability to see that truth. He's a hero in his own mind for advocating mutant supremacy, and considers others villains for advocating non-mutant supremacy.

Darth Vader fits into that last category. Regardless of what most of us think of the Star Wars prequel films, it did establish him as a hero-in-his-own-mind; he went over to the Dark Side in order to save his wife and unborn child. He wanted to end the Clone Wars and bring back peace to the galaxy. In his own mind, those were noble motives that could make up for the horrible actions that were needed to bring them about.

Adolf Hitler (at the risk of invoking Godwin's Law) considered himself a hero as well, as did millions of Germans in the 1920's and 1930's. The salvation of Germany was enough of a motive that any action in furtherance of that goal could be forgiven. In an alternate universe where the Axis won World War II, its leaders would sleep soundly not because they were chortling about all the misery they had caused, but rather because they knew in their hearts that what they did was necessary in the furtherance of the greater good. At least as they perceived that good.

In RPGs this holds true as well. The goblin king who raids the village just to enjoy the wails of the women and the burning of the huts is bleh. The goblin king who raids the village to steal the cattle and collect any silver that might be squirreled away is at least understandable. The goblin king who exhorts his followers to wipe out the humans before they can do the same to the goblins, as a pre-emptive strike against what is considered an implacable foe that has spawned generations of bad blood, becomes almost sympathetic.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Batman: TAS and RPG Campaign Design

Now that The Hub has started showing reruns of the absolutely awesome 1990's Batman: The Animated Series, I'm able to watch those first season episodes. Not only am I struck by just how good a show it is unto itself, but it has a number of lessons for those interested in designing cities for role-playing games as well.

One of the things that really shows is that Gotham City is filled with interesting secondary characters; it's not all the Joker and Two-Face. There are recurring crime bosses like Roland Dagget (voiced by Ed Asner) and Rupert Thorne (voiced by the late John Vernon). They don't have any pathos-infused reason for turning to a life of crime or any signature style or even powers; they're just gangsters who run criminal organizations. Bear in mind that now-standard Batman character Harley Quinn started off as a one-off bit player on Batman: TAS.

There are also recurring good-guys; Detective Bullock (left-- voiced by Robert Costanzo), Officer Montoya (voiced by both Ingrid Oliu and Liane Schirmer), television reporter Summer Gleeson (voiced by Mari Devon), Dr. Leslie Thompson (voiced by Diana Muldaur) and of course Police Commissioner Jim Gordon (voiced by Bob Hastings). Each of these is very well-defined, and you are given brief snippets of their lives throughout the series. They remain in the background most of the time, but they are more than just cardboard cutouts.

Too, what strikes me more and more as I'm watching these episodes is that Batman himself is so often shown in cameo chasing down some penny-ante hoodlum; a purse-snatcher, bank robber, or even coming to the aid of some kids playing "chicken" on the top of a train. You really get the feeling that Batman's life isn't all fighting supervillains and saving the world. There are a lot of "just helping ordinary people" stories in there, too; "P.O.V." shows the same scene from different angles and features the aforementioned Bullock and Montoya, "I Am The Night" is a very introspective piece that introduces yet another memorable, if minor, character; The Jazzman; and in "The Forgotten" we see an amnesiac Bruce Wayne helping some kidnapped drifters and homeless men.

The lessons we can learn from this show, in regards to RPGs, is that even a handful of well-developed secondary or tertiary characters can do amazing things towards making the setting come alive. If the innkeeper doesn't just take the PC's money for ale and a room, but rather starts talking about how the local knights have done in the last four jousts, complete with blow-by-blow accounts of the action, he starts to come alive.

Even if there's only that one "hook", the players will be much more likely to remember him and he becomes more of a fixture rather than just wallpaper. Maybe the quirks and interests of the NPCs will get integrated into the story itself (and so much the better if it happens). If there's to be a joust, and the PCs are thinking of entering, they may just remember that the innkeeper is a keen fan of such things, and go to him for advice on how to defeat the Mauve Knight of Ritterheim.

