UbiquitousRat's Roleplaying Dreams

UbiquitousRat's Roleplaying Dreams: June 2013

Sunday, 30 June 2013


This week two elements have collided and produced a whole new adaptation of an OSR-style game. 

On the one hand, inspired by my desire to blend the best elements of Castles & Crusades with Monsters & Magic, I found the time to draft the basis of something new: UbiquitousFantasy

On the other hand, inspired by the emails of one of my keen players, I've been seeking to further develop the fantasy world that we're currently playing in. Taken together, with a big dose of effort on my part, I've managed to put together something that excites... and which I hope will excite my players.


We've been playing Castles & Crusades for a few months now. It's great: easy to play, easy to learn, lots of good and solid material. We like. Except that, having upgraded to Level 2 and being well on the way to Level 3, my players commented that there are really very few benefits from levelling up: in other words, it's a bit bland. That got me nervous about the longevity of playing this system.

Plus there's that pesky d20. Regular readers will probably realise that I don't like the randomness of rolling one die for action tests. For a long, long time I've fancied trying out 2d10 instead of 1d20... so yesterday, in a fit of creative energy, I wrote that into our house rules. That was how it started.

While I was in the process of writing house rules, I thought, why not introduce some of the other things that I've been mulling over for a while... and solve that blandness problem to boot? Inspired by Sarah Newton's ideas about Traits, I've modified the way adding the Level bonus works: in short, you get it when you invoke a Trait from your Race, Class or Personal Background. 

Taking things further, and inspired by the conversations with players, I also decided to re-write the classes to fit this change... and to introduce some Specialised Classes (or, to use another term, some Sub-Classes) which are customised to our fantasy setting. It was easy to do... and a lot of fun! Now we have options for a Lightbringer Paladin, a Ranger of the Wild, a Brotherhood Assassin and a Lightbringer Witchhunter. Each blends elements from both the C&C and M&M classes into something... different.

Finally, at least for now, I decided to adopt the idea of an Invocation Test for the Clerical Miracles (my new words for, "making a magic test to cast a clerical spell"). This forms the basis for a cool rule on organising Rituals with many participants and miracles which are upgraded by particularly high Invocation rolls.


Tikhon is a popular saintly name in the Russian Orthodox Church, meaning "hitting the mark". As the setting we're playing in has been doing just that with the group, it seemed a cool name for the world. Welcome, therefore, to Tikhon. 

On top of this, working with the players on their character backgrounds, I've been gathering more and more detailed material for the world. As the players work with me on creating the setting, it is long overdue to codify what we have so far. Thus, this weekend, I'm beginning just that process - typing up the notes.

What's cool is that their ideas, as players, are fuelling my creative process... in truly collaborative style we are producing something far more interesting than might have been expected. Combining this creativity with a desire to customise the game to fit the setting, rather than forcing the setting into a generic rule set, is not necessarily innovative... but it is something that I've never managed to do before. I've even gone as far as to commission a map for the area we've been playing in.

Being Bold

There's a massive risk involved in all of this: it might not work as well as we hope. The challenge, at least for me, is to be brave and bold. If past gaming failures have taught me anything it's that you can't keep doing the same things over and over, hoping that something will click. 

What has made the one-off Hunt for Gerulf adventure turn into the birth of the World of Tikhon has been boldness: a decision to wing a game off of a one sentence premise gave us Mortenburg and Gerulf's Raiders; another decision to introduce clues to the Moon Gate led to the birth of a conspiracy tale. The courage to listen to the players is leading me into a brand new and exciting setting, played with some customised house rules.

What's next? Well, next week's session is looming... will this all pay off? Fingers crossed... but you can't go through life wondering what might have been, can you? I reckon it's much more fun to risk failure on the opportunity of creating something really cool.

Game on!

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Of Monsters & Magic

Because of the way the game felt on Friday night, I was feeling rather despondent about our fantasy campaign. I wasn't feeling at all happy with the game I'd run. 

Weirdly, however, some thoughts and reflection have opened up some fresh ideas that I wanted to share with you... and it's mostly inspired by a woman I've never met...

