Monday, August 31, 2015

RPGaDay: Favorite Non-RPG Thing to Come Out of a RPG

My favorite non-RPG thing to come out of a RPG is Lords of Waterdeep. Lords of Waterdeep is a fantastic introduction to the worker placement genre of board games and it has a theme based on D&D's Forgotten Realms setting. Light euros are not the kind of games that WotC are usually know for, but they really hit it out of the park with Lords of Waterdeep. Not only is it a good use of the D&D theme, but it is a solid worker placement game in its own right. Better yet, it is a great introduction to both worker placement and strategic board games in general. It is very easy to learn, and plays quickly. It also is very easy to set up, something that you cannot usually say for these kinds of games. This is a great gateway game that can lead to other fantastic games like Manhattan Project and Yedo. My wife and I have played this many times, both the cardboard version and the excellent iOS application.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

RPGaDay Favorite RPG Playing Celebrity

I guess I am going to have to make the same choice here as 95% of the rest of the participants and say Wil Wheaton. Not only am I a fan of him as an actor, Stand By Me is one of my favorite movies, but he is a celebrity that plays RPGs that is actively helping the hobby. Wil has a talent for figuring out how to make it interesting to watch other people have fun. I was very skeptical of Tabletop when I first heard about its premise, and I was happily proved wrong. I think that with Titansgrave, he has offered one of the best gateways into the hobby that has ever been available. The show makes role playing look fun, and it communicates what it is all about. That second item has always been a challenge, how do you communicate what an RPG is if no one in the group has any experience with the hobby. I think that prior to Titansgrave, the best answer was Mentzer’s Red Box, and game books in general. I think that Fantasy AGE has the greatest introductory box set ever, a YouTube show.

Titansgrave is not a regular actual play. It isn’t hours long, with people mumbling and looking uncomfortable. It is people who are used to being on camera, actually playing the game, with all the boring parts edited out. It is at once a commercial for the hobby, and a how-to video.

I have to pick Wil Wheaton, not only is he a celebrity that plays RPGs, he is actively promoting the hobby in one of the smartest ways I have ever seen.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

RPGaDay Favorite RPG Blog/Website

To be honest, I no longer have a central place on the web to go for RPGs. For years, the Fear the Boot forums were my RPG home, but RPG discussion seems to have moved away from forums and distributed across things like Google+ and Twitter. I find it much harder to stay interested in these forms of communication, they have no history and do not lend themselves to long, in-depth discussions. Things like Roll20 and Google Hangouts offer online gaming opportunities that never existed before, but without a central community, I am not sure how to find people to use these tools. It would be nice to have a place where there was a group of people large enough to offer a pool of diverse players, but small enough that we all know each other. It feels like what is missing from the web since forums went out of style is the ability to talk to small focused communities. You are either talking to one person or everybody now.

Friday, August 28, 2015

September is City Month

I really enjoyed having RPGaDay during August, it gave me something to write about every day. I think I am going to continue that on my own during the next month. I will use the month of September to create a fantasy city, one post at a time. I will be drawing on my various GM/DM guides and city books for inspiration and mechanical guidance. I haven't decided exactly how I will attack this yet, I may post a schedule of blog posts in the next few days, or I may wing the design throughout the month. I am likely to use the 3.X Dungeon Master Guide system for classifying the city as it is well organized and people are familiar with it. I am not a cartographer, but there will be a map or maps. I generally use procedural methods for detailing my campaigns, so there is likely to be random charts. I imagine I will detail factions and NPCs as well.

More to come.

RPGaDay Favorite RPG I No Longer Play

I guess I could take the easy route with this and just say WEG Star Wars and be done with it. It has been years since I last played it, and I am unlikely to play it again anytime soon, but I don’t want every one of this posts to be about that game, so I will go with Alternity instead. I really enjoyed Alternity at the time, it was an attempt to have a universal game for science fiction the way that AD&D was a universal game for fantasy. This was a few years before 3rd edition and the advent of the d20 system that was set up to handle them both. From a rules perspective Alternity kind of existed in a wierd place between chaos of AD&D and the unified mechanic of d20. It moved towards the idea of having a standardized task resolution mechanic, but the mechanic itself was still pretty fiddly. It wasn’t a bad system for the time, but it is not one I see myself going back to today when I have choices like GURPS 4th edition and Savage Worlds.

The best thing about Alternity was its campaign settings. My group used Alternity for Star*Drive, Dark Matter, and Gamma World. I think that Dark Matter was the strongest of the three, it was an X-Files style setting that came with a lot of details on possible conspiracies to include in your game. The setting book was very strong in its depiction of an alternate, conspiracy riddled Earth. We had played a similar style game with GURPS Black Ops, but Dark Matter was much more evocative.

Star*Drive was an excellent space opera setting that was just different enough from the other available space opera settings to make us want to play it. It was kitchen sink space opera, it accommodated Alien-style horror, Star Trek inspired exploration, cyberpunk trappings, and old fashioned blasters and star fighters. It offered the opportunity to play in all of these styles while still providing a strong, coherent setting. I am glad that Wizards of the Coast decided to develop this new setting instead of defaulting to their old Star Frontiers setting. I like Star Frontiers, but it was more limited in scope, and honestly of a different time.

Speaking of defaulting to old settings that were of a different time, Alternity also offered a version of Gamma World. To be honest, Gamma World was not a great match for the Alternity rule set, and it was not a good match for the late ‘90s in terms of tone. We did play this a bit, but it was ultimately forgettable.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

RPGaDay Favorite Idea for Merging Two Games Together

I wasn't too sure what he meant by this. I could take it to mean, "Favorite idea for merging two campaigns into one," or I could take it to mean, "Favorite idea for merging two game systems or settings into one," so I will just take it both ways.

I have a lot of experience with merging games. I have run different groups in the same campaign world, sometimes even the same dungeon, for a number of years. Most recently, I have drawn all the heavily used areas from my recent fantasy campaigns into one world. This was pretty easy to do, I just cut out those sections of the maps and then glued them back together. They key was that by eliminating all of the history that my players never encountered in game, I found I had almost no conflicts that would have to be explained away, even if all of the players involved discovered everything that the other players knew (unlikely). I think they lesson here is that if you only create what you need, and do not get attached to things your players have never seen, it is easy to merge parts of a game world together. The benefit to this is, every part of my game world, that I know anything about, has been developed through play.

As far as merging two systems or settings together, I have to go with the upcoming Savage Worlds version of Rifts. I am really eager to see this.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

RPGaDay Favorite Gaming Inspiration

The inspiration for games I run tends to come from two places, books and maps. Generally, I get science fiction inspiration from books and fantasy inspiration from maps, although this is not always the case. I think this is because my science fiction games tend to be about an idea, usually a "what if question", and my fantasy games tend to be about a journey or exploring a place. 

Almost any kind of book can inspire a science fiction game, from a science fiction novel, to a book on phone phreaking. Sometimes I will get an idea while reading a history book or a social science book. The inspiration almost always takes the form of a question, from the dumb, "What if this happened in spaaace?" to the more complicated, "What would a democracy look like if everyone could vote on hundreds of little issues every day through the internet?" Even when I am dealing with a licensed scifi game like Star Wars, the basis tends to come from a question.

To a certain extent, this is true for my fantasy games as well, except that the question is almost always, "What is over there?" I am not a big fan of epic, world-saving fantasy. I find that it all tends to be very derivative of Lord of the Rings, and very backwards looking. Epic fantasy tends to ape Lord of the Rings without thinking about what it is doing, romanticizing pastoral, rural, medieval England even when written by an American. I do not find this to be fun. The events of fantasy are very, very boring. Exploring fantastical locations, on the other hand, is interesting stuff. 

Because of this, my fantasy games tend to be site based, not event based. I get excited by the big world maps that come in campaign settings. I trace the rivers and roads with my finger and look for places that call out to be explored. I like my campaign setting books to come with brief, evocative descriptions of the locations on the map, and more detailed maps of those areas. I am not going to read the painful elf history or list of dead kings. Just give me the map and a few lines of description.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

RPGaDay Favorite Revolutionary Mechanic

This one is really hard. I am having a hard time coming up with a mechanic that I feel is really revolutionary. And I am going to answer this from the perspective of what felt revolutionary to me when I encountered it. That means that if someone else did it first, but I never encountered it, too bad.

