Virtuosity and RPGs

 Posted by at 15:20  No Responses »
Dec 022009

Wait, what?

A friend of mine is restructuring the 3.5 edition Dungeons and Dragons rules to be more to his liking. He’s calling it D&D 3.75. Though he and I disagree on some fundamental RPG theory stuff, I wish him the best in doing so and look forward to seeing what he comes up with.

On Facebook, he mentioned having recently finished setting up the requisite mechanics for the first level. This reminded me of an issue I have, in general, with the concept of level. I sent him the following bit, mostly as fodder for him to pick through as he desired. However, it also prompted me to think about the issue a bit more, too.

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Making Fantasy Worlds

 Posted by at 16:53  No Responses »
Oct 062008

Many GMs like to play in existing campaign worlds. One of the most popular was/is Forgotten Realms, which has all but become D&D’s de facto setting. Others play in an alternate version of the real world, such as is the case with many World of Darkness games. Then there are the ultimate crazies: the world builders. Count me among this bunch.

I’ve been preparing to run an original sword-and-sorcery game of late (using GURPS), set in a fantasy world of my own devising. In researching for the daunting task of crafting an entire planet, I did a fair amount of reading on what makes something fantasy as opposed to historical fiction, science fiction, et cetera. The resounding answer: magic. Magic regarded as the universal defining characteristic that sets fantasy apart from its peers.

This made a lot of sense to me, since the real question one must ask when tampering with reality is this: what ramifications will the thing I’m changing have? This is the core idea behind science fiction, for instance, with the “thing I’m changing” usually being a piece (or many pieces) of technology. I think that it’s often overlooked in fantasy, though. Magic just “is” in a lot of fantasy, without the ramifications clearly thought-through. D&D, my favorite whipping dog, is guilty as hell of this. With as many wizards are running around hurling fireballs, D&D societies are often far, far too similar to a romanticized modern-day medieval world.

Thinking through the ramifications of magic was one of the key questions I first tried to answer. I found that I had a crystal-clear picture in my head of what I wanted…but the task of articulating that picture was arduous. The details are irrelevant to this post, but suffice it to say that I wanted magic to be difficult, limited without serious investment, and completely impossible to “alter the world” (i.e. D&D’s Wish spell). The result: a world left largely unaltered by magic, but altered just enough that it was no longer ours.

I then seasoned this with the idea that there was prevalent low-key magic, more akin to ultra-effective herbalism. I didn’t want to deal with the realities that people faced in medieval life like poor sanitation, rampant disease, poor medical understanding, and so forth. All that is handwaved away by “peasant magic,” which is powerful in its own right, but too limited to result in a shift in the balance of power.

Everything else — the arrangement of the society, the types of fantastic creatures, and so forth — comes after this critical decision is made. In truth, these subsequent pieces may dictate what picture it is you paint, but the decision about magic is the canvas, the medium, the type of brush, and the technique you use.

Savage Worlds

 Posted by at 14:52  No Responses »
Jun 042008

I had the opportunity to play my first Savage Worlds game last night. I am an instant fan! The GM utilized the ruleset to run a game based on the Japanese Ultraman TV show and we all had a blast playing it. Savage Worlds uses several of my favorite mechanics in clever ways.

Savage Worlds replaces the common dice mechanic — something I often champion — with a variable dice mechanic. Larger die indicate greater skill (i.e. d6 is more skilled than d4). After playing with it, I see merits to both approaches. However, only one die is rolled and this often conjures up feelings of nerd rage.

Savage Worlds abates that rage with a second die factored into every roll: the wild die. In addition to your normal roll (be it d4, d6, d8, etc), you also always roll a d6 and take the better of either die. While not as preferable as a bell curve, the mechanic is interesting enough that it alleviates the normal d20 problem of “I’m an expert, but rolled a 2!”

Also included are die explosions, like one finds in Storytelling and 7th Sea. Any die can explode when it rolls the highest number (i.e. d4 explodes on a roll of 4, d6 on 6, etc.), which results in rolling that die again and adding the new roll to the previous one. This can happen indefinitely, and we saw several double- and triple -explosions last night. This also applies to the wild die, and you can decide after rolling all your explosions which of the two die you wish to keep.

Savage Worlds includes a mechanic by which excellent role-playing, cool actions, and so forth are rewarded by the GM with a “benny” that may be later traded in for a re-roll, avoidance of wounds, and so forth. This mimics the drama die of 7th Sea and hero points of Mutants & Masterminds, and is a mechanic I favor. Dare I say that systems lacking such a mechanic are outdated? I do indeed.

There are a number of smaller interesting quirks to the system, too. The usual target for a check of any kind is 4, and beating the target by multiples of 4 results in raises, which yield better results. Damage is either sustained or avoided based on your toughness, and may be soaked via use of a benny. A simple hit with no raises results in being ‘shaken.’ Another shaken result produces a wound, and any raises on a hit can result in wounds, too. Wounds are crippling and can pile on very quickly, making avoiding damage at all a major strategy (as it ought to be!). Each wound imposes a penalty on every roll you make.

All in all, it’s a lot of fun to play and contains a number of neat ideas that I might try and adapt for my own homebrew mechanics.

GNS Theory

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May 012008

There’s an active community of amateur and independent RPG developers that base their activities at The Forge. While I am wary of the culture fostered there, it’s the birthplace of many great independent games. In addition to games, the site’s constituency analyzes the RPG hobby. GNS Theory is one resulting idea this analysis produced. While I despise the casual appellation of the term “theory” to anything (stemming from the layman’s dismissal that something is “just a theory”)*, I think some of the core tenets are sound. The full body of GNS Theory goes too far into crazy land and has since been abandoned for the less interesting “Big Model.” The Big Model doesn’t say anything of groundbreaking, though.

The GNS in GNS Theory stands for three broad categories of gamer: the Gamist, the Narrativist, and the Simulationist. These categories are broad player archetypes, framed by the question, “Why do you role-play?” As with many anthropological studies, few gamers will be an exact fit for any of these three archetypes; the archetypes provide a lens for understanding goals and style of play. GNS Theory falls down here: it proposes that gamers and systems are only one of these three, which is ridiculous.

The Gamist approaches RPGs as problems to solve, challenges to overcome, and victories to win. Gamists seek to accomplish goals and make progress in measurable, mechanics-oriented ways. A Gamist might answer the “Why do you role-play?” question with, “To win.” Gamists are often attracted to systems that encourage contests and achieving the best stats. Many, including me, cite D&D as a Gamist-oriented system. Most computer RPGs are Gamist by default, since the usual objective of a computer game is to win.

The Narrativist is a storyteller at heart. RPGs are improvised acting sessions, during with the Narrativist seeks to explore themes and characters. The Narrativist’s key question is not “Who has the better stats?” but “What is the most dramatically interesting outcome?” A Narrativist might answer the “Why do you role-play?” question with, “To tell a story.” Narrativists are often attracted to systems that highlight drama over hard numbers. Dogs in the Vineyard is often cited as a Narrativist game.

The Simulationist wants to experience a world. In this case, the world is provided by the RPG’s setting and mechanics. The more detailed the mechanics, the more detailed the world, and the happier the Simulationist. The Simulationist answer to “Why do you role-play?” might be, “To experience another world.” Simulationists prefer systems that are mechanics-rich, such as GURPS.

As one might conclude, I am not a fan of Gamism when it comes to RPGs (computer RPGs get an exception). I enjoy some mix of Narrativism and Simulationism. As a Narrativist, I am not as interested in theme as I am drama. If a character does something bold and dramatic, that ought to pay off rather than be slapped down. By the same token, I also like my games to have a high degree of verisimilitude. Without that internal consistency, a game lacks credibility and that ruins my immersion.

How would you classify yourself?

* For the record, a theory is a framework that offers a consistent, verifiable explanation for observations. A theory is not some idea you cooked up. That’s called a hypothesis. When someone says, “I have a theory about that,” what they mean is that they have a hypothesis. Next time you hear someone say this, correct them. You will be doing the world a favor.

Favorite Characters

 Posted by at 14:42  No Responses »
Apr 302008

In the previous post, I discussed the origin of Nigel, a character I play in a space cowboy-themed game. I adore Nigel and playing him is a joy. There have been just a handful of such characters, and only Nigel panned out as such a character during the course of play. Instead, these others grew into interesting characters after I had stopped playing them. Rather than disappearing from thought, they lived on and developed on their own.

The first character that became more than my own in-game avatar was Fornan Dejat, a Cardassian character in a free-form Star Trek IRC game. Dejat’s personality was based on (one might even say copied from) the character of Elim Garak from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Dejat was a defector to the Federation from the Cardassian Union and a former member of the secretive Obsidian Order. This made him a priceless asset to Starfleet Intelligence. He would go on to be the helmsman for the titular ship of the game.

Sadly, little of what made Dejat a great character came out in-game. My greatest joys with Dejat came through writing out-of-game “logs” (akin to play-by-e-mail posts, though concerning a single character and further fleshing him out). I had the notion of anti-Cardassian sentiment among the ship’s enlisted element, which might have gone on to become its own subplot had I not abandoned the game due to waning interest. Dejat, despite my frustrations in both my own inability to execute the character as I imagined him and the lack of opportunity afforded him for expression, nevertheless lives on as one of my favorite characters.

The second character that made a lasting impression is an even more bizarre case than Dejat: I’ve never played her as I imagined her. Instead, I created a variant version of her from the seed idea and played that version. Despite that, Belle Lamairian lives on. I hope to find the opportunity to play the real version in the future.

Belle is a young woman intended for a fantasy setting. The version of her that saw play, Belle Hammason, was the orphaned, adoptive daughter of a great swordsman. While tasked with much of the housework in her youth, he would grant her wish to learn swordmanship. When he was murdered, she vowed to avenge his death and set out to do just that. After enlisting to guard a caravan and becoming mired in a web of suspicions, the caravan master ejected Belle and two companions from the guard. The three were later set upon by some of the caravan’s less savory guard elements and two of them — Belle included — died.

The GM gave me the option to let Belle live, but at the point I knew I had taken the character in the wrong direction from the beginning. I moved on to a different character. In retrospect, I wish I had kept her and tried to develop her into my vision for what she was meant to be. In some strange way, I think doing so might have resulted in a very different social path for that particular gaming group.

This meager description doesn’t do justice to the person living in my imagination, but I offer it all the same. Belle Lamairian (the proper Belle) is based in broad strokes around the appearance of the character Sorsha, from Willow, though without the whole “daughter of an evil queen” aspect. She’s also similar in many ways to Lord of the Rings’ Eowyn, though again from a more common background than Eowyn’s. She’s young, spunky, and a hot-headed (to match with the redhead stereotype). She fancies herself much better with a sword than she is — she’s a teenager, after all — but as she adventures, she grows into its use and becomes one of the greatest swordsmen alive (another concept inspired by Willow, though this one from Madmartigan).

My final mention for this entry is someone to whom you’ve already been introduced: Nigel. I detailed Nigel’s origin and unlike the other two, he’s an active character. The first great moment I had playing Nigel came early in our first session. The group had made its way into a seedy establishment to meet with an even seedier information broker, who tried to poison the biologicals (Nigel’s word for non-robots) with an offering of hors d’oeuvres. Nigel’s sensors picked up on this. As they began negotiating the price of the location of a particular bounty, the broker demanded 70% of the bounty’s payout. Naturally, we found this unpalatable.

Before much could be made of the situation, a loud alien bashed his way into the cantina and started yelling at our informant. The captain hid behind Nigel during this, but Nigel was content to watch it play out.
Once the alien had finished his rant, and seemed prepared to act against our informant, Nigel calmly tapped him on the shoulder and, with no ceremony at all, punched him out cold. Nigel then turned to the informant and said, “Thirty percent.” The informant replied, all to happy, “Thirty percent!”

Apr 292008

I found this What RPG Player Type Are You? quiz at RPG Blog II while browsing Google for other RPG blogs. Thought it was relevant in light of yesterday’s post and the earlier Flawed Origin post. My results:

What RPG Player (Not Character) Type Are You?
You scored as Character Player. The Character Player enjoys creating in-depth characters with distinct and rich personalities. He identifies closely with his characters, feeling detached from the game if he doesn’t. He takes creative pride in exploring different characters, often making each new one radically different than others he’s played. The Character Player bases his decisions on his character’s psychology first and foremost. He may view rules as a necessary evil at best, preferring sessions in which the dice never come out of their bags. For the Character Player, the greatest reward comes from experiencing the game from the emotional perspective of an interesting character.

Character Player
Casual Gamer
Weekend Warrior
Power Gamer

The results seem accurate to me. The quiz doesn’t appear to have a “See All Results” option, but since my “Storyteller” rating tied with my “Character Player” rating, I could go back and get the description for that one.

The Storyteller is in it for the plot: the sense of mystery and the fun of participating in a narrative that has the satisfying arc of a good book or movie. He enjoys interacting with well-defined NPCs, even preferring antagonists who have genuine motivations and personality to mere monsters. To the Storyteller, the greatest reward of the game is participating in a compelling story with interesting and unpredictable plot threads, in which his actions and those of his fellow characters determine the resolution. With apologies to Robin Laws.

Again, pretty close. I sense a post on GNS Theory is imminent.

Creating Characters

 Posted by at 19:25  No Responses »
Apr 282008

Enough with the negative articles. Let’s talk about something more fun. At the heart of every role-playing game is a character, usually several. These characters run the gamut, ranging from simple stereotypes (“Rar, orcish barbarian!”) to deep, complex individuals whose players portray them with such conviction that it rivals some of the best screen or stage performances. On the assumption that such characters are the goal of every role-player, how does one go about creating them?

As with many aspects of role-playing, we can turn to the writer’s craft for advice. Almost any exercise to concoct memorable characters in fiction in which one engages applies to the creation of characters for an RPG. Most of this advice is easy to locate on-line, so I’m not going to go through most of it here (sorry!). What I will do is outline how I came up with one of my own “most memorable” characters. It all starts with thievery.

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Apr 252008

In my previous post, I highlighted what I felt were the fatal flaws of the d20 System. I’m going to reverse what I said and praise it now, but in a way that is sure to upset d20 fans in the same way the previous post might.

Though d20 is a poor choice of system for creating unique and interesting characters — again, it can be done, but you have to work around the system rather than with it — it shines when placed in the right setting: computer games. Though the trend in cRPGs of late seems to be toward the “action RPG” mode of play (The Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect), several games have had incredible success in adapting the d20 System to a cRPG with few modifications. The turn-based play of combat is often transparent, but two stand-out examples of d20 games spring to mind: Neverwinter Nights and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.

While both games put d20 through heavy modification (condensing skills, modifying feats, spells, etc.), they both kept the core idea of d20 at heart. They are also both tremendous fun to play. When the player need only call out to whom they wish to speak, on whom they wish to use a skill, which target they wish to attack, and so forth, d20 works well. That’s not to suggest that the system is too complex; it isn’t. What it is, however, is suited to a user with an avatar and a computer game-style, objective-based mode of play in mind. I would argue against such a mode of play being labeled “role-playing” by any stretch, but that’s a battle with too much inertia pushing in one direction.

Where Levels, Classes, and Races fall down in player-based RPGs, they are a great tool in cRPGs. Levels and experience provide a measurable way for a player to chart their advancement through the game, classes provide a focus down which a player can target his character toward completing that advancement, and races provide interesting visual differentiation and customization options.

I can hear d20 enthusiasts clamoring about how all of those arguments might apply to tabletop games as well. I suspect I would find myself bored in the type of tabletop game they would enjoy. If that’s the kind of game you want to play, why not play it on a computer? Computers can’t (yet!) afford us the possibilities that tabletop games provide for role-playing opportunities; if you don’t care about exploring them, why don’t you play NWN?

In a computer game, too, the weakness of using a 1d20 as a core mechanic is less of a problem. Though I find the visuals a little silly at times (we’re standing still, two feet apart, I swing at you with my three-foot-long sword, and you duck?), it provides a reasonable amount of variation coupled with predictability that tabletop versions of the game don’t seem to afford. Hit Points become much more acceptable, since a paced way of tracking a character’s degradation is more important. Few players would be happy with seeing wound penalties stack up until they drop from a single blow.

I’m sure that systems better than the d20 System can be concocted for cRPGs. Computers are fast enough now that a simulationist’s wet dream should be possible, while leaving the player unencumbered by having to remember all of the mechanics associated thereto. Still, of the games produced (that I’ve played) with the d20 System at their core, they seem to be quite successful.

Apr 252008

Though 4th Edition is on the horizon, I thought I would spend some time discussing d20 System, of which the most visible representative is the 3rd Edition of Dungeons & Dragons. This will be a two-part entry, the fist focusing on the weaknesses of d20 and the second on the strengths.

As should already be evident, I have a love-hate relationship with D&D. On the one hand, AD&D2e is the RPG that first introduced me to the dice-based RPG genre. On the other hand, as I have learned more and more about that genre, I have become more and more aware of how weak a system it is. It’s unfair to group AD&D2e and D&D3e into the same discussion, so I will address the latter rather than its predecessor.

I won’t argue that d20 is a versatile system; it is. That it has been successfully adapted to countless different genres is testament to that. That d20 is a universal brand name that most every role-player knows is testament to its notoriety (or infamy). The system’s biggest engine, Dungeons & Dragons, is synonymous with RPGs for most people. Some implementations of d20 even manage to short-circuit or remove some of its pitfalls, making the system that much stronger.

However, the system is also a mascot for the bad genetics of RPGs, as discussed in the previous post. There’s no more clear example of this than in d20’s Class, Race, and Level system. I am at the point where those terms are a virtual death knell for my interest level in a game system. I have read countless arguments for and against said mechanics, and find myself without question in the camp of the nay-sayers.

Class and Race systems are a shortcut. I suspect part of the appeal of d20 is the fact that it permits said shortcuts. They represent a player’s acceptance of a game designer’s opinion of what a Cleric or a Druid is, of what “racial traits” an Elf or an Orc has, and so forth. In general, unless one is speaking of a gifted role-player, these two systems give rise to stereotypes that are replayed over and over. One can of course be creative within this framework, creating characters that are unique and interesting, but the tendency is to make cookie-cutter characters.

The Level system further shoehorns not only the initial basis for a character’s operating mechanics, but indeed the entire advancement path for that character. Rogues always receive Sneak Attack bonuses at pre-defined levels, for example. What of a character who plays a Rogue with no interest in combat ability, who never trains such ability? From where does it come? Perhaps that player wants a different ability that is instead inaccessible to him until some much higher level. What is he to do?

Another big detractor for the d20 System is its namesake: the d20. The mechanic operating the d20 System is a flat line. You roll 1d20, and you’re as likely to see a 1 or a 5, a 10 or a 20. Couple this with the Level system, which shoe-horns combat modifiers and limits skill advancement, and you encounter very frustrating play. It’s the rare occasion when reality — which I use here to mean the reality of a world, not our real-world reality — operates on a flat-line principle. Far more common is the notion of a bell curve distribution, where one’s rolls are clustered toward the center. Great success and great failure are restricted to rare chances. A common bell curve that will be familiar to players of d20 is the 3d6 Ability Score role. The 3d6 roll is an excellent example of the bell curve distribution, with most rolls clustering around 10 or 11, and the rolls of 3 and 18 both having a mere 1/216 chance of occurring.

A major flaw in d20 and many of its offspring is a direct result of its ancestry: Hit Points. For a long time, I had never conceived of a different way of tracking injury. Once introduced to the concepts of a damage track, however, I never looked back. The objective of Hit Points, of course, is to represent durability rather than actual physical health and well-being. A Fighter who had lost 50 of 60 hit points may have not taken a single wound, but was at the threshold of his endurance. This abstraction is often lost on players of d20, and even when it isn’t, the tendency to make it a shortcut for physical health ends up breaking the verisimilitude for me.

I have a number of additional issues with some of the D&D-specific d20 mechanics, focusing on the area of magic use, but those are the broad sections that kill d20 for me. Beyond mechanics, d20 continues to feel like a miniature wargame with a loose role-playing system bolted on top in a haphazard manner. The combat rules are detailed and robust, within the framework in which they operate. I have some objection to how they work, but most of those objections are nitpicks rather than fatal flaws.

I can say this with a high degree of confidence because there do exist implementations of d20 that address many of my issues. A great example is Green Ronin’s Mutants & Masterminds, which takes the d20 System and transports it into the realm of superheroes. Classes, Levels, and Races are all done-away with, as are Hit Points. A point-buy system serves well in their stead. Further, M&M focuses everything through the lens of its Powers mechanic. Powers can be used to construct any concept, from a simple billy club to the ability to move stars.

At the end of the day, though, M&M doesn’t abandon the d20 core mechanic (published under the d20 System banner, how can it?), and so it still falls down in the same way that other d20 System games do. It manages to be more fun than most while it does so, though.

A Flawed Origin

 Posted by at 11:08  6 Responses »
Apr 252008

Let’s kick things off with a bang and dive right into the flawed origin of RPGs. The inspiration for this piece comes from Mu’s Unbelievably Long and Disjointed Ramblings About RPG Design and the concept he calls “The Grandfather Clause of Stupidity.”

One of the flaws underpinning many RPG systems is the underlying assumptions that motivate them. To be precise, RPGs as we know them today came from the original Dungeons & Dragons, which itself came from Chainmail. Chainmail was not an RPG; it was a miniatures wargame. As such, many of the operative underpinnings that form the basis for D&D, which in turn formed the body of expectations for its offspring, come not from an ideal solution for role-playing, but for war-gaming.

The quickest way to demonstrate this is to open the index of the D&D Player’s Handbook. Do you see an entire chapter devoted to combat? I do. By making combat the focus of an RPG system, the designers of D&D — and this applies to any edition — have put forward a system the intent of which is to place a fantasy world dressing around a miniatures combat game. If that’s the goal, that’s great. However, if we step back and look at the broad genre that is role-playing games, we see a great deal of dressed-up, miniatures combat games.

I’m not knocking miniatures combat games, nor am I knocking the idea of combat in an RPG. I get into a good combat encounter as much as the next person. I think it’s worth raising the awareness of this “genetic trait” of RPGs, though. A quote I’ve seen attributed to John Wick (7th Sea, Legend of the Five Rings, Orkworld) says, “All RPGs have a grand total of two mechanics: swinging a sword and picking a lock.” While I doubt the veracity of this attribution (since I’ve seen it in only one location), I think it’s a succinct way of encapsulating the flawed box in which RPG design thinking often takes place.

I define RPGs by a break-down of terms: a game in which one role-plays. One can read many possible interpretations into that. For my money, it’s a game in which the participants derive enjoyment from the portrayal of a role — a character. Absent from that definition is any mention of rolling dice, swinging swords, killing monsters, and many of the other conventions that are common in RPGs. I’m not suggesting that I don’t enjoy such things, but they are not what the reason for which I’ve come to your table.

So far, the only system I’ve encountered played that gets away from the idea of RPG-as-wargame is White Wolf’s Storytelling system. While it does have mechanics for handling combat — for which I do think RPG systems need to account in some fashion — there’s little room to argue where the focus lies: story, mood, and character. Storytelling is by no means a flawless system. An unprepared GM could find himself dealing with a party of munchkin characters if he’s not careful. Such characters, though, defeat the purpose of Storytelling and so one might wonder if such a group would be better off playing D&D.

EDIT: While I never stated it in the above, one of the unspoken assumptions in the preceding paragraph is that the core World of Darkness book did not have its own combat chapter. Imagine my chagrin when I realized it did, in fact, have one. Plain-as-day. So, I apologize for any presumption that I may have appeared to make in that regard. (Yes, I can be wrong. When I am, I will admit as much. This minor revelation does not alter in any significant way the above post, though.)