January 31, 2014

40th Anniversary of D&D

To commemorate the 40th Anniversary of D&D, d20 Dark Ages is running a Blog Hop Challenge wherein he asks us to answer a personal D&D related question every day for the month of February. While I recently did a Blog Series similar to this a few months ago, this one asks some different questions. Also, it is a true celebration of D&D and what it means for each of us. D&D has had a tremendous impact upon my life and every rpg gamer out there (even if they don't currently or never have played D&D). Thus, I felt compelled to join this Blog Hop Challenge.

I expect my memory to fail me on several questions, but I will attempt to answer them anyway, or at least with something close. I hope you bear with me. I also hope this series can bring back some of the nostalgia of the beginning days of rpgs.

Side Note: When was D&D actually released? Check out this article at Playing at the World for an analysis of what day the actual 40th Anniversary of D&D could fall on.

January 28, 2014

The Campaign Bible

A Series Bible is a reference document that some screenwriters for TV shows use to keep track of characters, settings and other notes. It actually has two uses. One is when it is used to promote the show before it becomes produced. This use has character notes, interactions and setting details designed to showcase the potential of the show. Second is when a series is in production and things change to the characters and locations and need to be kept track of for future episodes. Obviously, there is a direct parallel between the format of an episodic TV show and an ongoing rpg campaign.

As an example of a series bible let’s take a look back at the old Lone Ranger TV series from the 1950’s. (For the record I am not from the 50’s, but I did see a lot of the show in reruns growing up.)
Here are a few guidelines set down for the series…

-The Lone Ranger is never seen without his mask or a disguise.
-The Lone Ranger always uses perfect grammar and precise speech completely devoid of slang and colloquial phrases, at all times.
-When he has to use guns, The Lone Ranger never shoots to kill, but rather only to disarm his opponent as painlessly as possible.
-Logically, too, The Lone Ranger never wins against hopeless odds; i.e., he is never seen escaping from a barrage of bullets merely by riding into the horizon.
-Names of unsympathetic characters are carefully chosen, never consisting of two names if it can be avoided, to avoid even further vicarious association—more often than not, a single nickname is selected.
-Criminals are never shown in enviable positions of wealth or power, and they never appear as successful or glamorous.

There were also other things such as “Kemosabe” meaning “trusted scout” and the name Tonto meaning “wild one”, which became a part of the regular lexicon of the show, even though neither is a real word…except that tonto means “dumb” in Spanish and his name was changed to Toro in Spanish language versions of the show. They were made up words that the shows writers gave meaning to, much the same way an rpg writer will give meaning to people and places within their own setting.

I do the same thing when I’m designing my own worlds for gaming. I tend to associate a particular race with a specific real-world language. For instance, I might have my dwarves’ language based off of Lithuanian. When naming locations or NPCs the players might meet or know of, I translate a word I want to associate with that person/place into the foreign language. For example, the king of the dwarves might be Rokas Kateras, which means “rock cutter” in Lithuanian. From there I make a note in my “campaign bible”, otherwise known as “campaign notes”, that dwarven names and locations are based off the Lithuanian language.

Having a Campaign Bible allows for greater consistency within a setting/campaign. By tying my dwarves into a specific language I can be consistent in my naming habits. It can be real jarring to have your player characters meet Rokas Kateras and his two sons, Charles and Emanuel. The son’s names are perfectly fine but not when placed into the same culture. It breaks the immersion a good designer wants to build.

That is the greatest strength of building a Campaign Bible during world building. It allows the writer to check back to what is behind the choices they make in their design. All world designers keep notes, but sometimes we forget where we get the ideas from. For instance, if I’m working on race design but then move onto some other project, I may forget I chose Lithuanian as the default language of the dwarves when I get back to working on the dwarven lands. Keeping the notes of how we make decisions can help down the road.

However, a Campaign Bible is also good for a game after the world building is done and play has started. Player characters are always meeting new NPCs and finding new adventures that were not there during world creation. Adding them to an official list of notes keeps a GM from forgetting them. Also, relationships of the player characters will change over the course of a campaign. The characters may be banned from certain villages or a cult may be eager to gain revenge on the party or the GM may have had to invent a relative for a PC in order to move a story along. These are all the sorts of things that need to be recorded. Our memories are never as good as we think they are.

Why is this important? Let’s
look at the Lone Ranger again, specifically the movie recently released in 2013. The movie is considered a “commercial failure” for many reasons. While not the only reason, I think one cause was that many of the things set down in the original Lone Ranger series bible were ignored or outright contrary. In the movie, the Lone Ranger was unmasked for much of the film, he killed people, the criminals had full names and the criminals were in positions of authority. Sure many of these changes were subtle and no one consciously made note of them, but there was an undercurrent throughout the movie that this was not the Lone Ranger. It had diverged too much from its source. The viewers lost faith in the movie.

By forgetting what has come before the concepts can fall apart. The same can happen to an rpg campaign. A solid base and a consistent world can elevate a campaign from a random series of un-connected adventures to something truly special. A Campaign Bible can help with that.

