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May 30, 2003

Wish 49

Is there a way to win or lose in a roleplaying game? Are you in competition with other players, NPCs, or the GM? What are the rewards for winning or the penalties for losing? Do you feel like your characters have to “win” to enjoy a game?


Well, there clearly are for some games. Rune, for example, is actually a competitive game, with the GM and players both limited by the rules and fighting over Victory Points. But that's an exception. The big difference between most RPGs and most other games is that RPGs aren't "zero sum" or "winner-takes-all"; some or all participants can win, and no one needs to lose.

Some people focus on character power-gathering as victory, or on changing the world in their desired way, and if they achieve their goals, they consider it a "win", so good for them!

But IMO, the object is to tell a good and genre appropriate story (either at the character or the overall level). That can end with failure if the genre is Cthulhu or or if it's Toon and you picked the Coyote as your role model (in fact, the humor in Toon is pretty much always based around failure, which is the major way it differs from the other animation-based humor game, Teenagers From Outer Space, which bases its humor on excessive success). Failure is, in fact, an appropriate story in many genre. For some character concepts (evil masterminds such as Brand-as-painted-by-Corwin, for example) it's almost the only genre-appropriate story from the very beginning (since some genre don't allow for the bad guys winning the day).

One "wins" an RPG if, in the end, your character has achieved a genre appropriate, satisfying ending, be it to an episode or to their full story. Thus, some players can win while others lose, though in most situations all the players, including the GM, are working together to achieve a mutual win. You "lose" if the ending you achieve is not genre appropriate (the bad guys win after the heroes give up instead of fighting on even though facing only slight resistance, for example, is almost never genre appropriate) or if you never achieve closure (the game falls apart without wrapping up anything, as happens all too often).

Now, many (perhaps most) games establish a genre (or, I suppose, actually a sub-genre within their setting as genre) that is "character vs. universe conflict", where the only appropriate ending is success against all odds, and this tends to create false player vs. GM conflict, as the GM provides the "all odds" you need to succeed against. But it is a false conflict; the GM's goal is the players' success just as much as the players' is. Which tends to make for the odd situation where the GM "wins" by the NPCs under the GM's control losing.

Posted by ghoul at 11:53 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Favorite Games I

As some readers here know, I'm a pretty serious fan of board and card games as well as RPGs, so I thought I'd start a series here of micro-reviews of favorite games, just to help spread the word a bit.

I have no idea how long this will go on, but I have a lot of favorite games, so it might be quite a while. Except several swings to the land of Cheapass Games and more than a few mentions of the name Reiner Knizia.

I'll start with the favorite, a game I'm rarely without just in case I have 15 minutes and someone interested in playing. En Garde is a Knizia classic, a card game of fencing that, despite its simple and highly mathematical mechanics, achieves a very good feel in play. It's easy to learn, as the rules teach the game in three levels, starting extremely simple and slowly adding the more complex parry and advance-and-attack rules. It's a small game (just a couple dozen cards) with only a few "bits" (cards you lay out to create a board and dice printed with fencer silouettes to use as place-markers), but it packs a lot of fun into a small package.

Settlers of Catan is also an easy choice. Players are in the role of tribal leaders on an island trying to build up from a couple villages to a thriving urbanized culture more quickly than do the other tribes on the island, building with a set of 5 resources developed at random each turn. Trading between players is all but required, as another player will likely be the only easy way to get the resource you need. Some people dislike its high "luck" element (resources are produced at random and if your numbers don't come up, you lose out), some people make it take forever by playing too seriously (the style of game really calls for quick, light play), but if you can avoid taking it too seriously, it's a great way to pass some time. Almost anyone, even non-gamers, can quickly come to understand its goals and methods and become a reasonably good by their third or fourth game. And, if you keep the game quick, it plays fast enough that you can get through several games in an evening. The expansions are more for the pure gamer crowd (particularly Cities and Knights set), as they add complexities and length for strategic options that casual players aren't likely to appreciate, but the basic game is pure gold.

Posted by ghoul at 10:10 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

May 28, 2003

The Newest Diceless Game

Well, if the general RPG market isn't ready for diceless, we're about to find out through a high-profile failure.