Also, it points out the value of one-night stand alone adventures. Something that reels in the PCs and diverts them for an evening, but introduces them to a new selection of memorable NPCs and locales (there don't have to be that many as long as they're memorable), will help the setting grow in verisimilitude, which can only help the game as a whole grow in enjoyment for all.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Witch

Double, double, toil and trouble,
fire burn and cauldron bubble;

The widow’s farm is soaked by rain,
I give her neighbor’s cows murrain;

A Hand of Glory I can make,
if I’ve a dead man’s fat to take;

Distance will avail you naught,
a poppet will convey ill thought;

Devil, demon, daemon, hag,
with all I will my black tongue wag;

By candles’ magic I can make
a weak man strong, or strength can take;

Do not risk my ire or wrath,
for I walk down a darker path;

By the pricking of my thumbs,
something evil this way comes.

Hot on the heels of the Necromancer character class, and in keeping with the festive holiday season, I am pleased to announce the release of the next installment of the Darker Paths series of RPG supplements. Darker Paths 2: The Witch, will present a unique take on one of the oldest story-telling archetypes known; the witch. The witch will feature:
  • 24 pages (plus covers, license info, etc.)
  • Approximately 50 new spells created just for the Witch
  • Suitable for use with any game system that itself is compatible with the basic or advanced versions of the world's most popular RPG
The witch, a sub-class of cleric, specializes in causing misery and pain. A consorter with (and in some cases a consort of) devils, daemons, and demons, the witch uses his magic powers to strike back at the society which shuns him. The witch's spells are a variety of ills with which to plague both communities and individuals, all inspired by medieval and renaissance imagery and folklore.

Darker Paths 2: The Witch will be available for $5 in pdf format, and is scheduled to be released just in time for Halloween. Take your campaign down a darker path with the witch!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Pathfinder RPG Beginner Box - Inside the Box Video

I don't myself play Pathfinder, but I do think Paizo does a lot of things really well. I was very impressed by their Game Mastery Guide, and am even more impressed by their upcoming Pathfinder RPG Beginner Box. They seem to have hit all the nails when it comes to what a brand-new player would need with this product. Here's Headless Erik Mona going through the box, explaining what's what.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

When Designing a City... don't need to detail all of the inns, or blacksmiths, or streets in the whole city.

You just have to detail the inns, and blacksmiths, and streets that the PCs will be visiting on a regular basis.

The trick is to make the ones you do detail so interesting and/or useful that the PCs won't feel the need to go anywhere else.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Friday Is Necromancer Day!

So go buy yourself the pdf of Darker Paths 1: The Necromancer!
  • A brand new optional character class for your campaign: a master of death and the undead
  • 75 new spells
  • Suitable for use with any game that works with the original or advanced versions of the world's most popular RPG
And only $5!!!

  • Thursday, October 13, 2011

    Out of the Dungeon

    A point that was mentioned obliquely in the comments of my post on non-combat encounters, and which was lampshaded today over at Grognardia, is that the nature of the (A)D&D game was changing, at least in Gygax's mindset, in the mid-1980's.

    In the 1970's and early 1980's, the focus was clearly the dungeon as the place where the adventures happened. From the early articles in The Dragon (ah, I remember well when it still had the "The" in front of the name) to the advice to players contained in the Players Handbook, things were clearly geared towards the notion that there would be a large stable of players who would come in and out of the campaign, which would itself be based around some enormous underground labyrinth (and which we today refer to as megadungeons).

    I disagree with James's assessment of post-1981 dungeons as a sideshow to the rest of the campaign in the Gygaxian conception; they're certainly not the exclusive province of the game any more, but I think "sideshow" is too strong a word. But there is most definitely a shift towards what I refer to as "social encounters" as opposed to combat.

    Back in Dragon #65 (published in 1982), Gygax first floated the concept of mystics, mountebanks, savants, and jesters. The specific features of these proposed classes is most definitely aimed at social encounters (especially the mountebank and the jester). They specialize "in deception, sleight of hand, persuasion, and a bit of illusion" (mountebank) and "influence many creatures toward kindliness, humor, forgetfulness, thoughtful consideration, irritation, anger, or even rage" (jester).

    These, naturally, are at the core of the Adventures Dark and Deep™ game, and I think it points out a subtle point about the game as a whole; it is geared to accept this sort of play, where the ability to interact with a guardsman or an inkeeper is, if not the center point of a major section of the rules (like combat), is not left entirely to the role-playing and improvisational skills of the GM and player.

