stevekenson: (go-play)

[This article originally appeared in the Legends of the Lance newsletter and a previous incarnation of my website.]

In the SAGA System rules for Dragonlance: Fifth Age, heroes use their Strength to perform actions in melee combat, like hitting their opponents. Characters with high Strength codes are also better trained in the use of melee weapons.

This approach causes difficulties with some hero concepts players may have: What about the wiry swordsman who’s deadly with a blade but not particularly brawny, or the strong hero who can’t hit the broad side of a barn? Additionally, some players may have difficulties equating combat skill with brute strength.

Worse yet, based close combat ability on Strength makes physically powerful monsters in the game nigh-unbeatable, due to the massive differences in Strength between, say, a human and even a small dragon.

One option for handling these concerns is to introduce a new ability to the SAGA System: Fighting (or Prowess, or something similar). Fighting takes the place of Strength and is aligned with the suit of Swords. It measures the hero’s training in melee combat, both armed and unarmed, and the ability to use different weapons effectively. The Fighting ability code works the same as the standard Fifth Age Strength Code; an “A” means the hero is trained with all melee weapons, a “B” is all but very heavy weapons, and so forth. If a hero does not have training in a particular weapon, the hero suffers a one level increase in difficulty when using it.

To make room for Fighting, the Strength and Endurance abilities are collapsed into one ability (called Strength), measuring the hero’s overall muscle and stamina, and aligned with the suit of Helms. It is used for actions involving brute Strength (like breaking down doors and bending bars), as well as all actions Endurance is normally used for.

Fighting is used to make melee attacks, and it is also used to avoid melee attacks, representing the hero’s skill in parrying and blocking. So attacking in melee combat is an average Fighting (Fighting) action, as is avoiding an attack. The Narrator may also wish to allow heroes the option of using Agility to avoid melee attacks, giving nimble heroes a better chance of getting out of the way. If the attack hits, the hero’s Strength still determines damage normally.

Strength is still used as the action ability for close-in unarmed attacks like wrestling, representing the advantage greater Strength provides the attacker.

The Narrator should choose the Fighting score for characters and creatures in the game. Creatures may have Fighting equal to their Physique, or the Narrator may choose to give them a lower fighting score to represent creatures that are physically very strong (high Physique) but not particularly swift or accurate (lower Fighting). This also gives heroes more of a “fighting chance” when going up against larger, more powerful creatures.
stevekenson: (go-play)
Ever since first edition Gamma World I’ve been fond of this “monster” because it embodies the setting’s ethos of “even the landscape is out to get you”. I’ve updated it for the current edition of the game, with a little added benefit/story hook to encourage characters to actually brave the risks involved, making it a bit more than just a random hazard.

Gamma Grass: Known as “zeeth” in the language of the seer lizards, this purple sward reproduces by teleporting its seeds into the guts of nearby creatures. The seeds release a deadly neurotoxin, killing the host, which decomposes and fertilizes a new patch of gamma grass.

Mature gamma grass is a hazard that attacks any animal creature that begins or ends its turn within 5 squares of the patch. Seed teleports that miss materialize in the air nearby with a sizzling “pop” as they burst harmlessly.

Attack: Ranged 5, +7 vs. Fortitude. Targets protected by force fields are unaffected.

Hit: 2d6 poison damage, plus ongoing 5 (save ends). If target drops to 0 hit points or fewer, it dies and a patch of gamma grass sprouts from the corpse the next day.

If mature gamma grass is harvested, dried, and smoked, it grants a particular type of alpha shift: the smoker may draw the next two Psi mutations from the alpha mutation deck and choose to retain one, gaining a +2 bonus to overcharge that mutation for the next encounter.

Because of its benefits (along with a mild euphoric “high” from smoking it), serfs, sleeth, and some badder tribes use slave labor to harvest patches of gamma grass. Those that do not survive the process simply ensure a bumper crop in the following season.
stevekenson: (go-play)
I guess if I was going with the newfangled Leverage style this should be “The RPG Clearout Job” but what can I say, I was brought up on Top Secret...

the deal is behind the cut )
stevekenson: (go-play)

Anyone familiar with my work and online presence in prior years knows that I’m a big fan of the Marvel Super-Heroes Adventure Game (aka “Marvel Saga”) from TSR/Wizards of the Coast. I think it was the best iteration of the ill-fated SAGA game engine and a pretty awesome superhero RPG to boot. Elements of it were certainly inspirational in my later work, particularly ICONS.

Which brings me to the idea of FATE and the Marvel “Fate Deck”. Before I started using Plaintext and Dropbox on my iPhone, I jotted the following down in one the various beat-up notebooks I carried around:

FATE Aspects & the Fate Deck
Discard the standard trump rules from Marvel. In their place, characters have aspects, from “The Strongest One there Is!” to “Friendly Neighborhood Web-Slinger” or whatnot. This can include relationships, origins, nicknames, and all of the usual range of different aspects in FATE.

Tagging an aspect allows a player to flip an additional card from the top of the Fate Deck and add it to any played cards for an action. The player can also choose a trump suit; if the flipped card is of that suit, flip the next card, and so forth until a card not of that suit comes up. All flipped cards are added together for the action.

The Narrator can choose to play a card from the Doom Pool at any time to compel one of the player’s aspects. A player can choose to ignore this by discarding a card from his hand, but the discard also goes into the Doom Pool (along with the original Doom Card). Players can also choose to impose temporary compels or setbacks on their own characters in order to empty out the Doom Pool; each setback removes one card from the pool.

