Thursday, November 7, 2013
I'll be brief. I want to talk about one-shots.
For those of you unfamiliar with the term, one-shots refer to roleplaying game scenarios that take only one session to complete. They usually, but not always, have an entirely self-contained story. Published examples of this type of game include Pathfinder Society Scenarios or D&D Dungeon Delves. Other RPG Systems, like Dread or Mythender are pretty much entirely built around the idea of a one-shot.
- Brevity. Obviously, one-shots are short. They can be begun and finished in the amount of time it would take for a few boardgames. Players can be left with a sense of closure or completion at the end of the session, instead of needing to wait weeks or potentially months for a campaign's story arc to end.
- No commitment. One-shots require very little commitment from players compared to an extended campaign. You don't need to worry about scheduling addition sessions beyond the first.
- Spontaneity. Because of the brief nature of the game, one-shots don't usually require much work before the beginning of the session. So players can start and end a game with a minimum amount of prep.
- Brevity. The lack of an over arching storyline can leave you feeling unfulfilled if you're itching for a grand heroic adventure.
- Lack of Attachment. Because of their brief nature, there's less time to cultivate interest in a storyline or NPC background in a one-shot. It can lead to a lack of attachment to said storyline and give the entire session more of a crunchy-grindy feel that harkens to the halcyon days of MMORPG raids.
- Too long. Sometimes you haven't set aside enough time, for whatever reason, to fit all the adventure material you'd like into your single session. So your would-be-one-shot turns into a two-part adventure that's separated by a week (or more).
I personally enjoy one-shots as a sometimes food. 90% of my RPG gaming comes from ongoing campaigns and I like it that way. The remaining 10% are pickup games that happen from time to time. Too many one-shots in my schedule and I start to feel like I'm less roleplaying my characters and more that I'm piloting statblocks. If I wanted to do that I'd be playing MMO's.
Monday, August 12, 2013
1) We like telling collaborative stories with our friends.
2) We like playing boardgames with our friends.
3) We often want to do both 1) and 2) at the same time with the same people.
Fortunately, roleplaying game systems allow us to do just that. But not every story is equally well told by every RPG system. If your group is anything like ours you've run into what we've come to call the "limits of a system." As Jeremy mentions in his last post, it can be difficult to play Captain Malcolm Reynolds in a team of specialists using a game system like Pathfinder. The d20 System and its descendants all have a "roll-high" mechanic that determine outcomes based on whether or not a player can surpass a target number (Difficulty Class or DC). This encourages players to build specialized characters with a high single stat in order to bypass that DC so that they can feel like they're more successful.
The concept of a generalist character is limited by the fact that the d20 system, mechanically, heavily favors specialists builds. But my argument is that this is not a inherent flaw with the game system itself. I think that this is a problem that results from the dissonance created when a game system doesn't align with the type of story trying to be told. For example, if I want to tell a gritty, super lethal, cyberpunk intrigue set in a dystopian future I wouldn't use the Pathfinder or d20 Systems. HP and AC are great abstractions but don't perfectly capture the feeling of intense laser gun shoot outs or seat-of-the-pants hover car chases. I'd probably use Shadowrun or Paranoia (depending on how much hilarious backstabbing I wanted) because those game systems were designed with that setting and story structure in mind.
A roleplaying game system really shines when it is used to tell the stories that it was originally designed for. Dread is a great example. It's an incredibly effective storytelling system for how simple the rules are. 95% of the mechanics revolve around a Jenga tower. In order for your character to accomplish difficult tasks, your player pulls a block out of the tower. If the tower falls down, your character dies (or is otherwise removed from the game). You can also elect to intentionally knock down the tower which represents your character going out in a blaze of glory. That's pretty much it. Dread is a great system to tell a horror and suspense themed story because the mechanics support the slow building of tension that is so critical to the telling of a compelling suspense thriller. With each successful act there is an increasingly likelihood that the next act will result in both failure and lethality because the tower becomes more and more unstable. When the tower falls and someone dies, tension is released and the tower is rebuilt, only to come crashing down again at another dramatic peak.
