Friday, August 18, 2017

The Game I've Longed to Play and the Game I've Played the Most #RPGaDAY

So far, I've been able to keep up with all the necessary #RPGaDAY posts without getting so far behind that I quit due to the dread of having to write 10 or more posts at once. One of the reasons for that is that this year's set of questions have been good prompts, and the other is that I've decided to make a concerted effort to post more often.

I missed yesterday's prompt, but it and today's are very much related in them and I'll be combining them into one post.
Day 17 - Which RPG have you owned the longest and not played?

I own a lot of role playing games. I'm not saying I own "the most" role playing games, as that claim would be absurd, but I own a lot. Over 500 a lot. Probably more than that. I own more role playing games that I've cared to enter on RPG Geek because it just takes too long. I should update them on a database, but I've got work and research etc. and I just don't have the will to do it. Besides, a lot of my games are in a storage unit I've converted into a gaming library. Needless to say, it's a lot of games.
Some of those games I bought just to read and see how they did things. Cosmic Enforcers comes to mind as one of these kinds of games. It's a super hero role playing game and given that I've already got my favorites in that category it was doomed to be mere reference material. But there are some games that I bought because I really want to play them, even if most of my friends probably won't. I buy them in the hopes that one day I'll be able to experience at least a one-shot of the game. I bought Scion: Hero and Tour of Darkness for this reason. 

The game that I own the longest and have not played falls into the "I really want to play it" category. Back in the days before the "Sweet Pickles Bus Wars" a friend of mine got a copy of Star Frontiers. I loved the illustrations and I loved the setting. I desperately wanted to play and I soon got my own copy. I read through the rules and made up several Basic and Advanced characters. I talked about the game with my friends and we planned a sleepover gaming night...then the "Sweet Pickles Bus Wars" began and I had to put off playing it. Years later, another of my friends expressed an interest in playing and had even written up a campaign to run us through, but that was never to happen.

I've owned the game a very long time and have not played it once. It's a game from a different era of play and I would love to get a chance to play it some day, even if only for one session that is followed by a campaign in the Federation using Savage Worlds rules.

Day 18 - Which RPG have you played the most in your life?

When the Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition Player's Handbook came out, I hadn't gamed for a few years. I'd spent the couple of years before the release finishing my undergraduate education and didn't have much time for RPGs. My wife and I had just moved to Los Angeles and didn't know a lot of people. I'm the kind of person who needs a circle of friends to help me recharge from the stresses of day to day toil and struggle, and gaming is the perfect hobby for that. It didn't take long for me to find a group of players, most of whom are still my good friends today, and kick up a campaign.

That 3.x campaign ran from 2000 to 2008 and we played almost weekly for a good chunk of that time. I saw characters go from first level adventurers struggling to survive in the Sunless Citadel to 20+ level paragons who battled against a living fragment of Tharizdun that was was destroying the Feywild, the Elven Pantheon, and all the Elves on Oerth. After years of adventure, the campaign came to an end and the world of Oerth was changed forever as many of the old gods (not Old Gods) perished in Tharizdun's wake and were replaced by a new Pantheon. Oerth's elven population was significantly reduced as the corruption of Tharizdun's influence in the Feywild manifested as a wasting disease that killed 90% of that world's elves.

It was a blast...and it exhausted me. I was ready for a new game system and that's around when 4e came out. It was too early for many, but it was at exactly the right time for me.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Learning to DM, Thoughts on Campaigns, House Rules, and Rules as Written. #RPGaDay Megapost 2, Days 13-16.

Overall, I've really been enjoying this year's #RPGaDay question line up and am trying to give each question more than a single sentence answer. I love the RPG hobby and questions like these are a time to share thoughts an memories as well as to answer questions.

That's another way of saying, "give me an inch to talk and I'll take 50 miles."

Day 13 - Describe a game experience that changed how you play.

I imagine that for a lot of gamers, this is the kind of question that evokes a tale of the "best gaming session ever." In such a tale, the author would wax poetic about how having a DM of Matt Mercer quality changed their life forever and made them a better gamer. That is not my tale. Mine is a tale of abject failure and learning from that failure.