Players tagging their characters’ aspects requires only a suitable description of how the aspect applies to the given situation. Tagging other characters’ aspects may also require an action to learn of the aspect, or an action to apply a temporary aspect—like “Blinded” or “Angered”—to that character.
stevekenson: (go-play)

(I almost used the subtitle “Threat or Menace?” but that wouldn’t quite be accurate.)

One criticism often leveled against Champions (the superhero configuration and ancestor of the Hero System RPG engine) is that combat is too slow. Take your pick of the various jokes about being able to take bathroom breaks, go out and pick up pizza, or other things you can do between your turns in Champions. One of my favorites was about how someone should design another game you can play while you’re waiting to take your turn playing Champions.

But is stretching out a relatively short fight to cover a lot of game time—complete with lots of focus on tactics—really a flaw when it comes to the superhero genre or is it a feature?

I’ve looked at a lot of superhero source material—comics, animated series, movies—when it comes to designing for superhero games and there are some interesting elements to the flow of superheroic combat:

One is that the combats are generally all the same length regardless of the number of participants involved. This is a limitation of the media: given that an issue of a comic or an episode of a TV series is the same length, a fight has to take up a certain amount of space, whether it involves two combatants or a dozen or a hundred.

Thus the number of individual actions of characters involved in a fight are inversely proportionate to the number of characters involved: that is, the more people in the fight, the fewer things they each get to do. Many team-on-team fights of a half-dozen or more heroes against a similar number of villains only last the equivalent of two or three turns in game terms, sometimes as little as a single turn with each character getting to act once! A fight with fewer combatants tends to last longer, with both sides really slugging it out, particularly when you come down to just two characters.

Add to that the fact that the typical RPG game session tends to be a good deal longer than the typical superhero cartoon or comic book. In three to four hours, you can cover a lot of ground compared to just 30–60 minutes. To make up the difference, you either need more plot or game activities that fill some of that time.

That’s where longer combats can be a plus. To some degree, superhero stories are arguably about combat: heroes fighting villains (or each other!). Certainly most RPGs are focused on the activity of fighting; look at the combat chapter of most games as compared to the rest of their action resolution rules. For that matter, look at the fact that most RPGs have a chapter for resolving all actions except combat, which gets its own chapter/section. Even when those sections are mixed, I’ll wager the majority of actions covered are in some way connected to fighting.
So if combat is what it is primarily about, why shouldn’t the game focus on it in greater detail and take more time working it out? Are superhero games that allow combats to end too quickly too “light” for the genre?

Of course, even more detailed, and therefore slower, combat systems don’t necessarily “telescope” to reflect the number of combatants or the importance of the combat; a Champions fight between ten characters is no different than one between just two in terms of the characters’ capabilities. It’s just to take just as many attacks to down the characters, meaning the team fight takes much longer than the one-on-one.
Truth & Justice (using the PDQ system) offers a useful take on this by dividing situations into simple, complicated, and conflict categories. Now, technically, any fight would seem to be a conflict situation, but there’s nothing stopping the GM from deciding that some fights are actually complicated or even simple situations.  Certainly, Batman taking on some run-of-the-mill thugs is more of a simple situation; it’s not even worth bothering to roll the dice most of the time. Games that offer thug or minion rules, like Mutants & Masterminds, take a similar tack for some situations to speed up some combats.

Still, fights can sometimes be too fast for some players in some superhero systems. After all, no RPG is going to combine the visual spectacle of superhero action from a film or cartoon with quick and decisive action. By definition, tabletop RPGs need room for players and GMs to paint a picture of what is going on, using both description and the medium of the game system. The nature of the medium seems more given to a “slo-mo” or “bullet time” approach to combat.

That narrative space doesn’t have to come from the pauses where other players count up their dice or refigure their modifiers, but it can, in which case the perceived weakness of a slower tactical approach can be turned into a strength.
stevekenson: (go-play)

So my ruminating about Gamma World and its use of card decks as random story elements got me thinking about one of the best constellations of the concept of cards as an RPG element: Torg: The Possibility Wars from West End Games.

My game group played the hell out of Torg back in the day. We’ve even got “sendings” in the Infiniverse newsletter and playtest credits in the Orrorsh sourcebook. Submitting creatures for the two fan-written monster books was one of my early published credits. Some things about Torg really grabbed us. Part of it was certainly the multi-genre stuff; I’ve always loved genre mash-ups, and Shadowrun was also a big hit with my group. Some of it was the die rolling mechanics; the open-ended re-rolls on 10s and 20s in Torg created a certain level of excitement, and the use of a d20 make the game cinematic and unpredictable, mitigated by the use of the conversion chart to mute the extreme ends of the rolls somewhat.

But one of the biggest awesome elements of the game was and is the Drama Deck. For those unfamiliar, Torg uses a deck of cards—the Drama Deck—to handle a great many elements in the game that would otherwise be handled by die rolling or some other mechanic. In particular, the Drama Deck controls the flow of combat (initiative), introduces random elements into the plot, encourages a variety of actions, serves as a narrative countdown, and gives the players various bonuses.

That’s a lot for one game element! Part of the success of the Drama Deck is the ability of cards to pack-in a lot of information. A single Drama Deck card has two ends: one an Action side, detailing round-to-round initiative and modifiers, the other a Player side, providing either a game bonus or a subplot. So already the cards have a dual purpose. Include the Dramatic Skill Resolution line in the middle, and you have a triple purpose. Let’s look at some of their more clever applications:

Initiative: Long before Deadlands, Torg used a deck of cards to determine initiative in combat. Whereas Deadlands deals individual initiative cards to players, Torg uses a single card, which lists who goes first—the heroes or the villains—based on whether the scene is “standard” (favoring the heroes) or “dramatic” (favoring the villains).

