Tuesday, September 27, 2011

In Which The Warlock Postulates on Punctuality...

Okay, fellow gamers...I've got to get this off of my chest.

I haven't gamed in over two weeks, and it's driving me nuts. 

Note that this isn't for a lack of trying, friends and neighbors.  As you probably know, if you've been following this blog, I'm currently GMing three games a week--two sessions of Cold Steel Wardens, which is making its way through the paces of alpha testing, as well as a weekly session of Deadlands, as my Friday night group makes its way through "The Flood". 

For the most part, the prep for these hasn't been too overwhelming.  "The Flood" is a pre-made campaign, which means that stats, plotlines and the like are already generated; it's just a matter of executing the game, and making it amusing at the table.  My CSW campaign, by and large, is running primarily on cliches--while I do have to stat up adversaries and the like, the plotlines that my Heroes are working their way through are deliberately stereotypical for the Iron Age, meant more to put the system through its paces than to put forward a "masterpiece" campaign.

Neither campaign has gone anywhere in nearly 3 weeks.

This doesn't bother me, under usual circumstances.  I'm well aware that life gets in the way of gaming many times, and that sometimes you just have to call it a day.  But, these past few weeks, the circumstances surrounding our cancelled sessions have been beyond frustrating. 

Mostly, this is because of an utter lack of notice.  I don't have any problem with a player missing a session, but when we're around the table, asking each other "Hey, does anyone know if Jim Bob is coming?", that brings the action to a grinding halt and starts us looking for other plans.  This has been the case twice in a row our Friday night game, and has left us looking for alternate entertainment.  I'm lucky enough to have a large enough game library to accomodate spur-of-the-moment games, but still...I want to run Deadlands!

Worse still is when this happens in my Saturday session, as it did this past Saturday.  I got a text message from one of my players just after I woke up, which was fine--I had four other players, which would make for a perfectly viable session.  As such, I packed my materials and headed over to Wittenberg...

...only to get a second text message, as I sat waiting for security to unlock the door to the classroom we use.  Another player gone.  Waiting patiently for the other three...only one showed up.  Kung-Fu Jake told me that he'd heard that a second of our players was going to be running significantly late.  Our last player was nowhere in sight.  After fifteen minutes of waiting, I called the session.

Listen, this is absurdity.  If you can't have the common courtesy to at least tell someone when you're running late or can't make a session, why should you expect me to run game for you?  I'd love to be able to roll out the chase rules or the other investigation forms for Cold Steel Wardens, but right now I can't even get enough players together for a single session!  Hell's bells!

Sorry.  I really needed to get that off of my chest.  If you have some advice or some ideas on how to change things up, by all means, comment for me!

Oh, and since there's no media for this entry, here's a great perspective on the DC reboot that the PlatinumChick had on her Facebook page.  Enjoy:

A 7-year-old girl responds to the DC Reboot

Thursday, September 22, 2011

In Which The Warlock Wants a Frost Reaver...

A few months ago, you may remember some comments that I made about Diablo III's runestone system, and how it could be applied to a potential D&D skill system.  As you might imagine, I'm a bit of a Diablo fanatic.  While I don't care much for either of Blizzard Entertainment's other titles, the Diablo series (particularly Diablo II and its expansion pack, Lord of Destruction) managed to walk that wonderful line between action game and role-playing game in a deep, horrific environment. 

Can we get a release date yet?  Please?
I've been specifically excited for the information coming out on Diablo III as it's finally managed to hit its public beta test.  While my actual chances of getting into the beta might as well be infinitesimal, the footage from the beta that's been pouring in looks utterly spectacular, and I find myself desperately hoping that the game manages to surface this year, despite Blizzard's continual affirmations that the game will release "when it's ready."

Among the screencaptured pictures and streaming beta footage, Blizzard has also updated their primary Diablo III website, including a skill calculator--complete with all runestone combinations for each skill!--and a database of all the glorious gear that can drop, as your character eviscerates the minions of the Lord of Terror.

And, oh, my!  So much gear!  So many items and so many modifiers!  Armor for defending!  Weapons for bashing!  Wanga dolls and fetishes for...well...who cares?!  They look great!

Flipping through the numerous Legendary and Set Items, something occurred to me:  there's a distinct difference between certain role-playing games.  Some games are fundamentally gear-driven--the D&Ds of the world, primarily, while others place almost no emphasis on gear.

Pick a card, any card...
There's nothing wrong with either approach, really.  There's something to be said about finding a truly unique weapon or a relic that's been the subject of a massive quest spanning numerous game sessions.  Items like the Eye and Hand of Vecna, the soul-sucking rune-sword Blackrazor, or the infamous Deck of Many Things provide definition and opportunity for character development, centered around not just the acquisition of said items, but also the use of them.  After all, who hasn't had a campaign derailed when someone's taken an unfortunate draw on that Deck of Many Things?

