UbiquitousRat's Roleplaying Dreams

UbiquitousRat's Roleplaying Dreams: February 2013

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Dungeoneering Revisited

This week off work has been a real blessing, despite having developed the inevitable common cold and weekend lurgy. One of the reasons for feeling so positive, apart from having my wife off work for a couple of days too, was that I've had time to really dig into my hobby.

Regular readers (yes, you hallowed few!) will know that I've been really wrestling with what it means to Gamemaster roleplaying sessions lately.

You'll also realise that I have felt considerable pull in two entirely different directions:

  • On the one hand I'm seeking to develop a really engaging and engrossing SF roleplaying game for my regular group; 
  • On the other hand I am wanting to immerse myself into the OSR trend towards looser games in the fantasy genre. 

This week has opened my eyes to the possibility of doing both.


What is it about dungeon adventures that so attracts me to want to run one again? Is it just nostalgia for a mythical style of play? Well... no, not for me.

Lately I've run a dungeon adventure for a bunch of teens and, despite two TPKs in recent weeks, they keep coming back for more. One of the reasons for their enthusiasm, however, is definitely my own enthusiasm; in short, I've really enjoyed it.

Dungeons are low-intensity and low-pressure games for me. Once I have a dungeon to use I feel very comfortable in running the players through it. The relatively constrained environs in some way open up my ability to roleplay in a more relaxed manner. It's odd but, for me at least, giving a game clear boundaries helps me to feel more free in my choices.

Writing My Own

Here's a confession: I don't think that I have written and run a dungeon adventure since I was a teenager. 

I've run other people's dungeons. I played in other people's dungeons. But I've not written one myself for more than 25 years. 

I've been asking myself why. The answer is that I am both scared and lazy.

Scared? Yes. What if I write a crappy dungeon?
Lazy? Indeed. Designing an adventure with a dedicated dungeon map is actually a lot more work than most gaming sessions.

So... why bother? Answer: It's about time to scratch that itch.

Easter Crusade

As with all projects, it's important to set a target deadline and set your goals out clearly. I've decided to invite some friends to a session during the impending Easter holidays, giving me around 5 weeks to write an adventure. 

The title comes from the combination of timescale (Easter) and my initial intention to try out the Castles & Crusades system for the game (Crusade). Of course, right now, I am really being tempted by OSRIC (essentially 1e D&D) because of the added complexity... and several other OSR titles too because of their faithful followings online.

All that aside, the main focus has been to come up with an adventure idea and turn it into a cool one-day 8-hour roleplaying session for my friends. 

Challenges so far...

What I wanted to share, however, were the challenges that I seem to face in getting this dungeon written.

Firstly, I have only the vaguest of adventure ideas running around my head: I want to feature a Paladin and a Cleric; I want to do a dungeon raid of some kind, with really clear goals; I want to run it with 3rd level characters, probably pre-gens convention-style. 

Secondly, I haven't designed a dungeon map for more than 25 years. It actually is a bit of an art to do well, so this seems daunting.

Thirdly, I don't want to set it in any pre-generated setting, either of my own or anyone else. In one sense, the adventure will be the beginning of a new setting... but also, very likely, a stand-alone event. That almost gives me too many choices.

Solutions are, however, at hand. 

A copy of The Tome of Adventure Design has proven a really positive tool to get my creative juices flowing. I'm going to review it in more detail at the end of the project, but so far it has proven a valuable mine of cool ideas and systems for dungeon-building.

I've also bought in some squared-paper, tracing paper, pencils, a pencil-sharpener and an eraser. Actually handling these items has really brought my enthusiasm to boiling point. 

It's weird but, in some way, the only thing that seems missing is the idea to get me started.

What's Next?

I guess I am just going to begin and see where this project takes me. Perhaps by sharing the process and thinking out loud with you guys I'll feel spurred to complete it. 

What do I need from you? Maybe some encouragement, advice or ideas. Oh, and if you're local to Nottingham (UK) and you fancy a game, maybe you'd like to come take a seat at the table.