But more than that, each initiative line often has different modifiers for either side, like “Setback” or “Rally”. These impose different bonuses or penalties, so one round the heroes might each get an extra card while the next, the villains get a free bonus to all of their rolls. This gives combat a real back-and-forth element and makes the process of controlling what card is on top of the Action Stack part of the drama itself. I recall a particular Torg game where our heroes fought against overwhelming odds and we players pulled out all the stops to keep a good initiative card on the top of the stack for as long as we possibly could. Just seeing if we could do that from round-to-round was a nail-biter, to say nothing of the combat!

Approved Actions: Each initiative card also includes an “Approved Actions” line. If a player character performs the approved action for that round, the player gets a bonus card draw. While sometimes the approved action is “Any” more often it is some sort of non-attack action like a maneuver, taunt, or test of wills (all skills in Torg). This really helps to encourage players to declare actions other than “I attack ... again” and provides a clear game benefit for doing so. Our group used to joke about the degree of “card whoring” that would go on around the approved action line in order to get more cards.

Timed Resolutions: The action side of the card also has a sequence of letters, from A to D, used to resolve multi-part challenges where dramatic timing is a factor. Basically, divide the challenge into up to four steps (A through D). If the card shows the letter of the current step, the character can attempt to complete it. If it doesn’t, you have to wait (reflecting timing, hesitation, pre-work, etc.). The line might also show a “Setback” meaning the task gets more difficult (the timer jumps ahead, a tool breaks, etc.). The trick is to get the task done before a certain number of card flips, reflecting the “timer”. It adds a dramatic element to the classic “defuse a ticking bomb” scenario beyond just “make a skill roll” and I strongly suspect systems like Skill Challenges in D&D are descended from it.

Pools: The other side of the Drama Deck cards each have an in-game bonus for a character, ranging from a plus with specific abilities (physical, mental, or spiritual), bonus re-rolls, and a variety of other things. The diversity of the bonuses also tends to encourage diverse actions; if you’ve got a card with a bonus to mental actions, you’re more likely to try and trick your foe than make an outright attack, for example.

The real brilliance of the card bonuses shows up in how they enter play: During action scenes, players can’t use cards directly from their hand. Instead, each round their character does something, the player can lay down a card into their “pool” making it accessible for use. Thus, action scenes are a slow build-up of useful resources that give the players the upper-hand. A lot of choice goes into what cards to put into your pool, since pool cards are also potentially vulnerable (see the following) and there’s a dramatic tension in working up to having access to the right combination of cards to pull off the action you have in mind.

The fact that playing cards into your pool is keyed on doing something also means the characters can’t just stand around. They have to get involved if they want the added benefit of using their cards.

Trading: The game takes the card pool concept one step better by also allowing players to trade cards during play. This is one of the most dynamic elements of the game. In my experience players were always on the lookout for opportunities to swap useful cards with each other, focusing them on helping the other players to be awesome during the game (another concept that has found its way into D&D 4e with the leader character role).

The story payoff of card trading is that you need to explain what your character does in character to provide the benefit of the card you’re offering. So if I want to trade my Willpower card to a friend, how is my character helping to improve his willpower and determination? Is it a word of encouragement? Getting him mad enough to shake it off? Leading by example and personal daring? When you need that explanation in order to swap a vital card, you get creative fast.

Dramatic action scenes in our Torg games would often pause for flurries of tactical card trading. Far from stopping the action, this added a real element of excitement to it as the players came up with killer combos and teamwork to help them carry the day.

Subplots: Some of the cards, rather than having a specific in-game bonus, list a type of subplot, like “Enemy” or “Romance”. Players can put these subplots into play and earn additional Possibilities (in-game bennies or action points) for the scenes featuring their subplot(s). This gives the players some narrative control and lets them introduce subplot elements into the story.

I found subplots both useful and occasionally bothersome. In my experience they worked best when players suggested possible subplot elements, rather than simply playing them and relying on me (the GM) to provide the plot. Indeed, I all but required players to provide some idea of what they wanted the subplot to be in order for them to play the card. The explicit bonuses of the other cards tended to overshadow subplots, and some players considered them very disappointing draws, while others loved them as an opportunity to get their characters more “screen time”.

Vulnerability: I’ve saved one of the best for last. An interesting wrinkle to the card play element of the Drama Deck was that it also provided a game benefit for the GM to take away in certain situations to make the players feel more vulnerable and challenged, without “directly” affecting their characters’ game traits. In the core game, villains can use taunts, threats, and intimidation to snatch vital cards away from the players before they are used. This is a great representation of shaking a character’s confidence and reducing the player’s options. It also puts some pressure on the card pool; put a card out there and you have to use it before it can get taken away from you.

This concept reached its full flower with the fear rules in the Orrorsh horror supplement: supernatural monsters could, amongst other things, steal multiple cards from the players, severely reducing their options, until the characters build up enough determination to overcome their fear of the creature and confront it. The first time it happened in play, the looks on the players’ faces were priceless and it was clear the rule had the desired effect of giving them just a small taste of the fear their characters felt when confronted with eldritch evil.