I'm at a point in my life where I think I'm a pretty darn good DM. My gaming groups tell me they have a good time and there tends to be great energy at my tables and our stories often go off in wild directions. Heck, my groups have even developed their own sayings over the years. My favorite is the famous Drow saying, "It's as easy as shooting a dwarf in a well." I'm not saying I'm on the same level as a GM as Tom Lommel, Jordan Caves-Callarman, David Crennan (America's DM), or Satine Phoenix, but I am proud of the sessions I run. And the reason I am a good DM today, is that I was once a terrible one.

The interesting thing is that I didn't start terrible. I was inexperienced, sure, but the early games that my friend Sean McPhail and I put together had narrative qualities to them and our characters had personality. In my late Elementary school days, I was heading in the right direction. Then came my first experience being a DM for someone who'd never played. (Dun...dun...dun...)

A friend of mine in Middle School, not the one from the Sweet Pickles Bus Wars, saw me with some of my D&D books on campus and wanted to learn to play. We arranged a sleepover at his house with a couple of friends and we did our best all-nighter Stranger Things impersonation. Except it wasn't that cool at all. I had done ZERO preparation and didn't want to use one of the modules I was familiar with. I wanted to run my own adventure to teach these folks the game. So what was my adventure? I don't remember the particulars, and I'm pretty sure that I've suppressed them because it was so bad, but suffice it to say that it started in a tavern, had a fight with goblins, and ended with the PCs going down to Hell and killing Tiamat. They would have slaughtered all the levels of Hell if we hadn't gotten so tired.

That was all in ONE night. From 1st level to high enough to kill Tiamat. It was awful. I knew it was awful at the time. I was essentially opening to random pages in the Monster Manual and having them fight the monsters on the page.

As bad as it was, and as HORRIBLE as I was, it was still fun. It was at that point that I knew the game was better than I was as a DM and this was a good thing. I wanted to aspire to be a DM who improved the quality of the game instead of one who was "saved" by the quality of the game. That night changed my approach to the hobby and I'm grateful to the friends who endured the evening and were kind enough to wait years before mocking me for it.

Day 14 - Which RPG do you prefer for open ended-campaign play?

For me, the most important quality for open ended play is that the characters start out as great at what they do and stay that way. For a game to be truly open-ended, it cannot have class levels where characters start as inexperienced and work their way up to demi-god status. That makes for a great campaign, but not open-ended gaming that can be picked up at any time and place. In my mind, and this may be different for you, open-ended play is like a never ending soap opera. And I mean that as a complement. Good soap operas tell compelling stories for decades, but they don't tend to have people go from newb to l33t. If someone is l33t, they stay that way.

Games like D&D and with its levels, or Runequest with it's path to Rune Lord, don't fit that bill for me. They are fantastic games, but not open-ended in the way I'm interpreting this question. Surprisingly, Call of Cthulhu isn't either. I've heard too many stories of players with skill ratings in the implausible range, or even with enough power to fight the Elder Gods (can you imagine? That's like my D&D story above), to think that Call of Cthulhu fits the bill.

The best role playing games for open-ended action are super hero role playing games. The characters all start out highly capable, they are super heroes after all, and in most systems the character improvement curve is very shallow depending on how you run the game. In Champions, as Aaron Allston pointed out in Strike Force, characters tend to learn new things rather than get increasingly better at the things they do. This is especially true if you are enforcing campaign wide Damage Class restrictions. Mutants and Masterminds has a similar phenomenon. But the best two games for this kind of action are Marvel Super Heroes (FASERIP) and DC Heroes (MEGS), and of these two I have a deep love of DC's system.

What both of these systems share is that they use experience as an expendable resource. In Marvel it's Karma and in DC it's Hero Points. In both cases, the points can be spent to have an effect on outcomes. Why is Spider-Man able to hang out with Thor in fights? Because he spends a lot of Karma in those battles. Why doesn't Thor get even more Godlike? Because increases at his capabilities are super expensive and it's easier to learn to do new tricks with your powers. Why is Batman able to hang with the Justice League, I mean seriously? Because he blows through Hero Points like nobody's business. He's constantly going for "Devastating Blows" and Pushing attacks all day. Sure, his devastating blows are in the form of "exploiting the weaknesses of his opponents" rather than haymakers, but that's the mechanic.

Batman and Spider-Man's player can play for years and only increase in power by an increment, or choose to get better at a lot of things. The stories though, never get stale. This is because the challenges are at a fixed level an stay there.

