Sunday, November 30, 2014

Bethorm has arrived!

Yesterday I got to open a package I have been waiting for. Once again there's a Tekumel game in print! Jeff Dee's Bethorm has arrived at my door.

Tekumel is one of those games everyone knows about as "that weird game you need a degree in tekumelian studies to run". It's often that way with the games that step outside the box. There's nothing so simple as a horse, everything has multiple limbs and are named weirdly. For some of us, that's a siren call of the Strange and the Fantastic not always found the realms of fantasy and science fiction, strangely enough.

So how is the game? Well, I just got it and I almost never read a game from cover to cover, and when I do it takes me multiple weeks. But, I can give some initial impressions.

One of the things that always throws me into a sense of dislocation when I read about Tekumel is the weird creatures. I have found multiple hacks online adapting this or that game system to model Tekumel. Sadly, most of them lack one thing really vital to "get" a strange setting and that is illustrations. How convenient Jeff is a visual artist! Guess what? Bethorm contains illustrations of all those weird creatures. This alone is worth a lot to make this game one you'll want to get if you're curious about Tekumel. Finally you can put your copy of Man of Gold aside when a creature is mentioned, look it up in Bethorm and then go back to the novel with a picture in your mind of what's in the story. Really useful.

Something else useful is that before getting into details like how you make a character or how the game system works, you get a section on how to GM a game in Tekumel. It makes me wonder why not more games start with a section on the "core activities" and a few campaign frames.

All in all this looks, from a very cursory inspection, to be an interesting addition to the different rules sets that have been available for Tekumel. My only puzzlement from a visual standpoint is why on earth the text is set in a non serif type?

More impressions will follow as I read on.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Do you as the GM have obligations?

Not too long ago we talked on our podcast with Swedish rpg luminary Anders Bj├Ârkelid. He and his friends in the rpg club NisseNytt toured conventions with massive well researched scenarios, and published their fanzine where they pontificated upon our hobby. Anders summarized their attitude to scenario design, and their modus operandi as (paraphrased) "every player deserves an experience and a story, regardless of what they do". This I remembered when I read LotFP last week. James Raggi mentioned something similar, but with the opposite intention. He claims the GM have no obligations to the players. If they complain about being bored you ought to say "Yeah, so what are you going to do about it?"

So, do you have an obligation to the players, or not?

I find the idea quite compelling if I go to a con and sign up and pay for a game to be guaranteed a story. If I am proactive and engage I will have fun, but even if I sit back and have a day when I just want to hang out and see what happens, something still happens!

On the other hand, I know that a game where the players are engaged will be more fun, and it will be easier to run for me if the players are there as co-creators. Maybe we even share narrative control, and it will be more of a interactive storytelling.

Interactive storytelling is actually one of the key words for what NisseNytt was all about. So how does this tie together?

I think you as a GM do have an obligation to the players. But, I also think as a player you have an obligation to engage in the game.  Middle of the road, wishy washy conclusion, eh?

Have you, dear reader, read any of the Play Dirty GM advice by John Wick? If you have not, I suggest you do. John is sometimes very polarizing, but he is seldom boring. His way of GMing is all about bringing stuff to the players. But, it's not at all holding hands and telling a story. No, he suggest you hurt the PCs as much as you can, and kick them while they are down. "They will love you for it", he claims. I guess you could say John Wick argues you have an obligation to make life tough for the player characters, so to sweeten the final victory.

Obviously, there are more than one way to skin this particular cat.

Maybe this in one of the reasons role playing games are such a powerful tool too express yourself through. It's adaptable to multiple approaches, and none are wrong. I have played in a NisseNytt scenario where I knew there was a story going on, and for me the big thing was to follow along to participate through the viewpoint of my character. I've also played with James Raggi, where he sat back and watched us squirm after presenting us with a extremely messy situation we as players had to sort out as our PCs. Finally, I've also played a session of Dogs in the Vineyard where the game master put me, the player, under more and more pressure to act with my PC as the situation we had become part of spiralled out of control as it began to emotionally engage us as players just as much as our PCs. I was down, and the kicks kept coming.

I loved all of those situations. So, ask yourself this the next time you sit down behind the GM screen. Do you have an obligation to the players this time?