Meet Sarah Newton

I'd never heard of +Sarah Newton until about a week or so ago. She's an author and gamer, the founder of Mindjammer Press. What grabbed my attention was a G+ post about her game, Monsters & Magic

Having read a preview article or two on the website, I was tempted enough to download the .PDF of the game. I am hugely glad that I did... not least because it has inspired a whole raft of thoughts that I hope will be inspiring improvements in my fantasy and SF roleplaying experience.

Monsters & Magic

Sarah's game takes the OSR material from classic D&D and makes it possible to adapt any addition (whether past or present) to a more modern style of play. She describes it as, "combining the atmosphere of classic fantasy games with modern RPG mechanics."

Last weekend, having begun to read Monsters & Magic, I was inspired! What struck me so keenly has been the encouragement to take Sarah's game engine and customise it to suit my own fantasy worlds... nay, even my SF ones! 

What's so inspiring?

In truth, everything and nothing.

There are three things that I like about Monsters & Magic:
  • Replacement of the d20 with 3d6... but retaining the same old familiar stat values.
  • Addition of her innovative new "Effect Engine", in which new RPG mechanics meet old.
  • Encouragement to customise and personalise your fantasy experience without breaking the game.
On top of those, I really like the fact that she wrote the game with only about four experience levels of play in mind. Right there, on page 4, lay the things that really set my mind to wondering:
"While Monsters & Magic is a standalone game, we anticipate you’ll use it with your favourite classic fantasy RPG books — bestiaries, spell books, equipment, magic items, and adventures. So, we’ve provided enough spells, monsters, equipment, and magic to take you to roughly the 4th level of play — but assume you’ll also incorporate material from your favourite classic fantasy resources to support your game."
And also:
"Monsters & Magic is a modular ruleset. You don’t have to use all the rules: if you have a favourite old school rule you want to use instead (say, different experience levels, or rules for treasure), then go ahead and use it — you won’t break the game."
The game actively encourages that which most RPG publishers avoid: take stuff from wherever you like, fit it into this game system, and make it your own.

That's the thing that set me to thinking...

Generic Doom

Most D&D derivatives (including Monsters & Magic) are generic: they present a framework for playing exciting fantasy roleplaying games in a broadly medieval style setting. The assumption is that the GM will make the game their own and colour the world in their own shades. In my experience, however, this is usually done in the most cursory manner.

When we began playing Castles & Crusades, the system we decided to use for our current fantasy game, the appeal was simplicity and ease. Having just run a playtest of the new Rolemaster, my guys were hankering for an easy-play Friday night escape game. Realising that you have to run the game the players want to play, I opted to keep it simple.

Things had been going well: four or five sessions under the belt, the birth of a new homebrew fantasy setting, and highly engaged players. The combination of the advice from Brian Jamison's "Gamemastering" and the simple rules from C&C were a great starting point.

What has gone wrong, however, is that I've been labouring to run another D&D derivative generic setting. Having limited time, I've not really begun to really tailor our game to my own tastes as well as those of the players. Gloomy and bored, I approached Friday feeling that something was missing... and it was noticable.

Customised Encouragement

Sarah's game reminded me that, no matter what I play, I need to be able to customise it. Monsters & Magic is the game that, although built to support whichever generic fantasy you want to play, actively encourages (nay, requires) you to customise. Thanks, Sarah - because otherwise, it's fair to say, I think our campaign would wither and die.

Here are three things that Sarah has inspired:
  1. Customised Sub-classes: Ian plays an "Assassin". I want to give him a buzz and offer him rules for the "Witchfinder" that he is actually playing, designed just for our game.
  2. Customised Traits: Mark plays a Cleric. I want to give him some specific abilities that reflect his role as a "Priest of Helles, the Lightbringer". 
  3. Customised Setting: We're playing in our world. I want to import ideas from several other OSR games, blending in materials that will make this our own.
All of this is possible with Monsters & Magic. Heck, all of it is possible with Castles & Crusades... but I don't really know how much that'll affect the balance of things. 

With Sarah's game, well... "you won't break the game." 
If you've not yet had a look at it, I recommend it... right now, it's a $10 download.

Game on!

Labels: , , , , , ,

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Dawning Serene

Last night I hopped online for a very productive video chat with +Scott Templeman, a long time friend and fellow gamer.

We've been chewing around some ideas for a cool SF setting, dubbed "Serene Dawn", for some months now. Our chat was all about how we are going to make it a reality.

