Saturday, September 24, 2016

Pick a Card, Any Card

Few RPGs use cards. Of those commonly seen today, the only one I can think of off the top of my head is Savage Worlds, which uses cards to adjudicate initiative. This is an excellent use and takes good advantage of the strengths of cards.

What are those strengths? First, they’re easy to use: flip a card and you’re done. No fumbling around with a pile of dice, worrying about them rolling off the table, and leaning in close to read it. Your normal playing card is designed to be easily read from across the table (the job made easier since it only needs to convey two pieces of information: suit and value), which means you can flip your card and everyone can see when your turn comes up.

Unfortunately, using a stat modifier on the card ruins things a bit; you no longer use the value shown, but now have to figure out what an adjusted value is. So you want to use the raw card as much as possible (for instance, using multiple draws for characters with a high stat, allowing the player to pick which of the cards they’ll use).

But if you’re just using the raw data on the card, it’s great for random effects that linger. The card can sit there through a turn, a full combat, or an entire session, reminding everyone of its effect on the game. (This is one of the promising things from Invisible Sun; as silly as the weird hand statue is, the idea of having a card in a place of prominence easily seen by everyone at the table means the design is taking maximum utility from its cards.) This makes cards perfect for ongoing status effects, overarching modifiers (“Light magic is half as effective during the month of Capricorn.”), and play states, especially if these are randomly generated and the players can somehow force a new card to be drawn.

Cards work best, as I’ve already said, when they convey very small amounts of information easily gleaned from across the table. However, you’ll also want all the necessary rule info on the card as well, and those two optimizations can be mutually exclusive. It’s best to keep the effects of cards as broad and simple as possible, or as obvious as possible (such as cards describing the day’s weather, for instance).

You can create some interesting mechanics by allowing the players to hold cards in a hand and play them in mechanically interesting ways. I’m not a big fan of that sort of thing, however; it’s deeply dissociative unless the characters themselves have the things the cards represent and use them just as the players are using the cards. The more overlap between the conversations of the players and their characters, the better in my book. Your own mileage may vary.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

What are the Implications of the Lovecraft Universe?

I’m assuming you’re familiar with the basics:

  1. The universe is very NOT human-centric. Not only are we not at the center of things, the vast majority of everything not of Earth is so alien that just looking at it will screw with your mind.
  2. Not only is everything else alien, it’s so inimical to earthly life that just hanging around it affects you in different negative ways, from madness to cellular degeneration.
  3. That all said, there is a sort of universal plasticity to all things, including people. What this means is that while hanging around an alien presence is warping your view of reality and making all your hair fall out, the alien could also actively rewrite your DNA so you sweat the alien’s version of a fine Chianti.

In short, not only is the alien horrific but its effects on you invoke all manner of body horror; the human body is the most alien and horrible thing of all that a human being must endure.

That’s the view from the mountaintops. As you dig into things, certain details have very interesting implications. For instance, Yog-Sothoth is described as “a congeries of iridescent globes, yet stupendous in its malign suggestiveness,” which is a wonderful way to describe a being of four (or more) physical dimensions interacting with your three-dimensional universe. It’s also somehow simultaneously outside our universe and yet coterminous with all of space and time. That means that if you could somehow communicate with/tap into Yog-Sothoth, you could know anything that’s ever happened or ever will happen. Likewise, you could travel to anywhere or anywhen. Imagine that as a method for FTL travel. You can get to Alpha Centari in mere minutes, but you have to travel through Yog-Sothoth to do it. Makes 40k’s Immaterium look like River City, Iowa.

Azathoth “blasphemes and bubbles at the center of all infinity” and “gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time and space amidst the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and the thin monotonous whine of accursed flutes.” Witches pledge themselves to it for their strange powers. Nyarlathotep is a go-between for humans and Azathoth, and can somehow bridge the divide between the human and the alien.

The Earth is infested with ancient alien beings like Cthulhu, trapped in a death-like sleep until “the stars are right.” It influences the dreams of humanity, inspiring worshipful cults, though just what the cults or Cthulhu get out of it, if anything, is never explained. By comparison, Dagon is much more straight-forward, trading rich fishing and bizarre gold jewelry for breeding-rights.

