UbiquitousRat's Roleplaying Dreams

UbiquitousRat's Roleplaying Dreams: May 2013

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

How's Your Faction?

One of the things that is missing from Brian Jamison's "Gamemastering" is a discussion of factions.

Although Jamison is very good at emphasising the need to focus on the player characters and their own personal Nemesis, it's important not to forget that there is a wider world or universe surrounding the actions of the heroes. 

Factions are a nice antidote to becoming over-focused on the heroes... a trait which can lead to the players believing that only what they do matters.


This piece of GMing advice landed on my bookshelf from within the excellent Imagine Master's Manual (which, at the time of writing, is a mere $14.95) back in 1999. I've written before (on another blog) about the very strong "Gamemastering" section in the book, and this particular technique.
"Conflict is at the heart of every story. Without it characters are going through the motions; living without a common purpose; or worse, arriving at their goal with little challenge. The party itself is the simplest faction in any game - a band of noble or ignoble few who stand against capricious fate...
...Fledgling Gamemasters often ask what it is that makes a setting interesting, but believable. While piles of statistics (the facts and figures) can be useful, they are shadows when compared against the factions in your setting. It is factions that create conflicts, story line and even history."
This quotation from the Master's Manual outlines very clearly what factions are about: groups of beings who band together to obtain or protect their interests. The heroes are one such band... but it's the other factions who will make your setting sing.

Mortenburg Chronicles

Our current fantasy game is set in and around the small town of Mortenburg. It began with a simple mission for the heroes: bring back the head of local brigand, Gerulf. Now, after several sessions, the heroes are about to return with the head of the bandit... and they are still wanting to play. Our one-off has begun to bloom into an ongoing campaign.

As GM the problem arises: I don't know what to do next. Certainly while Jamison's advice to look to the heroes' goals and the GMCs (Game Master Characters) is good, I remembered that the best next step I can take is to write down the settings' factions.

By way of a partial example, here's what I've done to dig myself out of the mire of uncertainty.

Faction List

Following the advice from the Imagine Master's Manual, I've decided on the largest area of influence in the campaign right now: the Barony of Faulstieff. Mortenburg sits on the edge of this territory, independent but closely allied to the Baron's family. 

The first faction is, therefore, House Stieff... the Baron's own family. They are led by the Baron himself and he seeks to maintain his power, perhaps extending it if opportunity arises.

Standing aside from House Stieff is the Mortenburg Council, led by Meister Eckhart. This coalition of landowners seeks to remain distinct and independent from the Barony... but they also need the trade of their neighbours. 

Threatening the Council are the raider groups surrounding them. To the north is Gerulf's Goblin tribe, now in decline (perhaps) following the death of their leader, Gerulf. In the south, in the Schwarzwald, lies the territory of Uter's warband. Both raider groups seek to plunder the trade caravans and farms of Mortenburg, hoping eventually to extract tribute... but Uter also seeks to conquer the town and use it as a base for more power.

Assisting Uter's bid for power is the Dark Elf Mage-Priest the heroes witnessed at the Moon Gate. Whilst I have determined her own goals, and those of her faction, I can't really reveal them here... but hopefully you get the idea.

Using Factions

All well and good, you might be thinking. How do we use these factions in prep? Simple.

The heroes may well choose to follow their own path. In my game they will perhaps seek to find out more about Uter and exact revenge for the death of Karl's brother, a stated personal goal that many in the group might be willing to help with. Or, instead, they may choose to travel to Faulstieff and report to the Bishop their discoveries in the caves. Or something else...

Yet none of their choices should occur in a vacuum. All around them the other factions are plotting, scheming and carrying forth their plans. What is Uter doing now? Having failed in his plan to ally with Gerulf's tribe, how will he respond to the change? Perhaps he himself will seek revenge on the heroes... or maybe he has bigger plans.

What of the Mortenburg Council? Will they be grateful to the heroes for killing Gerulf? How will they react to the news of Uter's involvement and threat? And what of the news of the Baron's head, picked up by the heroes at the cave? What will this development mean for their independence? 

How will House Stieff react to news of the death of their Baron? 

Hopefully you get the idea... each decision of the factions will create new circumstances and, potentially, drive new stories. What if the Council ask the heroes to take the Baron's head back home? If they accept, what will they encounter? If they refuse, how will their decision affect their standing locally? 

Factions will drive the action even when the heroes are dithering over what to do next.