As great as Dread is for horror, it's terrible for a pulpy, sword-and-sorcery type game. Dread assumes that most of the protagonists die by the end of the story. There's very little chance for epic greatness when your character is literally one action away from death at all times. If I want to tell a story about Conan the Barbarian, I want a system that assumes that the players win, forgives mistakes, and allows recovery from streaks of bad luck. I also don't want a system that has too many rules for elements outside the scope of the story I want to tell. I don't need to know how to handle acceleration and vector based turns or how much damage my character would take from orbital bombardment. What I do need is a system that allows me to tell a story where my character cuts the head off of a dragon and wears its skin for a cloak.
Now there are exceptions to this, of course. James Jacobs' Unspeakable Futures and F. Wesley Schneider's Mass Effect/Pathfinder mashup are a couple of examples of how the Pathfinder/d20 system can be adapted to genres beyond Sword and Sorcery. The key word there is adapt. Game rules will never perfectly capture what it's actually like to do the things we talk about in stories. It's all about verisimilitude. And ultimately it's a matter of group consensus that will determine which RPG system you end up using. Whatever is the most fun.
Monday, August 5, 2013
But are we setting the bar too high?
I'm going out on a limb and guessing that anyone reading a blog called “Kill it with Dice” is probably fairly familiar with the Firefly universe.
On the Serenity, it's easy to pick out who has the highest intelligence (Simon), charisma (Inara), dexterity (River), wisdom (Shepard Book) or strength (Jayne) but it's not so easy to stat up Malcolm Reynolds or Zoe Washburn, the leaders. They're good at everything. But the important thing to recognize is that they are not as good at anything as the crew's resident specialists (that's why the specialists are hired in the first place).
Mal and Zoe are the kind of people who, in an rpg, have a 13 or 14 in most of their stats. They won't hit with every bullet or succeed on every check, but that's part of what makes watching them so much fun.
Now consider the kind of people who have 18s. Since we're already discussing the Firefly universe, consider Mr. Universe (maxed int), or River (maxed dex). Or how about this guy? Who's more interesting to watch in that clip? The guy with 18 str and 16 con, or the guy with a 14 in both of those, but with some int to boot?
People with 18s are some dysfunctional, odd people. When I see a character with an 18 in a stat, I wonder what other stats and personality factors they're giving up for that level of specialization. I'm always interested to see whether the player will use the idea that their character is better in their chosen field than 99% of the human population in their role-playing.
It's generally accepted in tabletop rpgs that the PCs are heroic specialists, people who are amazingly good at what they do. Most parties are built with an eye toward “balance” and an assumption that each character will be remarkable at what they do and pretty terrible at everything else. When someone brings a charismatic fighter or a strong sorcerer to the table, eyebrows are raised. Mechanically, there's no reason to put any points into those stats.
But I'd like to throw this out there: maybe characters don't need to be specialists, and maybe specialists don't need to be the pinnacle of human possibility. Unless your game is the kind of party vs GM stat-fest where you really do need to squeeze every last +1 out of every line on your character sheet, it's probably worth it to build the character that you want to play. I've often found myself making a character and thinking “it's too bad the build doesn't have room for a positive int modifier... it would be fun if this guy was kind of smart.”
It's interesting to remember that a lot of the heroes that we love to watch or read about aren't the smartest, fastest, or strongest out there.
What do you think? Is it viable to play Malcolm Reynolds in your game? Is there room is modern fantasy role-playing for a generalist with a primary stat less than 16?
Saturday, July 6, 2013
I'm the one that got away—almost.
I never got involved in roleplaying games when I was a teenager, though it would have been right up my alley. Obsessed with fantasy since I was a kid, I gobbled up every book on wizards and dragons that I could find. Then, when I was 13 and looking through the bargain bin at my local library's yard sale, a huge event for a sleepy rural town, I scored bigtime. I found Dragons of Autumn Twilight by Margaret Weis &Tracy Hickman. From the first scene where the guards burst into the inn, I was hooked. I devoured it, finding everything a tween could hope for, a band of unlikely heroes, magic, dragons and bad guys aplenty, dungeons and mysteries, all waiting for me to discover them. Adding to the appeal of the series, it was suitably, tantalizingly racy. I remember this scene with an elf bathing in the moonlight... Anyway, I wanted more.
