Wednesday, October 31, 2012

In Which The Warlock Happens Upon Horror...

It's been my distinct pleasure over the course of my gaming life to be exposed to dozens, if not hundreds, of game systems and genres.  It honestly astounds me at times that some gamers only play D&D or only play a particular version of a game system.   And yet, I recall that once upon a time, my own experiences were exactly that:  D&D and nothing more.

A bad moon rising...
It wasn't until I'd reached Wittenberg that I started to branch out.  And, truth be told, it wasn't until one fateful  night that I received my first taste of the Call of Cthulhu RPG.  Thanks to some great players, BLof's extraordinary gamemastery, and a harrowing walk home at 1:00 am beneath a bloody red-orange moon, I was hooked.  My gaming life would never be the same.

My first real shock came in character generation.  Used to (and rather sick of) the min-maxing of D&D, I decided to go all out in characterization, breaking from anything even remotely familiar.  I settled upon writing up what I lovingly referred to as a "Wicca wench"--a heavily overweight woman who fancied herself something of an "occult expert", when her actual arcane knowledge came only from her part-time job in a New Age store.

BLof's scenario began with our characters investigating the disappearance of several campers in a nearby state park.  After a day of fruitless searching, evening led us to the campers' cabin.  And that?  That's when the real horror kicked in.

Run away!  Run away!!!
Marooned in the park, our cabin was overrun by ghoulish infant-like creatures which would latch onto the living and begin digging into their flesh with needle teeth.  The ghoul-children burrowed in through the walls of our cabin, driving us onto the roof.  While we were lightly armed, it quickly became apparent to me that Call of Cthulhu was not a game of combat.  We barely were able to beat a handful of the creatures back, but were forced to retreat into the depths of the darkened woods, the infant-dead wailing after us.

I'm not sure whether it was the setting, whether it was the stark contrast between this game and my prior forays in D&D, or maybe it was how BLof described the wails of these demon-children as we fled into the dark.  Regardless, I was hooked.   Call of Cthulhu had blown my mind, completely and utterly.  That evening, I slowly made my way back to Ferncliff Hall beneath the blood-orange moon.  With those hideous wails embedded in my ears, the horrified look of my characters' face emblazoned onto my imagination, I knew that I'd be back for more.

Our campaign lasted for the majority of that semester and, while many of our sessions were nowhere near as horrific as that first one--our highway-chase/gunfight in Harlem comes immediately to mind--that first session set me down quite the path.  The flirtations with horror gaming I'd had in the past through Ravenloft were just that--mere flirtations.  With Call of Cthulhu, I'd found real vehicle--and my options have only spread open since then.

By now, you're probably wondering what brought this entry on.  Obviously, the holiday spirit is my primary motivation, but not necessarily for the reason you think.

You see, friends and neighbors:  that fateful first session, which brought me full-bore into horror roleplaying...that session was played on Halloween, eleven years ago today.

Now, isn't that spooky!?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

In Which The Warlock Peruses the Perfect Party...

For those of you that were hoping for more cross-blog shenanigans, never fear:  it's just The Journeyman GM's turn to host our info.  This time around, we take a look at one of his games--his Deadlands "Heart of Darkness" conversion!

In the meanwhile, I wanted to spend a little time talking about a recent game that really blew me away, which is only more fitting considering the time of year!

I'm talking, of course, about the PlatinumChick's Call of Cthulhu game, "Welcome to Zendik Farms", which I ran for the first time this past Friday for the WittKids.  I've spent quite a while running over-the-top steampunk action in Deadlands, and it had felt like ages since I'd actually run a true 'horror' session.  Upon arriving, the PlatinumChick and I found ourselves with no less than 11 players--more than enough for two full tables.

I've got to say, though:  I think I ended up the beneficiary of that division, though.  My table was nothing short of immaculate, with a series of spectacular role-players who bought into the nihilistic, cult-driven storyline like none other.

If you haven't played the PlatinumChick's "...Zendik Farms" scenario before, you're missing out.  Based on an actual real-life cult (from which people have actually escaped!), the scenario seems simple on the surface:  characters start on what seems like a relaxing excursion to an organic arts community.  But, the plot delves into deeper secrets and horrors, the longer that the investigators stay.  No session ever truly plays the same way twice, as the farm itself provides a mini-sandbox for the investigators to play through.