One of the criticisms that I've seen tossed towards 4e D&D is the element of "Christmas Tree syndrome"--characters are expected to have certain elements of gear at certain levels, resulting in a laundry list of items, few of which have any real meaning or campaign relevance.  This, I think, may be one of the reasons that I've somewhat dropped D&D for a while.

Johnny Blaze loves his Hellfire Shotgun
On the other end of the spectrum is my current games of choice, Savage Worlds and ICONS.  Gear, while not quite irrelevant in Deadlands, only becomes important as a plot point--items like Maerlyn's Grapefruit, the Riggins Hellfire Carbine, and the like were grippingly vital, but mundane weapons and the like are glossed over.  ICONS, on the other hand, doesn't even have rules for equipment!  It's entirely left to the imagination!  Any gear that's listed becomes a plot point, usable for the GM (and the PCs, in some cases) to break the rules!

Neither way is bad, per se, but the key is to make gear matter.  A hero's choices should be vital to their core.  And, as always, it should look cool...

Sunday, September 18, 2011

In Which The Warlock Comments on Continuity...

I'm going to start this little discussion off by making a disclaimer:  while I'm obviously a comics fan, I'm really more of a Marvel than a DC.  My favorite characters--Iron Man, Ghost Rider, and Doctor Strange--are all Marvel mainstays, and the books that I collect are typically the Marvel 'teams':  Fantastic Four, The Avengers, and the like.  The PlatinumChick is the resident DC fangirl in the house, cosplaying as her favorite characters:  Huntress and Black Canary.

That said, DC's been making all sorts of headlines with their "New 52"--a complete overhaul and refinement of the core DC books.  Note that I didn't say "reboot", even though that term is probably the most applicable here--major changes are being made, major characters are being altered, and major plotlines are being dropped in favor of entirely new plotlines.

There are a lot of things that upset me about how DC's dealt with this reboot.  I could talk about the utter dishonesty and duplicitousness that DC's has treated some some of the newest, most original blood in the comics industry.  I could talk about DC's hypocritical policy regarding depictions of women in comics, in that "all women must have pants", but characters are continually being shown as nothing more than cheesecake.  I could talk about how the editorial staff at DC has treated their fans, when said fans have questioned DC on their continual gender issues

But none of those are my biggest issue.  Rather, my biggest issue comes from two relatively minor characters in the DC universe:  Batgirl and Amanda Waller. 

Character depth!  Novel concept, that!
One of the seminal arcs of the Iron Age of Comics was Alan Moore's limited Batman series, The Killing Joke.  (Spoiler Alert! Spoiler Alert!)  In it, the Joker attempts to drive Commissioner Gordon mad by shooting and kidnapping his daughter, Barbara, then forcing him to view the images of his bleeding daughter as he travels through a Joker-fied funhouse.  Moore's run from this comic was timeless, as it showed not only the strength of Jim Gordon in resisting the Joker's efforts to drive him mad, but also in the fact that Barbara Gordon's injury became canon.  In later arcs, Barbara reinvented herself, becoming the "mission broker" and information expert for the Justice League, known as Oracle. 

Here, we have a character who refused to give up.  She experienced powerful internal conflict in coming to terms with her injury, and managed to find a new (and unique!) way to contribute to the continual war on crime, despite a "career-ending" injury.  But, instead of allowing that character to thrive in her chosen role, the editorial staff at DC have all but removed any reference to Moore's seminal arc, to say nothing of the internal conflict that drove Barbara Gordon for so long!  While author Gail Simone (already a legend amongst comics writers, male or female), does her best with Batgirl #1, the fact remains that twenty plus years of character development have been tossed out the window, simply to make Batgirl more "accessible".

This is Amanda Waller...
A similar thing has happened to DC supporting character Amanda Waller.  Nicknamed "The Wall", Waller's attitude, stubbornness, and ingenuity have allowed her to stand up to even the most powerful members of the Justice League, particularly in the Timm/Dini animated universe, where Waller literally stepped out of her shower and stared down Batman.  A tough, no-nonsense woman, Waller ran both Checkmate--a government intelligence organization dealing with vigilantes and metahumans, as well as the Suicide Squad--a metahuman 'recovery program' meant for supervillains to work off their jail sentences.

...not this!
Waller was unique in that she wasn't a stereotypically 'beautiful' woman, in the typical sense.  She didn't carry an hourglass figure or a bountiful chest; rather, she was broad-shouldered and squat, and carried quite a few additional pounds.  And now....she looks like everyone else.  To this, I ask..."Why?  To what end is this a good idea?"  What benefit could such a change possibly have, aside from matching the depiction of Waller from the Green Lantern movie which was a travesty in its own right?  It's an unnecessary change, meant to make Waller more "accessible" by taking away something that made her unique in the comics world.