January 21, 2014

System as Neutral Arbiter

By default, the DM is the neutral arbiter of an rpg game. They are there to represent the antagonists; to play them fairly and without bias. And with that neutrality comes a lot of power. And sometimes that neutrality can be broken with dire consequences.

In the early days of rpgs, the DM was King. They ran encounters as they wished and interpreted the rules in their own manner.  That worked great; games moved on and people had fun…until people didn’t have fun. Sometimes a DM would make a ruling that the players didn’t like and refused to budge on it. Sometimes a DM would be in a bad mood and unconsciously take it out on the player characters. Sometimes a player would run into a killer DM whose enjoyment came from destroying and frustrating characters and their players. Sometimes the DM became competitive with the players and their characters. Such bad DMs were bad because they abused the game system for their own advantage/enjoyment.

The usual solution to such DMs was to move on; find a new DM. Sometimes this wasn’t possible and players were stuck with who they had. Then the alternative was to simply stop playing. I suspect many former players stopped playing because of bad experiences with an awful DM.

So, the question of this article is…can a rules system be designed to act as neutral arbiter? Can a system be designed that will limit the power of the DM? Can a system be designed that is transparent enough that the players can see abuses of DM arbitration? Can a system be designed that equalizes the power (or game control) between DM and players? I would say yes, and that it has already been done.

In order for a system to act as neutral arbiter it must limit the powers of what a DM can do to the characters. The easiest way to do this is through limiting and codifying encounter design. If a DM is limited to certain types (levels) of creatures/traps that they can throw at the PCs then the DM is by default restricted form using inappropriate monsters. Thus the system is placing all encounters within the capabilities of the characters.

3E did this with their CR system. Depending on what levels the characters were, the DM had a certain range of monsters they can add into an encounter. In addition, monsters were based off of character design. Monsters had a base template and onto that was added the same classes as what the player characters had for abilities. If a DM wanted to customize a monster they would have to use prescribed abilities. In this way, monsters were limited to what the player characters could do.

4E took this concept of neutral system arbitration even further. Encounter design was even tighter. A DM was given points to build encounters with and then given a limited set of monsters/traps to buy with those points. XP and loot rewards were clearly defined and a reflection of the encounter design parameters. Basically the capabilities of the players and the DM were pre-defined.

However, the most pronounced example of system arbitration and rigid encounter design is the Rune rpg written by the talented Robin D Laws and released by Atlas Games. Rune is an rpg based on the computer game of the same name that focuses on brutal hack-and-slash. The focus is less on role-playing and more on straight up combat. Encounters are written by a strict point-based system that factors in the characters and even previous encounters. The DM is limited to specific things they can include in an encounter and they are even not allowed to reuse certain encounter elements within a string of encounters. However, in this game the DM is encouraged to push the capabilities of the characters and to design “killer” encounters…all within the limitations of the allowed design components. And those limitations kept everything equalized.

So, it is possible to design a system wherein the powers of the DM are reduced and the game is on a level playing field between player and DM.

Of course, the DM is still King. Even if a system sets up encounter design mechanics it is still possible for a DM to simply ignore them and still make things up as they see fit. However, if there is an implication between the players and DM that the DM will be following the design mechanics of a rule system then the DM will be stepping outside the bounds that the group has set in place by using that particular system. The players would then have the “right” to complain.

However, a follow-up question is…should a rules system be the neutral arbiter?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

Ultimately, it always comes down to trust. Does the group trust their DM? If they do, then there is no real need for an arbiter system. Most well-established gaming groups trust their DMs through years of gaming together. However, many new groups would like a rules system that keeps things fair; at least at the start. A rigid system will show when a DM is breaking the rules for their own advantage; this is a sign for the players in that group to beware of.
Also, when playing in a neutral environment, such at a con, an arbiter system is good as well. How does the DM rule on topics that may not be covered by the rules. Let’s look at Falling. Without system rules on this the DM has the right to have it do little damage all the way up to killing a character. The trust between player and DM has not been built up. I’m sure most of us have heard horror stories of bad DMs at cons.

However, sometimes it’s not about trust. Sometimes it’s simply wanting the feeling that there is no question as to trust; that the system is keeping things fair and above board. Thus there is no need to question the integrity of the DM. It also means the players don’t have to question what is happening to their characters. They know what to expect system-wise. They know what Falling does before it happens. They know the consequences of their actions because the system is judging their actions, not the DM.

Of course, a system that does the work for the DM is not to everyone’s liking. Some DMs resent having their power to control the game minimized and is counter to why they play; some even consider it an insult. Some groups enjoy a more random system where not everything is balanced within the system. Of course all of these groups have that implicit trust of their DM; they trust their DM to be neutral. “Balance” is not an issue for them because they trust the DM to only present situations that they at least have a chance of surviving. And they do already know the consequences of their actions, because the DM’s reactions are a known commodity. In this case the consistency of a rules system has been replaced with the consistency of the DM.

Each gaming group is different. How much system arbitration does your group prefer?