Here's to my first dungeon in more than 25 years. Game on!

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Thursday, 21 February 2013

Three Ways to Roleplay?

This last week or so has been a welcome time because, having some time away from work, I've been able to dip deeper into some of the not-so-random thoughts that have been dribbling around my mind.

One of the most pervasive ideas that has really struck me this week has been the way in which, at any given time, I seem attracted to three different styles of roleplaying games.

Style One: Character-focused

Getting together with the guys in my regular group over the last few days, to create characters for the Serene Dawn game using Traveller5, was a really positive time for me as Gamemaster. 

Here I have been applying some of the techniques gleaned from Brian Jamieson's Gamemastering and really focusing on generating a game based on the desires of the players. This style is the one which I really hanker for a great deal: the development of my GMing to a more engaging and deeper level. 

Character-focused gaming is about really engaging the players in the collaboration that is roleplaying games. It's the adventure flowing from the ideas that a group of people bring to the table in a serious attempt to tell tall tales together.

Character-focused gaming is also the most hard work. It requires dedication as GM and lots of input from the players. The rewards are great... but the effort is demanding. 

But then anything worth doing...

Style Two: Low-intensity

For a long while this was what the group wanted. We did it with D&D4e before... admittedly badly, in my honest opinion. Yet, this is the game of the end-of-week adventure. 

Low-intensity is about rolling up some characters, using the standard character archetypes, and letting rip with the action. The investment is lower than that mentioned above but the rewards are still pretty good. Perhaps the stories are more stereotypical and straight-forward, not taking time to connect the players to their characters too greatly... but these games are fun.

For me, this is the realm of the Dungeonmaster. It doesn't have to be fantasy, of course... but it quite commonly is. I've played games of Hunter and Buffy, Star Wars and Star Trek in this style... and I've played D&D and other OSR games in this style too. 

It's about an evening of simple entertainment. It's about mates rolling dice and telling tall tales of derring-do and danger.

These are the games that I miss when I've been running a game for weeks, nay months, and I just fancy a knock-about. It's not quite beer-and-pretzels... but it's certainly not high-brow or deep thinking.

But then there's nothing wrong with a good delve, eh?

Style Three: Quick Bash

Simple rules, simple scenario, very low investment in effort. That's the promise of the quick bash.

I've noticed a recent trend towards this arising out of the blend of the OSR and the simple enjoyment of board games. I'm not entirely sure if it's 100% my cup of tea... but then, sometimes, you just want a quick cup of tea with a biscuit, eh?

How about you and your mates come around and we just knock out a quick dungeon bash? Or maybe we run some skirmishes in an arena? Or a quick cyberpunky mission? Nothing much... maybe the equivalent of a short convention scenario, with pre-gen or quick-gen (because the rules are really lite) heroes. A couple of hours or so, bang, we're done.

Sound good?

But then sometimes you just want to blow off steam, right?

No One Style

For a long time I thought that maybe I was on a quest from Low-intensity towards Character-driven gaming. In some way I used to think that, ultimately, I was going to be a great GM when all my games felt like hard-bitten adventure tales which engaged my players in deep roleplaying all of the time.

Then I woke up.

The reality is simpler. 

Yes, I'd love to produce a detailed Character-driven game. I'm working on one right now, actually. Nothing wrong with that aspiration. Yet... I'd also like to run a one-off Low-intensity game with Castles & Crusades quite soon. And I'm not averse to a simple Quick-bash to either test some rules or just have a laugh either.

Honestly? I think that we might just need all three styles. It's about a mix. Variety = spice, right?

Yeah, I want to produce some really dramatic and exciting gaming experiences with my friends. But I also want to, even if occasionally, just have some laughs. It's horses for courses, as they say... and when the mood takes me I want to delve dungeons just as much as I want to roleplay a complex character.

Are you allowing yourself to taste the buffet? Or are you restricting yourself to one style? 

Why not try something different next time?