Serene Dawn

To be honest, the name comes from a starship that was created for playing in a Traveller game set along the Solomani Rim, sometime around two years ago. The campaign I wanted to play never got launched so the name was shelved. Still, it kept nagging at me.

Last year, as I was fiddling around with the idea of creating my own RPG system, I began to chat online with two old friends - one of whom was Scott - and we concocted a plan to create an SF setting that was interesting. 

Things were ticking over fine, given the heavy schedules of everyone involved, until around 8 weeks ago when we came to an abrupt all-stop. In short, people simply weren't around.

Serene Dawn began as a near-future SF setting with a couple of interesting hooks. Firstly, the expansion of humanity was just about to be made possible by the invention of a slightly different style of Jump Gate; secondly, we decided that we wanted to increase the balkanisation of Earth through the continuation of current political trends towards micro-nations. Nothing overly exciting, but a start.

Interestingly, when we began to plot a first game, we ended up setting things off-world on Phobos. In my previous article, Phobian Nights, I mentioned some of the details we came up with. By now, however, the setting had evolved towards science-fantasy and was becoming... odd.

We also involved my home gaming group in a failed attempt to create a campaign in the setting using T5, getting as far as rolling up heroes. To be honest, in retrospect, I'm glad that tanked in favour of the current fantasy campaign we're playing.


New Directions

Last night we had a frank chat about what we wanted to play. The consensus fell upon creating the first of a series of "modules" in the setting, initially focused on what interests both Scott and I: the exploration game.

Oddly, having spent the evening tossing around thoughts and ideas, I came away with the sense that not only did I want to develop the setting but that I wanted to custom-build the game engine to run it. As regular readers will be aware, I have been abortively developing the Beta RPG over the past couple of months... but that project had stalled because something wasn't quite right.

Over night, however, I dreamt the solution. Arising early this morning I typed up the beginnings of a new RPG system which blends elements from several places all into one reasonably light set of rules. With that thrumming in my head, I have found myself suddenly unblocked and imagining things in the Serene Dawn setting too.

It seems odd, perhaps... but, at least for me, the system is important to get out of the way before I create. I need to feel that the game I am writing is doable with the tools I have to hand. 

Scott's Requests

With the new game engine (dubbed the "UbiquitousRPG") in draft format, I have been able to turn my mind to the requests that co-creator +Scott Templeman has asked me for: Bruxx and Conveyors.

Bruxx are a genetically-engineered collection of rat-derived sentients that we postulated late last year. The idea seems to have really bitten Scott as he raised it as the No 1 thing he wanted me to develop. His argument is that, whether the whole setting works or not, this species is the kind of element that you can develop and slot into almost any other SF setting. And he reckons they are interesting too.

Conveyors came out of the discussions about the Jump Gates in the setting. In short, we have some very large starships which can leap to other star systems via the assistance of a Jump Gate. These large craft are called Conveyors because they tote either cargo or smaller, non-FTL capable ships from system to system. Imagine a kind of regular transport liner which jumps from system to system, picking up cargo and dropping off deliveries at each waypoint, and you've kind of got the idea. What makes them cool, though, is that they are controlled by one faction and used at the forefront of exploration too.

The suggestion is that we develop these elements of the setting, alongside some details on exploratory proving teams, to provide an introductory "module" ready to play. Ever ready to run an interesting new campaign, I'm up for that!

Why tell you this?

Well, partially because I'm excited about developing something new... but mostly because we also realised that this project is about something more than "just a cool new game idea". 

Scott and I really want to put our heads together and create something that "gives back" to the hobby we have played and loved for many years. Feeling like a kind of movie critic for RPGs, we both feel that we'd like to experience the joy and pain of trying to create something to share with other gamers.

It was a dear friend in 2004, while we were at Origins in Columbus, Ohio, who suggested that I ought to develop my own RPG system. He was right... but I've not been able to do it yet, despite at least six attempts. Along the way I have been told by several players and gaming friends that they have been surprised that I have not published a thing for the hobby, despite my foaming addiction for roleplaying. I guess, talking to Scott last night, that I realised just how much I really want to have a crack at this thing.

So... why tell you? Because I need support and encouragement. I need editors, illustrators, map-makers, layout artists, critics and supporters... but most of all, I need to know that someone might think it's not such a stupid idea either. And I need some players.

Gaming Online?