Deal Me In
With all of the options you can build into a deck of cards, rather than railing against the “CCG” aspect of new games like Gamma World, I hope that their use of cards as a game element inspires some additional experimentation with the concept. I’ll note that, while the Torg Drama Deck cards weren’t “collectable” as such, there were bonus cards included in various products and in the Infiniverse newsletter to add to or expand the deck. That offered just a peek at the tantalizing potential of customizing or “tuning” the Drama Deck for particular types of adventures and genres as well, which never really emerged in Torg (to my knowledge) but offers a lot of, dare I say, possibilities for RPG development.
stevekenson: (go-play)

A particularly interesting element of the Gamma World play experience is the influence of random elements—such as character origin, equipment, alpha mutations, and omega tech—on the overall shape of the story. Both the players and I, as gamemaster, had to adapt not only to the random outcomes of action checks, but also to the random capabilities of the characters; not just whether or not characters could accomplish something with their abilities, but what options they could even attempt at any given time.

Here are some examples that came up during our game:

The Lost Bot: When Mike’s hawkoid cyborg bit the dust during the fight with the obbs, he needed to come up with a new character right away. While I was finishing up the fight, I kept an ear out for what Mike was doing with character creation, since I’d have to introduce his new character somehow. As it happened, he generated a giant android with a battlesuit (omega tech) and the intro practically wrote itself: a war-robot, usleless to the obbs because it was non-biological, deactivated and buried under the fungus of their lair. I hadn’t planned for there to be a lost robot there, but circumstances put him there for the heroes to find.

Water, Water Everywhere: Sean’s character, Clan McDougal, a hive-mind of mutant bats, drew Aquatic as an alpha mutation. Initially, I’d planned for the whole adventure to take place in a dry Ancient sub-shuttle tunnel. Since I didn’t want to screw Sean with a totally useless ability, I made the tunnel partially flooded for the next encounter. It was no more than a meter or so deep, but enough for the swimming swarm to sneak past the blaash there while scouting ahead, catching them from both sides when the characters attacked.

That Healing Touch: The initial fight with the obbs looked bad from the moment Mike’s hawkoid bit the dust (and spawned another obb to fight). The characters took a lot of initial damage before they got the radiation resistant character out front. Fortune favored them, however, in an alpha shift where two of the characters got healing abilities. The sense of relief was palpable, and far more dramatic than a hero simply using an existing healing power. In many ways, the healing “gifts” they got felt more like “miracles” than cleric powers in D&D!

Git Yer Gun: I really like the ammo rule in Gamma World, which basically says guns are encounter abilities: you can use them once per encounter, if you are rationing your ammo. You can choose to use your gun as many times as you want during an encounter, but if it’s more than once, you run out of ammo when the encounter is over, and only get more when the GM says so. This offers a tantalizing idea for “hotshotting” encounter or daily abilities in D&D, where you get an additional use (or two) in a pinch at the cost of “crippling” the ability for a length of time greater than the usual recover rate. I especially like the elegance of it being the player’s choice whether to ration or just go in “guns blazing”. Much the same applies to consumable omega tech, which is only good once, or omega tech with salvage value.

Psiracy: At one point, Andy (playing the mind coercer) commented how it would have been cool to have a Psi mutation another player drew. “Psi specialists should be able to ‘borrow’ or ‘salvage’ psi powers from other characters” he said. Let’s just say I noted that for future consideration as a special ability.

The Power Not Taken: Along the same line, it was interesting to see some of the plot-elements-that-might-have-been in the form of alpha mutations players pulled, but didn’t get to use before there was another alpha shift and they had to discard them. Time Warp and Force Field Generation were two good examples. I would have liked to see them in action, but it didn’t happen. One player even raised the philosophical issue of whether or not those mutations ever “really” happened from the characters’ perspective. If it didn’t come into play, was it ever real?

Gamma World definitely highlighted for me the fun aspects of having some random elements going in during game play beyond just success-failure checks of some sort, things that introduced entirely new things into the environment for the players and I to riff off of in creating the story. In some regards, the alpha and omega tech decks of Gamma World can count things like the Whimsy Cards and Storypath Card decks as their ancestors as much as (if not more than) themed power decks from Magic: The Gathering.
stevekenson: (go-play)

I ran the latest iteration of Gamma World from Wizards of the Coast for my gaming group yesterday, and it was a good time.

details found here )
stevekenson: (go-play)
It seems that the boxed set game is the new trend for RPGs, perhaps following the growth of board game sales in the gaming industry. New games like Dragon Age, the D&D Starter Set, and Gamma World all come in boxes like RPGs of yore, and some of the Old School elements of the hobby are also looking to bring back the boxed set.

There are, or seem to be, a number of reasons why boxed sets are on the rise once again, in a business where hardcover rulebooks have dominated for well over two decades:

1) Nostalgia. A lot of the RPG biz these days is selling to gamers like me, who got their start in the hobby 10-20 years ago, and look back fondly on that “golden age” of gaming and the sense of excitement and wonder of opening that first boxed set (whatever it may have been). Certainly, the D&D Starter Set builds on this, using almost the exact same design and art as the old D&D “Red Box” that started so many playing the game. As Hollywood and numerous other purveyors of media have figured out, there’s a lot of money to be made in repackaging people’s childhoods and selling them to them again (and again).

2) Marketing. Another idea about boxed says that nothing conveys “this is a game” quite as well as having it all come in a box. After all, the boardgames folks are more widely acquainted with all come in boxes, with dice and rule booklets, and so forth. Stores that sell board games (including more mainstream toy stores) know how to handle, shelve, and display boxes, but they’re often not set up to deal with books, especially not the weighty and numerous tomes of RPG lines.