I imagine that D&D could work that way if you started at 5th level or so and just told stories at that challenge rating, but that fails to take advantage of the "I'm getting better calculus" that underlies the game. The calculus underlying Marvel and DC is "I just did something normally not possible at my power level" and that's why it feels satisfying for very long periods of time.

Your mileage may very, but that's the kind of gaming I like for open-ended campaigns.

Day 15 -- Which RPG do you enjoy adapting the most?

Image by Andrew Asplund
Given my love of the Savage Worlds gaming system, one might expect that I'd drop that one down right here. Nope. Not that I run it "as is," though I mostly do, but it's not the one I'm always wondering what I could do with it. Though to be honest, I have yet to see anything it can't do with a little tweaking. The game I enjoy adapting the most is 4th Edition D&D, in particular it's Gamma World variation.

Shocking! I know.

It's just that the game can do pretty much EVERYTHING. It makes the basis of a very good super hero game. It's easy as pie to make Rocket Raccoon using the rules. You can be the characters from freakin' Phoenix Wright!

For what it's worth, I find that the Gamma World iteration and Essentials are all you really need. Once you realize that the game is really an effects based game and that you can rename powers whatever you want, it opens up endless possibilities. Coming from a super hero background, as I do, reskinning powers has never been an issue for me and I think this game can do least in a one shot setting.

Day 16 - Which RPG do you enjoy using as is?

Truth be told, I play most games "as is." I don't have a lot of time to spend creating house rules for games I'm playing and changing them up. I'd rather write adventures than tweaks to a magic system. This isn't to say that I don't do any house ruling, but I do tend to try to give the designers respect when I sit down to play. For example, a lot of people feel uncomfortable with Savage Worlds' initiative system when they first read about it. "You mean it uses CARDS? And you reshuffle a lot?" But the fact is that it's a fast, furious, and fun way of handling initiative that has a lot more give and take that it might seem just reading the rules.
Clearly from my previous statement about reskinning 4e like crazy, 4e isn't the game I play "as is." No, that honor goes to Champions 4th Edition...still the best edition in my mind. The fact is that Champions is extremely well designed and well balanced and any tinkering I want to do is filled up with making characters and not house rules. The 4th edition of the game stretched the rules to as granular a level as I like to play. 5th edition got a little too "engineering" based for me and the players I gamed with started to fall too much into the "if it's not on your page and paid for, you can't do it" camp for my liking and that seemed to be a trend with 5th edition. The 4th edition started down that path, but was only beginning. Like GURPS and 3.x/Pathfinder, this is a rules set that tries to have a rule for everything to ensure that you have a fair and consistent answer for every question. The underlying math is sound in the game, though Wayne Shaw did make an argument for a change in the skill system on my Geekerati podcast that I agree with.

If only I had 4 weeks to teach people how to play and make characters before starting up a campaign. I really miss playing this game, but it's not one that's easy for players to pick up and play. There is an initial learning curve, particularly if you are making your own characters. But God is it a great game.

Steve Jackson's OGRE is Coming. Can You Protect the Command Center?

In 1977, Metagaming Concepts released Microgame #1. Metagaming's Microgame series was an attempt to bring to market complex and playable wargames that had limited components and a low price point and the line was a runaway success. A large reason for that success is the high quality and amazing replayability of Microgame #1, or as it is better known OGRE.

Image Source wtrollkin2000 at Board Game Geek

The $2.95 price point of the game made it extremely affordable, and interestingly up until recently you could once again buy a copy of the basic game for $2.95, but what made it a classic was its easy to understand rules and how well they fit the game's fictional concept. It's a concept that is instantly intelligible the moment one looks at the game's cover illustration. It is the struggle of multiple small units against a nigh invulnerable towering giant. It is army vs. Kaiju, village vs. giant, weak vs. strong. Can the weaker force prevail, or will they fall before THE OGRE?

The giant tank rumbles toward its target . . . its guns are destroyed, its movement crippled, but only a few defenders are left. Will they stop the robot juggernaut, or will it crush the Command Post beneath its gigantic treads?