This is the project to try something else that's new for me too: online tabletop roleplaying. I've got an account with Roll20 but I've never used it. Now's the time.

Are you an avid roleplayer who fancies coming to play in the SF setting we're putting together? Fancy coming along with us to discover how the first exploration mission might pan out? If so, drop me a note or a comment and let me know. I'll be happy to try to include you in our first games.

Serene Dawn is born. Game on!

Labels: , , , ,

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Three RPG Setting Tips

Reading through Shadowrun (20th Anniversary Edition) this week, I was struck by two things: firstly, at the well-described and well-presented details of the setting and, secondly, at how the setting has evolved over time.

There is a level of verisimilitude is the stories and setting details described. The Shadowrun book opens with 59 pages of background, stopping only briefly at the opening to tell us what roleplaying games are about. You are immersed in details and stories, should you choose to read them. It's a delight!

Additionally, Shadowrun has rolled with the punches that technological development gives to an old Cyberpunk setting. In an increasingly wireless world you read about a wireless future - one written some 4 years ago just as the wireless world was getting into first gear.

These developments seem to both respond to technological development as we know it but also to the needs of players of the game: this iteration of the game fixed many problems with the older version... and the next iteration, the imminent Shadowrun 5, purports to do the same.

For me, it's a cool setting made so by attention to setting details. That's what got me thinking this week...

What makes a setting feel immersive?

Let's get the elephant in the room out of the way: Shadowrun has had 20-odd years of play and development behind it. Any setting that we create might be brand new. We can't ignore the fact that time spent in a setting allows time for the setting to develop and take form. And this wasn't always a cool game... it had a dark night too.

Yet... the question is a useful one.

Reading Shadowrun what struck me most was the attention to small details. Little out boxes with lists of brand names for night clubs are a nice example... and inside those clubs, lists of the top drinks and their nuyen prices. I didn't spend much time on those boxes but I was struck by how immensely useful such little details might be when you're trying to bring the setting to life.

Second on my list would be the use of one viewpoint to present the over-arching setting history. The style was engaging, written as a primer for wannabe Shadowrunners, but also implied that what you were hearing might not be the whole truth. There were multiple plot lines and event sequences described, giving the impression of the third thing that I'll talk about in a moment. What I liked about the style, however, was that by combining this narrative with three longish pieces of fiction the authors presented a world from at least four different viewpoints... and made you want to go and explore it for yourself.

Thirdly I would mention the idea of ongoing plots... metaplots, if you like. These are overarching campaign-scale plotlines that, I am assuming, have been part of the Shadowrun experience provided by the ongoing release of supplements. That is to say, there is a story being told through each release. This is pretty much confirmed by the publication of Storm Front recently:
...Storm Front summarizes and updates the major ongoing plots in the Sixth World, while introducing a new thread that will shake the world in the near future.
Meta-plots are something which I always had mixed feelings about. When I worked for GW (many moons ago) I was involved in running two of the annual Warhammer 40,000 global campaigns, developing and presenting a new meta-plot within the setting. At the time it was both exciting to be creating new stories through our gaming... but it was also something which annoyed a lot of fans. While some folks love the ongoing development of the setting through story, many are happier with the status quo.

Nowadays I feel that, although I've missed out on all the stories told in the Shadowrun line past, the sense of life that these tales give to a setting is powerful. Thinking back across the years of gaming, Traveller did this too... and, love or hate the Virus, it was a big and powerful part of what made that setting cool too. The fact that games like D&D have cottoned onto this in later years is testament to how effective it can be in involving fans. Narrative breeds narrative, after all.

What about our games?

First of all, I realise that I need to focus on my stories at these three levels of detail: 
  1. Micro details that add a sense of reality to the game.
  2. Viewpoint sketches of historic and present conflicts.
  3. Having at least one meta-plot bubbling away.
Making a list of possible brews that fit our fantasy taverns, or making sure that the SF setting has a selection of cool Corporation names seems like basic GMing. Yet, and this is a hard truth, I don't make the time to do this... I wait until I need a detail and then throw it out there. Designing some useful micro details and using them consistently will help to bring the game alive. I think I'll listen to the questions that players ask to guide my writing, though - no point creating something you don't need.

Writing up sections of background from a single viewpoint, or of a few different viewpoints over time, is another nice technique. I tend to opt for third-person top-down descriptions of history. It is far more effective to create a viewpoint character and write things from their more limited but much more interesting standpoint.