3) Accessibility. Along the same line, packaging an RPG “like a game” (in a box) might make it more accessible and user-friendly to a potential new game-player. It might be an easier transition, say, from a board game like Descent or Castle Ravenloft to a boardgame-like D&D Starter Set box than it would be to make the leap to three hardbound core rulebooks packed with text. Once they’ve taken the bait and understand how the whole RPG thing works, players can potentially move from boxed sets to those larger rulebooks. (Assuming you believe the RPG “acquisition” product is something other than eager alpha-gamers teaching their friends how to play. Even then, a more accessible boxed-set might still facilitate the process.)

4) Piracy. This last one is pure speculation, but I’ve wondered recently: can properly constructed RPG boxed sets combat electronic piracy? After all, it’s one thing to distribute a PDF of the entire rulebook (and its supplements) but quite another to duplicate all the components found in a box. Sure, you can scan and distrubute copies of things like map tiles, cards, counters, reference sheets, and other components, but it definitely raises the bar in terms of using your pirated copy to effectively play the game. It seems like at some point, some would-be pirates might decide it’s easier to invest some money in the actual game, in which case the pirated copies are serving as promotional advertising. Of course, the same arguments have been made about the pirating of more traditional print and even electronic-format only products, so who knows?

Should be interesting to see if a few RPG boxed sets will turn into a trend for the industry, fulfilling their implied promises, or if they are just a passing fancy that will soon be collecting dust with those boxed sets from twenty-plus years ago.
stevekenson: (go-play)
I recently picked up the latest edition of Gamma World from Wizards of the Coast (or should that be “D&D Gamma World”?) after a fun preview game at GenCon, and fully intend to run a game at home; at least a one-shot, but we’ll see how it fares.

As some know, the first edition of Gamma World (the old grey boxed set) was the very first RPG I ever purchased or played, even before the D&D Basic Set. So I have a strange and special place in my heart for the game. Thus far, I’ve got to say that the new edition seems to do it justice.

One element I really like about the new edition is the high concept: essentially (and no real spoiler here), the apocalypse comes about when particle physicists manage to accidentally collapse a multiversal continuum into a single timeline (oops...). Thus, Gamma Terra isn’t “our” Earth after an Apocalypse, but basically every Earth, after a wide range of apocalypses (apocali?): a crazy patchwork of worlds that once were, some of them destroyed millennia ago, others quite advanced, at least until their entire timeline was mushed into a blender with every other timeline...

This premise (covered in less than half a page in the rulebook) makes this potentially the most “wahoo” edition of Gamma World ever, and fulfills much of the game’s promise. Just about anything can exist on Gamma Terra, as a remnant or descendant of some forgotten timeline, from an entire ruined city (hell, continent, if you want your mutants to go exploring Atlantis) to a single creature or artifact. Although the game book doesn’t get into it, that can extend to even weird arcane or fantasy elements, if you want to harken back to the old 1st edition Dungeon Master’s Guide and do a Gamma World/D&D crossover. There is a nod to it with the illustration of a displacer beast in the GW rulebook, and plenty of D&D monsters would also make good mutant menaces (and vice versa).

I’m working on my first adventure (as the one included in the set is a bit thin) and I’m looking forward to revisiting the wastelands of Gamma World!
stevekenson: (go-play)
There is no way you can be an RPG hobbyist and professional for nearly three decades (only about half that time for the “pro” part, I’ll note) without accumulating a considerable collection of books. Problem is, of those books, the vast majority are ones I no longer use or reference, or have never used, and probably never will. I’ve got enough RPG material to last me for lifetimes of gaming at this point, particularly given my tendency to design my own stuff.

Meanwhile, I am newly enamoured of reading PDFs and eBooks on my iPad (which is a reading device that has solved my issues with reading electronic books) and in dire need of space. Thus I have decided to embark on the Great RPG Book Purge and do away with a large percentage of my physical RPG book collection.

Here are the guidelines I’m following:

1. If the book is something I’ve never used or referenced, it goes.

2. If I have an electronic copy of the book (PDF or eBook), the physical book goes.

3. If I do not have an electronic copy of the book, I can either acquire one (if I think it’s worthwhile), hold on to the physical book, or get rid of the book anyway.

4. If I wrote some or all of the book, I might hold on to one physical copy of it. The same may be the case with other books that have serious sentimental value or are truly valuable core books, but I intend to be ruthless in such cases.

5. If the book is an especially rare or unique volume (such as my Limited Edition copy of Shadowrun 3e with my name embossed on the cover). I’ll hold on to it.

Where are all the books going? Chances are, I’ll offer them to Noble Knight, since that’s what I did the last time I purged extra comp copies and other extraneous RPG books. They were a breeze to work with and it was far easier than trying to dispose of the books piecemeal. The idea of handling individual eBay auctions or even just shipping gives me hives.

I will also focus my future book acquisitions on electronic versions to keep the clutter down and make this effort worthwhile.

I know many of my friends and fellow gamers are bibliophiles who will no doubt find this effort horrifying. As I respect your views, please respect mine and do not clutter the comments section with posts about how you could never do this, or discussions of the merits of ebooks versus hardcopy. If you want to give some of my books a good home, well, Noble Knight has a very effective cataloging, sales, and shipping operation.

The purge should commence soon, but I expect it will be a work in progress for a fair while.
stevekenson: (go-play)
Not that today was a lazy Sunday: I was up early (stupid body clock) and spent a good part of the day proofreading and answering emails. No, what I realized is lazy today is my attitude towards Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, after our monthly D&D game today.