Luckily, you can escape all this body-horror and whatnot by transporting your consciousness to another body. Unfortunately, that body is likely to be even more utterly alien, like the Great Race of Yith that enjoys swapping consciousness with modern humans and going joy-riding in their bodies. These things clearly are on good terms with Yog-Sothoth since distances of time and space don’t deter their non-consensual consciousness-swapping ways.

And if swapping bodies isn’t your thing, you can always send your consciousness into the Dreamlands, a realm where powerful beings live double existences, where the “gods of earth” might dwell (when they’re not slumming it in Boston) and where the ghouls apparently go when they’re not eating people in the sewers.

And that might explain how you can hop into another body, with its own individual brain and chemistry, and yet retain your memories and personality; your “true mind” (or, at least, a reasonable facsimile thereof) exists in the Dreamlands and not in the flesh and chemicals of the brain and the limbic system. Those are just interface tools.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Romantic Fantasy and the Heroine's Journey

Over on G+, Kiel asks:

So I'm asking anyone who knows more than me:
Does the above paragraph line up with what Blue Rose was/is/is supposed to be? Does it line up with what romantic fantasy is about?

Blue Rose: no, not really. The original, at least, was basically a very nicely streamlined version of 3.5 D&D (that later became True20) with the trappings of romantic fantasy, but lacking much of the substance. For instance, Blue Rose allowed you to play an intelligent, psychic animal without really understanding the role of such animals in the fiction.

Romantic Fantasy follows a particular sort of “heroine’s journey” that’s similar to, but distinctly different, from Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey.” The big difference, if you want the tl;dr version, is, where Joe’s hero meets people, the heroine of romantic fantasy collects people.

Typically, the heroine (though occasionally it’s a hero) starts off in a bad family situation. She’s unappreciated, perhaps even hated, by what should be her family. Perhaps she’s even in danger. Some instigating event causes her to leave home. She may have a destination in mind or just be wandering aimlessly.

Early on her journey, she’ll encounter a being in trouble. She’ll rescue this being and earn its loyalty by embracing her principle virtue. This being is often a psychic animal, but could also be a gay male imbued with mystery and often Bishōnen characteristics. What’s important is that the heroine can absolutely trust this being because they are both not acceptable as a romantic interest, nor are they potential competition for the eventual romantic interest.

This typically begins the second act (assuming a traditional three-act structure) dominated by the heroine collecting strays of various sorts (usually among the marginalized, mistrusted, or scary) and building a new family for herself. By the end of the second act, this family will be a firm source of strength for our heroine, and the third act is heralded by the family being either temporarily shattered or the heroine leaving that family and putting herself in great risk to save the world/kingdom/whatever. Of course, the family rejoins to support her at a crucial moment.

There are many, many novels that follow this pattern, and the ‘80s was a heyday for female authors of what we now call romantic fantasy. Chief among them was Anne McCaffery. Dragonflight was the book that started the Pern series that eventually got her a castle in Ireland, and it’s a great book, but if you want something a bit more condensed, try Dragonsong. It’s the first of a trilogy because it was published in the ‘80s, when everything in sci-fi/fantasy came in trilogies.

The other big name from that time was Mercedes Lackey, and she probably had the greatest influence on Blue Rose, especially its setting. I’d suggest Arrows of the Queen, but I’ll admit I’ve barely scratched the surface of this prolific author’s work, so others might have better suggestions.

If you want something more military, try Elizabeth Moon’s Sheepfarmer’s Daughter. This is classic ‘80s fantasy; bits of it read very much like a D&D session from the time. Moon was probably also the most successful in moving the formula into space.

For something a bit more risqué and modern, look to Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart. This one messes with the formula most of all by pushing the full arc out into the trilogy and then mucking about with the order things normally happen in.

Outside novels, there’s lots of anime that fits as well. From Miyazaki, there’s both Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. Vision of Escaflowne banks heavily on you being familiar with the formula so it can subvert it from start to finish. The most true to the genre, however, is probably Fushigi Yuugi.