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Sunday, 17 February 2013

Gamemastering: A Brief Review

It's an innocent enough question: "Tell me, have you read Brian Jamieson's book, Gamemastering?"

Turns out that when Precinct Omega asked this question he was connecting me to the most useful book that I've ever come across on the topic of being a GM.

It's also a totally free eBook.

The most useful? Yes.

Here's why...

What's Jamieson's Angle?

In his Introduction, Jamieson writes:
In 2003 I again began wondering why there still was no comprehensive “how to” for Gamemasters. To date only a few books have attempted the task with varying degrees of success, and a growing number of Internet forums, blogs, and websites talk a lot about the subject. There is some excellent advice out there but unfortunately, a lot of what I’ve read seems, well, just wrong to me. Backwards. Completely contrary to my experience. So I wrote this book.
He's a 30-year+ veteran of gaming (like me) and yet he has wrestled with a goal that I could only dream of attaining. His book is a pretty good stab at being a complete Gamemastering toolkit.

Why read it?

This book is written for the noob but is useful to the veteran. Actually, for me, I tried at all time while reading to open my mind to being a noob again... which is nearly impossible.

I found myself hugely disagreeing with several of his assertions, especially on the topic of character creation. That aside, however, I have so far mined far more from the book than I have disregarded. Far, far more. And I have started to GM in his style just this last Friday.

Reasons to read it include:
  • It appears to cover all the bases. It's complete, as far as I can tell.
  • Help on setting up the game will save lots of time later on.
  • Advice on character creation has immediately deepened the roleplaying in my own group (without anyone really noticing yet).
  • His system for adventure writing is really effective at reducing prep time while increasing quality.
  • The ideas on running the session are detailed and helpful.

Frankly, it's free. Why not read it? Come on, it's FREE!

Why have I adopted his approach?

This is more complex to answer and yet also simple.

I struggle as a GM. This guy is helpful.

In truth, this is the book that I needed when I was 11 years old and beginning play. Of course, back then, no one had been playing for 30 years because that was the early 80's and RPGs were relatively new. If you are a noob GM now then this is a go-to text.

Reasons I adopted his book:
  • It's written in a step-by-step how-to style.
  • It's actually largely convincing, judging as a long-time GM.
  • It's intuitive.
  • It's simple to apply.
  • It's focused on role-playing over roll-playing.

Caveats I'd place, by way of warning:
  • It's one person's view, despite his claims to have consulted others; thus it's culturally biased and focused on one style of play.
  • He dislikes random things - like character generation or tables - and over-eggs this point.
  • While he accommodates the "action-orientated" playing style, he is mostly an "acting camp" GM; he seems to dismiss "dungeon crawls" as a thing of the past without much consideration of the value of such games.
  • He is focused on adult gaming - no, not as in Adult - by which I mean he shows little empathy with teenage- or children-friendly gaming. 
  • His writing style can come over as arrogant at times.

Overall, though, this book is a gem. It's a real find. Honestly.

Anything else?

Jamieson is writing for GMs and does not pull punches. He is very frank and bold in his assertions. It's worth rolling with those punches even if, like me, you sometimes disagree with him. The book should be read as a whole, not in parts.

Jamieson is not an active friend of the "gaming industry". He points out that it's actually easier to build a home-brew setting than to use a commercial one. He also mentions that he now uses his own home-brew rules. This would point towards an independent approach. To be honest... he has a point.

On the other hand, what Jamieson does point out is that the gaming industry can be mined for the bits we really need. One example is maps. Another is illustrations. He just recommends reusing old modules and books, finding free stuff online and trying to save your pocket. None of that will enamour him to the industry... especially when, although his book is a free ebook, he also publishes a paperback.

But then... I have ordered the paperback because I really intend to use it.

Game on!

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Sunday, 10 February 2013

The Valley of the Moon King

Arising from this morning's article, about the OSR, I've had a crazy series of ideas coalesce into something that might just work.

Raw, untested, undeveloped fantasy RPG ideas!

This is being posted with the hope that someone might help me refine it.

Of course, it could just as easily be simple madness.