It's fairly easy to figure out that I lean toward the side of diceless RPGs. After all, there's links to the AmberCons website here on the Staircase, including AmberCon North for which I currently serve as Treasurer after three years as Con Chair. I'm by no means a purist, though, as anyone looking at my list of current game plans or active games will see (and I did just run a diced Amber game at The Black Road). I think dicelessness works well when the assumption of success (baring active resistance) is justified, which means, in my actuarially-biased view, it fits well for high-powered characters (Amber or Nobilis, for example) and less well at more realistic ability levels (where random factors matter about as much as character ability, if not more).

So, this leads me to some comments on the new Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game...

Superheroes fit into my above-made category of "high-powered characters", so by that standard, a diceless mechanic could fit for superhero gaming. But, traditionally, super-hero RPGs have been dice-heavy, with highly random (high variance) mechanics trying to capture the "cinematic" nature of super-hero tales. So here's a new game that flies in the face of that convention, using the ultimate in low variance game mechanics - one with no random factor at all - to simulate the highly cinematic (as can be seen from the success of recent movie translations, such as Spider-Man and X-Men) Marvel Comics universe.

Confusing high variance dice mechanics with "cinematic" mechanics is a common mistake in the RPG world. By making the dice range huge, game designers and players seem to think, you can allow for the extremes of astounding success common in cinematic genre, and that is somewhat true. However, to get a cinematic genre feel you need to encourage the players to take risks, to ignore obvious dangers in favor of the flashier solution, and only then to succeed despite the odds. And, of course, this is exactly backwards of how reality shows people react to riskiness; in a highly uncertain situation, the best course of action is to hedge your bets, to take a conservative tack, and get a more reliable if mediocre result. Instead, the way to encourage cinematic action by players is to make success more likely and to make the price of doing things the showier way negligible or even negative (that is, it's easier to succeed if you swashbuckle). Feng Shui does this, and that's a large part of why it works so well as a cinematic RPG. Games that go the high-variance route tend to end up patching with some form of "hero points" to smooth over the times when high variance results in excessively bad results (which, with most die mechanics, it will do with exactly the same frequency as it does excessively good results).

Well, with a few missteps, Marvel Universe takes the "reduce randomness to increase cinematic feel" to its logical extreme, "eliminate randomness and perhaps maximize cinematic feel". If I know that Daredevil can always survive a leap off a 10-story building thanks to his Acrobatics skill, then as player I won't even consider the elevator. And if I know the thug's pistol isn't ever going to hurt the Hulk, then as player I'd just have ol' greenskin stomp forward ignoring the bullets.

But Marvel Universe isn't quite as simple as that. Every character has their skills and powers, but in each "panel" of the story (the game uses comic-book terms for game time, so round of actions by one character is a "panel", the full round of all active characters is a "page") every player needs to allocate energy/attention among their options (attack, defense, skill use, etc.); the rating a character has in any one power or skill tells us the maximum they can allocate to it. Allocation is done by moving small glass stones around on your character sheet. It's all pretty mechanical, feeling more like I'm playing Star Fleet Battles than an RPG, but once you get the hang of it, the idea isn't an inherently bad one. Almost all characters can use up energy far more quickly than they can recover it (usually you recover only half or one-third of your maximum reserves after every panel), so there's even some strategy to the game (lots of trying to second-guess opponents and allocate lots to attack the same round they under-allocated defense).

From a bit of toying with the system, it's very clear that standard powers (called "Actions") are nice, but powers bought up to what the game calls "Modifiers" are far better. You see, modifiers don't take any energy to use, they just kick in whenever they apply. So, for example, the Hulk gets several "stones" worth of defense because he's pretty much made of armor. Bullseye gets a handful of "stones" as a bonus to any ranged attack he makes, because he's deadly with anything. This means someone playing the Hulk only needs to allocate energy to defense against very strong attacks, and if you're fighting against Bullseye, you'd best keep a half-dozen or more points in defense every panel or you're going to get badly hurt. And if the Hulk faces off against Bullseye, the two effects pretty much cancel and we're back to the normal rules (so Bullseye best watch out, because that's really his best trick and the Hulk has several others, including the highest Strength in the game by quite a margin).