Prepping With Factions

How do you prep for all of these eventualities? Simple. 

Make some decisions about how each major victory or defeat might affect one or more of the factions. I'd start with two questions:
  1. Who gains from this change?
  2. Who loses from the change?
The former faction(s) are likely to respond favourably to the heroes (should they encounter them) and the latter are surely destined to respond negatively. 

Choose the faction who gained the most and decide what action they take in response. Then do the same for the faction who lost the most. In our case, Mortenburg's Council gained the most from Gerulf's death... and Uter's warband lost the most. The choices of these factions will drive towards new actions and plans... and some of those might involve the heroes.

What if Uter decides to wreak revenge? No matter what the heroes choose to do next (and they must be allowed to choose), Uter is coming for them. Devise a plan and set up the things you need to know. When the time is right, and that might not be for some time, you can then drop the obstacle into the story. Does he send assassins? Create the combat encounter and, when the timing feels right, drop it on the party's head. 

Fun, fun, fun!

In Conclusion...

Factions are easy to add to your game. They add spice and detail to an otherwise 2D world that revolves around the heroes. Certainly the story should move around the choices the player's make... but not the whole world. Factions add the spice that will make the heroes' encounters seem all the more believable.

Game on!

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Sunday, 19 May 2013

Can you Imagine?

Two hobby projects have been gestating this week. The first, Serene Dawn (the SF setting), hit two road blocks which, although largely temporary, put a dampener on my spirits. The second, my ongoing quest for getting fantasy right, opened up new vistas when I re-discovered Imagine.

Legends of the Unknown

This week the fifth book in the Imagine RPG series arrived at my home: Legends of the Unknown. That in itself was an exciting event, given that the subject matter includes adding watery adventures to the game - think pirates and stuff to do with travelling across the oceans, and you've captured my mindset.

The book itself, however, was only the spark for me. The main attraction was to crack open the main rules of Imagine and once again remember both why I love the game... and why I've never been able to get a game with it.

Time to Imagine

Back at the turn of the century, when the world was falling under the spell of D&D 3rd edition and the d20 system was new and magic... there was Imagine.

Looking back I see in the creation of this game a proto-movement for what was to become the Old School Renaissance... with a difference.

It began with the very cool merchandising decision to publish a poster:

Seeing this, I tracked down the website and bought the game. Reading the rules, I smiled at the irony that the combat roll used a d20... just in a very different way.

At the core, Imagine is a d100 game which uses d20 during a fight. The heart of the game, however, really appealed to me... and still does: the game includes a LOT of detail running over a very simple set of core rules. The GM is encouraged to be imaginative and creative, being given all the tools they need (via the GM Guide) to alter or design any element in the game - spells, creatures, classes, items... whatever. The players are also challenged to be creative, but in the way they describe and interact with the world they are playing in.

What I discovered was a game which harped back to the feeling I had experienced in the early days of gaming with more crunchy systems but with infinitely more freedom as a GM.

Imagine was the first game system I came across which genuinely encouraged me to create a unique world, not just another generic fantasy location.


To label Imagine as a reaction to D&D is, however, a mistake. It's also a mistake to lump it in with the Old School Renaissance which (for the most part) has taken things back to an earlier form of D&D. For me, Imagine offers Old School Evolved... or, at least, Evolving.

Imagine suggests that, while it's helpful to have classes and levels to map out character power and progress, these things should not be limits to what you can do with the hero. It blends the best aspects of skill-based gaming with the best aspects of level-based gaming... and adds something to the mix. It's not really anti-D&D... it's actually suggesting that you take the game a step further by using your imagination.


Imagine makes me pause. It makes me want to try it out. The only problem is that it makes me worry that my players won't like it. 

It's a game that will take you ages to create a character for but, once complete, will leave you to get on with playing. For my action-orientated group this means it really benefits from a speeding-up tool, like the rough-and-ready character generator on the game's website. What it really needs is a Hero Lab build.

It's a game that utilises one of the most innovative combat systems I've ever read. You actually describe what you want to do with that weapon and translate it into an attack roll designed to see if you achieve it. Slashing over arm to hit the Goblins head? Imagine it striking the head if you hit... but striking the shoulder if you narrowly miss! You are not only encouraged to describe (or even act out) your attack but you are rewarded for being clever: how about striking at the throat with your spear, or knocking a sideways swinging blow with your club to sweep the foe's legs out from under him?