While there are plenty of times that I have found a mechanic clever, I can only think of two times that I can say I was surprised by one. The first was saving throws, it actually took a while for me to get my head around those. Part of that was that I was 10 years old, the other part o it was that it was the opposite of the way everything else in the game worked. You generally rolled to make stuff happen to another character, not to keep it from happening to you. I was comfortable with hit points when I first encountered them, they were the same as hearts in Zelda, but rolling to keep a status from being applied to my character was a bit mind bending.

The other was the conflict resolution system used in Dogs in the Vineyard. This was really the first time I ever encountered a game that was not just "D&D but different". Prior to Vince explaining it to me, I thought I had encountered games that were more than just "D&D but different", but I realized that was not true immediately afterwards. It was the first time that I encountered a game where I could say, "This is what RPGs might look like if the person who invented them was not coming from wargames." There have been other games since that clearly not drawn from the D&D tradition, Dread is what RPGs would look like if the inventors came from Jenga, but DitV was the first I encountered.

Dogs in the Vineyard's core mechanic is my favorite, and possibly only, true revolutionary mechanic I have encountered.

Monday, August 24, 2015

RPGaDay Favorite House Rule

My favorite house rule is my dungeon crawling house rule set for Castles & Crusades. While C&C is great as written for most things, it does need some tightening up for extended dungeons crawls of the type I run. While I am always working on my house rules, the general gist is to get combat out of the way quick, and to have a very strict exploration round. I have talked about these rules before.

I slim down combat by using group initiative and break combat into phases, each side takes its turn before moving on to the next phase. The phases are Missile, Melee, and Magic. I extend the combat round to 1 minute so movement can mostly be abstracted. I also treat all enemies in a group as a bucket of hit points. When you kill one foe worth of hit points, I subtract one enemy from the group. Any damage dealt beyond what is required to kill an enemy is applied to the hit point bucket. This means that characters regularly mow down multiple weak enemies in a round. This makes them feel cool, and speeds up combat.

My exploration turn is just a list I go through each turn: Move, Roll Searches, Describe, Actions, Mark Time, Roll Wandering Monsters. I am considering making two small alterations to make the tun smoother. Instead of tracking turns on torches/lanterns, I would have the players roll a die with a value equal to the number of turns that light source is supposed to last, with the roll of a one indicating that it is used up. While it adds some randomness, it eliminates an often forgotten tracking step. I am also considering rolling for wandering monsters every turn, even when the table calls for a roll less often, I would just decrease the chance appropriately. This means I would take the same actions every round.

Roll20 Gaming: Backlog

Last week I played in a DCC game using Roll20, and I was impressed with the system. I have been thinking about running some games using it, especially games that I don't think I will get much chance to run in person, things like starter sets and the huge number of perfectly good modules and adventure paths I have accumulated over the years. These things have the advantage of generally being low prep time, accessible, and having a pre-defined endpoint for buy in purposes.

Looking around my shelves I see things like the Pathfinder Beginner Box, several Paizo adventure paths for both Pathfinder and 3.5, a stack of 3rd edition Dungeon magazines, Ptolus, White Wolf's Scion campaign, the 5e Starter Set, the 4e Starter Set, the Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars Starter Sets (there is a dice roller, I checked), WEG Star Wars Darkstryder Campaign, some C&C modules, lots of Lamentations of the Flame Princess modules, and that doesn't even touch on the .pdf bundles I have purchased over the years. Many of these are are very good, or at least good introductions to their system. I think Roll20 would actually work great for this kind of thing, it is easy to estimate how many sessions they will last, and you can pull people from across the country.

On Steam we call this our backlog, anyone else working through their backlog on Roll20?

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Star Wars Armada

I played Star Wars Armada to day at my FLGS today. I stopped in the store two weeks ago and asked some people playing the new Halo fleet battles game about it. They told me that they play Armada every other week, so I picked it up to get ready for this weekend.

The game is a lot of fun, and moves quicker than I expected. The first couple of turns were a little slow because I was figuring out how things worked, but the second half of the game really picked up. We played a game with 200 points on each side in well under 2 hours, including instruction.

I played the Imperials and got lucky and won. We reached the turn limit and I had destroyed a Rebel corvette, but lost only a few fighters. I say I got lucky because had we played a few more turns, my Star Destroyers would have ran off the edge of the map and my opponent would have been awarded points for them. It took me a while to realize how hard the Star Destroyers are to turn. If you are playing them, you will need to use the maneuver command regularly to keep them on the field. The rules really give them a feel of inertia, both from how hard they are to turn, and the fact that you have to issue your commands 3 turns ahead. When a game is only 6 turns, this means you don't have a lot of ability to respond to your opponent. In an embarrassing note, I actually ran my Star Destroyers into each other, hopefully I will not make that mistake again.

The models look great, and it looks like they are building up a pretty good variety. This is the game I have been looking for, a pre-painted, quick-playing miniatures game. I have been wanting to get into a miniatures game, but hadn't found anything that seemed affordable and didn't require lots of painting at home. You will be seeing more posts about this game.

RPGaDay Day 23: Perfect Game for You

I wasn't exactly sure what this question meant, so I am going to assume that it means which game I would want to play if I could always get enough people. For me, the answer is GURPS. For all the time I spend talking about, and running, rules-lite games, I actually prefer crunchy games with a high level of granularity to skills and mechanics. I think this is because, if I could run any kind of game, I would run hard science fiction games. I prefer that kind of game to have several different kinds of physicists and chemists, not just a generic "Science" skill.

And it isn't just in hard scifi that granularity matters to me. I love Savage Worlds, but I have some problems with the system in long campaigns or back-to-back campaigns. Savage Worlds does not have a very high level of detail in its skills, this is great, it is what makes it so fast and easy, but it can make everything start to feel the same after a while. I have found that two Savage Worlds campaigns in a row can feel very much the same, even if they have very different themes, because of the simple mechanics. It is also hard to keep things mechanically fresh over long campaigns. I do not think this is an actual flaw in the system. The game was designed to be "Fast, Furious Fun" and mechanical granularity is going to be one of the trade-offs for that. GURPS, on the other hand, takes a while to get up and running, but offers many ways to make things feel very different due to its detailed, modular nature.

I like long campaigns. I like spending a lot of time working on the game world, and campaign specific rules before the first session. I want to distinguish this from something that requires lots of prep time every week before play, like Pathfinder. GURPS requires a lot of work setting up the campaign, but very little on a weekly basis. GURPS gives me the ability to make a very realistic world, and to fine tune the game systems to get the feel I want.   

Shadowrun Returns

I finished Shadowrun Returns this afternoon, and while it is hardly one of the greatest games of all time, I really liked it. I thought they did a good job of capturing the feel of Shadowrun fiction. One of the nicest things about the game was the length. It feels like it is rare to find a isometric, turn-based RPG that clocks in under 40 hours. I estimate I finished Shadowrun in 10 hours or less. It isn't that I don't enjoy the sprawling epics, but it is hard to get a game started when the estimated time to completion is 80 hours. It was also nice to play a game where there is not really any filler story, it moves along at a good pace with only a few, quick side quests.

The story is nothing special, but it isn't completely predictable. It was enough to keep me interested. The combat was good, although it was probably a bit too easy. I really liked the way they integrated netrunning into regular combat. This is one of those things that just works better on a computer in my experience. In all the combat was good, tactical fun, somewhat akin to the old XCOM games in feel. The world is not very deep, it is a hub game, you won't be doing any real exploring. But, that was actually a relief, not every game has to be a sprawling, open world time sink. The world was tailored to fit the tight story and to help keep up the pace.

If you have not played this, I suggest you do. I think you can play it on almost everything now, possibly even your microwave.  

Saturday, August 22, 2015

RPGaDay Day 22: Perfect Gaming Environment

Today's question was, what is your perfect gaming environment?