When it comes to the game, about all I can be bothered to do is show up and remember to bring my character sheet and dice, and at least a couple of times I haven’t even properly managed the “character sheet and dice” part. Not that I’m not having fun (I am) but I confess to basically zero interest in keeping up with all the latest game system releases, reading about ways to improve or optimize my character, reading articles or sourcebooks, or generally being involved in D&D anywhere other than at the game table. I have no idea about my character’s backstory; even the fact that he has a name is largely a concession of tradition and convenience.

Not that I’m knocking any of these things. They’re not bad. I actually really like being able to approach our D&D games as more of a problem-solving board-game where we pour over the battle grid, looking for the best places to maneuver our little plastic figures: how to grab that flanking bonus, set things up for the Dragonborn Cleric to “Split the Sky” or for my Eladrin Wizard to unleash a Fireball. We enjoy being able to banter about comics, TV, movies, and our lives in-between rolling dice and taking our turns, because game day is also our primary hangout day. Our D&D game is fun, but low-key, low-commitment fun.

It’s interesting that D&D 4E has provided this experience for me in ways other games do not. In most RPGs, a lot of thought goes into the design of my characters, as if I were creating them for a novel rather than as game-pieces. Some might only be sketched-out initially—our group is known to have games not “stick” sometimes, so it’s unwise to get too invested too soon. Even still, a pretty complete picture emerges. I likewise put a lot of thought into character design from a game system perspective, making sure game traits fit fictional viewpoint and vice versa and that the character will be both fun and interesting to play on multiple levels.

With my Eladrin Wizard, I glance at the Player’s Handbook (maybe Arcane Power) when we’ve got some spare gold or we level up, just to “shop” for a new magic item, feat, or power, and that’s pretty much that. I do have a Paragon Path picked out for 11th level (Wizard of the Spiral Tower was basically made for my character) but that’s about as much advance planning as there is. Our relationship is very “casual,” very no-strings ... we just seem to have mutually agreed to have a good time and not worry about it, my character and I.

I’m sure there are other reasons for my laziness: I’m a good deal busier than I ever was when I created and played my most lovingly detailed characters. I work in the RPG biz and design stuff all day, so I might not be as motivated for a creative outlet as I once was. I’m older and ostensibly more mature, certainly less given to trying to live vicariously through my paper-and-dice fantasy life. Still, D&D takes it to a whole new level. Fortunately, our able Dungeon Master is very interested in the game, and I’m sure his extensive preperatory work is one thing that allows me to just kick-back and coast when it comes to enjoying the game.

It’s exciting when the dice fall in the right way and everyone is firing on the right cylinders to bring off a great battle-plan that wins the day. Our D&D game is definitely fun, but it’s a lazy kind of fun.
stevekenson: (go-play)
Gotta geek out for a moment. If this is in fact for real, then I am stoked. The first edition of Gamma World (the old gray boxed set) was the very first RPG I ever played and my friends and I had stupid amounts of fun just rolling up random mutants and playing around with the tables you used to figure out if you’d found an antimatter grenade or a toaster. Given how well I think the 4e rules would adapt for GW, I could potentially play the hell out of this.
stevekenson: (go-play)
A great many RPGs define character traits in a fair amount of detail. Just by looking at the character sheet (or with the game stats and a little work), you can determine a character’s capabilities: how much weight can he lift, how fast can he run, how far (and accurately) he can throw, perhaps even other things like IQ, various levels of knowledge, and so forth.

The question is: how much of this raw data provided by character design is actually needed in game play? That is, when do you need to know exactly how far a character can jump? The obvious rejoiner is, “Well, when the character needs to jump over or across something!” But does that challenge require you to know the character’s exact jumping distance, or just how relatively difficult the jump should be? Likewise, is it really a matter of knowing if a superhuman can lift 23 tons versus 26 tons or just knowing she can lift “a bus” but not, say, “a jumbo jet” (at least, not at all easily in the second case)?

After all, the vast majority of challenges in RPG play fall in the relative narrow spectrum beyond the character’s “routine” capabilities (things not even worth making into challenges) but not beyond the character’s “impossible” capabilities. So much so that the capabilities themselves are almost window dressing. Yes, a game system can tell you, for example, that a character can fly at exactly 1,200 MPH, but beyond the fact that the character flies faster than the speed of sound, does it matter much?

It often seems to me like quantified details in an RPG context often just bog things down in needless detail when all you really need to know is a simple plot-point, such as “the character can fly” or “the heroes have access to a jump-capable ship.” The process of defining all that detail is often a kind of game experience unto itself. I recall the lovingly-detailed Champions and GURPS NPCs with full character sheets—Knowledge Skills, Hobby Skills, Quirks, and all—where the vast majority of their game traits never came into play (well, the Quirks, sometimes).

At what point do detailed traits become a detriment to RPG play? Or do they ever?
stevekenson: (go-play)
Since I’ve apparently got this head-cold to remember it by, I figure now’s as good a time as any to jot down some recollections from this year’s Gen Con.

This is particularly important, since this year was my 20th Gen Con: I started attending with Gen Con/Origins in Milwaukee in 1988. I skipped ‘89 (unfortunate, as it was the year two favorite games — Shadowrun and Champions, 4th edition — premiered), but I’ve been every year since 1990. Next year will be my 20th Gen Con in a row.

Ice and Fire: Naturally much of my time was spent, as it has been in recent years, with my fellow Green Ronin. Our booth was bigger and even livelier this year and sales overall were pretty brisk, particularly on Sunday when we marked remaining books down 30%. Mecha & Manga and Pocket Ultimate Power for M&M moved well, but the real star was A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying, which flew off the racks, along with the Narrator’s Kit and its first adventure Peril at King’s Landing. Part of this was no doubt thanks to SIFRP Developer Jim Kiley’s tireless demos at the booth.

