UbiquitousRat's Roleplaying Dreams

UbiquitousRat's Roleplaying Dreams: January 2013

Saturday, 26 January 2013

3 Dark Truths About GMing

The dark and usually unconfessed truth about being a roleplaying GM is that you can only run the games that your players will let you run.

As a GM, and for most of my life that's been my role, I like to hold on to the conceit that I'm in control. I decide the game. I decide the setting. I decide the system. I decide the adventure. I decide the encounter. Wrong.

Actually, as a GM, I don't have that kind of power or control. I'm at the mercy of my players.

When No-one Shows Up

We've not played for nearly two months. Every reason is valid: Christmas holidays, family commitments, illness, shift work, marital celebrations. I've heard it all, Hershey. 

This is not an unusual cycle. The December till February period can often be interrupted. The break gets folk motivated, and they come back keen to play. It's also the period that kills almost any campaign, however.

But underneath all of these events is a deep, dark truth for the GM: if no-one shows then you don't have a game. Loneliness is the largest recruiter for the computer gaming fraternity, one suspects. Our social hobby requires other people. No people = no game.

As a GM you usually either take a break or you plot and scheme. This year I've started to draft my own system, work with an online group to create a new SF setting, and generally poke around games I'd like to try. 

But we're not gaming. And there is little prospect of a game soon either.

When Player's Aren't Keen on the System/Setting

GMs can propose systems and settings. Players decide. 

Players who don't want to try a game or setting will vote with their feet. See above for the effect on your GMing.

I fancy a post-apocalyptic game, a fantasy game, an SF game. I want to try Traveller5, Fate Core, Barebones Fantasy, Cortex System, and Castles & Crusades. The chances of getting a go at any of these is, however, equal to the interest of my players. If they aren't keen then I am reduced to reading the book and fiddling with solo play.

GMs propose. Players decide.

Campaigns are Fleeting

Campaigns do not happen by the effort of GMs alone. Mykenaea is on the brink of death because my players aren't available. If enough time passes without play then the campaign will die. It has maybe a month left right now.

Campaigns happen by consent. The GM works at an idea and runs a successful session or two. Players get hooked and keep attending, creating a demand for the GM to respond to. As the players' enthusiasm burns then the GM's enthusiasm is ignited and sustained. Miss too many sessions, however, and the flames die.

Campaigns happen by the play of the players. If they don't make it burn then it'll grow cold and die.

Is there an answer?

Probably. I've not found it yet though.

My suspicion is that, try as you might as a GM, if the players don't realise and accept their power then you're in for a rough ride. They need to show up, be willing to play, and let their enthusiasm show.

Of course, it's not all up to them. As GM you have to show up, provide an exciting and engaging game (easier said than done), and let your enthusiasm show too.

In the end, it seems to me, the dark truth is that if they come you stand a chance... but if they stay away then you're left with books, dreams, ideas and notes. None of those is really, really the same kind of fun.

May your players turn up.

Game on!

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Saturday, 19 January 2013

Why I Don't Like Hit Points

"I've still got 1 Hit Point! Come on, you coward - fight!"
Starting to draft Beta RPG, the evolution of my homegrown roleplaying system, has thrown up a few headaches but none quite so acute as the question of how to model injury.

You'd think that this matter would be easy to resolve. Given the multitude of solutions that have been proposed over many years, and through many RPG systems, I have to admit that I've yet to find one I really like.

This post is my attempt to outline what I'm not looking for... and perhaps suggest some pointers towards what I do want.

In the beginning...

It all began with Hit Points. At least, it did for me. 

D&D gave each character a number of Hit Points at first level with a boost to that total every time you gained another level. When injured, the total points of damage were subtracted from the Hit Point total... and when you ran out of Hit Points then you also ran out of life. Simple.

Too simple for me. I've always felt that, although this is an easy system (and probably the most popular), it's a system that creates the kind of character who is seemingly unaffected by injury... until they fall over unconscious or dead. A bit too sudden for my taste.

Decrement Stats

Traveller had the injury applied to the character's physical stats. Given three core stats (Strength, Dexterity and Endurance), each point of damage was applied to each of the three in order - first Strength, then Dexterity, then Endurance... repeat. When one stat hit zero you would fall unconscious; when all three were zeroed you would be... er, dead.

This was kind of a neat variation on Hit Points which delivered a part-way unconsciousness, forcing the player to think carefully about which stat to apply the wounds to. It was, however, fiddly and somewhat deadly.

Damage Tracks

Another common solution was the series of damage tracks which, effectively, divide up the Hit Points into a series of chunks. As each track (chunk) is zeroed the hero would receive a negative penalty (such as -1 to all tests) which accumulated as more tracks were eroded. 

This solution corrects the Black Knight problem of basic Hit Points quite effectively. It does, however, require more management than simple maths... and you have to remember what your current penalty level is for each action you take.