    This is not to say, of course, that ADD (or, I would posit, Gygax's own game during the period) goes overboard on rules to determine how such interactions should go, but there are at least guidelines consistent with the other rules.

    I think this goes to a principle that was held from the earliest days of the game in Gygax's campaign; that the idea was that getting treasure was much more important than killing monsters, and that if the treasure could be gotten by tricking the monsters and thus avoiding possible character death, so much the better. The idea that orcs could be "deceived" or "incited towards kindliness... or rage" feeds directly into that principle. Gygax's latter-day series of articles in Dragon, sub-titled "All That I Need To Know I Learned From D&D", exemplify this approach over and over again.

    So I'm not so sure the addition of rules dealing with social encounters was necessarily a shift away from dungeons so much as it was a reaction to the way the players in the original Greyhawk campaign were playing in those dungeons. They were trying to be slick and tricksy, and the rules were gradually moving to reflect that sort of play, allowing them to be adjudicated with at least some modicum of regularity, rather than relying solely on the improv skills of those involved. I don't personally see anything wrong or "bloaty" about that, and indeed I think the inclusion of such guidelines in the Adventures Dark and Deep game gives it a bit of depth that the original 1E may have lacked.

    Of course, everybody has their own take on what is or isn't a "good or needed rule", and nobody is going to agree on such things all the time. Heck, I like weapons vs. armor class, and loathe psionics. Vive la différence!

    Wednesday, October 12, 2011

    Avengers film trailer

    I had heard rumors that the Skrull and Kree would be the villains of the new Avengers movie, but I don't see any indication of that in the new trailer. But we do see Loki (from the Thor movie) there, so at least we know he'll be amongst the villains. It's entirely possible that this trailer simply doesn't show the Kree/Skrull; time will tell (given their nature, it's entirely possible they could be there and we just don't know it yet). All I can say is that it looks quite excellent, at least as far as these two-plus-minutes show. Love the interplay between Cap and Tony Stark. But is that Nine Inch Nails in the background? That's a bit tiresome.

    Tuesday, October 11, 2011

    Why All Those Languages?

    One of the things that puzzled me when I first started playing the game, and which I've seen come up from time to time in discussions, is the question of why the rules bother to include player characters speaking a multitude of other languages. Dwarves speak goblin, kobold, and orcish. Elves speak those languages plus hobgoblin and gnoll. Other sorts of demi-humans have their own selection of humanoid tongues that they begin the game speaking, and humans can learn new ones as well. Why?

    Too, if you look at a lot of the early dungeon adventures, they all seem to have a lot more detail about the villains than would be needed, if the expectation was that the PCs were just going to mow through them, vorpal swords a-whirling. What use the carefully detailed rivalry between the Eilservs and the Lolth-worshiping drow? Why bother hinting at intrigues-within-intrigues in the Temple of Elemental Evil? If the game is nothing more than a tactical exercise in destroying the monsters, then these sorts of subtleties are at best eye candy for the game master.

    I think one of the things that was almost instantly lost when Gygax et al published their game was the notion that not all encounters would automatically end up as battles. In the 1E DMG, the encounter reactions table on p. 63 shows that there is only a 5% chance that an encounter will result in an immediate attack, and only a further 20% chance that it will be hostile. The original rules had a similar section; only on a roll of 2-5 on 2d6 would an intelligent monster be immediately hostile (U&WA, p. 12). That's why all those languages are there; to allow them to converse rather than always immediately attack.

    This is another instance where charisma ceases to be a "dump stat". If the PCs are in the habit of attempting to engage orcs encountered in a dungeon in conversation, rather than in melee, this does several things for the game.
    1. It allows both the players and game master to indulge in role-playing rather than hack-and-slash dice rolling (which is not a bad thing in and of itself, but does get stale when there's nothing but in a game).
    2. It allows the game master to feed the players information about the political fracture-lines of the monsters. Do the orcs in the Caverns of Chaos have a loose alliance with the gnolls? Do the hobgoblins have an understanding with the goblins? There's almost no way for the PCs to know this and take advantage of it unless they are told about it, maybe by the angry kobolds who resent not having any allies of their own...
    3. It allows the inhabitants of the dungeon to possibly become aware of some of the capabilities of the PCs. Perhaps the shrewd hobgoblin medicine man will try to figure out which of them has spell-casting abilities, so the next time they meet, his tribe will know who to attack with arrows first. Perhaps they're just stalling for time to set up an ambush. Not all information transfer is necessarily in the PCs' favor.
    For some parties, simply reminding them of the "parley" option prior to the start of play should be enough. Perhaps having your own orcs or hobgoblins attempting to parley rather than simply opening fire would be hint enough. In my own game the players often engage the more intelligent monsters in conversation, sometimes even turning would-be enemies into sometimes-allies. Of course, it doesn't always work, but it does add a lot of role-playing fun to what might otherwise be a grind.