Imagine is a game which offers real customisation as you grow your hero in whichever of the myriad of class choices you decide to follow. Class is a choice of pathway in adventure... but never a straight-jacket. 

The only downside is, given all of the choices, the game appears to be pretty complicated. 

Is Imagine complex?

That depends on what you mean.

Under the hood the game is actually simple: 
  • Skills and Saving Throws are rolled on d100, roll-low, with a few optional modifiers.
  • Attack rolls are d20, with modifiers.
  • You gain XP to go achieve Goals (sub-levels) and Titles (levels).
  • Mages cast spells using Aura (read: spell points).
  • Priests cast spells freely but with limits on casts between prayers.
Imagine draws on the traditions of fantasy roleplaying. It feels a lot like D&D's spirit infused into a d100 system. Looking at it post-Arduin, I can see an awful lot of David Hargrave in the game... not in mechanics but in spirit. Imaginative ideas, encouragement to create and customise, and alternative ways of doing things are all core to Imagine

On the other hand, on a first reading at least, the game looks like it has some clunky aspects: the second-by-second combat system, for example, seems alien to most roleplayers... unless they've played the new Hackmaster or GURPS 4e.

Do I want a game where I need to track the second-by-second moves of the characters? That depends on my desired level of detail: I am sure that some GMs might be tempted to run the game with rounds based on the now-standard idea of a 6- or 10-second round with one action and one move. But if you bother to try out the more detailed system you discover that you don't need to add much more effort to gain a lot more tactical enjoyment... assuming you're into tactical play.

Here are two excellent quotes from Imagine creator and CEO, Michael (posted on the forum) in response to me asking, "How do I demo this to newbies?"
"For the ease of combat I break [the 10-second round] down into the first three seconds, the second three seconds and the last four seconds...So when the guy who got a -6 [for initiative] goes I ask him what would you like to do? He tells me I'd like to engage this opponent. So I check his movement and see that he has to go from walk, jog to run to get to his opponent in the third second. Lets say he has a 4-second weapon (long sword adjusted). I saw normally it would take you four seconds to swing but you are engaging the guy and you get to him on the 3rd second so that's when your first attack happens."
"Tell me how you want to hit the guy. I ask him to either describe or pantomime how he wants to hit. I show him the back of the sheet where we have already pre-calcuated his bonuses to hit and tell him to roll a d20, then add the bonus I have just shown him. Then we see how he hit. Let's say he hit right and said he was going to over head swing at the head. I tell him okay you didn't hit the head but you hit to the right tapping either his shoulder or mine to show and then he and everyone else can really visualize it. We roll damage by the weapon and I ask him what he wants to do next..."
For me, the added appeal is in the detailed description: I can imagine the movement and strike clearly for the trade-off of using a second-by-second, real-time counting system. It's not really complicated... just more detailed. 

Which is better? "I hit him!" [roll], or "I swing my sword down in a slashing move aiming for his neck!" [roll]. The second description is better, right? But what if that description also matters in the game? Cutting into the guy's neck should be very much more worrying for the guy being hit than just taking another generic dose of hit point damage. 

Which is more desirable? That is the real question: it is worth the effort to gain that detail? I feel that it might be... but I worry that my players won't agree.


Which brings me to the question of newbies. The default assumption is that newbies need simple, for which we often substitute simplified (or, regrettably, simplistic). I have run games of Pathfinder, for example, which use the simplified "Beginner's Box" to intro the game.

Thinking back to my own gaming journey, however, I began with RuneQuest and Traveller plus Star Frontiers and D&D. I quickly graduated to Rolemaster. These were not simple games... especially given the appalling quality of explanatory writing in evidence in those early days. 

Roleplaying games are not simple to learn to play. They require a certain desire to tell stories and a preparedness to learn some reasonably challenging rules. Most young kids are actually playing much more complex games on their consoles... they just don't have to do the maths because the computer does it for them. But the tactical challenges of the games are quite large... and the more complex the game, generally, the more kids (especially boys) enjoy it.

The barrier is their confidence with what they are learning. As with all learning, you need to have the process staged and built in small steps. There's no point introducing all of the rules at once (which I tend to do, even with experienced roleplayers) because you just confuse people and turn them off. Instead, even with roleplayers who have played a lot of games, you need to step-up the learning through play. Enter the demo.


Here's where I share a newly developing idea for how to intro a new game: you run a demo.

Option 1, probably best for total newbies to a game, is to pre-generate the characters and allow them to pick-up-and-play. 