So, let's talk a little about my players.  I was excited to have Lindevi (also known as DigitalKat) on board, as she was aching to play in horror game as much as I had been aching to run one.  She's well known my capacity for Wicked GMing, having played in my Deadlands "Follow the Walkin' Man" campaign as well as a Ravenloft one-shot I'd run years ago:  "An Incident at Ravencroft Asylum".  Lindevi was coupled by a familiar face from our Friday night sessions, Chris I!

I knew these guys could role-play.  I see it on a regular basis, as they delve into deep character interactions and difficult moral choices.  What I didn't know was how much the other three would get into it--two WittKids and a community member totally new to the Guild, LatinJoseph.  The three of them played their parts to the hilt, with WittDrew even converting to the Zendik cult partway through the scenario!  The stark looks of horror on the others' faces as their comrade willingly started going along with the farm's plans was priceless--you can't script emotional responses like that!

The segment of the game that struck me most, though, was the willingness for players to put themselves in vulnerable positions.  Characters continually committed that "cardinal sin" of splitting the party again and again, even isolating themselves with members of the cult.  LatinJoseph astounded me, leaving his traumatized college activist alone with Zendik scion Fawn, all the while under the effects of various psychotropic drugs.

I've posited before that the social contracts inherent to role-playing games are fundamentally a variation on the same relationships and contracts held between dominant and submissive members of a BDSM-style relationship.  I've been doing quite a bit of research into this concept, actually, in the hopes to expand my theory into an essay suitable for my upcoming Pendulum Method compilation.  LatinJoseph showed his flexibility and versatility in storytelling by allowing his character to submit to the given plot element:  the psychopathic Fawn.  His metaphorical submission allowed for fantastic role-play opportunities in that his own character slowly came out of their psychotropic haze (which he portrayed spectacularly!) but also for Lindevi, whose then-insane investigative reporter did her best to save LatinJoseph's college student!  By relinquishing a degree of control in the scene, that narrative power was magnified and spread out through my own NPCs, Lindevi's character, and even through himself!
It's okay to give up control
once in a while!  Cut loose!

Throughout the course of the game, the role of 'dominant' was passed back and forth between players and Keeper almost seamlessly.  Lindevi herself took the reins when a horrific event caused her reporter to lose a significant amount of Sanity, leading her to take WittSean's character hostage!  WittSean rolled perfectly with the scene, mentally handing over control of the scene to Lindevi.  Later on, Chris I's housewife stole the show, overturning tables in a desperate, last-gasp stand against the Zendik faithful.  However, the narrative power swiftly changed hands to WittSean's crisis of conscience:  does he betray his 'innocent' friends or does he believe the idyllic truth put forward by Wulf Zendik?

It's that sort of continued, extensive power exchange that takes an average table and makes it a good one or, in the case of this group, takes a good group of players and pushes them into an evening of phenomenal gaming.  This group's ability to build opportunities for one another through narrative power exchange allowed them to achieve some of the best table-based role-play I've ever seen.  When we staggered out of our room in Shouvlin at nearly 12:30 that morning, the group was worn, beaten down, and thoroughly smiling.  And, after a long session of dominance and submission, that's about all you ever want...

Friday, October 19, 2012

In Which The Warlock Illumines the Shadows--The Journeyman GM's Perspective!

As mentioned last entry, this is part of my October cross-blog shenanigans with Will Herrmann, better known as the Journeyman GM.  Here's his perspective on our "Shadows of the Cold War" game!  Enjoy, and have a great weekend!

Shadows of the Cold War was my second campaign ever. I was in the middle of a Dungeons & Dragons 4e campaign and, as a new and eager roleplaying gamer, was interested in trying out a new roleplaying game system. Heroes Unlimited was definitely an interesting one to have chosen (like all games from Palladium, it's riddled with typos, very messy character creation, and internally inconsistent mechanics), but fortunately, Andy had houseruled the egregious problems and we spent far more more of our time talking things out than we did worrying about the game mechanics.

"Aren't the stars and stripes a little...
Having always been a Captain America fan, I decided to create a super soldier. In his backstory, I decided that him and his twin brother were experimented upon (experimentation on twins was pretty common in Nazi Germany and I figured the Soviet Union might have done something similar with a super soldier program). Using the random character generation in Heroes Unlimited, Ulrich Hartmann wound up with speed, strength, endurance, and fighting prowess that far exceeded that of a normal human. He knew a variety of fighting styles and could pilot just about any vehicle with ease. And at night, he became even more deadly, perhaps out of a realization that the darkness would hide his brutality. Despite this, Ulrich definitely had the Captain America attitude of using his power to protect those who were weaker than him. Ulrich's full character sheet can be found here.

The thing that meant the most to me was Ulrich's hindrances. In Dungeons & Dragons, characters are generally flawless. Sure, they may not be proficient in certain skills or they many be deficient in some attribute, but they don't really have any character flaws. Ulrich on the other hand received constant headaches and had a metabolism four times that of a normal human (this led to a lot of fun situations and his nightly ritual of going to the Happy Panda all you can eat Chinese buffet). In addition, he had escaped from the Soviet Union and was being hunted down by his twin brother, Jakob Hartmann, who had the same powers, but a much more brutal and self-serving outlook on how they should be used. And perhaps the most defining thing for the campaign was that he literally started by walking off of a bus. With no money, no job, no place to stay, and a poor understanding of the English language, the early sessions were largely focused on Ulrich trying to find a place to live and a job to support himself. These hindrances to Ulrich's character wound up defining him just as much as his superhuman abilities and I think because of that, I wound up gravitating toward systems with hindrances later in my gaming career.

Ulrich followed the meaning,
not necessarily the movement.
Being on the run from the Soviets, Ulrich naturally needed a superhero identity. Having always admired the words of Karl Marx (but not how the Soviets had "corrupted" them), Ulrich decided to take on the name "Manifesto" and made it his goal to right the injustices he saw. And what better place to do it than in America? Hub City itself had recently constructed skyscrapers for the rich to work in, but had the poor living on the streets next to it.

Eventually, Manifesto teamed up with several other superheroes and started tracking down an individual who had kidnapped a young girl…and it was clear that he was too powerful for the police to take down. Admittedly, this nature of this villain made me a bit uncomfortable (see Andy's description) but it definitely made our final fight of retribution against him ore meaningful.

Unfortunately, Ulrich met his match not from some violent super-powered killer, but from a car crash. How that happened is a fun story in and of itself, but ultimately it meant that Manifesto's crime-fighting streak came to a premature end. I'm told that future plots would have had him meet his evil twin brother again and have his past catch up to him again!

This was my first exposure to Andy's GMing style. He's big on creating overwhelming challenges and creating very personal stories. Although I'm not as crazy about Watchmen-style superheroes as Andy, I found the game overall to be really enjoyable and the first real exposure to having characters that seemed "real".

All in all, Shadows of the Cold War is one of the most memorable games I've played in. It was the first that really let me play a character that was human and had his share of flaws and, much to my surprise, it was fun having to deal with the challenges of daily life. Manifesto is one of my favorite characters and a Savage Worlds version of him will be included as a pregen for Wild Card Creator.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

In Which The Warlock Illumines the Shadows...

Continuing our cross-blog extravaganza, the Journeyman GM and I decided to stop and reminisce about one of our first real campaigns together--my Heroes Unlimited/Call of Cthulhu mash-up, "Shadows of the Cold War".  While the campaign was somewhat short-lived, it provided some great moments of role-play around the table and really showed off some of the things I love about gaming at Wittenberg, to say nothing of Will's skill and creativity as a player.

For those of you that don't frequent my blog, I billed "Shadows of the Cold War" as something of an "alternate-universe Watchmen", in which the events of that seminal graphic novel never actually happened:  Ozymandias never detonated his squid, Silk Spectre never determined the identity of her father, and Dr. Manhattan simply up and left.  Our heroes took up residence in the DC Comics underworld of Hub City, which was all but polluted with crime and vigilante activity.

Rorschach's vengeance:
an inspiration for Manifesto's
first investigation.
While our three other heroes--played by the PlatinumChick, DigitalKat, and L-Train--played "average" citizens of Hub City, Will had decided to take a slightly less orthodox route.  His hero, Manifesto, was the semi-successful result of an East German/Soviet super-soldier project who had gained most of his combat experience fighting in Afghanistan.  After falling out with his handlers over ideological issues, Manifesto escaped Soviet control and stole into the United States, hoping to spread the word of Marx to the impoverished masses of the Hub.

While it might not seem exciting to many, the two introductory sessions of "Shadows..." may be among my all time favorites.  Manifesto was literally a "stranger in a strange land"--bereft of basic 'givens' like citizenship, a drivers' license, or even the ability to speak proper English, Will/Manifesto stared down a greater threat than a supervillain or a back-alley ganger:  the plight of poverty, viewed through the eyes of an illegal immigrant.  Manifesto was lucky in many regards--he managed to procure work as an unskilled laborer at a construction site, was able to find his way to a housing and human services branch through which he procured a small apartment, and received some significant donations from the Salvation Army.

Throughout these sessions, nary a die was rolled--after all, what good is combat prowess or technical expertise, when your character is living on the streets?  But the buy-in on Will's part was spectacular, and the table was riveted throughout.  When Manifesto finally managed to get his feet under him and meet some of his fellow vigilantes, it was like he had finally 'made it'.

This isn't to say that our game was a matter of The Sims-lite.  Rather, our game focused heavily on investigation and several ongoing attempts to thwart an arms-trafficking ring run by The White Russian, an enigmatic criminal mastermind.  Leads into a Benson and Hedges Holdings warehouse led our heroes to what may be the most foul villain I've ever created:  Mr. Kisses.

Meant to be a riff on "Mr. Fantastic gone mad", Mr. Kisses was a serial rapist and murderer, with a penchant for targeting under-aged girls.  His deranged psyche had fetishized the "American Ladies" young adult novels of the time, leading him to kidnap school-aged girls, abuse them, and then kill them.  However, with an in-born elastic ability, Mr. Kisses' victims died messy, horrific deaths.  With each clue they found, with each step closer the group took, Mr. Kisses provoked a powerful sense of righteous vengeance, which I've rarely seen around the game table.  When Kisses died--and they most assuredly did not let such a madman live--there was a collective sigh of relief around the table.  One less girl would be made a victim in this world.  One less mother would spend sleepless nights in tears.

While Mr. Kisses certainly hit home with a Rated-R, Iron Age sensibility, this isn't to say that our campaign didn't have moments of comic relief.  As a side-effect of his super-soldier experimentation, Manifesto's metabolism worked at four times the normal rate:  he had to eat a full meal every few hours or be stricken with crippling migraines.  It became a running joke at our table that Manifesto would hit the Happy Panda Chinese Buffet on his way home from work, eating the place clean!  Set in 1986, our game was rife with references to The A-Team, MacGuyver, and the worst of 80s music.  Lockshanks, L-Train's character, even made a point to go see Return of the Jedi on its opening day!

The treacherous roads of Centralia, PA
As I mentioned earlier, our heroes met an untimely end, mainly due to a poor choice of driver and some phenomenally bad die rolls.  Our campaign ended just as it hit its nascence.  I had planned for our heroes to visit Centralia, Pennsylvania in the upcoming session, uncovering Cthulhian horrors amongst the smoking ruins.

Despite our tragic (and more than a little ironic) end, "Shadows of the Cold War" left a sizable influence.  The wonky mechanics of Heroes Unlimited left an ashen taste in my mouth and the Iron Age of Comics remained a relatively untapped realm of inspiration for a would-be game designer.  In designing Cold Steel Wardens, I dropped elements directly from "Shadows..." into the game--The White Russian, Mr. Kisses, and even Manifesto himself have made it into my first draft copy as NPCs and, in Manifesto's case, a fully playable pre-generated character.

And Will?  Well, despite my tendency to kill off his characters, he's still coming back for more...and next week, we'll take a look at what it's like as a player in one of his games!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Warlock's Exclusive: An Interview with the Journeyman GM!

While I've mentioned him numerous times on here, it occurs to me that most of you readers might not know much about The Journeyman GM, better known as Will Herrmann.  So, this October, Will and I are engaging in something of a "cross-blog interview".  My interview with him is below, while his interview of me is here:  An Interview with the PlatinumWarlock.


The Journeyman GM himself,
as The Doctor!
First off, tell us a little about yourself: who are you?
My name is Will Herrmann. I'm the president of Journeyman Games and the author of The Journeyman GM. I recently moved to St. Paul, MN as part of an AmeriCorps service year and I do independent computer programming as well.

Tell our readers a little about our experiences together.
My Freshman year at Wittenberg University, I joined the Wittenberg Role-playing Guild, which was founded by Andy. As an alumnus still living in the area, he still actively participated in Guild events and I got to know him from there. He helped me prep for the very first game I ever GMed and since then I've been both a player and gamemaster for Andy. More recently, we've been trading advice back and forth as we're forming our companies.

What upcoming RPG products do you have your eye on?
This summer I bought way too many RPG products, so I'm trying not to buy too many things! I think I'd just like to get my PDF of Deadlands Noir and my hardback copy of Hell on Earth Reloaded, both of which I've preordered.

What are you playing/running right now?
Just started a campaign for Deadlands: The Last Sons with some people I met in Minnesota. Not playing anything right now sadly.

If you could be a gaming die, which one would you be and why?
The d6. So simple, yet so versatile.

Will and Will and Will and Will...all hard at work on
the Wild Card Creator!
What are you working on currently?
I'm working on Wild Card Creator: a character creator for the Savage Worlds roleplaying game that lets you import content from any published PDF. The Kickstarter drive for it just ended, but I'm still taking PayPal backers!

What’s exciting about your current project?
This isn't the first character creator, or even the first Savage Worlds character creator, but it's got lots of innovative features that nobody has ever developed before. The big one is the ability to import Edges, Hindrances, Gear, etc. straight from the text in the PDF. There's other great stuff too like being able to export characters onto any form-fillable PDF character sheet. Plus I've got full support from Pinnacle and 20 third party companies.

Where do you pull inspiration for your games and designs?
For my programs, I get a lot of inspiration by asking myself "what sort of features do I want?" There's a saying in computer programming that you should "eat your own dog food" to see if what you're making is a good product. To continue the analogy, I often start by being hungry for dog food and then creating my own brand of dog food to my tastes, which I figure will then probably taste good to others.

Apple is a big inspiration too because they put a whole lot of effort into making things easy for the user, even if it means a whole lot more work for the programmer. The book The Design of Everyday Things has been great for me as well because it really points out that there really is a "right way" and a "wrong way" to create intuitive programs for a user.

For gaming, inspiration comes from all sorts of things: books, video games, movies, TV shows, you name it. Sometimes I produce things that are directly inspired by those sources (like my Savage Worlds conversions  and the scenarios I've run for them) and sometimes they are more indirect (like my Pulp campaign about finding Atlantis which was primarily inspired by Indiana Jones and National Treasure).

What would be your dream RPG design gig?
I'd love to write a campaign for Doctor Who:  Adventures in Time and Space tentatively called "Children of Gallifrey".  It's for a party of at least one Time Lord and companions who survived the Time War, but don't know that The Doctor is still out there.  There will be a whole bunch of scenarios that can be played in any order (some of which have links to each other, creating lots of timey-wimey, wibbley-wobbly fun!).  Many of these scenarios will take place in distinctly British locations that haven't been seen before, like India during the British Raj and King Arthur's court.  Ultimately, the campaign will end with the discovery of Gallifrey in a parllel universe where The Master took command of the Time Lords to win the Time War, but he committed unspeakable atrocities to do it.  Ultimately, they'll have to decide if they want to stay in this universe where the Time Lords are alive, albeit broken, or their home universe where Gallifrey is but a memory.

Also, I'd love to turn The Elder Scrolls into a bona fide tabletop roleplaying game.  I've got a Savage Worlds conversion here, but I'd love to see something like it in print.

What’s your favorite system?
If you haven't guessed by now, it's Savage Worlds. It has everything I want in a system: simple, fast, and customizable. That said, the D6 System will always hold a special place in my heart for being a system that is dead simple and infinitely customizable (plus it had the best version of a Star Wars RPG in my opinion).

What is your favorite campaign (as a GM and as a player)?
As a GM, I think my favorite was probably Star Wars: Infinity run using a hybrid of Star Wars D6 and D6 Space. The whole premise is that C-3P0 and R2-D2 get shot on the Tantive IV, so they never make it to Tatooine, Luke never finds Ben Kenobi, and the group never hires Han. Looks like the Galaxy needs new heroes to destroy the Death Star and defeat the Empire!

I haven't played in nearly as many campaigns as I've run (a few too many fell apart soon after they started), but my favorite is probably Andy's Shadows of the Cold War campaign (a precursor to Cold Steel Wardens). It was the first campaign I was in where it wasn't just about killing the monsters and there were so many great moments in it that I still talk about years later (including how our party of superheroes died in a car crash).

What's your favorite settings for Dungeons & DragonsSavage Worlds, and any one other system?
For D&D, definitely Urban Arcana, which is D&D in the modern world (technically it's a d20 Modern setting). All of the classic D&D tropes are turned on their head where you've got dragons running the board rooms, bugbears roaming the streets, and mindflayers heading the mafia!

It's probably no surprise that Deadlands is my favorite Savage Worlds setting. It's based on history, but it's got lots of interesting twists to it. And who doesn't love card-slinging sorcerers?

My favorite setting for another system is one that I've actually never run or played: Torg. This setting has sparked my imagination like no other setting has. Basically, a whole bunch of "invading realities" are overtaking Earth as we know it to create pocket realities at various points on the globe, which you can travel to. Some fun realities include The Cyberpapacy (medieval theocracy plus cyberpunk covering France), The New Nile Empire (pulp plus ancient Egypt covering…well, Egypt), the Living Land (caveman and dinosaurs, covering much of the US), and Orrosh (Lovecraftian horror in Victorian Indonesia, where player characters go to die). Characters can be from any of many these realities and more, so you can have a holy knight, a dino-riding caveman, a vampire, a ninja hacker, and a Navy SEAL all in the same party!

What's a setting and/or system that you've always thought was underrated?
The Cortex System. It had some really great mechanics, like pairing an attribute with a skill (want to convince the Dwarf you mean business by challenging him to a drinking contest? Roll your Vitality die plus your Persuasion die)! It even includes a sample setting that is basically Law & Order: The Roleplaying Game, which I don't think any other RPG has ever come close to trying.

The system was used for the Serenity RPG as well as Supernatural, but I think it was deemed to be "too generic" without any exceptionally innovative mechanics and has been replaced by "Cortex Plus" used in Leverage, Smallville, and more recently the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game. Too bad.

How would you describe your GM style?
Freewheeling, challenge-dealing, and epic. I'm known for making up enemy stats up in my head and improvising entire plotlines when the players go off the rails, but it generally works out well for me. I enjoy presenting huge challenges, but love it when the players actually overcome them. And I'm a big sucker for epic adventures involving larger than life characters and events. In general, I think I'm more of a narrativist GM in that I'm always looking for the most fulfilling story.

What’s the best advice you could give a budding GM or player?
Learn to improvise. It's the most useful skill in your GM arsenal. As a second piece of advice, try to say yes as often as possible, even if there's a "but" attached to it.

What’s your ideal player like?
One who enjoys the narration, plans ahead when approaching combat, and shares my desire to see huge challenges surmounted by a really close call.

What's something different that you've always wanted to run, but haven’t?
I've always wanted to run a game where the player characters are Disney heroes and they're fighting against a team-up of Disney villains like Jafar, Maleficent, Ursula, and Captain Hook. Kind of like Kingdom Hearts, I guess. Trouble is, I don't know of a good system to do it with and I feel like I'd need the right group of players in order to have it turn out right.

Who was your first character and how did they turn out?
That would be Paelias, the Eladrin Warlord. In his quest to explore the Keep on the Shadowfell, he bravely fought toe to toe with Kalarel, but perished along with his comrades. Oh, and Andy was playing Kalarel at the time (this was the first of many characters of mine that Andy killed).

How would you describe your player style (and is it different from your GM style)?
I think I'm a bit more of a powergamer and less of a narrativist than I am as a GM. I still love a good story, but I think I enjoy reveling in the power a bit more when I'm playing.

What's a gaming quirk that you have at the table?
My characters must have birthdays (randomly rolled by a d12 for the month and a d30 for the day, roll odds or evens if you roll a 30 and there's 31 days in the month).

Anything else you’d like to share?
Despite the fact that I'm a Savage Worlds fanboy, I love trying out new systems and will regularly try them at cons. I also love running Traveller and Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space.

And Andy has killed every single one of my player characters in a campaign he has been in. Paelias, Manifesto, Rev. Elijah Jacobson, and Cpt. Jason Cauldwell, you shall all be remembered fondly for your heroic sacrifices in the face of Andy's evil GM tyranny!

Thanks, Will, for such a great interview!

Thursday, October 04, 2012

In Which The Warlock Lauds the Commendable...

So, last post was something of a downer, no?  It's easy to criticize, easy to point out the negative.  By nature, I tend to be a bit cynical--then again, who among my generation isn't?--but there's a lot to love within the pages of today's roleplaying games.  Let's pull some of my favorites!

The Doom Pool!

Roll that Doom Pool!
Chalk one up for Margaret Weis Productions' Marvel Heroic Roleplaying for an absolutely fantastic mechanic.  Even the most experienced GMs sometimes balk at having to make a judgement call on complex environmental actions, and even the most worthy of players sometimes chafe at the concept of 'GM fiat'.  For me, the Doom Pool mechanically addresses this difficulty in a simple, but effective manner.

Making your way through a burning building?  Roll against the Doom Pool to avoid falling debris or smoke inhalation.  Weaving through girders while flying?  Roll against the Doom Pool!  Need to make that super-science device extra-fast?  Doom Pool!

While it's not a be-all, end-all device, the Doom Pool serves as a quick outlet for all those times where a GM might be stuck.  It keeps play at the table moving and keeps the GM with his players, rather than referencing a rulebook.  Really, any mechanic that provides a quick resolution fits here:  the Savage Worlds "common knowledge" roll, the WEGS "frozen roll".  They're great!

In Text Fluff!

Now, this one's a spot of divisiveness.  Some gamers love the atmosphere and mood that in-text fiction brings, while others tend to loathe it.  While I tend to view rpg books more as instruction manuals than fiction collections, the occasional bit of in-character fiction really hits home the ideas and themes behind the game itself.  Plus, it pushes those archetypal ideas that form the core of a setting.

While I have issues with their fundamental rules-set, the Fantasy Flight Games' publications of Dark Heresy/Rogue Trader/Deathwatch really capture the essence of what it means to live in the Warhammer 40K universe.  While they have a ton of material from which to generate this setting info, the tone and descriptions in these books blend the world and the mechanics together beautifully.  If only the rules themselves weren't such a mess...


This, above all else, is something that I've been reveling in.

Burned spies kill vampires?
There's a game for that...
So many games for so long have been about "universal" mechanics.  d20, GURPS, even Savage Worlds, all try to wear so many hats that they fail to focus on one particular sort of game.  As I mentioned last entry, Savage Worlds makes for a great system for pulp and action, but I'd never want to use it for a horror game--it's just not built for that genre.  But GURPS?  What's the purpose?  Why this system?  Yes, I'm sure you could run a horror game, a sci-fi game, and a fantasy game with it, but why would you?

The print-on-demand and PDF era of publishing has granted us not just the freedom of choice, but also the ability to enter new genres and tell new stories using systems built specifically for genre-emulation.  Want to run a game about down-on-their-luck boxers?  There's a game for that.   Want a game that focuses on the backroom dealings of Japanese samurai families?  Yup, a game for that, too.  Want to be a former CIA agent hunting vampires?  Yes, you're covered.

The Kickstarter Revolution!

Yes, print-on-demand and PDF are great.  But, as I'm finding out more and more, getting a product off of the ground takes start-up capital.  Kickstarter and other crowd-sourcing sites like it have become great ways for rpg designers to not only come up with said capital, but also to publicize their works.

That'd be great in and of itself, but what's best comes right alongside the Kickstarter revolution:  the discussion and analysis of an industry that, for a long time, really hasn't had any intellectual critique at the marketing and distribution level.  Now, it's a daily occurrence, through Facebook groups and message board discussions aimed not just at the design and development end of role-playing games, but also how to take a game and make it into a clean, published product in a cost-effective, efficient manner.

It's that type of discussion that really pushes forward revolution and innovation.  While I can't say that every product has benefited from these discussions, they're a massive benefit to any would-be developer.