The game's success led to more Microgames, some of which expanded the Ogreverse and others like Melee and Wizard formed the foundation for complex and fan adored role playing games. When Steve Jackson left Metagaming, he made sure to bring OGRE with him and it helped launch his new company's success as did a continuation of Microgame style games including Car Wars and Battlesuit. Eventually Steve Jackson Games moved on to other ventures like GURPS and Munchkin, but when an OGRE Kickstarter raised almost a million dollars in revenue it proved that there was still demand for battle in the Ogreverse. That Kickstarter has led to a revival of the OGRE line, the return of Car Wars, and now an upcoming video game release on October 5th. The game has been developed by Auroch Digital, who's earlier adaption of Games Workshop's classic Chainsaw Warrior demonstrated their ability to do quality adaptations of classic table top games.

Here is a look at what Auroch will be bringing us this October.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Castle Falkenstein is Among the Most Inspiring RPGs Ever. #RPGaDay2017 Day 12

Day 12: Which RPG has the most inspiring interior art?

During the early 90s and 00s, there was no game designer who constantly managed to be on the cutting edge of gaming ideas more than Michael Pondsmith. He pioneered several role playing game genres. His Cyberpunk role playing game captured the cool and gritty scifi genre of the same name with a game that managed to capture the feel of the genre in a way that made it accessible and fun even as it retained the realism of the inspirational media. His Mekton games and Teenagers from Outerspace brought Gundam, Ranma 1/2, and Tenchi Muyo! inspired gaming to tabletops. The Dream Park role playing game is underrated, but for my money, the best and most inspirational is Castle Falkenstein.

Quite simply, Castle Falkenstein changed the way I thought about gaming. It had a strong focus on storytelling and used CARDS...PLAYING CARDS as its game system. It wasn't the first rpg to do so, but it was the first rpg in my experience to do so. And it had style. The book was beautiful and evocative and captured the genre so perfectly. It wasn't just a Steampunk game, it was a Steampunk game that felt "of its era." It was Prisoner of Zenda meets Jules Verne meets The Wild Wild West meets Sherlock Holmes meets Spenser's Fairie Queene. 

And the art perfectly captured that feeling and has inspired almost all of my subsequent gaming experiences. Whether I'm running a Superhero game or a Fantasy game, I've always got a little Castle Falkenstein inspired spice in the mix.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Four #RPGaDAY Questions in One Blow! #RPGaDay -- Days 8 to 11

Sorry I missed a couple of days, but the prospectus for my dissertation took priority. Writing everyday, either here or on something else, keeps my brain working in a way that helps my prospectus, but I still have to write the prospectus too. As a reward for completing a draft, though I already know some areas I'll be improving this weekend, I'm ready to answer the questions I missed.

Question #8: What is a good RPG to play for sessions of 2 hours or less?

There are quite a few RPGs that fall into this category, including CHILL which I talked about earlier, but I'm going to focus on one that's a little controversial here. The single best game for short sessions that I've ever played is D&D 4th Edition Essentials. With the Essentials rulebooks, and the Gamma World boxed set, Wizards of the Coast took what was a well designed but poorly executed and confusingly written game and turned it into one of the best introductory role playing games ever published. The Essentials editions accomplished what Wizards of the Coast was trying to do with their Red Box reproduction for 4e and created a new "Basic" edition of the game. The character classes in the Essentials edition were "pre-optimized" and the feats offered in the books were just enough to add flavor.

And don't give me any of that "4e is a great tactical game, but terrible role playing game guff." <Insert Cranky Old Man Voice>If you didn't get good role playing out of 4e, that's all on you and not the rules. Because role playing is about your actions and has nothing to do with rules sets. I ran 4th Edition, and especially Essentials, for two years at my Friendly Local Game Store (Emerald Knights in Burbank) with a mix of experienced and new gamers. The rules in the Essentials books were simple enough for the new players to understand and some of the best ROLE playing I've ever engaged in was with that group.<Exit Cranky Old Man Voice>

The Lost Crown of Neverwinter adventure for D&D Encounters is second only to The Veiled Society in my mind as the adventure most likely to go off the rails into it's own magnificent story line fit for launching a campaign.

Question #9: What is a good RPG to play for about 10 sessions?