January 14, 2014

Transitions - The Players Have Revolted and Ousted Me!

For a few years now I've been running two campaigns, a 4E hexcrawl sandbox exploration of a new land and the Savage Worlds superhero/supervillain campaign of Necessary Evil. We played each game every two weeks, making for one game a week. Both games were a lot of fun. However, both drew a close recently.

Necessary Evil has a natural and built-in conclusion to the campaign. There is a series of plot points that form the campaign providing a full beginning, middle and end. There are also additional adventures that can be run in between the plot and while I did run a bunch of them, I did not run all of them. I wanted the focus to be on the main plotline and I felt too many "side-adventures" would dilute the feel of the campaign. In the end, the campaign had a good feel to it and ran as long as it needed to without ending too soon or going past its prime into redundancy.

The 4E hexcrawl was fun in the beginning but in the end the weight of the combat system made each night long. Yes, the combats were fun, exciting and tension filled but it all went too slow. Sure, there are ways to speed up 4E's combat, but these require buy-in from the players and my players seemed incapable of going fast; they agonized over doing the "right" thing and spent too long on their decision making. As fun as 4E was, it took too long to get anything done and I was unhappy with its progression. I decided to end it. I closed up a couple of the main plotlines that had developed (a rival adventuring group and a potential war) and called an end to the campaign.

Both campaigns ended within a month of each other. I had a couple of ideas of some new campaigns I wanted to run. One was to run the old Birthright campaign setting with the HARP rules. The second was to run a Savage Worlds setting of my own design. I began to make notes and do some writing for them. And then the revolts began...

The first game that ended was the Necessary Evil campaign. The players knew the end was coming and one of them said he wanted to run a game of his own design; a TORG/time travel/other worlds sort of setting. I said sure as I could tell he really wanted to run this and I figured I still had the other game.

Except, as the 4E game ended another player said he wanted to run a 3E game. This time I was more loath to give up my GM spot. However, I felt it was only fair to let the players decide what to play next. So, once the 4E game officially wrapped up I asked who wanted to run something. I offered up the Birthright campaign; my wife offered up 7th Sea, one player offered up the 3E option and another offered to run something of his own design. We all voted and my wife's 7th Sea game won out. In fact, my Birthright game came in dead last.

I was officially ousted as GM. The funny thing is I had personally formed both gaming groups, recruiting the players and setting up the games initially. I had come to feel as if they were "my groups". Now I was a GM without a game.

However, it's okay. It is good to play for a change. I have even managed to get in one GMing session when I ran a one-shot playtest of the Ashen Stars GUMSHOE system on New Year's Day. And I really like the 7th Sea game and my wife is a superb GM. The other game is still up for debate as to whether or not it will work out (it has many issues thus far).

So far, I'm fine with the revolution.

This is part of the RPG Blog Carnival for January 2014, on the topic of Transitions. It is being hosted by Herericwerks this month. You can check out other articles for this month here.

January 7, 2014

Reasons Why Puzzles Are In a Dungeon

I am a huge fan of including puzzles in dungeon designs. I feel it provides a change of pace from combat encounters and presents the players with a different form of challenge. However, some designers tend to avoid adding puzzles into an adventure for the simple fact that puzzles don’t make a lot of sense. Why would the in-character designer of a dungeon include puzzles? There are many good reasons for this that do not break the “reality” of a dungeon.

One thing to remember is that puzzles are impediments that the designer of the complex put in place to allow people to overcome the impediment. Unlike traps and monsters that are there to kill and prevent a person from proceeding forward, puzzles are only designed as temporary stops to the progress of whoever is trying to get past the puzzle.

The designer is willing to allow people to pass…as long as he feels they are of sufficient intelligence. This sort of test is often used when the designer wants whatever lies at the end of the puzzle to be found but only by the “right” people. This is often done when the designer expects to die soon but still wants someone to eventually find his treasures.
A variation on this is when “invaders” are being tested in another category other than intelligence. For example, if the designer is a priest hiding a relic, the puzzles will be centric to the faith of that priest. In this case the designer would be testing piety and not intelligence.

-Not a Puzzle
The designer wants a barrier that is easy to bypass if the person knows the answer already. The principal here is that the people in the complex are supposed to be there and already have the answer before they get to the puzzle. This sort of puzzle is used when there are other occupants, such as guards or family, in the complex. Of course that asks the question…why make it a puzzle and not simply a matter of giving the password? See the next point.

-Memory Jog
The barrier requires the right password but the designer is forgetful. In this case the puzzle is there to jog the memory of what the password is. This also works if the designer is anticipating other people, who they have already given the password to, also to have potentially forgotten the password.  In this case the puzzle is a redundant backup.

-Intellectually Superior
The designer feels they are intellectually superior to everyone else and wants to show it. The puzzles are a form of taunting. These sorts of puzzles almost always have a painful response for answering a puzzle incorrectly.

-Just Plain Crazy
Sometimes, the designer is simply crazy and gets pleasure from these puzzles. Instead of simply using traps, they use puzzles because in the back of their deranged mind they still want people to move past the barrier.