Some systems add in extra modifications to Hit Points, such as the accumulation of a turn-by-turn drain to your health to represent bleeding wounds and such. These just give me a headache because I have to remember to decrement the bleeding every turn. Ouch.

Critical Charts

Rolemaster and one or two other systems introduced a combination of Hit Points with extra physical trauma caused by "Critical" strikes. In these systems you might roll on a table to see what other effects you target gains on top of running out of Hit Points.

While I love Rolemaster... well, this system of charts is something that puts a lot of people off. Rolling on damage tables is not everyone's cup of tea. Remembering the additional effects can also get complicated.

No easy answer?

Is there no easy, simple answer to injury? Can my brain not come up with a more elegant way to model what I want?

What do I want?
  • Simple
  • Increasing injury limiting the options of the player
  • Characters who are not too frail but not too tough
  • Minimal book-keeping
  • Simple

Any alternative systems that I've obviously forgotten about? Any suggestions of your own?

Let me know your thoughts.

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Sunday, 13 January 2013

Three Gaming Revelations

Yesterday I read an interesting statement over at The Iron Tavern:
I have been having some thoughts on just how many rules I need in an RPG as well. That thought is a subject for another blog post, but these thoughts have led me to lightly kick the tires of a few other systems. (Castles & Crusades, Oct 10th 2012
This rang true for me. Regular readers will know that over the past few weeks I've been tackling similar issues. How much "rules crunch" do I need? Why am I "butterflying" and what can I do to control it?

What has been happening this week to really kick this up a notch?

Three Revelations

That article was the second revelation in what has been a hectic week. The first was from a wargaming experience. The last came from fiddling with Google.

I was a wargamer long before I was a roleplayer. This explains a great deal.

My Dad was the one who got me into wargaming (not the first time I've mentioned it, sorry Mr Regular Reader). We used to idle away weekend afternoons fighting World War II battles with paper hexed maps, counters, d6 and generally complex rules.

Complexity was something that appealed to my Dad. I guess it rubbed off on me too because for most of my life I have been attracted to detail in my games. For him it was about simulation: making the game as "real" an experience as it can be... without, obviously, the actual fear and scent of death.

Oddly, however, Dad was never really much into miniature wargaming. As he punished me, the day I bought my first ever miniature SF models, Dad was ranting on about how expensive and what a waste toy soldiers would be. Wargaming, for him, was best simulated initially on hexed maps with chits and, eventually, on computers. It's ironic that, to my knowledge, Dad still hasn't found his ideal system. Nor have I.

This week I was taking a look at Hawk Wargames' Dropzone Commander. The models are stunning and the rulebook is very pretty. The terrain is lush too. Yet, reading the rules, I was under-whelmed. Don't get me wrong... the rules are fine; there are a lot of cool and innovative ideas... but it's still doing the same old "d6-roll-high" mechanic that most games do. Like Rick Priestley said recently, there is only so much you can do with a d6.

So... what was the revelation? Well, that came from Rick Priestley. Mentioned in the draft Gates of Antares rules comes the decision Rick has made to escape the humble restrictions of the d6... and opt for a d10. This isn't stunning... but it did remind me of something I wrote a few years ago: two sets of rules, one using a d8 and the other using a d12.

That's when it struck me: I'm truly fed up with playing other people's games.

Simpler Rules
Enter Jeremy's comment from The Iron Tavern: "I have been having some thoughts on just how many rules I need in an RPG".

Recently I've been poring over Fate Core and getting excited about running a new setting in this new-for-me system. Fine and dandy. But that's not all.

For months and months I have been reading system after system with one core theme running through most of them: a move towards stripping away complexity while retaining flavour. 

Castles & Crusades, Swords & Wizardry, D&D 5th, Fate Core, Classic Traveller, Stars Without Number... the list goes on and on. Each of these has a single central connecting idea: less is more.

And yet... don't I love complexity?

What I actually love is detail and freedom in design. That's not the same as complexity. 

I don't really crave after complex rules because they are complex. I am attracted to games like GURPS and Hero because they offer me the choices to build the game the way that I want it to be. The side-effect is that those rules tend towards the complex (at least in terms of time needed to prep with them) because they offer a massive range of choices.

What I love in terms of day-to-day play, however, is simple and slick systems. I discovered that I happen to agree with the author of Castles & Crusades:
The core of any game’s philosophy has to have the goal of creating and capturing a mood charged with excitement. Anything that detracts from that objective detracts from the game. How does one capture that mood? Foremost, the rules guiding game play must be easily understood. Ideally, the basic rules of the game should be easily grasped within about fifteen minutes. A player should be able to sit down with another player, create a character, and have the basics of the game explained to them in just that time. As a foundation, the rules must be kept simple and logical, easy to comprehend and easy to enact. Expanding the game comes later, much like adding stories to a building. Start with a firm, square foundation and everything else follows. (Castles & Crusades Player's Guide, page 3).
And here was the second revelation: I don't want complexity, but I do want detail. When I play my SF game I do want to know the make, model and relative effectiveness of this laser rifle over that laser carbine. Detail. But not complexity.