The quick and easy answer, also the cheap and lame one, is to say any role playing game. When you own as many rpgs as I do, the likelihood that you'll ever get to play them all is remote. Given the monolithic dominance of the D&D and Pathfinder brands in players' minds and interests, it's hard to get to game in other rule sets some times. Add to that a limitation of only being able to game once a month, and playing 10 sessions become 10 WHOLE SESSIONS! To me that's a mini-campaign. I've seen some great answers to this question online, ranging from Savage Worlds to Shadow of the Demon Lord. Since I love those games, and the Fantasy AGE game too, I'm going to keep those as D&D alternative recommendations for games to play for years when you are tired of D&D.

For the 10 session rule, I'm going to recommend Symbaroum. My reason for recommending Symbaroum for a short campaign isn't that I don't think the game can handle a long campaign, rather it's that they've written a great short campaign for the game that fits perfectly in 10 sessions or so. Symbaroum is a deeply evocative game with excellent art work. It also has a rich setting and easy to PLAY rules. The presentation of the rules in the book aren't the most intuitive, as you have to skip around a bit to get to the rules since they put a lot of the rich background in the front and put character creation just before the background section and the rules in the middle and back of the book. Yes, that's a complaint. The translation is clear and playable, but I'd have liked a more logical order to the rule book especially given how easy the game is to play. It's a fantastic system that is close enough to D&D that players can pick it up on the spot, but different enough that it has its own feel.

Speaking of "feel," Symbaroum is also that rare game that captures the feeling of fantasy literature. D&D is a great game to play, but I never feel like I'm playing a novel. There are just too many options, in part because D&D is trying to capture the feel of a genre (for the most part) and not a particular setting. In focusing strongly on setting, Symbaroum adventures feel like collaborative novels. I mean this as a very high complement. This is one of the best RPGs I've read and watching the folks at Saving Throw Show play the intro adventure is a perfect demonstration of how great this game is because they learn and play in the same session.

Day 10: Where do you go for RPG reviews?

Where do I go for reviews? Where do I go for reviews? C'mon man. I write a blog about gaming with my kids and friends and write my own damn reviews (okay, I don't do it often enough). I've even written for The Robot's Voice man...I've been paid to review stuff...(ed. note: Stop the Gamer Rage!)

Okay, snide gamer rage aside, I do have a couple of places I go. I'm friends with a TON of gamers on the Book of Faces, so I'm constantly checking out what they have to say in their posts. I read Tenkar's Tavern, and he sometimes reviews things, I also read some of the reviews on DriveThruRPG/RPGNow. Nerdist is a good place to read reviews, though they should hire ME to write for them (ed. note: I told you to STOP that.). I listen to Kenneth Hite and Robin Laws' podcast. For the most part though, I love the diversity of product offerings in the hobby so much that I'm kind of review immune. I buy a lot of RPGs and bad reviews don't stop me from buying and I often own them before a good review comes out. I wish I wrote more frequently about the games I think are great. Reviews play an important role in promoting products in this very small market and I feel guilty when I don't promote games enough.

Day 11: Which "dead game" would you like to see reborn?

Whew! All caught up. Man, this is a tough one. There are some great games out there that have been abandoned or gone out of print because they never caught on. People I follow have already mentioned James Bond 007 by Victory Games/Avalon Hill and Dream Park. A very good retroclone of James Bond 007 called Classified is available and you should track down Dream Park if you can. For my money though, I'd really like to see the Good Guys Finish Last and Villains Finish First superhero role playing games by Better Games be reborn with a new and beautiful edition with updated artwork.

The designers at Better Games were ahead of their time with their "Free Style Role Play" games. These games used descriptors to both describe what characters could do and to determine how much damage they could take. A "robust" character would have more physical damage boxes than a "smart" character, but the "smart" character would be able to take more mental damage. Those aren't actual descriptors, at least I don't think they are, but it gets the point across. The game system used a very simple 2d8 system where the difficulty of using the power and the roll needed in order for it to be successful were related. Additionally, and this is pretty genius. This particular game wasn't just a superhero role playing game. It was also an emulation of running a comic book title. As you did better, and achieved ignobles (goals in the game), you got more powerful and your comic book reading audience increased. With an increased audience came more difficult challenges, but also better art etc. I only wish that the good folks at Better Games hadn't been so tied to artists who were emulating the IMAGE style. It dated the game, even then, and I think dissuaded people from picking up a great product. I'd love to see it relaunched with high quality and thematic art.