For me the answer is either a gaming store or a convention, and I prefer a gaming store. I have several reasons that I prefer public gaming. One, I like big groups, eight is my favorite table size, system allowing. I find it is usually easier to pull this off at a con or a store, for reasons of space and having enough people. Second, I believe that the best way to get people into the hobby is for them to see people playing a game. Gaming stores are the perfect place for this. There are a surprising number of people in a gaming store that have never played a RPG, or have not played one in years. These are people who are generally geek inclined since they are in the game store, and a table with six to eight people sitting around it having fun draw attention. RPGs are actually somewhat less intimidating than many of the other things going on in the store, there aren't $800 of minis on the table, or a whole bunch of cards, just some guys with dice. One of the reasons I love running C&C in stores is that someone can sit down cold and learn to play it. Third, I like the atmosphere, there are other people playing games, and stopping to see what we are doing. I think it helps maintain the interest of the people already at my table. I strongly believe that there are few things more important to this hobby than game store owners who understand the value of people playing in their store.

Friday, August 21, 2015

What Should a Shadowrun Game Look Like?

I have been playing Shadowrun Returns recently and I have been enjoying it. I have to admit to not being a huge fan of the Shadowrun tabletop game, it has way too much continuity built up, and I have never felt that the rules really had all that much to do with the theme of the game. This was fairly common when Shadowrun came out, and the Shadowrun rules are much better than many of the other games of the time, they just didn't make it feel like a shadowrun.

While I was playing Shadowrun Returns today, I started wondering what a Shadowrun game should be like. Pretty much every Shadowrun game I have ever played in or run has had these parts: Information Gathering; Planning; Execution; and Everything Goes Wrong. In my experience, Planning takes up most of the night, and Everything Goes Wrong is where all the excitement is. The problem with the Planning phase is that many players hate it and want to get to the action, but for a few players it is their favorite part of the whole game. Shadowrun, and cyberpunk games in general, are actually shot through with similar problems. For most games in the genre this stems from how netrunning is handled, but Shadowrun also has astral plane stuff that is basically another form of netrunning. One person is doing their "cool thing" and everyone else is sitting around. While some progress has been made with the netrunning problem over the years, the Planning phase problem still exists.

One way to handle it would be to have a very regimented game where you progress through all the phases but limit the actions the party could take in each phase to keep things moving. You could also just eliminate the planning phase through the use of an in-game currency. The players could have a certain amount of this currency, that would act like bennies or story chips, to allocate to each phase prior to Everything Goes Wrong. The game itself would start with the Everything Goes Wrong phase and the players could spend the currency they allocated to get bonuses, trump GM statements etc.

You could also do the opposite, you could have a game that was basically just the Gather Information and Planning Phases and then have the Execution phase and Everything Goes Wrong work kind of like programmed movement. This would work if you had a group that really enjoyed the planning phase.

RPGaDay 2015 Day 21: Favorite RPG Setting

Favorite RPG Setting

If you have read my previous answers, it should come as no surprise that my favorite setting is Star Wars. I am not going to go on about it again here, I have run two campaigns to completion in this setting and loved both of them. I can actually be more specific because both of those campaigns were set in the Elrood Sector, the subject of one of WEG's Galaxy Guides.

The great thing about the Elrood Sector is the level of detail at which it is described, each planet gets a few pages, some hooks, and a few characters. There is enough there to build a campaign around, but not enough there that it becomes cumbersome to remember it. In fact, while both my campaigns were set in the Elrood Sector, they were two very different versions of the sector.

I should mention two other settings in which I have run a lot of game sessions, Stonehell and The City State of the Invincible Overlord. I don't think it is a mistake that these are both very limited settings, one is a city, and the other is a dungeon. They are both kind of the opposite of the Elrood Sector, they are limited in scope but described at a high level of detail.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

RPGaDay 2015 Day 20: Favorite Horror RPG

Like Super Hero RPGs, I have very little experience with horror RPGs. The only horror RPG that I have any real experience with is WEG's Bloodshadows, and I am not sure that counts. Bloodshadows was part of WEG's Masterbook line. Masterbook was an odd duck generic system that used custom cards in conjunction with dice for the core mechanic of the game. It was interesting, but on the clunky side in actual play. You had to roll dice, consult a chart, and play cards. If I remember correctly, you also had to know what "stymied" meant. Bloodshadows was also an out-of-the-ordinary setting. It mixed '30s-'40s noir with hammer horror monsters and spellcasters. To be honest, the setting was not a great match for the rules.

We generally did not play this game as real horror, our sessions tended more towards campy action. I think this was mostly driven by the artwork in the books, which had a very pulpy feel to them. The game hardly qualifies as horror from a thematic standpoint. 

I did run one adventure that legitimately creeped out two of my players, to the point where they still bring it up today, 20 years later. In the first several sessions they tracked down some monster and killed it. They spent the rest of the campaign being stalked by its crawling, severed hand. I am not sure why that was so disturbing, but it was.

So, by default, Bloodshadows is my favorite horror RPG. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

RPGaDay Day 19 and Roll 20

Short post tonight since I played a game on Roll20. This actually works out well, I have never really played a Supers game. I ran a session of DC Heroes back in the '90s and I have read Necessary Evil. Based on that small amount of information, I like Necessary Evil More.

I had a good time playing in my first Roll20 game tonight, it was a DCC funnel. We played Sailors on the Starless Sea by Harley Stroh. I had a good time, and Roll20 works really well for this kind of game. We started out to investigate a keep that we believed was connected to the disappearance of many of our fellow villagers. We lost one character (didn't catch name) in a tragic bridge-crossing accident at the very start. 

Once inside the keep. the party investigated a well and hear a strange wailing sound. Two characters started throwing rocks down the well and were momentarily possessed by the urge to jump in the well. One of them died (didn't catch name), the other managed to grab a hold of a chain and pull himself to safety. While in the well his teeth started chattering.

We messed around with a door to one of the towers in the keep, but were unable to open it. We abandoned that idea and investigated a hole outside of a crumbled section of the wall. Drake and Pec climbed down the hole and discovered a circular door with runes on it. Kaax read the runes and determined that they were a poem about Fire, Ice, Storm, and Hate. While we were trying to decipher this poem, Dave pushed the door open and triggered a fire trap. Kaax the Crispy and John the Standing to Close were immolated, Dave somehow escaped. Drake and Pec started to explore the room on the other side of the door. The room was gently glowing and had a 7' tall man in armor lying on a dais in the center of the room, he was covered in inch thick ice. Pec went in to inspect the body and froze. It took a few more frozen people and a human chain but the party managed to pull him out alive. I wonder if this cold room is connected to the well, since the character who survived jumping in had chattering teeth.

We went back up and opened a scary door at the base of another tower. Inside were skeletons and a toad shaped fountain with a basin full of ichor. Rouge went in to inspect the skeleton and could smell burning, he found the skeleton to be hot. The from had gemstone eyes, but we managed to resist that temptation. We did find some weapons, armor, and a locked coffer. After we finished searching, Jake the Hammered poked at the ichor and was crushed by a pseudo-pod. The fountain burst into flames and we retreated, barring the door behind us.

Once outside, Drake opened the coffer and found three shapes wrapped in cloth. Drake unwrapped one and found a cone of incense, the cloth had chaos symbols on it. Drake carefully re-wrapped it, closed the coffer, and put it in his large sack. 

We then bashed down the door that we could not open earlier. We burst into the lower floor of a tower and found a spiral staircase going up along the inside of the wall. We also saw several villagers tied up to the wall, they were guarded by a minotaur and some beastmen. While we managed to defeat these foes, we lost Colop the Impaled, Star the Speared, and Moch the Bee-Covered. We rescued 12 villagers, 8 of which were willing to join us to replace out fallen. We looted the corpses, friend and foe alike, of course. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

RPGaDay 2015 Favorite Science Fiction RPG

I have always enjoyed science fiction more than fantasy. I like that it looks forward instead of backwards, that it celebrates humanity's ability to innovate, and that it has cool spaceships. There is no way I can discuss my favorite science fiction game without also discussing my love for science fiction in general, and especially Star Wars.

It is almost impossible to overstate the impact that Star Wars had on my early life, the movies hinted at a universe that stretched far beyond the screen, more adventures to be had, and new worlds to discover. In some ways, Star Wars, a movie series that is not about exploration, did more to imply a giant universe to explore than Star Trek, a show focused on exploration.

Maybe it's the lived-in look that does it, or the greater variety in alien appearance, or the many different kinds of aliens gathered in one place, even in a backwater. Whatever it is, the series has always been a call to adventure for me. I didn't want to go to the Star Wars universe to fight the Empire, I wanted to explore it.