Option 2, open to more experienced gamers trying a new game, is to use a quick character generation system to speed them into playing.

Either way, you set up some basic situations which allow the players to learn how to use the game to emulate their decisions. The key point here is this: you ask them what they want to do... then you (as GM) model it into the game rules. That's what Michael's post (excerpts above) basically encourages and, from experience, I realise that this is the key.

Don't run a huge combat with 20 combatants. Run a quick fight with a couple of easy-to-defeat opponents aimed at teaching the guys how to play. They will learn the basics and get the flush of victory... making them hungry for more. Remember: they're going to win the fight... because the fight is designed to allow them to learn, not to try and challenge the heroes.

Run a series of situations which require them to use some skills. The aim, again, is just about helping players to learn how to roll the dice to emulate their actions. Throw in some Saving Throws, sure... this adds spice and danger... and teaches them how to make Saving Throws.

Give them choices to make as the story unfolds. Don't write a linear scenario... set up an open situation and allow the players to feel their way through to a conclusion. I'm imagining a house break-in, or a simple cave exploration, or a short street-based investigation with thugs getting in the way.

Make it a short session - 2 hours perhaps - and then take them through "levelling up". Allow them to customise their heroes ready for next time. And then invite them to come again... and again... and again... each time, increasing their understanding of the game with a few new details.

Even the most complex system, broken down into bite-sized learning experiences, will become accessible over time. The question is whether you're patient enough to create those experiences.

In conclusion...

I'm going to try an run some folk through games using Imagine

I'm going to design a beginner's scenario set in the world my main group is currently playing in too, just to make the setting stuff easy on me whilst adding to my other GMing commitments. Adding details to the world we're playing in means that, no matter how successful or not my efforts are, they are always useful to my main efforts.

I might invite my regular group to test the demo: it's a side-adventure in the setting they are already invested in, so it adds to the background of the stories we're telling... and it allows me to tweak my teaching efforts. Come the big day with the newbies, I'll be all-the-more prepared for how players might react.

I'm going to be brave and try to bridge the gap between the detail I desire in my gaming and the apparent complexity it implies. I just hope I can make it work.

Game on!

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Saturday, 11 May 2013

Traveller5: Anyone for Awesomesauce?

Arriving home last night, having dashed through the traffic to be back in time to greet my inlaws who are visiting this weekend, I was excited to find that the Postman had delivered something... large.

Upon opening the beautifully wrapped package I was confronted with the reality of something that I have waited a very long time to get my hands on: Traveller5 had arrived.

In the box were the items shown to the right: T5 Core Rules (656 pages), Core Rules CD-ROM, Jump Drive (Core Rules on USB stick), Traveller Dice set (10x Black, 1 Yellow, 1 Red, 1 White), extra Traveller Dice, 2x Cr25 Imperial coins, Membership card for Traveller's Aid Society, Patent of Nobility as a Knight (in my name, customed to my own world).

Beta Playtester

I don't remember the exact day that I received my Traveller5 Beta CD-ROM. But it was a very exciting day.

This was the original draft rules for the game I now hold in my hands, ready for playtest. On that day I signed into the Beta Playtest Group online and the rest, as they say, is history. Admittedly, it was was long, slow and sometimes frustrating wait... 

Last night I told friends that I'd been playtesting this thing for something like 8 years... and, thinking about it, that wasn't far off.

What amazes me most - and highlights the genius of Marc Miller - is that things haven't changed all that much... at least, in terms of the big things. It has just been a long period of tweaks and edits. The slow, long aggregation of small, incremental improvements. Today Marc refers to T5 as the "Ultimate Edition" of his long-loved SF RPG.

What's so special?

First of all, this is the most complete edition of Traveller ever written and put into one tome. It's massive. Actually, in truth, it's too big.

Here's the contents page:
Thankfully, following the massively successful Kickstarter campaign last year, Traveller5 is expecting the "Player's Edition" of the book: a shorter selection from the Core Rules designed to deliver just what the player needs, leaving the main book as a tool for the Referee. Nonetheless... this is an impressive tome.

It's beautifully simple in layout and design. Black two-column text which evokes the feel of Classic Traveller. Yet this is no "Little Black Book". It's one of the thickest books of any kind on my shelf.

Oddly, it's a book that I'll not need most of for the majority of the time. Design some characters for your group, learn the very easy to grasp Task rules and Combat rules... and you'll only use the rest if you are building something for your game.