Tons of special cases and odd effects exist, making the comparison of action value to resisting value more complicated, and usually those are good things (such as Spider-Man's ability to re-arrange his allocations after seeing everyone elses', simulating his "spidey-sense", or the Black Cat's bad luck power that makes any success by less than a given point margin into a failure). With proper expansion (the base game is only barely adequate in the range of special effects it describes), this could make for a very strategically rich conflict resolution system.

Shortcomings? Well, the game has a few. The small size of the book (128 pages) requires them to under-detail many of the rules, leading to some very confusing table entries with little or no explanation. Examples are also in short supply; there are plenty of sample characters at nearly 40 (though they aren't given with their point costs, so you can't use them as ready examples of character creation), but far too few clear examples of play. And some of the game's mechanical concepts are subtle, the sort that good examples are by far the best tool to explain. Some rules also seem to contradict the general feel of the game. For example, there's a penalty for "showing off" with your action, which seems counter to the whole cinematic feel I went on about above. But, I think, the difference here is that the game encourages the player to show off, but tries to discourage (via increased chance of failure) the character showboating. A little self-defeating, perhaps, but not hard to patch up. And the transformation rules (for characters who have two or more forms) discourage slight transformation (some changes in abilities, but most skills remain unaffected) in favor of the extremes (Hulk or Thor-like models, where the transformed form lacks almost all skills of the base self).

Also, the game is a bit pricey for its size ($25 for 128 pages of a comic-book-sized hardcover volume). But don't fall for appearances... This is a fairly meaty game, and one that, with a little GM work and time spent figuring out its workings, will probably reward you with fun play. The highly mechanical play may frustrate some people, there's some subtle strategies to point allocation that may discourage some folk who like things simpler, and the dicelessness will upset the pro-dice partisans, but I think the game stands on its own reasonably well against the strong range of super-hero games already on the market, and against the earlier attempts at a Marvel RPG. For more information, examples of play, some sample pages, and the official FAQ, check out the official MURPG page.

I know I'm working on a simple scenario to try to tempt friends into playing so we can check the whole thing out for real.

Posted by ghoul at 01:15 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

May 27, 2003

Okay, This One I Don't Much Like...

Dungeons and Dragons players probably know by now about 3.5, the errata-and-more update of the Third Edition rules due out in just over a month.

Well, for the first time since WOTC started leaking hints about this, there's one I don't like.

Preview of 3.5 Gnomes

What don't I like? Well, it's right at the end... Somehow, Gnomes have changed their "favored class" from Illusionist to Bard.

Oh, it's probably a good change. Gnomes in 3E got shorted a bit, since being a specialist mage is a restricting choice and that was their only favored class option. And Bards are already strong on Illusion-type spells (with strong rumors that their list will get even better on 3.5), so it isn't that dramatic a change (and the +1 to Illusion spell save DCs is nifty)... But by changing the Gnome favored class to Bard, many gnome characters will need to be given house rule protection or will start eating multi-class experience penalties (and those are very unpalatable things). Also, by changing from an INT based casting class to a CHR based class (for more than just spellcasting), existing Gnome characters will have the wrong attributes for their new favored class.

And this from a design team that probably still won't make Paladin into a prestige class because it will disrupt too many long-standing D&D assumptions? Well, Gnomes being illusionists is as long-standing as the Gnome race, if memory serves. Now, suddenly, their race stereotype changes from clever trickster to charming trickster. A small but significant shift to make for an whole race, even one that was probably the least-used of D&D player races.

It's a minor grumble, compared to the improvements I've seen coming in 3.5, but this is the sort of sweeping (if subtle) change I was hoping would only be made if vital, and I don't think gnomes were critically broken as they were.

Posted by ghoul at 08:25 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Another Reason to Hate Actuarial Exams

Isn't this always the way...

Tour Dates for Eddie Izzard's 2003 US/Canada Tour

Which puts him in Boston exactly one week before my exam (which is 10/30).

Oh, I'll take the break from exam prep. But I almost certainly shouldn't.

(from SFAD)

Follow-up: Okay, reason be damned... I've got tickets to the last night in NYC (with Jeanne) and the last night in Boston (with Julia and Lou). It's Eddie! It'll be worth it!

Posted by ghoul at 01:31 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 26, 2003

What's In A Name?

Okay... about this blog's name.