I learned gradually that there was not just three or twelve books set in the Dragonlance universe, but over 190 volumes. It vaguely occurred to me that these were interrelated, and I had some notion that the people involved in writing the series all knew each other, but it took me a long time to put it together that the books were based on a series of Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. The Dungeons & Dragons rulebook was more expensive and daunting than pulp paperbacks, and my teenage self wanted instant gratification, so I was surprisingly slow on the uptake, even when one of my high school friends showed me dungeon maps he had drawn up in math class (putting his graph paper to good use). To me, fantasy was something that happened on the page, and I was a huge fan, and I sympathized with the characters and came along for the ride. Aside from choose-your-own-adventures, though, I would always be a passenger, and the people who wrote and participated in such stories were impossibly far removed from me.
Fast forward to this year. My appreciation for stories has deepened and matured, and that gulf between me and the exalted class of magicians and storytellers has narrowed to a gap I might easily cross in one step. I find myself thinking, “I would have done it this way,” or “that villain is more interesting than the heroes,” and watching from the wings, itching to try out each character's part. So when Jeremy invited me to a game he was starting I was thrilled, not just because it's great to watch his face light up when he's doing something he loves, but also at the opportunity to share a fantasy world as a group experience and participate in a living, breathing story. I've come to roleplaying the long way around, but it is just as satisfying for me to manhandle and steamroller the GM's encounters, to laugh at the alchemist chef's antics and flee in terror from giant scorpions that will kill us at Level 1, to learn the seductive nature of powergaming and the delicate balance of roleplaying. I'm new to roleplaying and the Pathfinder system, but I am not new to fantasy, and it's a pleasure to discover the mechanics behind the stories that have always fascinated me. At some point we were all new players, and as That New Player, I'd like to say thanks to the people who stop what they are doing long enough to explain things to us at the table.
Tuesday, July 2, 2013
1) Why are you an Adventurer?
Of all of the ways to earn a living in the fantasy world, adventuring probably has the greatest potential for both risk and reward. Sure, that pile of gold coins is enough to set you up for the rest of your life. And your kid's life. And your kid's kid's life. Too bad there's a dragon in between you and it. Your character should have a reason for adventuring beyond simple greed. Maybe you have an altruistic streak. Or maybe adventuring is a last resort. Figure it out so the next time your character is paralyzed neck deep in ghouls you'll know exactly what brought you there.
2) Why are you working with your fellow party members?
This goes along with 1) but is important enough to be it's own Question. While it's not very important that all the characters in the party necessarily like each other, it is crucial that they get along well enough to work together. There are certain roleplaying tropes out there that seem immensely appealing to play but in reality can be difficult work into a cohesive party. You know the ones. The gruff dwarf who hates everyone, the sly thief who will steal just about anything, the Chaotic Evil servant of the Blood God who, well… wants to kill everything. There's a metagame reason why all of your characters are adventuring together. It's because you're all (nominally) friends at the table and have decided to tell a collaborative story. But if you're playing a character with an abrasive personality ultimately the onus is on you to figure out why the other party members don't just kick your annoying butt to the curb.
3) What are your long term goals?
This is probably also tied in with 1). Your character probably doesn't intend to be an Adventurer for the rest of his or her life. They probably have aspirations beyond an inglorious death in the middle of a swamp infested with dire rats. Maybe they have grandiose dreams of taking down the Tarrasque. Or maybe they're simply content to settle down and retire after buying a roadside inn with all of their loot. In any case, knowing where your character is headed makes it easier to make roleplaying decisions on the fly.
4) What are you passionate about?
Passionate people are interesting. They're usually the main characters in stories because we find them interesting. You can generally get a good sense about a person based on what elicits strong emotional responses from them. What are the things that they love? What are the things that they hate? And to what degree do they feel for these things? Answering these questions sets you down a path towards more questions like: Why is your character so strongly compelled to stab [that NPC]? Does he remind you of someone from an event in your past? Is the response tied to anger, jealousy, self-loathing, or some other strong emotion? It's a bit of work to navigate through these sorts of questions but I promise that the result is worth it. You'll have a deeper understanding of who your character is and what he or she would do in a given situation.
5) What are you afraid of?