While I don't know much about making comics, I do know a lot about running campaigns.  And I know that if, at my table, I started changing the names of characters, changing what they looked like, or changing minor details about established facts, I would very quickly have an empty table.  And, for that matter, if I started totally disregarding entire character arcs or the character development that my players have put into the story....my table would be in open revolt, and that's not worth the 'potential' new player that might like what I'm doing.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

In Which The Warlock Features Flaws...

It's been a while since I've talked about these guys, so it's high time that I devote them a little space:  I absolutely love my Friday night game group.  For most of the summer we were on something of a hiatus, with ChaoticFrederick and CincinAdam scattered across the U.S., but we're finally starting to get back in action as the seats at our table fill back up.  Wanting a change from our usual fare, I've kicked up a series of The Flood, the first of four plot point campaigns for Deadlands: Reloaded.

One of the neatest things to come of this game was a sequence involving ChaoticFrederick's character--the cybernetic 'scrapper' Mary Ellen Hardigan--and Chris I's character, the "new scientist" Dr. Noble.  After being rescued from Lost Angels by the posse, Mary Ellen had just been given a cybernetic arm by the enigmatic Dr. Darius Hellstrome, but became addicted to morphine in dealing with the pain of amputation.  As such, she's been having to deal with the "Habit--Major" hindrance.  This was fine, until a rough combat with some Guardian Angel bounty hunters left Dr. Noble with a broken jaw!  When Chris I asked if he could use his Healing skill to fix up his jaw, I said 'no' at first...but then ChaoticFrederick put forward the idea of using the morphine to dull the pain.  One Vitals roll of "snake eyes" later, and Dr. Noble was well on his way to becoming a morphine addict...

Obviously, this type of game isn't for everyone, but it raised a great plot point for us--that hindrance is going to be biting them in the butt for sessions to come!

"Snakes...why did it have to be snakes?!"
Now, before we get much further, let's get something straight.  One of the things I love most about role-playing is the concept of the "flawed" hero.  Flaws, for me, make heroes more realistic and more interesting to role-play.  What would my old huckster-fencer, Ramon, have been without his "One-Arm" hindrance?  Where would Actorios have been, without his lust for power and his tragic past?  And, those are only a few from my recent games; would Indiana Jones have been the same without his fear of snakes?  Would Batman be anywhere near as interesting without his psychological drive to avenge his parents, or Tony Stark without his narcissism and alcoholism?  And my Deadlands posse from earlier?  They just wouldn't be the same without their flaws...the aforementioned addiction, FridayNightWill's "Mean" demeanor, and Chris II's "Ugly As Sin" gunslinger...
Certainly, these flaws make all the difference!  Flaws give these characters depth, to say nothing of something to conquer above and beyond Mook #473.  They bring another dimension of conflict beyond 'man vs. man' or 'man vs. society'.  Rather, they bring in that millenia-old conflict of 'man vs. self.'  The worst enemy a character could have, truly, is their own reflection.  Character flaws, regardless of media, put this on full display and allow us to achieve catharsis through those heroes...
Tony Stark tells a Congressional
Sub-Committe where they can get off...

...which brings us to Cold Steel Wardens.  When writing the rules-set, I debated even including flaws and the like to the rules, not wanting to slide too close to Savage Worlds or Champions, both of which feature flaws or disadvantages as mechanical balancing points.  However, vision mattered more.  The heroes of the Iron Age of Comics are meant to be deeply flawed individuals, exploring philosophical and ethical questions just as they take to the streets to fight criminal scum.

In the end, I decided to take up what may be a controversial stance.  Rather than exclude flaws in general, I decided to make them mandatory.  At character generation, every would-be Hero must take at least two Flaws, to round out their character.  Further, a Hero can take on additional Flaws, gaining 3 additional points per Flaw taken, adding to that Hero's Skills, Masteries, and even Powers. 

While some gamers might object to this, those Flaws have massive importance for one of the other mechanics of the game--the Hero Pool.  Each Flaw that a Hero takes, when manipulated by the GameMaster, adds dice to the Hero Pool, allowing all Heroes at the table a better chance of making a critical roll, taking down a rogue metahuman, or even completing their investigation. 

Therein lies the rub--while many games leave flaws or disadvantages in the purely mechanical realm, Cold Steel Wardens aims to push them to the forefront, making them active, important aspects of a player's character.  So far, things have turned out pretty well in that regard...but only more playtesting will tell!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

In Which The Warlock Ponders Playtesting...

As I mentioned last post, I've finally begun my alpha testing of Cold Steel Wardens this week, running two sessions at Wittenberg:  one on Wednesday evenings, and another on Saturday afternoons.  Beginning the playtest has been a bit daunting, all told.  Each week, I have to focus on new rules, new items, and new situations to test out, that way I can make it through the full rules-set before the semester ends.