    Monday, October 10, 2011

    The Cyborg Dungeon

    (WARNING to players in my campaign: There are a few spoilers in the post below. It's all high-level stuff with no details, but if you want to avoid any meta-knowledge of what Glitterdark is like, even at a high-level view, skip this post.)

    This past weekend allowed me time to get most of the first level (well, it's more of an "area" than a level) of my Glitterdark dungeon worked up, in time for this Friday's game. As some may recall, just as my players had reached the place, and even entered a room or three, I had a vision about taking it into a completely new direction.

    Up until then, Glitterdark was a fairly conventional dungeon complex, albeit with a few neat things that were a bit out of the ordinary. 20 or so levels stacked pretty much on top of one another, with an enormous central chasm that cut through nearly half the place, filled with flying buttresses, ramps, and staircases, to give the whole thing more of an "open" feeling. But it had a conventional set of maps and encounter key.

    No more.

    Now Glitterdark is a much more expansive setting. It spreads under Mount Arak for miles, much like the Underdark, but on a smaller scale. Miles-long tunnels connect different encounter areas, each of which is like unto a separate dungeon. And no longer is it a conventional map-and-key design. Here's where the "cyborg" part comes in. Where a conventional dungeon has a map and an encounter key, Glitterdark has only the skeleton of a map and a key, maybe comprising a quarter of the total area of any given level. Into the map are plugged in geomorphic sections, which are keyed randomly through a master table as play goes on. Roll three dice and you can find out everything in a given room; all the rolling on sub-tables and so forth has already been done (I've run into that problem with random dungeons; trying to figure out what the trap is, or how many orcs are in a room, always seems to involve a lot of rolling and consulting tables which just slows things down in actual play).

    So now I have the best of both worlds. The "skeleton" is there to provide for the various set-piece encounters, memorable traps, magic items, and NPCs, etc. The "meat" is the geomorphs and the random tables to populate them. Everything's in keeping with the various themes of each area; it's not just taking the random encounter tables out of the DMG and tossing orcs next to skeletons next to giant centipedes. And the best part is that this makes the dungeon in large part re-usable. Play it in one game and it will look one way. Play it under another GM and, aside from a few "big things" it will be completely different.

    It also has the benefit of being MUCH easier to create. Once the random tables are in place, pre-rolling them becomes a snap. Naturally, a lot of thought goes into them, and they'll be customized to the needs and theme of each encounter area, but it's a lot faster process than writing all those encounter areas individually.

    Anyway, this Friday will tell whether this crackpot scheme of combining random geomorphs with a set-piece framework works. I'm very excited to see how it plays out.

    Saturday, October 8, 2011

    On Story

    In my previous post, I attempted to make the point that individual encounters don't need to have a "balanced" chance for player character victory in order for the game as a whole to be considered "fair". That led one of the commenters to make the following statement, which I thought deserved a bigger and more thoughtful response than a mere reply to a reply might afford.
    I should add, we (Joe and I) don't seem to have common goals between us; but, rather that all the players (including the referee) at our table share a common goal. For our table, the goal is an interesting story within the structure of our game rules and agreed setting.

    In current RPG theory, to have some story or plot into which the player characters fit seems to be the model. This is actually something that began, as far as I can tell, with Dragonlance. It was fully embraced in 3.x, with its "adventure arcs" and so forth, and has been carried forward to its logical conclusion in both Pathfinder and 4E.

    I will freely admit that I don't have a "story" (by which I mean plot in the literary sense) in mind when I run a campaign. My games are all of the "sandbox" style, and I personally find such to be the most enjoyable sort. (I might add, but honestly don't think it should need to be said, that I don't think others must necessarily cleave to my own preferences; all too often in our little echo chamber people see a statement of personal preference as an attack on those who don't share it.)