Into the Shadows... Again: As a change of pace for me, this Gen Con also featured a non-GR project, the 20th anniversary edition of Seattle 2072, written by me with fiction vingettes from across the Shadowrun freelance spectrum; not that you’d know this, of course, since a printer’s error left the credits page of the pre-release copies at Catalyst Game Labs booth blank. Whenever asked to sign a copy, I wrote in: “I wrote this ... really!” (or words to that effect). In spite of that, it’s a great looking book thanks to another brilliant graphic design job from Catalyst stalwart Adam Jury (who also pulled double-duty on development).

Dark Future, Past Prologue: Speaking of Shadowrun, man, did the 20th anniversary of a game that I not only played the hell out of back in the day, but also got me my start in the RPG biz, make me feel old. I’d gotten myself reacquainted with recent “events” in the Sixth World for Seattle 2072, but it was still weird talking about events in the game that are now 10-15 years old, much less hearing anybody else talk about them.

Elusive Dawn: My one failed acquisition of the show was a copy of the new edition of Earthdawn, which looked quite nice. Since it incorporates a lot of my prior work on the line for FASA, I was interested in getting a copy. Unfortunately, the current edition comes in four rather large hardcover volumes and the folks at the Mongoose Publishing booth informed me only one person from Red Brick (the game’s current publisher) was at the show, and I never managed to see or speak with him. Probably for the best, since my haul only just fit into one of our empty shipping cases as it was for the trip home via UPS.

Beware the Gate: Eight players. 21st level characters. A late night, and a bottle of brandy. Rob “Dr. Evil” Schwalb ran an epic-level D&D game for us on Thursday night. I think I won for “most obscure character” with my Kalashtar invoker. It was a fun game, serving largely to remind us that, whatever the game or system, tabletop RPGs are primarily an opportunity to sit around a table with your friends, laugh, and have fun. Plus it spawned the idea of designing a mini-game you can play during the 15-20 minutes you spend waiting for your next turn in such a large and complex game...

+5 Fabulousness: Thanks to our local host Brian (who has volunteered to make reservations year after year), we had our annual “gaymers dinner” at the Rock Bottom Brewery. I got to experience the center of the Venn diagram that is the gamer-gay-pagan crossover (and the closely-related gay-gamer-comic geek crossover). It was a great opportunity to see good friends from past years and meet new ones. I also enjoyed a visit from two guys who are assuredly the founders of the “Johnny Rocket Fan-Club” (from Freedom City) and looking to find Freedom’s super-speedster a boyfriend. Lots of potential there. After all, what’s a long distance relationship to a guy that fast?

Sweatin’ to the ENnies: GR took home two EN World Awards this year for A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: gold for Best Free Product (for the Quickstart) and Silver for Best Rules (thanks to Rob Schwalb’s excellent design). I also got a special “award” in the form of host and co-emcee Denise Robinson pointing out that the venue for the awards this year had air conditioning, thus preventing everyone from having to see the damp spots left by my terrible flopsweat. (I’ll note for the record, as I did in accepting the Gold ENnie for SIFRP Quickstart, that I wore an undershirt this year to avoid a repeat of just such a problem ... thanks, Denise, for reminding us all of those good times...).

More Tapas, Please: A GR Gen Con tradition is a fine meal Sunday night after teardown. This year Nicole guided us to Barcelona Tapas, which was lovely, and we were smart enough to let her do the order, which worked out well for all concerned. Ironically, their “best sangria in Indianapolis” was the most disappointing thing I tried, until I realized just how low they had set the bar in their claim. The various cheeses, on the other hand, were fantastic, and the carmel espresso flan was sublime.

Those are merely the highlights, of course, of a whirlwind five or so days. The biggest and best thing about Gen Con, however, is the opportunity to interact with gamers playing and enjoying the games that they love ... that we love. For most of the year we industry folk are chained to our word processors and drafting tables, so events like these are a wonderful opportunity to recharge the creative batteries and enjoy a few days of camaraderie with our fellow games, both in the hobby and in the wider profession, making it, indeed, “The Best Four Days in Gaming!”

Still, I could do without the “con crud” afterwards...
stevekenson: (go-play)
Wow, been a while since I posted on LJ. Facebook has kind of swallowed my short postings, status updates, and things like that, especially now with the Facebook app for my iPhone, which makes it super-easy to do updates.

As GenCon looms closer, I’ve been feeling the urge to run an RPG, particularly since getting a shot at running D&D last month, a fun session from Dungeon Delve (complete with a grell ... how cool is that?). Of course, with my GM’ing ADD, I haven’t yet settled on what game, if any, I want to run for certain. Some of the various possibilities buzzing around my brain include:

• Eberron (D&D 4e): I’ve been enjoying the new Eberron setting books for 4e, and the possbility of running a new Eberron game, maybe using Khyber’s Harvest and Seekers of the Ashen Crown, is tempting. Of course, my game group already has a D&D 4e game going, so I don’t know about a second one at this time.

• Superheroes: I’ve got a home-brew design for a superhero game that could use some additional playtesting, and it has been a while since I ran a superhero game. I’ve also been thinking some about my group’s ancient superhero campaign (which transitioned through several game systems in high school and college), which is now (ye gods) twenty years old. Be interesting to revisit it in a kind of “next generation” way.