More than just a strong emotional response, fear is a back door into someone's head. Fear goes beyond love or hate. It's a base instinct for self preservation. Figuring out what your character is afraid of and why can be hugely rewarding to you as a roleplayer. You might not want to imagine your character with weaknesses. That makes sense. If you're imagining a heroic adventurer in a fantasy world, why would you make that character afraid of anything? Because it's fun. Say the half-orc wizard was once a slave, for example. He hated it and will do anything to avoid captivity. So when the Gnoll slavers ambush the party he goes crazy. He starts exploding everything left and right, not caring who else gets caught in the crossfire so long as the Gnolls don't get him again. Having your character afraid of something, however minor, sets up the potential for hugely engaging roleplaying situations.
Friday, June 28, 2013
Roleplaying games are collaborative endeavors from start to finish. While a GM can plan a campaign or a session alone, ultimately he needs players to run through that story. The story doesn't just consist of the encounters GM sets up but also how the players resolve those encounters. Both the GM and the players are working together to tell an epic story that everyone can be a part of. The more collaborative the story telling experience, the more fun everyone has at the table.
Tuesday, June 25, 2013
Friday, June 21, 2013
I'm an extremely visual person. Just like miniatures, a sketch of your character can help add an extra facet to the visualization of your game.
Shouting "Look! A huge White Dragon!" will evoke a clear image in the heads of everyone at the table.
Shouting "Look! A half-elven Arcane Archer, flamboyantly dressed in cape and top hat ala a stage magician but with an incredibly large composite longbow!" will do the same thing, but as the saying goes a picture is worth 1000 words.
D&D, Pathfinder, and all similar cooperative storytelling games are inherently creative. I like to have some sort of visual reference during the game. You'll often see me standing up at the table and miming the attacks of my Arcane Archer, with one hand outstretched and the other drawn back to my cheek as if firing a bow. But when I want to well and truly convey to everyone at the table what my character looks like from head to toe, I spend some time to put it all down on paper.
So try your hand at sketching your character! You might find that you enjoy it, even if your first attempts are pretty bad (and all of ours are). What's more, you might find out that drawing your character allows you to get a better picture of who they are. Sure, you might know how tall they are, or what color their hair is, but what is their idea of fashion? Do they have any interesting piercings or tattoos?
If you aren't a fan of creating your own art, there are other options as well:
Many artists do commissions of character sketches for relatively cheap if you shop around. Just check out any online artist community, like DeviantArt.
Some communities even exist that encourage soliciting pro bono artwork, like Reddit's r/characterdrawing/.
Barring that, there's always Google image search. Just look at all this pre-made artwork to choose from!
The world may be saturated with fantasy artwork already, but I don't think there can ever truly be enough. Now go, put your pencil to paper and breathe some visual life into your characters!
Tuesday, June 18, 2013
Granted, my mentor was trying to teach us the physical-chemical properties of drug molecules, but I don’t see why the same philosophy can’t be applied to roleplaying games. The key here is fundamental understanding. If you’ve spent hours writing up a background for your PC, how much of that will help you figure out what he does in a given situation? You include personal history, challenges he faced, things that he cherished and lost. All of this becoming justification for certain actions he’ll take in the future. This gives you a rough idea of who your character is because you can glean details of his personality based on what has happened to him in that past. But that may not help you if your character encounters a situation that doesn’t match up with the background you wrote for him.
Friday, June 14, 2013
I thought about playing in Forgotten Realms, or some other world whose shared history was public. But I've never liked published campaign settings.
Tuesday, June 11, 2013
Despite this often being true, especially at higher levels when everyone is rolling 5d20s to attack and 30d6 for their damage, there are many measures you can take to get combat running like a well-oiled machine. Here are just a few:
1) Keep visible turn order cards
This is something that Anthony does as a DM, and I really appreciate. Every player and NPC / monster in combat has a folded-over slip of paper with their name on it draped over the DM screen. Turn order moves from left to right (our left, our right), and everyone at the table can easily keep track of when they are about to go next. This reduces the amount of lag time between turns quite substantially, as everyone at the table can begin thinking about their next move during the turn immediately preceding theirs. Which brings me to...