The Set-up

The Valley of the Moon King lies somewhere in a lost wasteland of a world now plunged deep into an Ice Age. 

In former days the valley was rich and verdant, populated by an exciting and growing fantasy culture. At some point, however, the glory of the past was lost and the valley fell into darkness and icy shadow.

Yes, this is the album cover that inspired the title.
The valley is ruled by the Moon King, the consort of the Moon Queen - a cold and unforgiving Goddess. At the heart of the valley lies the Crystal City, from where the Moon King rules. All the peoples of the valley are now enslaved by his power and forced to labour for his own purposes.

There is a resistance to the Moon King. Some of the slave population have been banding together, hoping to recover the strength to rise up against this tyranny. Faithful to the now lost teachings of the True God, the rebellion is about to unleash its ultimate plan.

The Plan

The story begins as a small band of rebels locates and accesses the hidden Temple to the True God. Their aim is to find their way through the heavily defended and trapped environs, enter the central shrine, and enact the Ritual of Hero Summoning. Carrying the artefacts of former pre-darkness heroes exhumed from sacred sites all across the valley, they believe that they can summon heroes from across the cosmos to come to their aid.

The players take on the role of these newly summoned heroes. In the journey caused by the Ritual they lose their memories and awaken in the central shrine of the True God. They discover the slain bodies of the rebels who summoned them... and they must find their way out of the site and up to the surface. Then they must realise their destiny and overthrow the Moon King.

As an additional twist, the only way that heroes can "level-up" in this setting is through completing tasks. Each time the heroes overcome a challenge on the road to their destiny they access the next stage in their development. This can be envisioned as happening when they uncover a sacred artefact or knowledge, when they defeat a key henchman of the enemy, or when they serve the purposes of the True God faithfully.

The story will end when the Moon King is defeated and one of the heroes takes on the mantle of the new Servant-King of the True.

How it might pan out

What if the game begins with the players as the initial rebel raiders entering the ancient Temple of the True God? 

First they choose an iconic heroic artefact with which to summon a hero. Then they play through the multi-level dungeon adventure with their Level 0 or 1 rebel characters. As they complete the ritual, their life-force enters the spell and they can then create the heroes they summon - each based upon the artefacts they are carrying. 

What if normal XP awards were replaced with chunky level-up awards based on completing quests? 

The players have to uncover artefacts, defeat henchmen, recover lost knowledge, whatever. Each task completed leads a character to level-up. Think Highlander-style sudden power-ups. Would that be cool?

What if, at the end of the story arc, the land is restored from the Ice Age? 

At this point the heroes can begin to quest across more of the world... but not until they unfreeze those mountain passes by freeing all of the people in the valley.

Is this crazy?

I don't know if this kind of game could work. What do you think?

Obviously this is crazily raw. Let me know if you think it's worth developing.

Game on?

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Old School Renaissance?

Three young players sat down at the table, ready to face the second instalment of the dungeon adventure that they'd begun a couple of weeks before. 

A Fighter, a Cleric and a Magic-User. The spartan character sheets in front of them, their first challenge was in deciding to turn back and retrace their steps in the dark. 

Asked for clear directions, the players looked at the GM in mild horror: why hadn't they taken his advice and drawn  a rough map of the way in? 

Shrugging their shoulders they began to discuss the route... and, nervously, the leader of the group gave instructions for the way back...

It'd be easy to roll your eyes and tut at the pedantic nature of asking players for directions when retracing their steps in the dungeon. Yet, this scene comes from a game I ran for 3 twelve/thirteen year-old boys at the school club just last week. They were grinning from ear-to-ear once they realised that, after a two-week gap, they had remembered the route back. One of them told me he got a real kick out of having to solve the problem.

It gets worse. This particular group of players has just rolled up their first set of characters using the Swords & Wizardry rules. They had to do this because they suffered their second TPK (total party kill) in that dungeon. 