So yeah, long story short, SW, SM looks to be closer to the genre than Blue Rose 1e was. You could certainly play a romantic fantasy story with BR, and it was closer to the genre than D&D, but it was just as easy to play it as D&D with talking animals.

The big challenge to my eyes is that romantic fantasy is very focused on its heroines the same way Dr. Who is focused on the Doctor. How do you keep that same sort of personal discovery and coming-of-age elements without making some characters feel like bit parts? Can you have multiple families being built simultaneously (and possibly even overlapping)?

Definitely study the genre, but don’t let yourself get trapped by it. There’s some great stuff there, but there’s also some cruft that doesn’t belong in anything but possibly solo PC campaigns.

(Oh, and here’s an interesting exercise left to the reader: is Dune romantic fantasy in space?)

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Invisible Railways

Between the time when the OGL rejuvenated the hobby and the rise of the sons of Dragon and Dungeon (that would be Paizo and their Pathfinder game), there was an age undreamed of. Actually, it was a sucky time full of despair and the gnashing of teeth. With the coming of 3.5, the bottom fell out of the d20 market. Lots of companies went belly-up. IPs traded hands swiftly. The FLGS was an endangered species. Even Steve Jackson of Steve Jackson Games felt the need to get a day job, and he was roundly praised for his sagacity. RPGs were doomed to follow the same decline as model railroading and wargames before them.

Casting their eyes towards what remained of the war-gaming and model-railroad industries, the chattering classes that infested RPG.net at the time noted that the survivors had largely adopted a boutique model. That is, they sold high-quality, luxury offerings at a very high price point. Doing so would, of course, only doom RPGs to eventual death, discouraging new blood from entering the hobby. But the kids were too deeply sucked into those damned MMOs and besides, we’d at least get some cool games out of it and Ryan Dancey’s kitties would be kept in kibble.

While there was a lot of talk about the boutique model, and how both publishers and players needed to learn to treat RPGs as luxury goods, not much was actually done about it. The full-color coffee-table book had long cemented itself as the mainstay of the industry, and nobody seemed to be eager to buck that trend.

Nobody, that is, except Monte Cook.

Cook’s Ptolus, a campaign setting and adventure path in one came in a GIANT book, clocking in at 672 pages. It was a wonder of organization and layout, included ribbon bookmarks, and a CD with extra goodies like an additional adventure plus lots of printable handouts for the players. It also had digital versions of previous Malhovic books that Cook had associated with Ptolus: The Banewarrens and Chaositech. Monte called it the “most deluxe roleplaying product ever published.” In an era before Kickstarter, Monte goosed sales of the book by signing and numbering the first thousand copies pre-ordered, and threw in a printed copy of the adventure on the CD plus five printed copies of the player’s guide.

It needed some goosing because the MSRP was $120.

Keep in mind, at the time, the D&D 3.5 PHB had debuted a few years earlier with a $30 price tag. (I’m going by memory here, so if you can find a better number, please let me know.) You could pick up all three of the core books for under $100, and you’d need them before you could play Ptolus. Ptolus was just a setting and adventures, not a game in itself.

I have no idea how well Ptolus sold, but I can say it did nothing to hurt Cook’s reputation. The book earned glowing reviews and took home the 2007 Product of the Year ENnie.

Fast forward to today, past the Numenera kickstarter which had a funding goal of $20k but broke records pulling in over $500k, and the Invisible Sun kickstarter. Where Numenera was conceived of as a familiar coffee-table tome of a game, Invisible Sun is, like Ptolus before it, a boutique luxury item. If this does reasonably well for Monte, that black cube is going to become iconic and I’d expect a few other publishers to take a closer look at dipping their toes in the boutique luxury market. The proposed smart phone app for handling between-session chat and gaming is intriguing, and while it is, to me, the most exciting thing coming out of Invisible Sun, I suspect that will prove a bridge too far for most publishers. But decks of cards, bizarre resin statuary, and a funky-looking box? Yeah, Fantasy Flight is going to be all over that like a duck on a June bug.