2) Pre-roll your attacks
Unless you are involved in a particularly dynamic combat, it's safe to say you'll be doing a good number of full attack actions over several rounds. If things are lagging, roll a series of attacks while other people are taking their turns, and queue them up for when it is your time to use them. That way, when the DM says it's your turn, you can spend your time describing your action ("I hit a solid strike at a 25 AC, doing 15 points of slashing damage!" or "The sun gets into my eyes, and a roll a 5 on my ranged attack.") rather than spending the same time rolling and doing addition. The only problem with this method is that when the inevitable string of 1's comes up on your queue, you just have to swallow your pride and accept them rather than surreptitiously re-rolling.
3) Use technology
There are many ways to do your combat math. Pencil and paper is the default classical method, but unless you are incredibly quick at math it can become time consuming at high levels. Casting spells is generally more straightforward than physical combat, which ironically means that fighters will need to be doing more math than their more intelligent counterpart, the wizards. If you play with a laptop, space phone, or any other type of computing device I recommend getting a dice roller program. Also, taking the time to make an Excel / Google Docs spreadsheet with your various combat math on it will save oodles of time in the long run.
4) Develop team tactics
With well-defined roles and established combat habits, combat can be a little more predictable and less chaotic. The longer a team of characters (and players) works together, the more this will come into play. Working together in an efficient manner should be its own reward as it will make combat not only faster but easier. Now, all that said it will get pretty boring after a while when every combat involves spending three rounds to debuff the enemies, buff your archer, and then make sure that she can take full attacks every round until the enemies are reduced to a fine, pin-cushioned paste. At that point, it's up to the DM to throw a few curveballs at the party. (Oh look, this stone giant cast "Protection from Arrows" on himself, and your archer is now surrounded by Red Mantis Assassins. Have fun!)
When all else fails, just delay your turn! While it seems anathema to not actually act as quickly and as often as you can, don't forget that combat is fluid. Some DMs take the hard-assed approach and give their players 5 seconds to declare their intent before they are considered as having delayed their turn. In my opinion, it's much better for the player to realize that they are slowing things down and declare a delay themselves.
In the end, no matter what you do combat is going to take a long time, but as long as everyone at the table is having fun, that's all that matters!
Thursday, June 6, 2013
Other Players: Nineteen. Fourteen. Three!
Puppy: Will Saves. I roll a d20 and add Four plus my Wisdom Score right?
GM: No. You add your Wisdom Modifier.
Puppy: What’s the difference?
Tuesday, June 4, 2013
Some of my favorite roleplaying happens when player knowledge and character knowledge are totally disconnected. If you as a player have built (and talked to your GM about) a character development plan that entails being captured, experimented on, and escaping with a newfound level or two in alchemist, it's going to be awesome for you to play through that, even though you know exactly what's coming.
Imagine you told your GM at the beginning of the game: "my ranger never met his dad. His dad is a filthy, blackhearted pirate wizard that left his mom alone to raise their son, and she never told my guy about him." Some time around level 9, when you see a ship coming toward you with black sails filled with arcane winds, you're going to be hugely excited, even though your character doesn't know anything about the scene that's about to happen!
But it's much harder to do that with an adventure path, since odds are the modules don't include a paternally-inhibited wizard pirate captain. But it would be possible to build in reverse: start with something you know is coming later in the campaign, and write something for your character that will make that moment special. I once played a warlock who'd been raised by stone giants. He'd have quite the time in Rise of the Runelords. But going into an adventure path blind, the odds of a character's backstory and their current actions crossing paths are exceptionally small.
Science (Leavitt & Christenfield 2011) (look at that APA style citation, just look at it!) suggests that knowing the end of a story or movie beforehand actually increases the enjoyment you get from it. People who knew the identity of Keyser Soze actually enjoyed The Usual Suspects more than those who went into the movie blind, for example. Weird and counter-intuitive? Absolutely.
I'll bet that finding generalizes just fine to roleplaying games: as long as your players are capable of separating character and player knowledge, letting them know bits and pieces of what's going to happen so that they can interact with that knowledge in interesting ways can improve a campaign. Personally I like giving different players different bits of knowledge, so that their stories can still surprise one another.
Anthony and I will be testing this theory out next year, when I run a Rise of the Runelords game with him as a PC in it. I'm very interested to see how it goes.