The first set of adventurers was chosen from a selection of 6... and they died, throats ripped out by Giant Rats. The second set, who got a quite a bit further into the dungeon and then decided on that turn-around above, lasted maybe another hour before they got overwhelmed by Ghouls. Paralysis sucks.

What was the reaction of the group? Whining about how unfair it was? Asking why the dungeon was "so unbalanced"? Screaming insults at the GM because of the effort they'd expended on the dungeon so far? No. None of those. 

A deep breath was taken and slowly exhaled. A exchange of glances from player to player, followed by a couple of slight nods of the head. And then, with a smile on his face, the boldest of these players turned to me and asked: "Can we roll up our own heroes this time? We'd like to have another go."

Experimenting With Teenagers

I've been experimenting on teenagers. Not chemicals or anything medical, don't misunderstand me. Just experimenting with them using roleplaying games. 

Last year I opened the club and we played the "New School" rules set, Pathfinder. They liked that well-enough to play through the Beginner's Box dungeon and then start to play another adventure. Once we got out of the dungeon, though, they lost interest. I was taken aback but just rolled with it. The question was, however, "why?"

We fiddled around the edges of roleplaying since. A false start or two with various games because I couldn't pin down what they so obviously wanted. I was kind of blinded by my own preconceptions and ideas, to be honest.

To be clear: they wanted another dungeon. They wanted to beat it.

I gave them "The Temple of the Iron God". I rolled out Swords & Wizardry. We've had 5 sessions, 2 TPKs, have killed 7 heroes, lost one player, are about to gain a new player, and rolled up the next set of heroes. I've also allowed them to level-up these new characters to Level 2.

Right now, they are hooked. They want to "do" that dungeon. They tell me they've learned a lot too: to make a map, to back out of fights when they look too tough, to sneak past the goblins and ghouls, not to let the big nasty out of the cage, and to leave the big bowl of silver coins alone. They tell me all of this with big smiles.

What Does "Old School" Mean To You?

For a while I thought that "Old School" just meant D&D retro-clones or playing 0E. The story above would seem to reinforce that idea. But it's not just that. Actually, the system doesn't particularly matter.

Old School is about a style and approach to roleplaying games that I've found myself missing. And it's not just nostalgia. It's about recapturing a way of playing that had me sitting in that player's chair, grinning from ear to ear, while my hero lay in a bloody and battered heap.

Old School has some qualities that I'm only just beginning to quantify and reflect on. The following points are a starting point... where I am up to right now. They are not definitive or complete.

Old School includes:

  • A group of relatively weak characters who, over time, given some skilful play and luck, will become heroes of note.
  • Adventures which present situations in which the players of those characters must be challenged to guide their would-be heroes through to a hard-earned victory.
  • Stories in which the outcome is unknown and dependent on the skilful play of the players, not just the roll of dice or the pre-determination of the GM.
  • Dealing with what you are presented with and not expecting it to be "fair" or "balanced".
  • Detailed description of most actions taken by both the characters and the NPCs, instead of reliance on a die-roll to test some statistic on the character sheet.
  • Generally less-detailed rules and perhaps more detailed setting; the focus of the GM is moved away from the rules mechanics and towards creating and presenting each imagined scene.
  • A consensus between players and GM in which all understand that poor play will lead to character death.
Maybe that's not what it means to you... but it's definitely what I've been discovering with my teen group.

One Step Further...

I'm taking things another step forward this week. I'm about to experiment with my adult group too. 
(Sshhhh. Don't tell them.)

There are some major differences with my adults in what they want. A simple dungeon, for example, will not be enough. They want a different level of sophistication in their gaming. They just haven't figured out what it is yet... but they know it's not a return to D&D4e kill-hunts and they tell me it includes investigation and roleplaying, not roll-playing.

Enter the OSR.
We're going to try out my theory.