What I wasn't expecting was such a disparate set of characters to start the game.  Our first session was primarily a character generation session, followed by a sample combat so that the players could get their feet wet.

My Wednesday group was a little shocking.  Starting at 6, we ended up with only four players, one of which has never played an rpg in any sense of the word.  What's more, this group was particularly low-powered, spending most of their character-creation points on Masteries and Skills.  In fact, only one player took any powers whatsoever, and only Sense at that--a power that grants the chooser some form of super-sense such as night-vision or exceptional hearing.  Even more shocking were the actions of one of the Heroes during our sample combat!  With one of her allies in over his head against some of The White Russian's gun-runners, she simply walked away...leaving him to his fate!  Yeesh...some heroism, right?

Character Creation on Saturday Afternoon
In contrast, my Saturday group consists almost entirely of long-time dice-chuckin' veterans, ready to throw down some d8s with the best of them.  While I had mentioned that the prior group had very few powers, I was more than shocked to see every player in the group take at least one power!  What's more, the themes of each Hero's powers were particularly different.  We ended up with a cybernetically augmented hacker (formerly of the Tech Support gang), a knife-wielding teleporter, and even a multi-armed alien! 

Already, though, I've begun to find some rules that just don't work.  While CSW is fully meant to create flawed, vulnerable heroes, the sheer amount of Flaws that players started with (in both groups) was a bit exorbitant.  While I expected some to end up with 4-5 Flaws, especially since Heroes are mandated to have 2 Flaws to start the game, I hadn't expected every player to do so, and more! 

Running the sample combat...
Further, it became immediately apparant that my rules regarding critical hits weren't quite right.  While critical hits were still fairly uncommon--despite the fact that my first 'mooks' were beyond underpowered--the Mental Strain associated with viewing a critical hit was just way too much.  In both sessions, Heroes nearly went mad from blows that they, themselves inflicted!  While I still want to assess some degree of Mental Strain for such blows, it definitely needs scaled back.

Next week, I'll be taking a look at our first real Investigation--a concept-map style case, involving a coming storm between two rival crime families.  I'm hoping to really hit home the fact that CSW isn't meant to be a 'super-brawl' sort of system; rather, it's meant to emulate tense investigation and gritty, dark choices.  With at least one player in each group focused solely on combat, this could be just a touch difficult...

We'll see, friends and neighbors!  The work is never done!

Thursday, September 08, 2011

In Which The Warlock Requests a Schedule Change...

It's occurred to me that since my Cold Steel Wardens playtests are going to be occuring on Wednesdays and Saturdays, it's probably not going to be feasible for me to blog on those days.

As such, I'm going to be amending my schedule slightly.  While I'll still be updating on weekends--usually on Sunday afternoons or Saturday evenings--I'll now be updating this blog on Tuesdays, instead of Wednesdays. 

Look for some of my playtests notes this weekend, as well as impressions on that time-old tradition of character creation!  See you then!

Sunday, September 04, 2011

In Which The Warlock Previews His Introduction...

Since today is our big Labor Day party, this one's going to be a quick post for me, with some more preview material for Cold Steel Wardens.

Here's the brief fiction interlude, right at the start of the book--Enjoy!

It’s always raining here.  A cold wet drizzle pours down, desperately trying to wash away all of the filth and shame that seems to work its way out into the streets.  Even the streetwalkers have decided to pack it up, going back to whatever hovel their pimp has them sleeping in tonight.  The gangers are still out, trudging through the rain-slicked streets, but even they’re quiet.

I took out four of them earlier, down in New Corinth.  They were hassling a push-cart vendor, because someone didn’t like his pita bread.  I broke one’s jaw, and at least one of the others won’t be walking for another three months.  Fucker deserved it.  He pulled a knife on me.  The other two were smart enough to run away—I let ‘em go.  They didn’t get into the poor guy’s cash register, at least.  Achmed gets to take home his cash box for another day.

I headed back up Sixteeenth Street, and then climbed the Grandview Building.  One of those bastards must have gotten a good shot in; my shoulder felt swollen and tender.  At least that one didn’t have a knife.  I was out of commission for almost two weeks, when one of the Rojo Bastardes caught me in the back with a switchblade.

I think I’m going to start carrying a gun.  It’s worked for Double-Tap.  Hell, we’re all criminals anyway.  The Nornsby Act’s seen to that.  When they catch me, I’m looking at 10-12 in Solitary.  Double-Tap will probably get life—he gunned down a cop, trying to get back to headquarters.  Serves them both right:  Double-Tap for being stupid, and the cop for trying to take down one of the good guys.  At least the cop lived—he’ll just be in a wheelchair for the next few decades.
At least the gun will mean a little more protection.  This Kevlar plate only goes so far, and it’s kind of hard to punch a guy when he’s pumping off .38 rounds into your chest.  After all, I don’t have to use it…right?