And then there’s the “experience” aspects of this thing: the internet clues, the geocaching challenges, the “secrets,” and most of all, the Directed Campaign. A resin statue hand that holds cards seems a little silly to me; getting setting and adventure ideas emailed to me regularly, and physical props mailed to both the GM and players, sounds like an awesome idea and certainly something that more publishers could embrace.

Note that I don’t think this will be a huge revolution in RPGs. But do keep in mind when Ptolus was released, it was still the conventional wisdom that boxed sets had been one of the nails in TSR’s coffin. Three years, and numerous fun and cool boxed sets from Raggi and Mythmere, later and WotC was releasing a suspiciously familiar boxed set of their own.

The RPG industry is being dragged kicking and screaming out of its coffee-table rut. Slowly, but it’s being dragged, by Raggi’s work, by Zak’s lovely and well-laid-out cloth-covered books, by The Dracula Dossier, and by Monte Cook. We’re slowly peeling the roof off this hobby, not because it’s in its death-throes but because it’s enjoying a new Renaissance. I don’t think the future will look like Invisible Sun, but I do think we’ll be able to draw a line from Invisible Sun to whatever the future looks like.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Old vs. New: What's the Difference, and Why Should You Care?

This is the context you need to understand the history of D&D:

This is also why D&D, in the hands of a weak or mediocre DM and players, has such a dysfunctional and bland combat system - it is not in itself enough to reward intelligent play. (If anything, it does the opposite - if you have better AC and more hp and do more damage than the opponent then you will win, and the process is effectively mechanical. Just keep rolling the dice until you win.)

This is because, at its inception, D&D was not a game about combat. This is old news to folks who’ve been following the OSR for a while; if you look at the old games, you’ll see that the EXP you got for slaying monsters was a mere fraction of the EXP you’d get from their treasure-types. Toss in the reality of unguarded treasures and you have a game that rewards exploration, good mapping, clever play, and only engaging in necessary fights.

But nobody who worked on D&D ever explained this in the books. As early as 1st edition, you had folks who assumed that D&D was about combat. After all, most of the rules were about combat and if you were coming to the game from adventure comics, it might seem like the coolest, most exciting things you could do with your characters revolved around combat. Computer RPGs only heightened this sense, since combat and wandering about were the only real activities in those early games. Later computer RPGs barely fiddled with that formula, focusing instead on graphics and interface, largely to make the combat aspects more compelling. The idea that your game should be about something else hardly ever came up.

Which meant that D&D was zigging while people interested in fantasy adventure were zagging. Early attempts to correct this resulted in 2e with its byzantine class-specific rules for earning EXP.

Things only got worse when WotC took over. By 1999 and the release of 3e, D&D was clearly about combat.

Yet the chassis of D&D was still heavily influenced by that earlier game where combat was not the central activity but a way of adjudicating failure. WotC-era D&D has in great part been an attempt to square the circle of a game that’s supposed to be about combat, but has a fairly “robotic” and extremely abstracted combat system.

And this is where you get the disconnects between Old School and New: the joy of rust monsters, the necessity of wandering monsters, and linear adventures (ultimate efficiency from every encounter being experienced wedded to superior story through creating rising tension from encounter to encounter) vs. non-linear adventures (where player choice, freedom-of-action, and exploration take precedence over efficiency and rigorous story structure).

These issues have profound effects in design and play. For instance, New School DMs work hard to make sure every encounter is balanced and interesting, because that’s where most of the play happens. Random encounters are eschewed as being time-wasters; they certainly are not feared by the players as monsters are EXP-on-the-hoof, and you must kill every monster you encounter to make sure you have all the potential experience (and levels, powers, and magical items) as possible before the big boss battle.