Here's what I am going to do:
  • Show them a choice from some pre-generated, relatively weak heroes who (if played long-term) have the potential to become something great.
  • Give them an adventure which presents situations in which the players are challenged to guide their would-be heroes through to a hard-earned victory.
  • Present a story in which the outcome is unknown and dependent on the skilful play of the players, not just the roll of dice or the pre-determination of the GM.
  • Provide the players with a mystery to be solved and a challenge to be overcome, without much regard to how "fair" or "balanced" the situation is for the characters.
  • Focus on providing and requiring detailed description of scenes and actions, and not allowing them to just "get away" with making a simple die roll off their sheet.
  • Using a simpler, lighter rules set to help take the focus off mechanics: we're going to try Castles & Crusades.
  • Make sure the players understand that character death is a possibility avoidable through skilful play and a bit of luck.

This Is Scary

Experimenting with my gaming groups is scary. The reason is that not everyone is going to enjoy the experience. 

In my school group we lost one player. We are also gaining a new player. The reason for the player loss was that he didn't really want to PLAY. 

Some folks come to the session to unwind and hang out with friends. This one lad wasn't really too interested in the game as much as he was wanting to hang with friends. When the game got hard... and he couldn't just drift through to the end... well, he walked.

The new player has heard about the game. He has heard about the TPKs. He tells me that he likes to play games that are fun but challenging. He tells me that computer games get boring because, although they look great and have cool stories, he knows that (given enough effort and game saves) he'll eventually complete. It's not called winning any more, by the way: it's called "completing" a game. This guy wants to win.

Roleplaying games don't have winners, do they? Isn't this the thing that we tell ourselves and even print in every rulebook of any salt? Hmm. Depends on how you define "win". 

RPGs are about winning as a group. Together we struggle with the challenges and, if we are smart and a little bit lucky too, we get to beat those challenges. Our characters improve as a reward for our win... whether with XP, treasure, honour, kudos or just by being asked to take on another challenge.

For me, Old School involves genuine risk. Characters sometimes die. They get pounded by circumstance and tested by challenges. With good play and some luck the players win.

Goodbye to "completing the mission". 
Welcome to "beating the challenge".

Game on!

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Sunday, 3 February 2013

The Star Wars Effect

This last week has been a very much more positive one in regards to our roleplaying. Not least of all the events this week was the Friday Night Group's run through of the Star Wars Edge of the Empire Beginner Game.

Another one?

Yeah. But, you know what? It's cool.

Star Wars has had a mixed run in the roleplaying world. The excellent (but now dated) West End Games version was most people's favourite. The two editions under Wizard's reign received mixed reviews. We've always quite enjoyed playing Star Wars RPGs and, to be honest, the Saga Edition was one of the better d20 adaptations. 

Fantasy Flight Games have, however, managed to really clearly capture the tone and pace of the Star Wars setting in this new system.

Beginner's Game

We ran the game on the fly, with zero prep, in a three hour session on Friday. As GM, I was able to literally open the Adventure Book and run the scenario without any more effort than reading through each section and, on one occasion, reading ahead. 

The system is slick, fast and very simple. I loved the dice mechanic, using weird custom dice and symbols, in which you build a pool and roll. Most notably all of the combat scenes ran very, very quickly. Every moment was exciting and fun. What more could we ask?

Pre-generated heroes in very well presented booklets. A set of custom dice. A full adventure, designed to be read as you play and teach everyone the rules as you go through it. Nice simple maps and tokens to help visualise the scenes. Very, very nicely done.

Would we play again?

One player asked if we could run the follow-up free adventure next session. We will play it sometime, although we have another plan for next session. In short, yes we'll play it again.

Why? Star Wars Edge of the Empire is very slick and cool and fun. It just plays so nicely. I'd guarantee a game if I had a series of pre-written adventures and I'd be happy to create some stories if not.

We all want the main Core Rulebook (mostly so we can create our own heroes) but I think we'd be happy to play some more. 

Were there any other side-effects?

Yes. We re-discovered how much fun a one-off game can be. Consequently we have decided to played another one-off game next session. To my mind, any game that encourages you to change the way you do things is a good game. I felt inspired.

And I'm totally stealing the Destiny Pool rules.

Thanks to all the lads for playing! Game on!