Four years ago, I bought a house here in Concord, NH. It's an older house, though not so much so by local standards... built in 1920. Somewhen in its history, an owner decided they didn't like the original staircase upstairs (which was narrow and steep... I know because I've been in another house locally that has the same floorplan and is unmodified). And so the original staircase became a bookcase (on the ground floor) and a closet (upstairs) and a new staircase was built on the opposite side of the house.

This staircase twists around in an uncomfortable way, no two stairs are exactly the same size (as I found when I tried to put carpet bits on them to provide traction lest I trip over cats and break my fool neck), the pitch is inconsistent, the wall they run along is at an oblique angle to the side of the house (rather than the familiar and comfortable 90 degrees), the roof above the stairs has a different slope than the stairs do, and, in general, it looks dangerous and unstable. In fact, they're quite soundly built, just not aesthetically designed at all, unless the chosen aesthetic was "clumsy" or "ugly".

The first few times Julia and Lou visited, they demurred climbing the odd, twisty-looking stairs, deeming them "too weird" to possibly be used. Jeanne was less cautious her first visit, but then the computer was upstairs and she had things she needed to attend to using it. Or, at least, she did brave them after saying for the first two days that they made her feel queazy... but she did have a touch of the flu at the time. And, as Lovecraft fans, roleplayers, and serial exaggerators, the clunky architecture quickly mutated into something eldritch and strange, and became known as...

Well, you read the blog's title.

Posted by ghoul at 11:37 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

WISH 48: Money, Money, Money

48? Wow... a lot of these to catch up on as time alows!

The price and availability of miniatures goes up as more companies leave the market. Wood costs lead to extended paper costs, and supplements and gaming systems are becoming a serious financial investment. Is this affecting your gaming any?

Of course, the reason "more companies leave the market" is not only because many of them are run as hobbies by people with little or no business sense.

It's also because there isn't that much margin to be made at today's prices (unless you avoid printing and distribution costs by going the PDF route, which the market really hasn't accepted yet). And really never has been. The most successful games have made a handful of people rich (the small 'r' version... no Gateses or Buffets in the gaming world), but most games just provide enough to pay a small number of people, often most of them freelancers paid well under the word rate for broader market writing. Most people writing games work another job to put food on the table.

I will admit, I don't automatically buy everything new and interesting any more, but that's more because there's too much product these days, and much of it support product for games I already know I'm not going to follow (like most everything White Wolf puts out... if only because they don't support Adventure!) or are the effluvium of the countless fly-by-night d20 lines (so many that the good products are easy to overlook!).

If you let price dictate your decisions, you don't buy wonderful things like Nobilis in favor of, say, The World of Synnibarr (which offered a LOT of pages for its price... pages of utter crap, of course, but a lot of them). That's clearly a mistake.

And I still follow a simple rule... If a movie costs $6 (matinees here in New Hampshire still do), then any game that will be enjoyable to just read has to be worth at least $18 (because it will take 3 times longer than the movie), and if it is even slight more enjoyable than a similar-length book or movie, then it adds even more value to the equation. Now, I'll admit that I think the new Talisman is overpriced at around $70... but that's because I already have the earlier editions. If I had access to no Talisman at all, I might just decide it's worth it, because it is a great light game and I know I've spent enough hours playing it to catch it up to the "movie price equivalent" easily.

Of course, I buy $45 German board games just because the bits look useful to recycle for other uses, so maybe I'm a poor judge.

Posted by ghoul at 09:14 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Role Call 20

Okay, this is my first one of these, but it's a question I do have a bit to say about...

In what homegrown setting have you had the most fun, and why?

This is going to take an extended entry...

With all apologies to Lou and Julia, whose original game world is home (or at least adopted home, in Gevrok's case) to several of my current characters, I have to go back a bit to give this its proper answer.

Back in the days of CompuServe's RPGames forum, I had the privilege to be part of Caroline Julian's sprawling Eollan campaign. Initially, I had no idea how deep and complicated this setting was, how rich its history and cultures, and how entangling its major NPCs' plots could become. I found out all of that as we played.