But, there was something about Star Wars that interested me more than its world, and that was how they made it all look so real. There were several TV specials describing how the modeling effects were produced, and I was fascinated. My parents recorded a Nova special (I think) for me and I watched it almost as much as the actual films. It was this aspect of Star Wars that led me to hard science fiction, because it almost seemed like science fiction itself. I became interested in the "how" of science fiction, I wanted to know how things worked both in and out of the story.

My first hard science fiction experience was Asimov's "I, Robot". I loved how each of the stories was its own little puzzle, to be solved using the fictional rules of the world. I can also remember reading Rendezvous with Rama the first time, a book I still love today. While my love for Star Wars, Star Trek, and Robotech has not diminished over the years, my interests have grown in a different direction since I was about 12. Most science fiction I read today is solidly in the Alastair Reynolds or Stephen Baxter camp.

My first scifi game was WEG Star Wars. As I discussed in a previous post, I played a very long campaign using this system. It remains one of my favorite systems, and one of the few from that era that I would not be hesitant to go back to today. Right as I started playing WEG Star Wars RPG, something great was happening to the Star Wars universe; Timothy Zahn. His Thrawn Trilogy came along at exactly the right time, I was in the eighth grade when Heir to the Empire was released, so I fell right into its target demographic. Not only did Zahn do a good job capturing the feel of the universe and the characters, he took Star Wars in a more legitimate science fiction direction. Zahn recognized that a simple retread of space opera serial tropes would not be as interesting in written form as on the screen. Instead, Zahn took a different approach that was more suited to the medium.

Zahn added structure to the Star Wars universe. He defined how things worked and interacted, but just enough to allow his characters to use those interactions to solve problems. He didn't turn it into a realistic setting, but he made sure it was a believable one, even absent the great special effects. There were no ham-fisted midichlorians, he gave just enough information to allow the reader to play along at home. He took a similar approach to galactic politics, he moved away from good vs. evil to something more nuanced. Again, we are not talking about Iain M. Banks here, just enough to hang a believable story on. Zahn made Star Wars feel larger and more believable, he didn't just go back to the same places the movies went to, and have the characters interact with the children of the movie characters. He took us to new places, and brought in new characters from very far away. I do not believe that anyone else working in Star Wars since the original trilogy, other than Mike Stackpole, has pulled this off.

This approach fell in line, not only with my developing habits as a reader, but also with the direction my gaming group was heading. The Thrawn Trilogy Sourcebooks injected new life into our campaign. Star Wars was exciting and developing again, and we loved it.

Unlike our fantasy gaming habits, we were constantly trying new science fiction games during high school. We played Cyberpunk, GURPS Black Ops, and Traveller: The New Era. I also ran a long campaign in Alternity: Star*Drive, which I liked despite how fiddly it was. Another game we often got to the table was WEG's Shatterzone, a game made of TORG's system and Star Wars spare parts. I would gladly revisit either of those settings again with different rules.

After a return to fantasy gaming during my college years, I moved back to hard science fiction with GURPS Space. 4th edition GURPS gave me what I was looking for in a hard science fiction game. I could get very detailed during world creation (Traveller TNE-level detailed!), but the game played fast at the table. I ran two linked campaigns using GURPS Space and I hope to go back to finish that series some day. My most recent science fiction gaming experience brought me back to my roots with FFG's Star Wars: Edge of Empire. I loved that they had their first game focus on smuggling and exploration instead of the Galactic Civil War.

There are many science fiction games that I look forward to running. I would love to dip back into Star Wars and try the rest of the FFG games. I think a Star*Drive or Shatterzone game using Savage Worlds could be great. I also want to try Ashen Stars, it seems like a completely different style of game. But, more than anything, I want to get back to GURPS Space.

None of that changes the fact that my favorite science fiction game is WEG Star Wars.

Vote for Roll20's Old School Adventure

A few days ago, I linked to a video of Adam Koebel from Roll20 discussing Moldvay Basic D&D and why he loved it. It was a great video, and one of the better explanations of the attractions of Basic D&D I have seen. If you haven't seen it, go watch it. I'll wait.

Now you can vote on which old school adventure they will be playing. The choices are:

  1. Keep on the Borderlands
  2. The Lost City
  3. The Caverns of Thracia
  4. The Palace of the Silver Princess
While I feel like I should vote for KotB, because it is a great learning adventure, I really want to see how this guy runs The Caverns of Thracia. I will be voting for that. How about you?

Monday, August 17, 2015

Megadungeons: Tools

Before I embark on my Stonehell customization project, I need to think about what tools I will need. I have divided them into three categories, these categories each include both physical tools and processes I will use for content creation.

  • Content generation tools
  • Content management tools
  • Quality control tools
"Content generation tools" are pretty self explanatory, they are the tools I will use to create the content that will go into the dungeon:

  • Graph paper: I still do the rough draft of everything by hand. I am not really sure why, it is very inefficient, but it is how I work.
  • Pencils
  • Drawing templates
  • Writing journal
  • Geomorphs: Some I will steal from other places, some I will make myself. I actually shouldn't need that many, I am leaving levels 1 and 2 untouched and they will have the most real estate.
  • Treasure tables
  • Dungeon tables
  • Random dungeon generation procedure: I started talking about that here
  • Monster books: I have plenty
  • A dungeon drawing program: I will need to ask around about this. I do not need a lot of depth, I am not publishing this. I already learned to use AutoCAD and SolidWorks, I have no desire to put that level of investment into learning a drafting program.
I need content management tools during the creation phase because I know this is going to be a living dungeon and I want to bake that in from the start. 

  • 3 ring binder
  • Wiki?: This is a possibility. It is especially attractive since I run the dungeon across groups.
  • A modified version of Angry DM's Slaughterhouse system
Finally, I will need quality control tools. Wait! What is this nonsense? I need quality control because I don't want my dungeon to suck. I want a way to make some kind of objective assessment of the dungeon before I run it, to spot any potential problems. Obviously, "fun" is subjective, so my ability to do quality control other than play testing is fairly limited. But, there is a way: Melan Charts. These will give me the ability to do some evaluation on the tailor made portions of the dungeon, and probably on the larger geomorphs, and on samples of randomly generated areas. This may seem like extra work on the randomly generated areas, and it would be, except I intend to use that system and geomorphs again, so it will be worth it. 

Of course, you have to check your quality control system against a known. That means I am going to have to make sure that a "good" dungeon and a "bad" dungeon look different when charted. More to come. 

RPGaDay 2015 Day 17

Favorite fantasy RPG

Like most RPG gamers, I have a long history with fantasy games of many different types. I started with MERP and quickly moved on to Mentzer D&D. BECMI and 2nd edition AD&D were my group's primary games for the next decade. While we played other non-fantasy RPGs, I cannot think of any significant time spent with another fantasy game. At the dawn of the 21st century, we bid goodbye to AD&D with a marathon game of Dragonlance Classics and moved on to 3rd edition. I think it is hard, 15 years later, to remember what a revelation that new edition was at the time. AD&D was so creaky under its own weight with kits and Skills and Powers that I was regularly "doing the math" for most of my players. The sad fact is, most of my players did not actually know how to play the game. This is not a knock on them, it had become very complicated, and the rules were spread out among a whole bunch of books. The feedback from that first session was unanimous, 3rd edition was in.

Of course, 3rd edition would wind up crushed under its own accumulated mass by the end, requiring more DM prep than actual playtime. In those early years, it was a breath of fresh air. Even the layout of the rule book communicated that this version was more friendly. You could start at the beginning, work your way to the end, and come out of the other side with a complete character and a working knowledge of the game.

It was right about the time that the rules bloat started to get out of control that Castles & Crusades was introduced, but I would not encounter it for a few years.

In the later years of 3rd edition, I moved away from D&D and largely away from fantasy gaming, preferring scifi gaming instead. When we did do fantasy gaming, it was more likely to be Savage Worlds or Mike Mearls' Iron Heroes. 4th edition brought me briefly back into the fold. My initial experiences were very positive, I liked the way it played and the shorter prep time. But as my players gained higher levels, and we added more players to the group, the combat slowed to a glacial pace. We abandoned D&D right around the time I moved away.