• Dragon Age: Likewise, GR’s new Dragon Age RPG looks to be a lot of old-school fantasy fun and I could use more experience with running the system, and there is always stuff to playtest.

• Horror: I’ve been watching a lot of Supernatural and True Blood of late and thinking about a “blue-collar horror” style game of monster-hunters, maybe using Savage Worlds, especially now with the horror toolkits out for it. Also be a chance to dig up some of my old Chill adventures and get some milage out of them. It’d also be a challenge, since I haven’t run a lot of horror, and I’ve never run a long-lasting horror campaign.

• Time Travel: Speaking of Pacesetter games, I’ve also been reminded of late of the old TimeMaster game, of which I was quite the fan. This is another one I might do with Savage Worlds, adapting some of the pre-existing adventures. TimeMaster had a lot of adventures, and I’ve got them all, so I could run an episodic game for quite some time.

Way in the background lurk old favorites like Castle Falkenstein, Shadowrun, and the new edition of Earthdawn (although I’d need a new campaign starter — done the “you’re from a sealed kaer” thing once too often).

... and, of course, I’m sure all the new and shiny stuff at GenCon next week will inspire all sorts of other ideas. Ah, so many games, so little time.
stevekenson: (go-play)
So the Reverend Dr. Evil (Rob Schwalb) is running an epic-level D&D 4e game for us at GenCon. Chris Pramas (busy company president that he is) out-sourced the creation of his 21st level character for the game. I didn’t have any trouble coming up with a character: I quickly settled on a kalashtar invoker, a champion of the Path of Light (which has gotten me into 4e Eberron in a big way). However, I could use some outside aid when it comes to setting my character up with the right gear. So I’m following Chris’ example and turning to the experts who read my blog on LiveJournal and Facebook.

The specifications are for level 22, 21, and 20 magic items and 225,000 gp worth of equipment. My character is a 21st level kalashtar invoker/lightwalker/demigod (1st level of his epic destiny) with the Covenant of Preservation build. Anything from the official Wizards D&D books is fair game. Help me bling him out with the right equipment list!
stevekenson: (go-play)
“Today, on a very special episode of Keep on the Shadowfell...

Yes, it’s life lessons from D&D. Seriously, though, this past game I retired my human rogue/warlock and replaced him with an eladrin wizard/ranger ... what a difference! D&D 4e wizards rock the house! Funny thing is, I like playing magic-users (dating myself here) but went with the rogue character (with just a touch of warlock) for a “change of pace.” Turns out sometimes you’re better off just going with what you know you like and enjoy, which in my case with is the cool magical guy with lots of explodey.

In the space of one game, my new character got to waste a whole bunch of hobgoblins with a perfectly placed burning hands (once the tiefling paladin slid to out of the way; “When the wizard says ‘you might want to move,’ you move!”) and seriously thinned the ranks of a horde of zombies with fire shroud (fantastic because it only targets enemies). He teleported across a chamber out of melee range to pepper the hobgoblin soldiers with magic missiles and blocked one nasty attack with shield (which is fun because it’s an interrupt you can use after you get hit).

Plus, I discovered that while the rouge/warlock multiclass was kind of weak, apprently the way you do a “fighter/magic-user” in 4e is play an eladrin, because not only is my guy a kickass wizard, but he wears leather armor (Armor Proficiency) and is as good with a longsword as a fighter (thanks to the Melee Training feat and his eladrin proficiency), so he fights with wand in one hand and sword in the other. Eventually, I want to pick up Eladrin Sword Wizardry, letting him use his blade as his arcane implement, and I think Wizard of the Spiral Tower will be a pretty clear paragon path for him (although it has a version of Sword Wizardry as one of its features, so I’d want to retrain the feat at that point).

So, in short, eladrin wizards rock!
stevekenson: (go-play)
So after our latest installment of D&D 4e, I’ve decided to try a different character for a bit. My rogue/warlock is a bit too much rogue and too little warlock; he really lacks some of the oomph of the other characters and I miss having “kewl p0werz” – his Eyebite warlock power is, frankly, kind of lame and never works (although that’s more bad die-rolling than anything). Plus I seem to have terrible luck with my Thievery rolls; just a couple adventures and the character is already getting a rep for not being able to disarm traps or open locks.

So I’ve mostly worked up an eladrin wizard. As things progressed, he has become more warrior-like, building on the automatic eladrin longsword proficiency to add the Eladrin Sword Wizardry feat from Arcane Power that lets him use the sword as an implement (a tool for casting his spells). I also wanted to give him training in Stealth (I still want some sneakiness in my character) but it’s not on the wizard class list. So that meant spending a feat and, if I was going to do that, then why not a multiclass feat, giving him the skill and something else? (Seriously is there any reason not to multiclass vs. taking Skill Training, if the class happens to provide the skill that you want?) So I added Warrior of the Forest and Armor proficiency (leather), since the character is 2nd level, making him a halfway decent fighter (albeit one with a low Strength score) along with his wizardly powers, kind of an eladrin “special forces” war wizard.

Naturally, I had to tinker with said powers a bit. I made all of his flame-based spells a ghostly green “faerie fire” and his Flaming Sphere more of a fey “fire salamander” he summons to bedevil his foes. (Yeah, joke all you like about “flaming fairies”...) I’ve just got to run him past our DM for approval. I’m looking forward to the prospect of giving him a try, since we haven’t had a controller character in our party thus far. It should round things out nicely with our two leaders (cleric and warlord), striker (ranger), and defender (paladin), possibly a warlock as another striker, if an absent group member joins in.



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