In some ways the sheer size of the book belies the simplicity of the system.

Not just the Official Traveller Universe

I'd like to point out that this game is not just for the OTU. 

Certainly, T5 is optimised for the Traveller setting. Yet it's is written to be the "ultimate SF game", not just another edition of itself. Marc has designed the game completely ready to be used in Your Traveller Universe. 

I've been using this ruleset to prep my group to play in the Serene Dawn setting. We did characters some months back... and then got side-tracked into a fantasy campaign. Last night, when the T5 book arrived, the question was asked by one of the guys: "When are we going to play Traveller, then?" 

Soon, I hope. It's just too cool to leave on the shelf.

Final thoughts...

Yeah, I know. This is an exciting book to receive and yet, given my chaotic approach to gaming, it's also not necessarily going to get used as much as it should. 

Traveller5 is something of a dream come true. As a long-term fan of the game, having collected every book from every edition and having played since I was a pre-teen school boy, this is pant-wettingly cool. Geekdom come home, so to speak. But it is a flawed dream. It is a game that is ultimately Marc Miller's creation... and Marc doesn't, in my opinion, always get it right.

I'll be hacking my own Psi system, for example. I'll also be adding a Magick system to suit my own game (unsurprising as this is not a fantasy game: ultimate SF system, remember). And I'll not be using most of the design rules very much because, for a lot of my gaming, eye-balling and winging it is my style.

But the core of the game is sound. I love the d6-based game engine. I love the background building nature of character creation. 

You'll hack it and you'll mod it. But you'll play it... when it's finally on general release, at least.

If you like Traveller then you owe it to yourself to add this book to your collection. It'll be coming on both electronic and hard formats... and the electronic files are not only the whole book in one .PDF but also broken down by chapter and sub-section. There is so much to enjoy...

Just make sure you get past the first 50-odd pages and delve into playing it.

Game on!

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Sunday, 5 May 2013

Phobian Nights

As we continue to develop the Beta RPG materials, I've been toying with ideas for a campaign that the development team have kind of injected into my imagination.

Phobian Nights is a sub-setting for our Serene Dawn science-fantasy imaginings. Set under the surface of Mars' most notorious moon, the theme is one of urban despair, dark intrigue and gumshoe investigation.

Inspired by Scott and Jon's initial character ideas for playing a game on the Martian moon, the sub-setting has begun to morph in my mind into something slightly more sinister than I perhaps initially imagined.

Phobos Station

Phobos is a Special Economic Zone within the Chinese State. It has a status similar to that of Hong Kong in recent Earth history.

Phobos is, in the greater organisation of the Sol system, the most important way-station. It is said, with some truth, that everybody passes through Phobos on their way through or out of the Sol system. As a consequence there are Corporate offices, significant orbital and port facilities, and all the attendant commercial support infrastructure you might expect.

A Moon Divided

Phobos features two types of colonial structures: Starsides and Underdeeps.

Starside structures are either domes (rare) or towers (usually) which face the stars; in other words, these are surface structures with extensive solar-collective glascrete panels which allow citizens to see the stars or Mars, depending on which side of Phobos the structure faces.

Underdeep structures are the more traditional extra-terrestrial dwellings which are constructed underground. This is simpler and allows colonists to take refuge within the easier-to-heat and maintain subterranean caverns. Underdeeps tend to feature massive caverns, filled with highrise and other close-proximity housing, connected by wide tunnelled "boulevards".

Chinese Angst

What really got me interested, however, were the almost throw-away ideas that the players came up with over the course of a video chat some weeks ago. It was all about the crime.

Crime on Phobos is dominated by the Chinese organised crime syndicates, usually referred to as the Triads.
The dominant crime syndicate is the Sun Yee On Triad ("New Righteousness and Harmony"). 

Adding to this, the guys suggested a couple of characters who act as private investigators. They were into the idea that they might know some Triad members, even have to fend off their pressure, but that they would nonetheless pick up the odd-jobs that arise from a corrupt and thriving port-settlement.

For me, the feel has steadily become darker and darker until I realised that this is exactly right. It seems to me that the inhabitants of this "brave new colony" would be... less than excited about the reality. 

Grey, grimy and grim. Phobos as the waystation to the stars... and the ghetto of the lost.

I don't know whether the guys will mind but, in truth, I kinda fancy a gumshoe-meets-futurepunk setting.

Game on!

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