Old School DMs don’t worry about balancing combats. Since most combats are optional, players have the luxury of entirely bypassing certain fights if they don’t feel up to them. Also, Old School players have all sorts of abilities and powers (as well as the ubiquitous randomly-rolled rumors) by which they can learn about their foes before they fight, allowing them to pick their battles and prep ahead of time. Wandering monsters are justly feared not because they’re incredibly dangerous (they tend to be rather weak, in fact) but because they drain valuable resources for very little gain. Since treasure, not combat, rewards the most EXP, players are more eager to bargain with, evade, or simply trick the monsters they encounter. Where an inaccurate player map is devastating to a New School game, an accurate map is invaluable in an Old School game, and so dungeons are designed with an eye towards thwarting accurate mapping. Since combat in Old School D&D is about draining resources, rust monsters are an obvious choice for an Old School dungeon. For New School D&D, rust monsters are annoying in that they cause the PCs to retreat from the dungeon, which is rightly seen as a waste of valuable playing time.

So there you have it. Armed with this knowledge, you can now maximize the fun in either Old School (aka TSR-era) or New School (WotC-era except 5e kinda) D&D. Go forth and have fun!

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Burlesque House Siege!

There’s a neat writer’s trick that’s served me well as a DM. If you’re looking for an idea, if you’re working on a topic but you’re not sure which direction to take it, force yourself to write down ten options.

Generally, you can toss out the first three; these are going to be the obvious choices, the tropes, what everyone expects. You can also usually toss out the last two or three, as you were really stretching to come up with something, and the ideas will (probably) be too far out there to work well.

But the middle four or five are where you’ll find gold. These are ideas that are not the obvious clichés you’ve seen repeatedly, but are not too weird to be believable or that risk throwing everything else out of whack.

I don’t know that Mr. Chenier did this when he came up with Burlesque House Siege! I can say he purposefully worked to avoid the cliché of religious bigots persecuting an LGBT burlesque house. What he came up with instead is far more interesting.

So, the basics: an LGBT burlesque review, the Maison Derriere, is besieged by a gang of bandits while the PCs are recovering from a night of frolic and debauchery there. They’ve got roughly half-an-hour to prepare for the attack, and help is hours (if not days) away. Plop the provided maps of the house on the table, start the clock, and let the players come up with plans to defend the place.

The villains are a gang of ne’er-do-wells who mistook the Maison Derriere for a brothel. When they insisted on a “happy ending” they got tossed out on their ears. Now the boss, Tallest Joe, is back with his whole crew and one strong monster in order to wreak vengeance.

Interestingly, this strongly implies certain things about Tallest Joe and his crew. Did they not realize they were dealing with all manner of trans/queer folk? Or was that part of the spice? It’s easy to imagine Tallest Joe straddling the middle of the Kinsey Scale, or being some flavor of trans himself.

And once you do that, you open up the adventure to all sorts of interesting possibilities. Granted, Kiel doesn’t address these directly; the original specs for this adventure were a one-shot convention event of two to four hours (and he offers good advice for modifying the adventure for both shorter and longer sessions). But he also mentions possibilities for long-term campaign play. The Maison Derriere might hide a treasure, Tallest Joe’s true goal. Or it may hold an entrance to a sinister and secret subterranean city.

These options are just touched on briefly. More detail is lavished on maps of the Maison Derriere, a cast of intriguing NPCs, and potential for betrayal, heroic last stands, and/or comic pratfalls a la “Home Alone.” As Kiel says in his advice for running this adventure:

Player Choice is #1. Don’t let the adventure become a total railroad if you can help it. If the players are set on abandoning the burlesque house and running to town with the NPC’s, LET THEM. If they want to rush ahead and meet the Bandits head on, LET THEM. If the players have an elaborate trap in mind for the burlesque house, or they ALL really want to talk their way out of a big fight, LET THEM.

There’s a lot of excellent, practical advice as well on how to run a good convention game, plus random tables for generating dancers, a random table for deciding why each PC is hanging around the place (a fun way to generate character backgrounds for one-shot convention play), even how to run the Maison Derriere as a business if the PCs end up taking it over somehow (not that unusual an occurrence in my campaigns, I can tell you). There’s also a table of dance routines for the DM in need of inspiration.