I then picked up Pathfinder as a player. While I enjoyed it, it did not dial 3rd edition far enough back for me. There was still too much going on for everyone to track, combat was slow, and it took forever to make characters. At the same time I started running an OSRIC campaign, it was amazing how much faster the game moved. The non-value added complexities of RAW AD&D still bothered me though.

A little while after I started my OSRIC game, I had my first real encounter with Castles & Crusades at Troll Con East, and it was exactly what I was looking for. It was as fast as early edition D&D, but with all of the rule simplifications from early 3rd edition. It has been my primary game ever since. It reminds me a lot of the first year or so of 3rd edition, or Rules Cyclopedia, it is an easy to use game that feels complete.

There are many tempting fantasy games around today, Dungeon World, 5e, Fantasy AGE, 13th Age, DCC, The One Ring, and Fantasy Craft. While I am unlikely to change my go-to-game, I will experiment with many of these others.

My favorite fantasy RPG is Castles & Crusades.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

DCC on Wednesday

On Wendesday, I will be playing in a DCC game on Roll20. I am really excited about this. It will be my first Roll20 experience, I have only used Fantasy Grounds before. Even that Fantasy Grounds experience was about 8 years ago and I only GM'd. It will be interesting to see how far VTTs have come in the last few years, especially from an interface standpoint. 

I have played Dungeon Crawl Classics before, I play tested Mike Curtis's "Frozen in Time" module. I really enjoyed it, but we did not do a funnel so I will be interested to see how that works. 

I will let you know how it goes. 

RPGaDay2015 Day 16: Longest Session Played

It is not going to be possible for me to name the exact longest session that I ever played or ran because there were so many weekend-long games during high school. It would have to be either AD&D 2nd edition or WEG Star Wars. It is more likely to have been AD&D because I was running Star Wars every week and some times more than once in a week, so we did not tend to do marathon sessions with that game.

I can tell you about a session that ran so long that the GM fell asleep. We were playing Rules Cyclopedia D&D and one of my players was running the game, he almost never DM'd and it was going really well. It was not a dungeon crawl, it was a mystery. We were closing in on the culprit and suddenly, in mid-description, the DM's head goes down and he starts to snore. We nudged him to try to wake him up long enough to finish the game and the only response we got was, "She's got your mother's dress, but she doesn't have the body."

When he woke up the next day, he couldn't remember anything. He only remembered the beginning of the game, and was apparently making it up on the fly. We never found out who the murderer was.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

RPGaDay2015 Day 15: Longest Campaign

My longest campaign was my WEG Star Wars Elrood Sector campaign. I ran this game for the entirety of high school, sometimes multiple sessions in one week. This is my longest running campaign no matter how you measure it, length of time, or number of sessions. It was a great system and a great setting in the system. I revisited the Elrood Sector a couple of years ago when I ran an Edge of Empire game there. That campaign is another one of my all time favorites.

Friday, August 14, 2015

RPGaDay 2015 Day 14: Favorite Gaming Accessory.

My favorite gaming accessory has to be the Hackmaster GM screen. I never actually used it, but it was completely ridiculous. It has all of these flaps inside the panels with insane amounts of game information and tables. It was a work of art, and it was completely useless.

Roll20 GM Chat: Moldvay D&D

This guy gives one of the best explanations of old school D&D and the Moldvay Basic Set I have ever seen. Roll20 GM Chat. Sorry, I can't figure out how to embed a Twitch video and I cannot find the video on youtube. I think this guy's name is +Adam Koebel

Megadungeons: Stonehell Customization 2

So, how do I go about planning my Stonehell customization project? I already have a good first pass at a high level definition of my goal:
A customized version of Stonehell dungeon that is consistent with the history of my campaign world and reinforces careful play and resource management.
I will need to sharpen that as I go, but it will serve to keep me pointed in the right direction for now. I can't talk about the history part yet because my players have spent the last several sessions almost stumbling on some big reveals. Some of my players read this blog, so I don't want to spoil anything. I can discuss the play style of my group though. My current Stonehell group consists of people who either work in, or are students in, the science and technology area. There are both professionals and skilled tradesmen in our group. I am a lawyer with an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering. As you can imagine, my group has a very methodical play style. They carefully explore, usually with a plan, always with a system. This doesn't mean that they don't get into crazy situations, just that they usually have an exit plan ahead of time.

Since I know my group likes to plan, I want to make sure that my customization efforts reward and challenge their careful play style. This means I need to make it possible for them to get the information they need to make good risk versus reward choices in advance. That last statement seems obvious, shouldn't we always design our dungeons so that players can make informed risk versus reward choices? Of course, but if you have a group that puts extra effort into planning ahead and gathering intelligence, you want to make sure there are plenty of opportunities to do so. You also need to make sure that there are enough twists, and not cheap ones, that they can't ensure victory through their careful play.

 Next, I need to determine the scope of my customization. Stonehell is a very large dungeon, even if you only count the five levels Mike has released so far. One quirk of the way Stonehell is formatted is that all five levels are the same size. This is not necessary for my purposes, in fact it even works against my goals to a certain extent. I also only plan for the group to be focusing on the dungeon till level 7 or 8, so I only need one more level than what has been released.

In general, I think that the levels closer to the surface need to be bigger than the lower levels. There are several reasons for this. First, low level characters die more often and extra rooms are needed to provide XP for the replacements. Second, because resources are tight, covering large distances is an actual challenge for lower level groups. They have limited access to healing and are usually spent by the time they stop to rest, when to stop or turn back is a huge decision at lower levels. As characters gain levels they also gain the ability to avoid or escape encounters on their way back out, they are also moving through easier encounters on their way to the exit. Third, you have to spread the treasure (XP) around a bit more at lower levels because it is very difficult for low level groups to survive the types of encounters that should be between them and large rewards. You should certainly have some of these high risk opportunities available that clever parties can exploit, but you also need enough "slow XP" to get a bunch of characters off the level. Ask me about dragon fishing some time.

I need to make Stonehell smaller, especially the lower levels. This is not a criticism of the original dungeon, it was written for a much larger audience than I am running it for. It was also written to provide modular opportunities, that I am taking advantage of by removing some sections. Reducing the size of the lower floors will allow me to provide more concentrated, and varied, challenges and rewards to my more experienced players. It isn't just about character experience, in the early levels you are trying to give the players certain core dungeoneering skills. They learn mapping, resource management and how to move through the dungeon tactically. They are also calibrating their baseline for the fictional world you have created. They are constantly testing to see what the consequences are for their actions.

Remember, the very fact that there is a megadungeon and magic means that the world they are exploring doesn't "make sense" to a certain extent. They are going to need a bunch of data points to figure out how it departs from the real world. Repetition is the key to learning those skills and establishing that baseline. They need chances to test their assumptions before having to apply those assumptions in high risk situations. Death in the early levels should be like an airline accident, unless they make a clearly boneheaded move, it should be the result of multiple errors over time that suddenly become very dangerous when combined. If there is a total party kill on levels 1 or 2, the players should have a list of choices they made to get them into that situation in the first place. 

On lower levels this all changes. The players should be faced with challenges that they apply their hard won skills to overcome. It is far less important for them to map a large area to determine where secret doors may be than it is for them to notice several very subtle clues in a smaller map. They should be facing more challenging encounters for greater rewards. Instead of pacing themselves to deal with a string of smaller encounters, they should be faced with situations where they are trying to survive long enough to figure out a strong enemy's weakness. I just don't need much real estate to pull this off.

 Another thing to consider is the way I run Stonehell. I will have one or two ongoing groups exploring the dungeon, which is persistent across all games I run. I will also have a much larger number of groups who only enter the dungeon one time at a convention or game day. This means that very few characters are ever going to make it below level 2. Players at conventions do not generally come equipped with megadungeon exploring skills. I don't know that these skills were ever common, but they certainly are not now, RPGs are far more diverse, even under the D&D umbrella. This means that I really can't hand out 5th level characters and start a convention group out on level 3 or 4. These levels are going to be far too intolerant of minor mistakes for groups to be probing them by trial and error, they are intended to challenge groups that have spent many, many sessions doing that in the levels above. If only my ongoing groups are going to see the lower levels, I just don't need as much level to be there to deal with the fact that my dungeon is persistent.

Keep in mind that "smaller" does not mean small from an objective standpoint. Half of a Stonehell level is still a lot of dungeon.