That's why Traveller5 has me rolling my eyes. Lots of details (yes!) but 650+ pages of rules... and no standard equipment list (ouch!).

My Rules
That brings us up to this morning. This was the morning I (finally) got around to activating and setting up my Google Drive. It's also when I discovered what old Google Docs were stored in my Google Drive. Here comes revelation three.

Hidden in a folder on my Google Drive are a set of draft rules from 2010. They are the first draft of my "Alpha RPG" rules which, at the time, were being developed for the Dark Reich setting.

Finding these rules was the revelation. It led me to think about my other four attempts at writing my own system.

First, in 2004, was the d12-driven Engine12... which got bashed into a cowardly sub-version called Engine 6. I chickened because I didn't think that anyone wanted to play with d12s. I also got fed up with writing a very long skill list.

Then came Mission Team. This was a kind of RPG skirmish game. Very slick idea... but frustrating because I bound myself to the d6 and couldn't get a big enough range of modifiers to make long-term development of heroes taste right. Version two tried a d8... but I dropped the project because I felt people wouldn't play with a d8. Gutless, right?

Another d6-based system actually got playtested with the Friday Night Group just prior to our playtest with Warhammer FRPG 2nd Edition. It got pushed onto the back burner because we moved on as a group... despite having some very promising ideas.

Then, in 2010, I bit the bullet again and started to work on Alpha. We actually enjoyed a session of playtest with that too... only I lost the most recent files when the wiki it was stored on crashed. I assumed it was all gone and didn't have the heart to try and recreate it. Until today.

It turns out that all my old work has not been rendered photons.

What Conclusions?

Maybe it's time to (finally) write my system. Maybe not.
It's certainly time to figure out where I want to take my hobby.

It has been over 7 weeks since we last played on a Friday. I'm desperate for a game... and very much losing focus. 

On the one hand, I have a Rolemaster game to pick up and play; nothing wrong with that. On the other hand I have an SF setting we're building (currently using Fate); nowt wrong with that either.

Yet my heart wants to write. Create. Build. Mould. Produce. Play.

What do you think? Is it time to write Beta?

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Friday, 4 January 2013

Rules Crunch: Dr Jekyll or Mr Hyde?

So here's the problem that keeps gnawing at me like a Targ: while I love the idea of rules-lite, highly narrative gaming I am also a big fan of the crunchy-detailed rules set too. 

My players mostly come from the crunchy style of play too, meaning that rules-lite is not as well-practised in my circles as I might have hoped. The added complication comes from two elements of game rules that, frankly, I like to see crunched up: magic and tech.

Yesterday I was the Mr Jekyll of rules-lite narrative play but today I am the Mr Hyde of crunchy rules. 

What's a poor, maddened GM to do?

Fate versus Traveller5... and other stuff...

Yes, I am prepping a campaign for our new SF universe and proposing to use the new Fate Core rules. 
Great, you say. So what's the problem?

Well... I'm also awaiting delivery of the Traveller5 rulebook. This tome of almost 700 pages contains rules for almost every conceivable detail that an SF GM might need... and quite a few that I am almost certain he won't. It's as much a trip of nostalgia and hubris to welcome this new edition of my favourite SF system into my home... but I also really rather fancy trying it out.

And then there is also the fact that Rick Priestley is proposing using a d10 based system for his forthcoming Gates of Antares tabletop wargame... and mentioned the decimalisation needed for his hoped-for RPG in the same setting. This got me thinking about the limitations of the humble d6 again, a matter that has haunted my love of Traveller for years! Frankly... he talks sense!

Ultimately, I am being torn apart by the temptations of multiple game systems... my mind wanders endlessly betwixt Fate, Traveller, HARP-SF, Hero, GURPS and myriad other games I own... and all the time the question in my mind is, "How can I make this SF campaign feel really cool?"

Do rules matter?

Some will accuse me of madness for asking this question... but, do they? 
What is really needed to model a really cool SF setting? 

Depends on what you want, I guess. 

Fate models literary and movie/TV reality... it's a system where what matters is what makes the story move. You don't need "stats" for anything until it becomes important to the plot. Then it's turned into an aspect. Simple.

Traveller5 seeks to model a kind of future realism. Over the past N-years of development time that I've been involved with the game I've witnessed countless discussions about the relative "realism" of a given sub-system of the game. Frankly, a lot of the time, I've not cared. 

And yet... sometimes, I do care. 

Many things in Traveller work for me. Character creation using a story-creating game engine is attractive to me; you know, the old Term of Service in a career to gain skills and rack up the mustering out benefits. The fact that everything is scaled. The fact that I can just roll up almost anything using some tables... if I really need to.

But what is it that prevents me from really letting go and embracing this new, narrative style? 

I really am not sure.

Perhaps it's the worries I have about magic over-powering the game. Or just that I really like to have a stat line for my Laser Carbine. 

What's a poor, crazed GM to do? 
Any suggestions?

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