    To my mind, the best stories are an emergent property of the interaction of the player characters with the setting. I've posted on this subject in the past, in a more abstract sense, but I thought it might be appropriate to mention how I handle this approach in my own game.

    There are dozens --scores-- of stories to be had in my campaign. The players, in their wanderings throughout the setting, will stumble on some of them, and are free to pick up those dangling threads and follow them, or not, as the whim takes them. Too, sometimes I will take an off-handed remark by a player, perhaps just said as a bit of color to add to his own character, and run with it, turning it into yet another plot thread that the party as a whole might choose to pursue. But I don't have "The Story" in mind, into which the players are set to play. There is no Dark Lord that must be overcome. Or, if there is, the players aren't necessarily expected to be the ones who overcome him.

    So I will disagree with Eric (the above-mentioned commenter) when he says that my goal, and the goal of the players at my table is not necessarily "an interesting story within the structure of our game rules and agreed setting". There is nothing at all contradictory between an adversarial relationship between a game master and the players, and the desire to see an interesting story unfold as we explore the setting together. Rather, the story emerges from the conflict between the players and the GM. As various obstacles and adversaries are placed in the path of the players, the story emerges therefrom.

    The players don't know where the story is going to lead. I don't know where the story is going to lead. Indeed, the story might well end as the players make a stupid decision and get themselves killed. The enjoyment stems from their being able to overcome the obstacles I place in their path, and their control of their own destiny by being able to pick and choose from the obstacles in order to forge their own destiny, "within the structure of our game rules and agreed setting".

    Rules and setting don't mean they have a chance to win every encounter. But even from the encounters they must needs flee from, story is derived.

    Story is conflict, after all. I see no reason it cannot come from the conflict between players and GM, as long as the GM does not abuse his position of absolute power and turn conflict into automatic defeat.

    Friday, October 7, 2011

    This Battle Station is now the Ultimate Power in the Universe...

    ...I suggest you don't use it.

    Dungeons and Dragons, and RPGs of similar cast, are relatively unique in the annals of games, in that they pit one player (the GM) against all the other players (the PCs) and the GM has the ability to quite literally throw everything and anything he can at them to thwart their progress towards their goals.

    Sweet Reason, if you could play chess like that, or Ogre, or Panzerblitz, it would never work. Nobody would ever want to play the side that didn't have the "I can do anything I want, 'cause I'm the GM" power.

    So what is it about RPGs that lets the GM get away with it? Quite simply, RPGs have a different goal than purely competitive games such as chess or Ogre or Squad Leader. There is a shared understanding between the GM and the PCs that the challenges the GM presents won't be completely overwhelming. There will always be something that the PCs can do to survive (if not always win) the encounter. It may be obnoxiously difficult to figure out, but it's always there.

    SCENARIO A: "You enter the 30'x40' room. As you reach the center of the room, the ceiling slams down at a speed of 500 mph, squashing you all into jelly. Please roll saving throws for all your magic items to see if they survived a 'crushing blow', for the next group of adventurers to find."

    SCENARIO B: "You enter the 30'x40' room. As you reach the center of the room, the door behinds you slams shut and the ceiling begins to slowly descend. You estimate that you have 2 minutes before you're all squashed into jelly. What are you going to do?"

    You can tell instinctively that scenario B is going to be a lot more fun. Even if the GM hasn't given the PCs any real clues about how to get out of this particular trap, the mere fact that they have the chance somehow makes it more fair. Maybe they'll figure out that the triangular dagger they picked up in the previous room will, when fitted into the slot in the descending ceiling, stop its progress. Maybe they'll figure out some use or combination of spells or magic items that the GM hasn't thought of at all, allowing them to escape. Maybe they'll get squashed into jelly. But at least they have a chance.

    Adventures don't have to be "fair" or "balanced". Indeed, one of the fault lines between folks who like the newer generation of RPGs, as opposed to those who prefer older games, is that the latter don't see anything wrong with an encounter that's way over the ability of the PCs to overcome. Sometimes the winning play is to run away. The former sort would see that as somehow "losing" the encounter, and therefore see the encounter as inherently imbalanced and unfair.