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Old D&D editions and clones - Lamentation of the Flame Princess

A few years back everyone was publishing games in boxes. Brave Halfling announced a boxed set of Swords&Wizardry, and a crazy American living in Finland announced he was publishing his own game, in a box. I took down my copy of the Lamentations of the Flame Princess box, and re-read it. I love boxed games!

It's interesting to think about what the intended audience is for a game. It used to be standard procedure to include a short section in the beginning of the rules about "What is a role playing game". Considering how common it seems to be to learn to play from someone else, the uselessness of those sections have of course been debated. LotfP consists of not only two books of rules, one book of GM advice and two adventures, it also includes a booklet called "Tutorial". Four years later I wonder how many read that booklet and learned something from it? I do applaud James Raggi for trying to grow the hobby, but I wonder if that booklet was of any use to anyone?

The game is clearly based on D&D. There are classes and armor class, and there are spells per level. Very much D&D. There are some nice tweaks to the D&D baseline, like the Specialist class. I have never really understood the big fuzz about the Thief class, but the Specialist feels like a nice take on it. It's customizable and can be the basis for many fantasy tropes and roles. Another invention is a simple and usable encumbrance system. I like that Intelligence is used for spell saves, and not only giving additional languages. I never found all those languages very useful. After someone invented "common" all that bathwater followed after the baby out the window. Maybe it was the other way around. Whatever.

Then there's the fiddly bits. Lots of fiddly bits. You'll find rules for different combat actions, different AC if you're in melee or in ranged combat and rules for investments and the very old school saving throw system of nonsensical categories from the early seventies in the American mid west. No condition is passed by unmentioned and there are rules for excavating, foraging and lots more. My lasting impression is a little bit like when I read Dark Dungeons or the complete Mentzer sets of D&D. Everything is covered. A more modern comparison would be the revised 3rd ed. D&D. In a way I guess it would make excellent sense if this is a game for a newbie. Whatever you want to know is in there. You're covered, calm down and get on with the game!

When I get to the Referee book, this impression is kind of reinforced. I think most of the advice is very good. Solid and functional suggestions for how to create encounters, adventures and campaigns. There is one thing that stand out, though. James puts a lot of emphasize on how important it is with NPCs. This I find interesting. Clearly James is very old school in his approach to GM when he suggests extreme detachment and fair adjudication of situations. In alignment with the Story Now moniker, his style is very much Story After. It's a post-modern Story, laid on the events in hindsight. It's taking the game part and simulation part very seriously, but putting an emphasis on the NPC I have not seen in many other old school games. I have played the game only once, with the designer himself as Referee. That scenario was all about interacting with the world and the NPCs. When I compare that to some of his other published scenarios they feel very different, being mostly empty places or mysteries placed in your way to explore and trigger like a bomb.

My way of running a game is very much by the seat of my pants. I grab a setting book, a couple of pre-made adventures and modify on the fly very much dependent on Story Now or "wouldn't it be cool to throw this in now, given the context?". I find the approach to the game in the rules and in the advice leave me with awe and admiration. But, it does not make my wheels spin.

This is not a bad game, and some parts are excellent. But having read it, I don't feel engaged. I think my unplanned chaos way of refereeing could use some of the cold analytic approach in the Referee book. Apart from that, I will put this game back on the shelf without any further play. Should the opportunity arise to play with James again, I'd grab that seat in an instant, though!

...and the box is a beauty!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Old D&D editions and clones - AD&D

Way back in the days, I got to take a peek at the game books used by the older brother of one of my class mates and gaming buddy. It was a hardcover volume, and I still remember to this very day that the illustrations struck me as very silly and amateurish. That book was the 1st ed AD&D Players Handbook.

Many years later and I talk to a guy who once he got that game started up a game, and the game is still running, even though the game sessions now are a year or so apart, was started in those early days. That coincided with WotC releasing 3rd ed. D&D and I felt inspired, and bought the game. So I guess AD&D has been a game that has influenced me, pushed me toward other games and coloured my perception of things.

Still, I have never played the game.

I tried to gather some players some years back when I scrounged up a bunch of Rob Kuntz modules, but never managed to get enough for a whole party. It stayed the un-played edition.

I took down one of my two copies of the PHB and perused it. Yeah, I have two copies of a game I've never played. I have three copies of the 2nd ed. DragonQuest and I haven't played that either. Why are you looking at me like that? Anyway. I took down my copy of the PHB, and decided to check it out. Fiddly bits. Dozens of fiddly bits. You come to the section on how to make a character, and it starts with how to roll up your stats. Is this power gaming or what? You are told you need superior stats, and oh do you need them. Multiple bizarre little things are calculated off those stats, like how good you are at lifting gates. Some stats are even rolled with both d6 and a percentile score. Involved is the word.

The thing is, much of this first saw the light of day in the OD&D Supplement I - Greyhawk, and you understand that Gary and Rob must have loved fiddly bits. In their campaign there were so many subsystems and extra house rules added on top of OD&D that the game beneath was barely visible. This is a game for people who love a game, not a tool for creating stories in secondary worlds.

I actually don't have a problem with lot of rules. I have played MERP, and own more than one edition of Rolemaster. I have both Burning Wheel and Burning Empires, and would even consider running them. But, then there are rules. Let's take a look at Surprise. That section of the rules begin by telling you what surprise is, and then suggests you roll a d6, or a d8 explains that then there's a 1 in 8 or a 1 in 6 chance. Then there's a nice table to show how many time increments difference there is in rolling difference sets of results on those dice. It's both simple and extremely convoluted at the same time. Say whatever you will about Rolemaster or Burning Empires, but they are far more consistent and thus handle the weight of those rules quite differently.

Sometimes I catch the wonder, the fantasy and the strange beneath the over- and under-explained rules. I see why some of this caught the imagination. There was arcane mysteries to be unlocked in this mysterious tome, and since I love Call of Cthulhu you can guess why that speaks to me. But, I still don't want to run this game. Playing D&D as a game - as a challenge for the players, not their characters -  would be a different challenge. Maybe one day, but I would probably chuck much of that Gygaxian cruft. It's just not my style.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Running a game for kids

Tonight I ran a game for our daughter, two of her friends and our son. My wife also played, so give the kids some kind of help when floundering. It was interesting to say the least.

The game, Morwhayle, is a game from the same guys who created the newest Mutant game, that will be published by Modiphius in the UK. It's based on the novels and comics by Peter Bergting. It's designed with new players in mind, and I think it's an interesting game in of itself.

First off I think the idea of using dice pools, adding dice for Abilities, Gear and Hindrances (rated from d4 to d12) and so on is a very good way to visualize the world for the players. With newbies, that is a great way to get them to pick up on the rules faster. It felt like Aspects in Fate, but with less jargon and with more dice to choose from. Also, I liked how the game took hints from Apocalypse World (the most talked about game I have not yet played) and let character creation be done wholly by just picking stuff of the sheet. Slick and modern game design.

Most importantly, how did it go? Well, they seemed to like it and when I talked with our daughter after the game, she mentioned how she was going to test another archetype next game. Hooked!

What most amazed me was that the youngest player was the one who quickest grasped the idea of playing a role, and talking in character!

But, being a GM for kids, isn't it hard? Well, it's different that running a game for adults, I tell you that! For starters, kids have a much harder time sitting still around a table for multiple hours. I strongly recommend you include a break or two, with snacks. They also took the game much more into the real world than adults do. I mean, how often do your players crawl under the game table when their characters are hiding from zombies? But, I think there are benefits for you as a GM as well. You have to keep it moving and if you don't give every player something to do, they will just leave the table! I thought I ran a pretty simple story, but be prepared to face extreme cases of the truth of the Three Clue Rule. There should be lots of hints, and lot of options for how to proceed.

All in all, I think the session was not only fun for us adults, to be able to hang out and play a game with our kids. But also a learning experience about what it takes to make a game session run well. Adults may be more used to take control of their situation, but they can be just as paralyzed in the face of decision and you should always be ready for that.

Best thing in the end is I think we will do this again, and I look forward to it.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Some impressions of Mutant: Year Zero

I guess you have heard that Modiphius is going to publish the Swedish post-apocalyptic game Mutant? If you have not, go forth and click that link and read some about it. I'll stay here until you get back?

You're back? Good. Let's move on. I have read the Swedish edition of the game and I'm going to talk a bit about my impressions. It is a game with some peculiarities and own takes on things. Please note that as far as I know, the edition Modiphius is publishing is just like it. But, I have no inside information.

First off let me say this is an interesting game. I have yet to try it, but reading it makes me really pumped up about the idea of running and playing it. There are some things that stand out.

The first thing is how the game have a communal part, and an individual part. You all belong to a community of mutants, an Ark. This Ark you all develop together, deciding how it's supposed to be developing, putting efforts into defenses or developing culture. This works as a framing device for your individual goals and also drives you into the Zone, to gather resources. I really like how this gives you all a reason to band together, and something to do.

Then there's the characters. All characters have one NPC they hate, one they want to protect and then they have their one big dream. It's the classic stick and carrot. While this is neat, I think where the system has the potential to really shine is in the mixing. You have a "council session" first at every game session where you plan the strategic game, then you get to play your characters and their hates and cares pull them in different directions.

Now, this is when I find it all becomes quite interesting. You have 10 Type Events for the Ark and 10 Events for the Zone. Roll the dice or pick one of those events, like One NPC Is In Trouble or Fight About An Item and combine that with the strategic goal for the Ark and the different characters the PCs care or hate and you will have something happening. I think this has potential! When things have really gelled in my Tianxia game is when I have managed to match a place with characters in conflict. This feels like it could work like that.

Actually, this makes me think of how I used to read Ars Magica and feel that game sounded great, and then really fall flat in play. This promises some of the same things. Maybe it will all come together better this time. I feel this way the characters are beings hooked into the Ark more than the Ars Magica characters ever where. In the Ark there's a desperate need for food and clean water, and necessity will drive the PCs and NPCs into conflict, and into the Zone. With the Type Events, you are sure to have something happen that will topple any kind of balance achieved.  

This all comes together to drive story. Note to my old school friends, this is not Story Before! This is very much a story that develop out of play. This naturally relates a lot to my previous Fate experience. There are still lessons to be learned from that. I will re-read chapter 9 of my Fate Core rule book and think upon the Mutant way a bit more, and I expect the fallout to at least be interesting. Yeah, fallout. The future is post-apocalyptic and brutal.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Running Tianxia - the session that brainfaded

Last Wednesday I was supposed to be running my somewhat weekly Tianxia game. This time I canceled the game, since not only were attendance a bit spotty, but the main reason was I was totally out of ideas. Now the question rears up, should a total brain fade on the GM's part be reason enough to cancel a game night? Can you not just plow on, or is it indicative of something being done wrong?

In theory you just show up for a game, explore the hell out of the secondary world and fun things happen, right? Pure sandbox enthusiasts talk about that as the bees knees, but I've never been able to make it happen. Either it's me not being able to make the sandbox enticing enough, or the people I play with just aren't that good at go and make the world their own. Considering the fact we are all busy people, who drink beer and chat during the the game on a weekday night tired after a day's work, I guess the latter is a major part. My limitations I am well familiar with, so I leave them out for this time.

So, what do you do to give the game some structure? Previous sessions I've set up a location with some people in it and written up some goals for them, and then it has just evolved naturally from there. I wrote about that, the plot triads, and how well it worked before. This time I had the location, but just couldn't invent any interesting people for the life of me.

Thus I turn to the game system for a lead. When you play Fate you can be sure of one thing, it's covered by the rules somewhere. It's the most comprehensive rules set I've played so far! Guess what? I have not read chapter 9 of the Fate Core rules yet...

Looking in that chapter I find a handy little list.

Creating A Scenario:
  • Find Problems
  • Ask Story Questions
  • Establish the Opposition
  • Set the First Scene
There's one way to start off that first bullet point, start with the aspects. Naturally. Everything is about Aspects in Fate.

This kind of brings home how important it is, and hard, to create good aspects. Now when I sit down and look at them, some of these I should be able to use, shouldn't I?

Always in Trouble, Watch Your Tongue, Unwilling Mentor, Paladin in training, These are sad times, Righteous Anger, Scumbags gets what they deserve, The Good Fight

I know where I want the action to kick off, in the governor's palace. Using that I guess the list above should be able to tell me something about the potential conflicts and opposition.

I wonder if it's because it's so formalized that it feels hard? In the end I still think this will make me a better GM. I usually never think things through like this, and when lightning strikes I am cooking with gas. When there's no lightning it will be a dud. Hopefully this will teach me something.

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