Finally, and this is easier for me that I realise, I need to have one or more active meta-plot lines bubbling away. Whether in fantasy or SF, things larger than the heroes will make the worlds seem more alive and real... and threatening. It also allows the heroes moments in which they can step up and take an action within that plot, affecting it for good or ill. That's the stuff that legends are made of... and that good roleplaying cries out for.

What about you? Do you think I'm onto something? Is there something I missed? 
Let me know by throwing a comment when you've time...

Game on!

Labels: , , , , , ,

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Of Traveller and Shadowrun

People who know me, or at least who read this blog, will realise that I consider myself to be first and foremost an SF roleplayer. Truth is, however, that the last time I played in or ran an SF session was several years ago. But I digress already...

As an SF roleplayer (at least in theory) I have been wondering why it is that I have always focused on hard-SF or serious-SF games, such as Traveller, and never played Shadowrun.

With a new edition of Shadowrun in production (see Catalyst Games' website: http://www.shadowruntabletop.com) and due in the Summer, I've been delving into the system a little more than I have previously.

Shadowrun 5

Yes, there's a new edition of the game coming out. There's also a tabletop skirmish game, a card game and a computer game coming - the Year of Shadowrun. With some curiousity, having bought the 4th Edition back in 2004/5, I have been reading the Preview Files - there are 3 out at present, and they are free to download.

Shadowrun 4 didn't resonate with me. At the time I wasn't interested in a fantasy-meets-cyberpunk setting. The art was too cartoon-like and seemed to not treat the idea of urban fantasy seriously enough for my taste. Nine years on my attitudes have obviously changed.

Shadowrun 5 seems to resonate. Why?

Fantasy versus Science-Fiction?

For me the two genres have been separate in my mind. I have used terms like "Star Fantasy" or "Urban Fantasy" to talk about the kinds of games that I want to play... and ignored Shadowrun's blend of SF. 

That seems odd, when I think about it.

Yet, when I read Traveller5 I felt disappointed by two things: 1) the dodgy nature of melee combat; 2) the lack of a decent Psi / Magic system. I never expected Marc Miller to include a magic system... but I was deeply offended by his dismissive and offhand treatment of Psi. Offended? YES! 

You see, in recent years I have come to regard the position of scientific supremacy as questionable. I have at the same time been having a lot of fun with fantasy elements in my gaming. When you bring together my doubt in the Scientific Priesthood with my love of a good fantastic yarn, you get something that isn't Traveller. It's something that looks more like Shadowrun.

A review, attributed (spuriously) to "Joe Chummer" on amazon.com, begins:
Shadowrun can be distilled into three important words: "Magic cyberpunk noir."
I like this description. It appeals to me... and it makes me want to grab a character sheet, a handgun and a spell book. Magic cyberpunk noir.

What do I want in my SF?

It's weird. I started writing Serene Dawn recently and I included magic, angels, demons and conspiracy in my top five elements... the fifth was an "alternate future".

I'm not so sure about Elves and Orcs with guns and cybertech... but, so Joe Chummer assures me, Shadowrun will suit my tastes:
If you're looking for a sci-fi RPG you can really sink your teeth into, this is the one. Shadowrun is quite possibly the richest, most detailed, and most beloved sci-fi RPG setting I have ever played. The way the rules and fiction are presented in this rulebook quickly dispels the "cyberpunk with namby-pamby elves" stigma (which usually originates from people who write off the game without really knowing anything about it). On the contrary, this book makes Shadowrun's world of magic and technology come alive.
What's odd to me is that this change has taken me around 30 years to notice. In fact, looking back, it's not really a change of taste... just of attitude.

When I was playing Star Frontiers back in the 1980s I was indulging in pulp SF. It's not too big a leap to my position today, really. It's just that my attitude to mixing fantasy with science-fiction has finally let me accept the concept without sneering.

This lends me to think about my intellectual snobbery once again: why have I, for so long, seen fantasy gaming as a secondary and less serious indulgence than playing SF games? They are both made up, imaginary... dare I say it, fantastic?!

Is the scientific illusion so ingrained? Not any longer, it seems.

Thank you, Shadowrun 5! You've opened up my eyes to something fun!

Labels: , , , , , ,