Friday, May 31, 2013
I’ve heard mixed opinions about players or GMs putting on accents. On one hand, accents can be a simple but powerful way of conveying a character concept or personality. When an accent is done convincingly and well, it can greatly enhance the immersion during a session. But on the other hand, accents can be a distraction at the table, especially when done poorly, and can disrupt the suspension of disbelief for other players. To further complicate matters, if a player chooses an accent for a character and end up struggling with it, they might focus too much on perfecting the accent rather than simply roleplaying their character.
Personally, I’m a huge fan of accents in a game. As a player, almost every one of my characters has their own unique accent or dialect. At the very least I try for a different cadence or speech pattern. As a GM, I try to give unique accents to as many important, and even some seemingly unimportant, NPCs as I can. This has lead to a greater number of engaging interactions between random NPCs and the party as Randall the dockworker suddenly has a voice that's even more memorable than whatever reason the party was talking to him in the first place.
I also feel like having an accent keyed to a character’s personality helps me slip into that role more easily. In a previous OYR I used a character of mine, Riordan Soleratov Detrovsky, as an example. My trigger for getting into Riordan’s head was to repeat an English phrase while putting on a heavy Russian accent. This trigger served a dual purpose. Firstly, as I mentioned in the last article, it helped me get into character. But secondly, it helped remind me how to shape the sounds of the accent I chose to associate with Riordan.
My accents aren’t flawless and I tend towards more entertaining voices rather than accurate ones. But I do make a conscious effort to improve them. A little while ago I stumbled upon this little gem on YouTube. The company, VideoJug, basically runs an instructional video website and one of their tutorial series happens to be on developing different types of accented English. They're short videos, under 5 minutes, and highlight the basic patterns found in different accents.
So the next time you roll up a PC or stat up an NPC, consider how that character would talk to others. What do you want that to indicate about who he or she is or where they're from? How does your delivery or expression of character impact the ways that other players interact with that character? Go ahead and play with accents, and you might just find yourself just a little more immersed in your roleplaying.
Tuesday, May 28, 2013
You think you have everything planned out well: the Glabrezu is disguised as one of the party's friendly NPCs, and is working at earning their trust. Some of the party members are suspicious, though, and tensions are high. Inevitably he will be discovered and cinematically reveal his true large, pincer-demoned form, sow chaos amongst their ranks by casting Confusion, and deliver a mocking one-liner before teleporting away to safety.
Then, in the one round of combat, the witch hits the demon with a spell that makes it provoke attacks of opportunity from all 6 of the characters and NPCs surrounding it if it fails its will save. It rolls a one.
6 lucky attacks and one extremely lucky crit later: Dead demon.
In another game, you make a puzzle room involving a large, demonic dog rooting around in the bones of a tomb. You need to recover some of these bones to resurrect a story-relevant Prince, but attacking the dog head-on will probably involve a long and drawn-out battle. Clever players might think of ways of distracting it just long enough for someone to sneak down into the tomb and grab the bones that they need. Or the wizard could use his scroll of "Banishment" and send the dog back to hell.
How about the vampire-wizard with the information that you need to track down an ancient, floating citadel?He resides in a manor in the middle of the forest, and is a truly formidable opponent. After a few rounds of parley, it becomes clear that he doesn't intend to allow the party to leave... alive. This fight is most certainly going to be awesome, what with the large collection of spells, resistances, and spell-like abilities at his disposal! After all, he's a wizard AND a vampire! Oh wait, the party wizard has Disintegrate too.
I'll just, uh, wipe the dust off of his spellbook and other powerful magical items for you.
So what have we learned here? Well, for one, spells can be massively over-powered if used correctly, but so can a lucky power attack vorpal scythe crit. More often than not, your players will fondly look back on those brief combats as not trivial, but epic. "Remember that time I one-shotted the vampire wizard? That was awesome!" While it is important to occasionally instill fear in the hearts of your players, don't forget that it is also good for them to occasionally feel like Heroes. Beowulf wouldn't be Beowulf if he wasn't able to tear Grendel's arm off with his bare hands. Even Smaug was defeated by one extremely well-placed arrow. In a world of epic fantasy and heroic deeds, every so often it's important for the planets to align and for your players to critically succeed.