    One of the best qualities of a GM is that he is fair. Not in the sense that the PCs have a good chance (or even any chance) of "winning" every encounter, but in the sense that the PCs have a chance of surviving those encounters. Even though the key to surviving may be obscure, or the "survival" strategy is to run away from that ancient red dragon, it can still be done. A certain death trap, in this context, is unfair. An escapable death trap is fair.

    Ultimately, I think it's a lot more fun when the GM isn't overly worried about making sure his encounters all have a chance for me to win. It's all the more satisfying when I barely survive and live to tell the tale, or, better yet, come up with an outside-the-box idea that works. Knowing I have an 80% chance of "winning" every encounter is just... too balanced.

    Wednesday, October 5, 2011

    RIP Steve Jobs

    Steve Jobs, founder of both Apple computers and Pixar Entertainment has died at the age of 56. He is survived by his wife and four children.

    Monday, October 3, 2011

    Necromancer Now Available!

    I am pleased to announce that Darker Paths 1: The Necromancer is now available through the BRW Games store at Here are the quick stats:
    • 20 pages of actual text (covers, license, etc. bring it up to 24 pages)
    • Cover and interior art by Jason Sholtis
    • Watermarked pdf format
    • Over 75 new spells
    • Suitable for use with any Basic or Advanced type role-playing game
    • Text is designated Open Game Content
    • Low, low retail price of $5.00. That's less than a fast-food meal, and will give you a lot more enjoyment!

    Sunday, October 2, 2011

    The Fun Shall Be Had On Wednesdays ONLY

    I was skimming through the gaming blogs tonight, and I came across this post by Dungeon's Master about the WotC Encounters "events". I quote two salient bits here, for those who don't want to read the whole thing:
    I was contacted by Wizards and asked to clarify and correct some details I recently posted in my D&D Encounters articles and the follow-up comments; specifically details about playing on nights other than Wednesday. I was asked to post a correction and clear up any confusion my comments might have caused.


    Wizards wants to be very clear that they are “committed to our program’s structure, and we do not want stores to think it’s OK to run on nights other than Wednesdays.” Wednesday is the mandatory day to run D&D Encounters. Wizard does periodically check to ensure that stores run D&D Encounters sessions on Wednesdays. If they discover that a store is not compliant, it can lead to punitive action (such as pulling the program from the store).
    Okay, seriously? This is just raising all kinds of red flags.

    First is the obvious; Wizards is saying that stores can't run their precious "Encounters" event on any day other than Wednesday? And if they defy the all-mighty Renton Gestapo, "punitive action" will be taken? Sweet Reason! Are they afraid that their Twitter boosts will be out of synch with what's happening in the stores? Will players somehow find the magic cumquat and gain an unfair advantage if they play on a Thursday or (GASP!) a Friday? Egads! Someone might actually fight the Dawn Titan in one store on The Proper Day, and then go to another deviant store on The Wrong Day, and fight the encounter with Forbidden Knowledge!!! And where would the fun be in that? It might make the encounter... *gulp*... unbalanced...

    But what's even more chilling is that WotC is seemingly monitoring gaming blogs and making sure that The Official Line is being properly disseminated. It should be pointed out that Dungeon's Master is an obsequious 4E slobbering love-fest*, so WotC is possibly more likely to pay attention to that blog than others who have a less "tow the company line" philosophy, the mere fact that they have people on staff who take the time to reach out to make it clear that Wednesday Shall be the Day of the Fun, and Thursday is Right Out is just mystifying to me.

    * From another recent post on the same blog: Before proceeding I must admit that my gaming experience is limited. My introduction to D&D (and RPGs) was in 2009 shortly after 4e launched. My gaming knowledge and experience has grown considerably in the past two years, but I come to the hobby without preconception of previous editions or the baggage that often accompanies it. 

    Saturday, October 1, 2011

    Starting Over

    Have you ever put a ton of work into something for a game, and then when it was on the brink of actually being used, been thunderstruck by a fabulous new idea that takes the thing into a completely new direction? Bonus: almost all the work you did for that thing up to that point is now useless.

    Yeah, that happened to me the other day. But it's a good thing, because the finished product is going to be about a thousand times cooler than it would have been had I followed the original plan.

    Special Bonus: I've got a two-week deadline to get it into a workable form.