Right now my plan for the dungeon is something like this: Levels 1 and 2 will remain largely unchanged, they are large XP farms and mapping areas, with the mapping getting a little more challenging on level 2. These levels have two or three sub-levels each. Level three will be a clear shift in direction, it will be more compact and challenging. I also plan to have the distinction between level 3 and level 4 be more blurred than in previous levels. This means that players will have to think more about relative vertical distance to gauge challenges. Level 4 will be made up of many smaller areas and will require a lot of vertical movement between those areas. It will probably also require things like going up to go down in certain places.

Level 5 continues the trend of smaller areas and vertical movement, the dividing line between level 4 and level 5 will be even more blurred than the line between level 3 and level 4. You will not be able to reach all areas of level 5 from another area in level 5, some will require going back up to level 4, others a more dangerous excursion down to level 6. Careful mapping will be required to determine that these possibilities exist. Level 5 will also introduce dangerous one-way movement. Level 6 will be a return to a more compact level, but be very challenging. One way movement and magical movement will be much more common and often leave the party in very dangerous situations. I expect that this 6 level version will have a bit more real estate than four current levels.


Kevyn over at the Geometry of Madness has an ongoing Prydain Project that is awesome. Lloyd Alexander's Prydain series is a foundation for my love of fantasy. I read those books many, many times growing up. I actually read them all again about three years ago. So far Kevyn has a map, classes, a couple of monsters, and some magic items. You can guarantee I will keep checking on this one.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

RPG Bucket List

Today, on Venger's Old School Gaming blog, Venger asked what items are on everyone's RPG bucket list. I have several items on mine:

  • Run another long-term Star Wars campaign. I love Star Wars gaming, I have run one Star Wars campaign (FFG) that lasted several months, and another (WEG) that lasted over 4 years. Both were set in the Elrood Sector. My preference would be to run a sequel campaign to my Edge of Empire game from a few years ago. The ending of that game basically set up a follow-on game that would be like Star Wars Voyager. 
  • I want to run a Dungeons & Dragons (or descendant) campaign that heavily mixes standard party-level play with realm management and mass combat. I have started running this type of game before, but out-of-game circumstances have always disrupted it.
  • Back in 2007, I ran two linked GURPS science fiction campaigns. The first dealt with humanity's expansion throughout the solar system, and the second took place on a slower-than-light colony ship on Earth's first extra-solar mission. The first was a military scifi game that was mostly set on a space station. The second was a murder mystery that crossed generations. At the time I ran those games, I had plans for at least two more campaigns in the series. I would love to run them.
  • A RPG set in Alastair Reynold's Revelation Space universe.
  • A serious Rifts game, not one played ironically. This might be possible with the coming of Savage Rifts.
  • I want to run a Call of Cthulhu campaign, I have never run the game.
  • I would love to return to Alternity's Star*Drive setting. I could go either way on actually using the rules.
  • I have most of the Everquest RPG book, I bought them with the intention of running a "people get sucked into the MMO" game. 
  • A gritty, real world, spy campaign.
  • A fantasy game set in Rome.

RPGaDay 2015 Day 13

Favorite RPG podcast.

I am going to interpret this question as, "What is your favorite RPG podcast currently being produced?"

My favorite RPG podcast is also the very first podcast I ever subscribed to, Fear the Boot. I have to admit that I do not really listen to RPG podcasts for GMing advice. I have been gaming since the late '80s, and while I certainly don't think I know it all, the type of advice that I find useful at this point tends to be long form. I listen to RPG podcasts because I like to feel like I am sitting, talking to my friends about RPGs. Fear the Boot nails that feel. I think it is fair to say that Fear the Boot set the standard for the casual roundtable-style RPG podcast. I also listen to RPG podcasts just to keep up with what is going on. Fear the Boot is certainly not the best for this, they tend to have a fairly narrow range of games they play and discuss. They have broadened over the years, but they usually are not discussing cutting edge stuff. They do have interview shows on a regular basis where they interview people in upcoming projects, or have guest hosts that bring some of that it.

If I was talking about all the RPG podcasts ever, I would have said the Podgecast. To be honest, this is because it actually was my friends sitting around talking about RPGs and they did cover a broader set of games than FtB.

Those podcasts, while my favorites, are not the best RPG podcasts ever made, that has to be Jennisodes. This show was a series of very well done interviews. During its run, it was one of the best ways of keeping up with what was going on and getting introduced to new things. Jenn did a fantastic job with this show, and I am always hoping it will come back someday. If I was to suggest a podcast to someone, this would be the one.

RPGaDay 2015: Day 12

Favorite RPG illustration.

This one is really hard, there are so many great illustrations in RPGs. There are also so many not-so-great illustrations that were the inspiration for memorable campaigns and characters from my youth. I am going to have to go with the cover of the very first gaming product I ever owned, Tolkien Quest: Night of the Nazgul.

You make think this is a cheat since this is a solo game book and not an RPG, but I bought this book because of this cover without even knowing what a game book really was. I wore this book and a few others in this line out, and then I used the rules from them to make up adventures for my friends to play. Eventually we started to question what this MERP thing was the book talked about and discovered that someone had already made a game that let you make up your own adventures. After failing to figure out MERP, we moved on to D&D. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Ant City

Speaking of megadungeons.

Megadungeons: Customizing Stonehell

There is a reason that I cannot start on the Castle Whale right now, I already have a megadungeon project I am working on, my ongoing Stonehell game. I have been running Stonehell for various groups since early 2010, and I have kept a persistent dungeon through every session. That means that there have been a lot of changes to my version over many sessions, especially in the first two levels. While the physical layout is mostly the same, most of the original room descriptions have changed as a result of player actions. Recently I have started changing the dungeon further by adding my own sub-levels. These sub-levels have introduces an interesting wrinkle to my dungeon, history.

My current campaign world does not have much history. It is a mixture of parts of my old campaigns and commercial products. The "civilized" continent has only its major port city, The City State of the Invincible Overlord, detailed. I brought Judges Guild's classic city over from a Castles & Crusades campaign I set there in 2011. I kept all of the continuity from that campaign as history in this version, but no Stonehell character has ever visited it. I know almost nothing else about that continent.

There is a large island city between the two continents called Dar Janix. It is the home to the exiled Knights Templar of the Circle of Dar Janix, a group I have used in my games since 1995. There is a lot of history built up around this group, their city, and the dungeon under it, but Stonehell characters rarely come here. Several of the knights were featured heavily in my first Stonehell campaign, but they have not been heard from since.

The "wild continent" has only Stonehell and a few miles of wilderness around it detailed. The wilderness is ripped from one of Rob Conley's excellent Points of Light books, but has only served as the setting for a murder mystery session. Until recently, I knew little of the history of this place either. I wound up creating a history of this continent and its interactions with the other continent while making my sub-level, "The Conquistador's Tomb". While I am happy with what I came up with, it causes a problem for this lazy GM, it doesn't fit with Stonehell's history. I am going to have to do work.

I also need to makes some changes from a game play perspective. Stonehell is great, but it is huge. I have found Level 1 and Level 2 to be the right size, but starting on Level 3 the place is a bit too big for me. I need a lot of XP available in the first two levels because of character deaths. I also prefer to have more consolidated XP awards attached to higher risk start around character level 4 as well.

Luckily, Stonehell was designed with GM hacking in mind and is easy to take apart and use in pieces. Still, this is going to be a lot of work. There are some areas that I will keep as written, others that will stay but be drastically changed, and others that will be eliminated entirely. My initial survey leads me to believe I will have to create some areas other than sub-levels myself.

This will be transparent to my players. For all the sessions I have run in this dungeon, there are whole sections that no character has ever set foot in, especially below Level 2. I will not be making any changes, beyond those that I normally make, to explored areas. This is going to be a big project, luckily I do not have to do it all at once.

RPG a Day Post 2

7. Favorite free game.

My favorite free game is Stars Without Number. This game has a lot of interesting things going on, I especially like its tagging system. It is high quality all around, so much so that it is hard to believe that it is free.

8. Favorite appearance of a RPG in media.

This is the easiest one so far, Community's "Advanced Dungeons and Dragons" episode. This is the closest I have ever seen to D&D being portrayed the way my friends and I played it in high school. There is the awkward flirting, the inappropriate settling personal grudges, and the awkward thing that everyone else realizes is racist, sexist or somehow else horribly inappropriate.