It started with the taciturn Emlyn, whose first scene was being refused as the human sacrifice for his tribe. To add to the insult, he was simultaneously chosen as champion for his people's Goddess, which he took as being rejected completely by the Hunter, whose service he has wanted to enter his whole life (he was, it turned out, completely wrong about that). Play continued with him pushed into a messy political situation he had no comprehension of, with several very different peoples. When last seen, he was in the company of a wolf gifted to him by the Hunter Himself and dealing with strange fey magics he had no hope of ever unraveling.

In the course of Emlyn's first adventure, he was sent off on a side-quest that took far less time to resolve than the activities of the rest of the PCs, and so I was offered a chance to create a second character, who turned out to be the selfish, snobbish, effete, and drug-addled bookkeeper Kusian. Oh, Kus was invaluable to completing the mission the PCs were faced with, but he really wasn't at all a nice person at all. Several people took up the goal of trying to make him a better person, or at least less of a danger to those around him, to differing degrees of success.

Next (and the only character here born for a face-to-face game) came Bernard, a crass mercenary hired to help in a rescue action who ignored some very good advice and retrieved a cursed axe that an evil priest had used to try to kill him. He came to what turned out to be years later, somehow freed from service to the axe, scarred and nearly dead with little memory of what he had done. I didn't get to find out just why anyone thought he was worth saving.

Then Thonia. Ahh, Thonia. A favorite character of mine, a walking contradiction. Shy, withdrawing, and inexperienced... but, at the same time, trained in dark magic and murder, probably my only PC who considers poisoning an appropriate response to a social slight. Her relationships (particularly with a kiss-stealing 'gypsy', her mysteriously unaging mentor, and a young relative with a penchant for finding secrets) were all terribly complicated and confused, and a little bit of baby-sitting turned into her strangest journey.

And, briefly, there was Lorenzo as well, a charming young schemer who had, when last seen, gotten himself in a bit deeper than he knew how to deal with, though he was quite confident he'd manage a way. The fact that he was actively working against Thonia's interests (though the two never met... which may be why Lorenzo was still alive when I last got a look into this world) made it even more interesting.

In many ways, that was the beauty of Eollan. It was large and complex enough that you could play several characters whose paths never cross, but who leave ripples other characters do encounter, sometimes decades later. There was magic and power, there were also people and simple problems that sometimes were harder to solve than those magic and power created. It also helped that the GM and players here were of the highest quality, but a lot of it was the work Carrie had put into the world, work that showed every new corner you looked around. It was also a world with extensive histories, which almost everyone believed and which were, more often than not, almost completely false. What went on behind the scenes are always more important than what was happening on the surface.

Unfortunately, real life distractions on both sides and the collapse of CIS RPGames left all of these stories unfinished. But for all of the 90s, this was the world I most looked forward to every chance I could get to play in it.

Posted by ghoul at 08:41 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

May 25, 2003

Current Games I'm Playing

Another extented entry, mostly just here to list what all is going on so I can keep track of it, or so that future references make some sense. Not that I have anywhere near as many PCs as I've had in my more active gaming periods, but it's still quite a few.

And that's about it right now... As with GMing, I'm a bit short on time and that keeps me from doing quite as much as I'd like to!

Posted by ghoul at 09:46 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Current Game Plans

Well, here's as good a place as any to detail what I have cooking right now as RPG concepts. Some are nearly ready to run, some are being developed for this September's AmberCon North, and some are for face-to-face games that may or may not happen anytime soon.

Plus this is a chance to make sure extended entries work...

First, my almost complete ideas...

Now, my less developed concepts... I want to do something with FVLMINATA. The diceless system fan in me wants to try out the new Marvel Universe RPG, mostly likely with an X-Men game. Buffy calls to me as well, and I've sketched out a concept on the Roll the Bones forum. And there's Nobilis that really deserves some time and attention. And I'd run more Teenagers From Outer Space at the drop of a hat.

Of course, to get to all of these, I need to get through (or give up on) my one remaining actuarial exam, which currently eats of most of my free time for three months every autumn. Still, even if I know I don't have time to do most of these, it's useful to keep a list, so here it is.

Posted by ghoul at 08:34 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Okay, So It's Here

Well, this is not exactly earth-shattering after all the build up, is it?

But it's here (thanks, Jeanne!). Now the job is to make it worth looking at and reading, which will take work on my end.

But that has to wait until after the Good Eats marathon. I have priorities, after all.

Posted by ghoul at 03:49 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack