Site stuff and M&M

A few things:

1. You may have noticed that today is Saturday, whereas my other posts were on Fridays. When I started this blog I didn’t have a job. I have a job now. Posts will now come on Saturdays.

2. I think this is also related to new job, but y’all may have noticed from the last two posts that the ideas for stuff to post about have not been flowing as much as they were at the beginning. So any suggestions my readers have (I know there are at least three of you) would be helpful. Also, even though I’m sharing these posts on Facebook, Google+, and as of today, Twitter, I’d like to ask that comments be left here, if possible, so they’re all in one place. Also, it makes the blog’s stats look better. Like, before posting this, the blog itself had one comment, and it was from me.

3. As for some actual gaming discussion, this week I finished running my very first Mutants & Masterminds campaign. One of my players is now taking over the GM role, and I get to explore the game mechanics as a player instead. My M&M campaign ended up being very short, only 9 sessions (did I mention I have a job now?), but followed quite a lot of planning, including studying the system.

The M&M system is based on d20; it has the same core mechanic of d20+trait modifier vs. DC. It has a substantial number of very significant alterations though, making it really its own system. There are some oddities (damage conditions instead of health points) and a couple of kinks (critical attacks impose the worst condition instead of doubling damage, making it possible to take out even the bad-ass of enemies, which totally happened once in my game), but overall I like it, because of its versatility and its non-confining character creation system. You can make any kind of character in this system, and there is nothing (GM rulings aside) that is off-limits, even at the very beginning. If you haven’t already checked out Mutants & Masterminds 3rd edition, I’d recommend it.

This campaign was my first true world building experience, as all the other games I’ve GM’d have taken place in established settings. The game was set in a city I made up, but took place in a larger multi-verse that I came up with. Planning the setting was actually more fun to me, I think, than running the game itself. It’s definitely some experience that will come in handy when I get around to figuring out my Dragon’s in WWII concept.

4. In closing, I do want to say I’m glad that folks have been not only reading this blog but enjoying it. Thanks a bunch, and keep comin’ back.

Represented in game mechanics, the temptaion of the dark side is

A while ago I talked about game mechanics being a representation of the game world’s physics. Today I’d like to talk about an interesting example.

In the revised edition of Wizards of the Coasts’s D20 Star Wars Role playing game, a character is assumed to be light sight at the beginning of the campaign. When a character performs evil actions he gains dark side points. When those dark side points equal half of the character’s Wisdom score, the character is “tainted”. Thereafter he must make a Wisdom check every time he gets a new dark side point. If he fails that roll, or when his dark side points equal his Wisdom score, he is “dark”. Tainted and dark characters get bonuses to dark side force skills (if you’re not familiar with the system, Force powers are skills) and penalties to light side skills; +2/-4 for tainted, +4/-8 for dark.

Here’s the kicker though: using only the skill list in the core rulebook, most of the force skills are not explicitly light or dark, and thus unaffected by these modifiers. There are four dark side skills and only one light side skill! This means that from a practical/mechanical standpoint having your character turn to the dark side is better. That’s four skills you get bonuses to and only one skill you take a penalty on. That one light side skill? Heal Another… which a dark side character would be unlikely to use any way, right?

This is a really neat mechanical representation of the tempting nature of the the dark side of the Force in the Star Wars universe. The rules of the game are set up to make you want to go dark side, and the only reasons not to are purely intellectual and philosophical (like “my character is supposed to be a good guy) and not at all pragmatic.

Dragons in WWII? Still pretty fucking epic!

Hey folks. So look, here’s the deal…

I know this is a new blog and it’s kind of early to have half assed posts, but you’re getting one because non rpg related stuff in my life has kind of taken front and center recently. I have not thought of a topic to blog about this week.

I’ve had some folks express interest in last weeks D&D campaign idea, which was suprising because that post too was kind of half assed. To be perfectly honest, that wasn’t originally a campaign idea, but an idea I had awhile ago for a TV show. I thought it would be cool to see a nature show on mythological creatures as if they were real, and the one image that stuck with me was dragons in WWII, so I basically stole that from myself.

I don’t want that one campaign idea to dominate this blog, because this blog is meant to be about RPGs in general, but as I have nothing else, I’m going to talk about that again.

As you may have seen in my very first post, I actually don’t have a ton of experience with D&D, so I need to do a fair amount of research into it, also into real history, before I blend the two together. Also, I need to decide which edition of D&D to make this for. I most familiar with 3.5, but that’s now basically to editions behind. I may go pathfinder, we’ll see.

Anyway, here are some nebulous thoughts about the whole thing:

  • Since we’re going modern fantasy in terms of races and monsters and magic and such, I’m thinking go big or go home. To that end, I’m contemplating making this world geocentric. Like, scientists have proven that this world is the center of it’s universe, and the sun is an orbiting object.
  • Most of the countries in this world will belong to a single large continent, similar to real world Eurasia.
  • The history of this world will probably be divided into three or for ages, kind of like Tolkien’s stuff. History is still very up for grabs, but the basic idea is that the various races held their own territories for most of the world’s history until the end of the previous age/beginning of the current age, when trade and conquest began intermingling people. In other words, there’s still a “dwarf country” and a “human country”, but in the present those countries have members other races that have been born or assimilated into those cultures.
  • This world will have many different kinds of Elves with countries/cultures more or less corresponding to real life asian countries, except the Drow, who will be this world’s answer to Nazi Germany.
  • The Dwarves’ country will have been the leaders of this world’s industrial revolution, and will be a big player in the global war, and will have a history of large scale imperial expansion (a la England).
  • Goblins will hail from an equatorial area. Most other races have historically looked down on goblins, so they were commonly enslaved. So yeah, goblin land is this world’s Africa.
  • Orcs come from a land separate from the “Eurasia”, in some way; possibly a mountain range or they could be from another continent (I’m leaning towards the former). They’ve never been truly isolated (much of the world’s history has concerned itself with conflicts with orcs) but until comparatively recently they’ve had their own land to themselves. Then the Halflings came…
  • Unlike everyone else, the Halflings have been mainly nomadic, not possesing their own territory for most of history. But as the world became more industrialized and connected, and as the other powers began to expand, the Halflings began running out of places to go. Eventually, most of the Halfling clans decided to unite and find themselves a country. Since nobody likes Orcs, they decided to take over the Orc country which, with help from the Dwarves, they successfully did a few centuries ago. Orc country is now Halfling country, and the Orcs themselves have faced near extinction from war and disease, and have become second class citiziens of what most of them still feel to be their land. That’s right, Orcs are this world’s Native Americans, Halflings are the U.S., and as you can expect the Halflings have been a big player in the Goblin slave trade. Or they were. Slavery was abolished a while ago, and Goblins in Halfling country have legal rights, but they still aren’t being treated very well.
  • The Humans have been very isolationist for a long time, but have sided with the Dwarves and Halflings to fight the Drow, Elves, and Gnomes (Gnomes are Italy ’cause a friend suggested it and I liked the sound of a Gnomish Pope). Until recently, most other nations haven’t paid attention to the Humans, but those who have usually learn, as the Drow are now, that it’s almost impossible to invade Human country… unless you are the Wild Elves.
  • And somewhere in all of this will be Dragons I promise.

So there, weekly posting goal met. This post is no doubt riddled with typos. I don’t care. Fun fact, creating that link above to a joke most of you probably won’t get took almost as much time as the rest of this post.

Anyway, I’d like to hear anybody’s ideas for this campaign, but keep in mind that I have a very full plate right now so don’t expect progress to be regular, let alone weekly. Also, please leave ideas in comments here, not in Facebook or Google+.

WWII + Dragons = Fucking Epic

So I had an idea for a setting for a D&D game. Basically it would be a world with all of the standard high fantasy D&D elements, elves and magic and such, but with a level of technological and social progress fitting the mid 20th century in the real world. I’m thinking of an amalgam of the 40s, 50s, and 60s. This would be a different world, with it’s own history and geography, so things wouldn’t be identical and wouldn’t have to match real world chronology, but it would be exploring real life social and political issues from these decades through the lens of D&D style fantasy.

So first of all this world would be engulfed in a global armed conflict similar to World Wars I and II, with tanks, aircraft carriers and  blietzkreig-like air operations, but with magic and stuff. Imagine Normandy with dragons flying overhead! Yes, the dragons are involved in the war, and both sides have dragons fighting for them! Also, among the soldiers would be wizards, clerics, and other spell casters launching magic missiles and cones of fire while machine guns are going off and bombs are dropping. I think it’d be pretty epic.

One of the more powerful nations in this war is developing a bomb that releases large amount of very powerful and unpredictable magic. This bomb can be really devastating, but the technology behind it could also be used to power cities efficiently. This gives us an arms race and a debate similar to what we have regarding nuclear power.

Meanwhile, away from the front lines, matters of inequality are being addressed in at least one of the world’s super powers, perhaps the same one with the magic bomb. Certain races that have long been considered evil, orcs and goblins for instance, are beginning to demand better treatment under the law and to be more accepted in society. A civil rights movement. All of this against a backdrop of new technology drastically altering the way people work and live, leading to people re-evaluating their place in the world and the nature of government and things like that.

So I don’t have all the details, but I think there’s potential here. An orc civil rights leader telling people about his dream of equality, and perhaps a goblin leader refuting the orcs tactics of civil disobedience in favor of more drastic action. Halflings abandoning their nomadic lifestyles to live in suburbs. Tanks driven by gnomes. And did I mention dragons over Normandy? Tell me that wouldn’t be awesome!

The Importance Of Game Mechanics

This is my first post about game mechanics, also known as systems or rules. I’m probably going to talk a lot about game mechanics in a lot of detail here (I’m kind of known as the “rules guy” in my gaming group), but in this post I’m going to approach the topic from a very basic standpoint. In my opinion there are two fundamental concepts about game mechanics that need to be understood by players, game masters, and developers alike. They are:

  1. Game mechanics are not the most important part of the game
  2. Game mechanics are still very important

Let’s take them one at a time, shall we?

Game mechanics are not the most important part of the game

This may deserve it’s own post, but I’ve found that, when meeting other gamers, my desire or lack of desire to play with them comes down to how well they understand this. Next time you meet someone who plays role playing games, ask that person about his or her character. If the response is a bunch of game statistics, like “he’s a 12th level barbarian with a war ax of +6 badassary” and nothing else, than that player probably doesn’t understand this concept, and by extension probably doesn’t get the “role play” part of role playing. On the other hand, if you get a description of the character’s personality, back history, goals and relationships, maybe even an anecdote of an awesome thing that happened in game without exclusively mentioning statistics, (in other words, you get a response that you don’t need to be a veteran gamer to understand) ask that player if there’s an opening in his or her group, or if he or she wants to join yours, because that person gets it.

One of the biggest things that separates role playing games from other kinds of games is the purpose of the rules. In most other kinds of games, board games and card games in particular, the rules are the game, and everything else, from the artwork to the game pieces, even story elements for those games that have them, just adds flavor. Because of this, if you change the rules, you’re playing a different game. All those different themed versions of Monopoly are the same game with a different paint job. If you actually changed the rules of Monopoly, you change how the game is played, and possibly what the goals are, thus changing the game itself. A great example is the Free Parking rule. Not everyone realizes this, but that rule that landing on the Free Parking space gives you all the money left in the middle of the board is a house rule. Go ahead, check the instructions that came with the game; the last time I did that they went out of their way to basically say “No, that is not how you play Monopoly”. Free Parking is just that, a place where, if you stop moving there (park) you don’t have to worry about paying rent to anybody (free). This house rule changes the nature of the game by adding a new goal (landing on Free Parking as often as possible) which actually subverts the original goal of the game (acquire as much property as possible, which necessitates landing somewhere that isn’t Free Parking).

On the other hand, in a role playing game, the rules facilitate the game, without being the actual point of the game. Role playing games are an exercise in group storytelling. Following the rules are not how you play the game, nor is that how you “win”. You play the game by creating a fictional character, throwing him into a fictional world where he will make choices that will interact with, and inevitably impact, an unfolding storyline, and you “win” by seeing the plot through to the end, whatever it ends up being. The rules just establish the details of how those choices play out. It’s because of this that role playing games can go through regular revisions to the rules, sometimes drastically changing them, and still be the same game. D&D is D&D whatever edition I’m playing. It doesn’t matter if my Wizard has to prepare each use of the magic missile spell he plans to cast today (as in 3rd edition) or if he can cast it once each encounter (as in 4th edition), the point is he’s a scholar of arcane spell casting and can shoot magical balls of pain out of his fingers.

With all that being said…

Game mechanics are still very important

As I mentioned up at the top, I’m known as the resident rules guy in my gaming group; when we need to know a specific system for a specific situation, the group usually asks me, and if I don’t know the rule off the top of my head I usually know where in the books to look for it. I’m not always right, but I’m usually pretty well informed on game mechanics. This reputation of mine was cemented when I got in a long, and ultimately pointless, debate with my GM over a specific rule (I won’t bore you with details). I say pointless because I ended up being wrong, and my arguing about a specific ruling certainly didn’t facilitate the game (and was therefore a bad thing, even if I had been correct), but I don’t feel like I was being a “rules lawyer” because of my intent. I wasn’t arguing the point because I wanted to “win” at knowing the rules, but because I thought this particular rule was important to both the story and the setting. I’ve been in the GM’s chair often enough to understand the importance of bending, if not breaking, the rules from time to time because, once again, they’re there to facilitate the game, not be the game. But I believe they’re still important to the role playing experience. Not the most important thing, but maybe the third most important thing. (Well no, safety is third, but game mechanics are still up there.)

A lot of times the importance of game mechanics is placed on fairness and game balance. While I agree that these are important things to keep in mind, I think the real importance of the rules is immersion, which is important anytime you’re telling a story, regardless of medium. Our characters, and the storyline they’re experiencing, exist in a fictional world which, like the real world, has it’s own physical laws, determining what’s possible or impossible, and how things work. These physical laws are often reflected by game mechanics. Let me give you an example of what I mean: In the real world, we know that a falling object accelerates towards the ground at a rate of (roughly) ten feet per second every second. Therefore, if you fell of off a 5 story building, which would be around 50 feet high, a person better at math than I am could calculate how fast you were moving when you hit the ground, and how long it would take you to get there. In a roll playing game, if your character fell 50 feet, we would have a mechanic for determining how much damage he suffered; the mechanic varies from system to system but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a role playing game that didn’t account for this. Granted, these are methods for determining two different things (rate of acceleration vs. degree of injury) but they both serve as an effective means of quantifying the phenomenon we call gravity in their prospective worlds. See? Physics explained via game mechanics.

Now, because the rules aren’t the most important thing, sometimes a GM will decide to violate the fictional physics of this fictional world to tell a better story. This happens in many different mediums of narrative storytelling, but when it’s not done right it makes the story worse, not better. The medium that makes the best comparison is video games, because, like in role playing games, the rules of the world are established via game mechanics. Many video games have items which restore health or bring back dead characters during game play, but those items don’t exist in plot advancing cut scenes (e.g. Arith and pheonix down in Final Fantasy VII). Done right, the player doesn’t notice the incongruity until later, in hindsight, but when it’s done badly you find players yelling at the screen.

In a role playing game, the GM is the “screen” that gets yelled at.

Another example: If “speed” is defined as the distance a character can travel and still take another action in a turn representing six seconds (which seems pretty standard across games), but then you as the GM let a player character (or worse, an NPC) move twice that far and still attack someone without some kind of special ability or power (something which should be physically impossible in this world), then the physical constraints of your world can potentially fall apart. When done well, your players will overlook it because the story developed in an awesome way. But if done poorly, they’ll start screaming “PHEONIX DOWN MOTHER FUCKER” at you (or a more relevant version of that), and they won’t be silenced by you just saying “I’m the GM so deal with it”. Games are entertaining. Role playing games entertain through narrative. Narrative must have immersion to entertain. If the players aren’t entertained because their characters’ world stops making sense, the GM has failed.

Of course, this isn’t a justification for rule lawyering, because concept #1 is still as valid as ever. The point is, there’s a time to bend the rules, a time to break them, and a time to cling to them for dear life. I’ve found that honesty is often the best policy here. When the GM breaks the rules and a player calls her out on it, if the GM just says “yeah I know, I’m doing this for a reason”, most players will accept that and move on. Another best practice is to keep the digression from the normal rules as small as possible; slight tweaks work better than reality shattering changes.

By the way, this is another point that deserves it’s own post, but the importance of game mechanics is also vitally important if you’re developing a game. No, I’ve never developed a game, but I have played games that were broken because the developers took the system too seriously or not seriously enough, usually the latter. I’m looking at you, Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space! Not cool to make a Doctor Who thing I hate!!

Yeah, that definitely deserves it’s own post.

Mission statement and other introductory remarks

Hello, my name is Pat, and two things I love are writing and role playing games. This blog is an attempt to combine those two loves. Specifically, this is a place where I intend to delve into the medium; to analyze it, talk about my experiences with gaming, and explore ideas and concepts and relate them to role playing games.

In mentally preparing myself to start this blog, I’ve come up with several topics, some specific and some more general, that I want to write about. As the blog progresses, many of these topics will probably be revisited and referenced in discussing other topics, because they all seem to be related. But to make some broad terms about my goals with this blog, here’s a list of some general ideas I’d like to discuss:

  • Role playing games as a medium of artistic expression
  • Game mechanics; their purpose and importance
  • Things I’ve learned to do right in games, and things I’m still working on
  • Fun stories about games experiences I’ve had

… and maybe some totally off topic stuff will come up from time to time as well. I should probably mention that I don’t believe there is such a thing as a bad word, and have no intention of censoring myself. So, y’know… cunts and shit.

Still here? Ok.

I think now would be a good time to talk about my history with the role playing games. First off all, let me just come right out and say that I’m not an expert. Though I dabbled a bit as a high school student in the 1990s, I didn’t really get into role playing games until the early 2000s, (so I never had to deal with that whole thac0 thing I’ve heard so many horror stories about) and for a long time I was very focused on one game, Vampire: the Masquerade. After a while I started looking at other games, and very intently studied the d20 system, but it was mostly academic. I was only really playing Vampire. Then around 2005, when the classic World of Darkness was ended and the new setting was released, I suddenly found myself without people to play with and kind of got out of the hobby until I began to miss it around 2011. I got a group together and ran a new WOD game. That group is still together and over the last few years we’ve played several different games, mostly WOD but we do branch out occasionally, and I’ve also had two side groups playing, so far, exclusively non WOD games. I’ve spent most of my time as a gamer as a GM. It’s the role I’m most comfortable in, and the one I enjoy the most, though it is fun to focus on one character as well.

It’s been during this resumed activity that I’ve begun to realize that role playing games aren’t just a hobby for me, they’re a passion. They’re a creative outlet and a means of looking at real world things through a fictional lens or by breaking them down into game rules. And I know there are a lot of people, some with more experience than me and some with less, who feel the same way. If you or anyone you know is an avid gamer you’ve heard real life ideas, emotions, and even events explained as “a failed save” or “a crit”. We describe people in terms of D&D alignment, or what their Dexterity rating is. To a non-gamer that might seems silly, but we know that these games aren’t just pastimes or hobbies, they’re art, and like all art they give us a method for defining our world.

I’m going to end this introduction post with some credentials. I’m not an expert, but maybe this will show that I’m not totally talking out of my ass. Here’s a list of games I can say I’m truly familiar with, either by playing or studying (that is, if I haven’t actually played I’ve at least read the core rulebook). In no particular order:

  • Vampire: the Masquerade (Revised Edition)
  • Werewolf: the Apocolypse (Revised Edition)
  • Wraith: the Oblivian (First Edition)
  • Hunter: the Reckining
  • Dungeons and Dragons (Editions 3.5 and 4)
  • Star Wars Role Playing Game (WotC’s version, first and revised editions)
  • Vampire: the Requiem
  • Werewolf: the Forsaken
  • Mage: the Awakening
  • Changeling: the Lost
  • Promethean: the Created
  • Star Trek Role Playing Game
  • Mutants & Masterminds (Third Edition)
  • Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangness
  • Marvel Superheroes (The old TSR game)
  • Battlestar Galactica Role Playing Game

Thanks for checking this out, I hope this blog ends up being something you enjoy reading.