9. Favorite media you wish was a RPG.

This one is really hard, so many properties have been turned into RPGs, and I don't want to say Harry Potter after the guy in the video did. I guess I would have to say the '90s X-Men cartoon. I am not talking about a generic Marvel Universe game, I mean a RPG specifically tailored to simulate that show.

10. Favorite RPG publisher.

This is another easy one, Troll Lord Games. Not only do I love Castles & Crusades, I am personally fond of these guys and love seeing them every year at GenCon. I have to second the love shown for West End Games in the video. I can only think of two companies that ever took a license and really ran with it like it was their own. WEG with Star Wars and ICE with MERP. The WEG Star Wars books were excellent and even helped to shape the reality of the EU and the canon series. I have an immense amount of time played in this version of the game. They just kept adding to that feeling that Star Wars was this big infinite universe for you to explore. Despite the fact that I think FFG's game is a better game, their sourcebooks have not shown the kind of love and understanding of what makes Star Wars exciting. In fact, I think Timothy Zahn, Mike Stackpole, and WEG were the last people to produce Star Wars media that showed this understanding,

11. Favorite RPG writer.

This was another easy one for me, Kevin Siembieda. Wait. I am answering tis question from the standpoint of which RPG books do I like to read? Not which are the best designed, but which are written in such a way that I just like reading them. I love reading Palladium books, I come away with a lot of great ideas, Kevin is super enthusiastic, and the story parts read like a crazy '90s comic book. In fact, I almost always ONLY read these books, I very rarely play the games.

I want to give a quick shout out to the guys who wrote Dread, which I just read. This book was a joy to read, and can certainly just be read. If you run RPGs, you should read dread even if you only run White Box OD&D, without the supplements, using only that murky picture of Gary's dungeon inside a plastic sleeve in a binder. You will get something valuable out of Dread.

I almost cheated on this one and said Shannon Appelcline for Designers & Dragons.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Megadungeons: The Castle Whale

I continue to think about The Castle Whale. I am pretty far off from starting any real project here, as I do not have any outlet to run it at this time. I am already running a megadungeon game set in Stonehell, so I don't think my group would appreciate me jumping at a new shiny. But I am thinking about how I would go about it if I ever get the chance.

I think, if I was going to build a megadungeon from scratch, I would do it as a complete stand alone game with a rule set specifically tailored, not just for megadungeons, but for the specific dungeon. I would probably make a rule set descended from either Swords & Wizardry, Searchers of the Unknown, or E6. I would probably go the route of having characters be a bit more survivable than baseline D&D, with more hp and faster recovery options.

The combat system would be theater of the mind and abstract to facilitate quick encounters. I would probably use a lot of ideas I discussed in a previous post about streamlined games. There is no use having a giant dungeon with hundreds of rooms if you are going to spend an hour in each room.

I would have a small, but carefully tailored monster section. I want to try to have as few stock monsters as possible. There is plenty of opportunities to have monsters derived from bacteria and other parasites in a game set in a giant whale, no need to throw too many goblins in. I think I would spend time fleshing out the interactions between the monsters because of the way I plan to populate the dungeon.

The rules would have to include an expedition downtime system. I am not really sure what that will look like yet. I think I will use a system for generating magic items using story cubes. I have seen a few of these discussed recently. I am fond of coming up with items that have weird powers and then seeing how the players use them. I don't plan on using many stock magic items, swords should be intelligent or weird if they are magic.There will need to be an encumbrance system that can be used quickly, but has real consequences. This has been one of the trickier parts of old school gaming.

The presentation of the dungeon itself is a special challenge. As much as I love Stonehell, I do not think that I could draw out a whole dungeon and key it like that. I think I will take inspiration from roguelikes here as well. The dungeon will be divided into regions, and each region will have groups that operate in it. I may manage the groups by total XP value, and have a system where they replenish unless they are reduced below a total amount of XP. A few years ago the Angry DM discussed his Project Slaughterhouse where he divided an adventure into zones and populated them with factions. It is a great piece and if you haven't read it, you should. A system like this could be used in a megadungeon to avoid massive amounts of room keying, just describe the zones in a general sense and use the factions to populate them on the fly.

I would not map most of the dungeon. Each region will have its own set of geomorphs, the geomorphs will be numbered and each section laid out in a grid. Each region will also have certain special areas that are guaranteed to appear in that region. These areas will be completely detailed, in some cases this will be a room, in others it could be a whole floor. This will allow me to randomly generate the dungeon either on the fly or a short time before play, but keep a strong sens of theme and "planned feel". This will also allow me to record the dungeon, Traveller-style, in a single dimension array after I generate each section for return visits.

For example:

A level that is 3 geomorphs by 3 geomorphs and has a geomorph pool of 16 with one special area (X). Could be expressed:

(4, A, 7, 9, X, 5, 4, F, 1)

I don't have to draw out the levels as I generate them, or even in play. This also has the benefit of allowing be to record an instance of a very large dungeon on a very small amount of paper. Using geomorphs will also allow me to easily swap out sections for an ever changing, mystical underworld.

It will be important to keep some big picture principles in mind while designing the rules and dungeon.

At the high level, this is a game about managing an expedition. You need to hire the right people and keep them supplied, happy, and alive. You also have to keep the expedition profitable. At the mid level, this is a game about exploring. You have to map the dungeon and bring its treasure back to camp. You also have to claim and manage the areas you discover, as there will be other parties. You will have to set up new camps as you go deeper. At the lowest level, this is a game about item management. You need to have enough food to eat and enough light to see. You need to have carrying capacity to get the treasure back out.

You will need to manage all of these things effectively to avoid dying alone in the dark.

Monday, August 10, 2015

RPG a Day 2015 Post 1

I just learned about RPGaDay2015 while reading Fraser's blog, Sword's Edge Publishing. It looks like I am already a few days in the hole, so I will try to catch up.

  1. Forthcoming game you are most looking forward to.

The game I am most looking forward to is Titansgrave by Green Ronin, it is the first setting for their Fantasy AGE game. I picked up Fantasy AGE at GenCon and I really enjoy the Titansgrave show.

2. Kickstarted game you are most pleased you backed.

I have only backed one game on Kickstarter, and it was Troll Lord Games' Three Sisters Kickstarter. This was the Kickstarter that got the core rule books in print in color, and I really enjoy the color versions I got from that Kickstarter. They currently have another Kickstarter going on for their Mythos Books.

3. Favorite new game of the last twelve months.

I have not purchased many games that were made in the last year, in act the only ones I can think of are D&D 5e and Fantasy AGE. I have not had a chance to play either of them yet, but I like Fantasy AGE more from read through only.

4. Most surprising game.

The most surprising game I have ever encountered is Dogs in the Vineyard. When I first encountered this game several years ago, I had never player anything like it. It was the first game I played that really stepped outside of the D&D descended rules line. Games like BRP or WoD, that seemed like a departure, were revealed to be just riffs on the same general idea. I looked at games a whole new way after encountering Dogs in the Vineyard.

5. Most recent RPG purchase.

My most recent RPG purchase is Mecha v. Kaju, a FATE powered game of giant robots fighting giant monsters. It is obviously inspired by Pacific Rim and mecha anime. I have not had a chance to read or play it yet, but I am looking forward to it.

6. Most recent RPG played. 

The last RPG I played was Castles and Crusades. I ran two games at GenCon, and they were my last two sessions of gaming at the con. I ran them in my persistent Stonehell campaign. The last game I was a player in was The Adventures of Luther Arkwright using Runequest 6, also at the con. I basically played an Austin Powers style hero who saved Princess Diana with the Avengers (Diana Rigg not Scarlet Johanssan). I was completely insufferable and had a blast. 

I will take on the next chunk of these, and hopefully get caught up, tomorrow. 

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Dread and First Games for a 3 Year Old

Today I read through The Impossible Dream's Dread. For those of you who are not aware, Dread is a narrative horror game where the main mechanic is pulling blocks from a Jenga tower. The idea is that as the session progresses things get more tense as the tower becomes more rickety. If the tower falls while you are pulling a block, which you are required to do for actions you might fail at, your character is removed from the game. The book is very well written, and pleasant to read on its own. Using a Jenga tower to simulate the tension in a horror game is a stroke of genius.