And, of course, there are all the interesting characters, complications, and conflicts you should expect from Mr. Chenier’s work. If you and your group love to chat with NPCs, get to know the local characters, or just thrive on character-driven interactions, Burlesque House Siege! provides a lot of interesting grist for your mill.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

"You Don't Understand; These Ghosts Kill People!"

Just saw the new Ghostbusters flick. First off, it’s fun. Not great, not hilarious, but certainly entertaining; I laughed out-loud a few times.

What it’s not is a remake of the original. This is a very, very different film. It’s a lot darker (one character is killed off-screen and another commits suicide on-screen) and far more physical. It’s a lot more slapstick than the original Ghostbusters, and includes actual action-movie action scenes. These new Ghostbusters wade into a sea of ghosts, blasting left-and-right with twin proton pistols or punch ghosts and other things with a proton-cestus.

In short, the new Ghostbusters are actually cool, unlikely the awkward goofballs of the original. Which is odd, because this Ghostbusters is, in many respects, what the first Ghostbusters might have been if Walter Peck, the annoying EPA agent, had been the hero. And, oddly enough, in spite of that, it works.

Don’t take your friends who haven’t seen the original (or haven’t seen it since it came out) until you make them sit down and watch the original; a good portion of the jokes require you to have that film in your mind when you come see this one.

The writing on the new Ghostbusters is very weak. The plot chugs through its points, but you can tell the only reason the Mayor of New York is in this film is because the original Ghostbusters had a run-in with the Mayor. Lots of things happen just ‘cause. The most egregious example is Jones’ Patty Tolan. She joins the Ghostbusters… erm, well, we really don’t know why she joins. We understand why the rest are eager or willing to let her join, but we aren’t given any reason why she’d want to. It’s not like there’s a paycheck in it or anything.

The villain is equally thin. We’re given a vague sort of he-was-bullied, but we’re never really shown that. He comes off and just a genius nut-job nihilist.

The film feels very small, especially compared to the original. Where the original Ghostbusters had that entire firehouse, the new Ghostbusters have a single room above a Chinese restaurant we never see. They test out their gadgets in a trash-strewn alley behind. Yeoman’s cinematography gives this a very made-for-TV feel, and not the expansive, big-screen spectacle the original was. Where New York was a character in the original Ghostbusters, it’s mostly just a setting in this one.

The editing is rough on this one as well, especially the way it cuts around during the action scenes. It’s impossible to tell where anyone is, the jumping camera makes it seem like moments have been cut out, and it just lacks the natural fluidity you expect from a big-budget film.

If it seems like I’m damning this film with faint praise, well, I sorta am. It keeps referencing the original and utterly failing to live up to it in all sorts of little ways. The original Ghostbusters had a great, tight script, a strong sense of verisimilitude, and incredible writing. This one has a loose, paint-by-the-numbers script, feels like a made-for-TV action-comedy, and has maybe two quotable lines (one of which is in the 2nd trailer: “The power of pain compels you!”) It never seems to find its groove. One minute it’s a dark action/horror film (ghosts murdering people, our heroines blasting away ghosts and rappelling into hellmouths), the next it’s a slap-stick comedy (the final confrontation is won with a literal photonic kick to the crotch), and then it’s trying to be a touching story about friendship. Since it can’t settle on its tone, it meanders about, not quite hitting all the notes its aiming for.

That all said, the casting is great. Hemsworth steals every scene he’s in, displaying the comedic talent that landed him the role of Thor; McKinnon’s Holzmann is endearingly awkward, funny, and kick-ass; and you know the laughs are coming whenever you see Jones on the screen. Kristen Wiig gets the thankless job of playing the straight-man, but she does so while giving us a surprisingly likeable character in spite of the obvious stick up her butt. Unlikely the original, this film has actual scary moments (though it does rely on the jump-scare a bit more than I’d prefer). And where the original Ghostbusters were middle-aged schlubs with mortgages, bills, and receding hairlines, the new Ghostbusters are glamorous, gravity-defying butt-kickers who never have to worry about the state of their petty cash.

So if you think you’ll like this sort of thing at all, do go see it. It’s a very entertaining way to spend an afternoon. And do sit through all the credits; there are extra scenes scattered throughout.