Monday, August 07, 2017

The Half-Elf Who Carried Hemp Rope -- #RPGaDAY Day 7

"What was your most impactful RPG session?"

I'm not quite sure what Autocratik means by "impactful" in today's question, but I'm going to answer it as if he asked what my most memorable RPG session was since impactful could be interpreted a number of ways.

I've gamed long enough that I have several memorable gaming sessions, and I've written about one of the negative ones in The Munchkin Book and on this blog in the past, but I'm going to write about one of my favorite memorable gaming sessions. Like many of my favorite gaming memories, this one included my friends Sean McPhail, Ron Peck, and Robert Faust (author of Osprey's Scrappers game). It was the first session of a new D&D campaign (2nd Edition) and Robert and I had decided that my half-elf and his elf were brothers who cared deeply for one another.

Robert's elf was slight of build and the community we were in was heavily bigoted against elves and other races. My half-elf was more human in appearance and was extra-ordinarily strong (somewhere in the 18/60s to 18//70s). Some humans were harassing Rob's character and he eventually told some of them that if they continued to harass them they would have to face the consequences and repeat what they said (or something of that nature, it is many years ago) to his very strong brother.

They asked him with great skepticism just how strong his brother was.

"How strong?" Rob's character responded, "He carries Hemp rope."

Cut to a shot of my character wearing 2 crossed loops of 100ft of Hemp rope each, Banded Mail, and a two-handed sword. Note that in 2nd edition 50ft of Hemp rope weighed 20lbs. My character was walking around with 80lbs of rope. Why? It wasn't for flexibility, it was purely to show off his strength.

The response of the NPCs was a resigned "Oh" sound that will be familiar to anyone who has seen John Wick.

I may have some of the specific details of the encounter wrong, but I'll never forget "He carries Hemp rope."

Sunday, August 06, 2017

A Game a Day, for a Week?! What is this Madness?! #RPGaDAY Day 6

While all of the #RPGaDAY prompts are thought provoking, most of them fall into the realm of "realistic." Today's prompt is the rare exception. Autocratik's question of the day is, "You can game every day for a week. Describe what you'd do." First, that's a wonderful fantasy. I wish I had the time to game every day for a week, RPG game that is. I'm pretty sure that I could find a way to fit in a game a day if I really tried. It's just that the gaming would include things like Solitaire/Patience and a couple of quick Dice based games from Reiner Knizia's essential book of dice games. As for role playing games, that would be impossible...or would it?

I'd have the friends/family I gamed with rotate the GM role when it's needed.

Here's what I imagine I'd be playing during this mythical week of a game a day.

1) The Prince Valiant Role Playing Game.

Have 10 minutes and a small pile of quarters? Then you can learn to play this game and get playing.

The Pokemon Jr. Adventure Game is a fantastic starter RPG and it's one that I'd like to play a little bit more. The "Pokemon Emergency" box set comes with a complete mini-campaign.

3) Chill

Quick and easy, this game can be played straight out of the box and the very simple introductory adventure allows for a lot of role playing while also making it easy for the novice game master to run.

4) Home by Jim Pinto

The rule book is 32 short pages, all it requires is a deck of regular playing cards, and it's the first in Jim Pinto's very thematic and dramatic Protocol series of games. I'd love to play a few of these with my group, and a game fest like this would be the perfect opportunity. Oh, and I'd have the US version published with the Spanish cover.

5) Arena of Khazan by Ken St. Andre

C'mon, there is no way I'm getting a group of gamers over every day to play and Ken St. Andre's Arena of Khazan is one of the best, and most replayable, solo dungeons ever written.

6) DC Heroes by Mayfair Games

In order to expedite play, and get straight to the action, I'd use the "Exposed" starter adventure included in the 2nd edition boxed set. It's a commentary on reality tv culture, in the case of the adventure of Geraldo Rivera, but it is surprisingly topical. It's also funny, has a great mix of heroes, and ends up with a smashingly fun free for all.

7) Tails of Equestria 

A family friendly role playing game designed by the creator of the Mordheim skirmish miniature game? Yes please! This game is wonderfully easy to pick up and play and has a core mechanic that inspires creative thinking. It's also a great first game to GM.