The basic premise is so simple, and the book is so well written, that I was getting ideas for games the entire time. It is very easy to extend the game beyond the usual horror settings, and even beyond the idea of a small group working together. You could use it to have a game where some players played Mission Control and others are the astronauts in a capsule on the way to the moon. Obviously something will go wrong on the capsule and everyone will have to work together to set it right. Of course the people on the ground need to be put in danger, so we should have foreign agents seize control of Mission Control. Are they connected? Why did they choose this mission?

As the game allows for some player versus player interactions you can extend it further. Set the game in the Cuban Missile Crisis, some players are key Americans, others key Soviets. Both sides have the goal of preventing nuclear war, but they have individual goals that will put them at odds and complicate this. The individual historical goals should even cause friction within each side.

I have also been thinking more about the Castle Whale. I think I may want to develop this idea further, either for my Castles & Crusades group or try to go all the way and use Searchers of the Unknown. I had an idea for what the World Pearl is that I am actually pretty excited about. I also like the idea of having the regular exploration take place in the larger framework of running an expedition.

On Friday, I went around to most of the area game stores and posted notices looking for players. I still game with my group from down in Southern Maryland, but I haven't made much of an attempt to reach out here. The distance between me and the rest of the group means I do not get to play with those guys often, and I would like to have another group that is closer for more regular gaming. Today, I stopped in Eagle and Empire, the game store down the street, and while they are not really looking for RPGers, they do have a varied miniatures scene. I met some people who play Star Wars Armada twice a month and I am thinking of joining them.

I also introduced my three year old to board games today. I picked up Trouble, Chutes and Ladders, and Candy Land. Three is not a great age for board games, they have limited math skills (counting), patience (super short), and no real ability to think about options yet (not even lunch choices). That means that, on the whole, games aimed at this age group are terrible. All three of the games above are pretty bad, but they do teach valuable skills for later, more complicated, gaming. They teach turns, moving spaces. rolling dice, win conditions, and limited choices in Trouble. We are already playing Memory with her.While some better choices come in around 5 or 6, pre-reading games are pretty rough on the adults that have to play them. We are a long way from Clue (one of the few mass market games I like), so I am open to suggestions.

Troll Lord Games Short Film

I think they did a pretty good job with this. I actually didn't see it coming. 

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Castle Whale

I was thinking a bit more about what a low magic world with a mystical underworld megadungeon would look like. Is there some way to make the megadungeon a pseud-natural occurrence? As others have pointed out, you can't just make magic strange by making the setting low magic, players are already used to magic spells and items. How can I make the megadungeon itself feel weird?

The idea of a low magic world with a mystical underworld megadungeon put an image in my head. An Age of Sail setting where enormous whales roam the oceans, true titans of the deep. Not only are the whales large, but they do not rot when they die, instead their flesh turns to stone. Whalers regularly drag the carcass of a whale back to shore and towns are built in the bodies. Legends tell of a leviathan that dwarfs even these massive animals; the Castle Whale.

The Castle Whale is the size of a mountain. It died centuries ago, but its hardened corpse still drifts in the oceans, it becomes a floating megadungeon. Over the centuries many creatures have sought refuge in the whale. Pirates have called it home, unspeakable horrors of the deep have sought to claim it as their own, and its parasites have adapted and found a way to survive. Somewhere deep inside the Castle Whale is the fabled World Pearl.

The Castle Whale has been sighted a few days' sail from the mainland and the race is on. The king has ordered an expedition to seize control of the whale and bring back the World Pearl.

This setup allows for a low magic world, with firearms. It also bakes in the idea that this will be treated as an expedition, the group can start with a hundred or so characters at their disposal for setting up base camps. There could be more than one country sending an expedition to the whale, adding the element of a race. Obviously there could be more than one entrance (mouth, blowhole, and the business end of the whale). Perhaps many ships have slipped into the maw of the whale and were never able to come out. This could make for some kind of Sargasso Sea in the mouth of the whale. Perhaps there is some kind of makeshift town made out of linking these boats together.


I have been enjoying Wil Wheaton's Titansgrave: Ashes of Valkana over the last few weeks. Generally I do not enjoy watching, or listening to, actual plays. Watching other people play games is no where near as fun as playing them yourself, and so much is lost in not being there. I get more enjoyment from reading a gaming book than I do from actual plays.

The differences with Titansgrave are that the campaign was designed with being viewed in mind, all of the players are actors, it is professionally shot, and it is well edited. The first and the last are probably the most important, The campaign is paced with an audience in mind and all of the boring stuff is edited out. I think that this series could do for RPGs what Tabletop is doing for board games. It gives people an idea of how the games work, and takes a lot of the intimidation factor out of getting started. It helps that the have followed the show up with a solid, and easy RPG in Fantasy AGE. I picked up the basic rule book at GenCon and I am impressed. It is not 500 pages long, and it is very easy to understand. I think the combination of a well produced video and  a strong, affordable, basic rule book could be the new boxed set for RPGs.

One thing Wheaton does that I really like is the way he asks his players questions. When they do something, or even say something out of character (like "I wonder where this guy is."), he immediately follows up with a therapist type questions. "I am wondering why you are so curious about that," he will as, or something similar. This immediately forces an in character, or at least character oriented response, from the player. I think this is a very effective method for encouraging role-playing.

Megadungeons with Streamlined Rules

Ken H. at The Rusty Battle Axe started an interesting discussion about streamlined rules in the dungeon the other day (you should go read it now). He asks the question, "What if the dungeon (in this case, a megadungeon) was a unique feature in an otherwise mundane and non-fantasy medieval world?" He goes on to describe a system, based on S&W Core, that only uses the Human Fighter and the Human Thief. He goes on to describe how this would focus play and force the players to make more creative decisions. He also raises some concerns about gaming this way:

  • The lack of healing
  • The lack of character class choice
  • The loss of tactical options with magic gone
  • It would suck
My first thought when I read this was that it would still be really fun. I have always been enchanted by simplified and pared down rule sets. I have been wanting to run an entire campaign using only the Pathfinder Beginner Box set and some monster books. I was intrigued a few years ago by a discussion about playing an entire D&D campaign using only the Homes set (a quick google search turned up nothing, but it happened). I find E6, the pared down version of the d20 SRD that only goes up to level 6, to be a very cool idea. I have always wanted to run a Castles &Crusades campaign using only their White Box set.

These kinds of simplified systems are especially appealing to me for megadungeons because I find megadungeon play to be pretty much the gamiest of gamey modes of RPG. You are literally going down to grab points and come back up. Obviously there are mysteries to solve, and interactions between the dungeon and the outside world to deal with, but it is simple at its heart. A megadungeon makes very little sense, usually not even within the already fantastical universes they tend to be set in, it exists to be a platform for the game. Since they are so game oriented, I want play to consist of easily implemented game loops. I draw a lot of inspiration for the way I run megadungeons from roguelikes (enjoy that rabbit hole). 

When I run Stonehell, I make changes to Castles & Crusades to better suit the dungeon. In combat I use party initiative, and treat groups of enemies like buckets of hit points instead of individuals, damage is applied to the enemy in a group with the lowest hit point total and overflow damages the next monster in the group. I also use phases in combat, Missile, Melee, and Magic. Each side completes each phase before moving on to the next one. Since I use 1 minute rounds, we only have to worry about movement if someone is trying to do something special. This makes combat go very quickly, but it does remove a lot of the tactical elements. This makes for a short game loop for combat, and reinforces that combat is just part of resource and risk management, the actual challenge in the dungeon. I also use a dungeon exploration turn, exploration is highly structured, checking off torches, ticking off time etc. to move things along and reinforce the main purpose of the game, resource and risk management. I also use a very rudimentary town turn, one I am beefing up by adapting some ideas from Pathfinder's Ultimate Campaign book. 

So, I obviously do not think it would suck. I would also not worry about the loss of tactical options in combat, because I don't think that is what megadungeon play is about. The lack of healing is something that you have to be more careful about, while I don't worry about it too much in terms of "the dungeon day"(see why below), it is a bigger concern in that certain monsters may be designed with healing in mind. If you are going to eliminate magical healing, you need to examine the challenges in your dungeon on the individual level a bit. The loss of character class choice can be an issue, but I believe this can be dealt with by making sure the characters are changed in interesting ways by the dungeon (more on this later). 

In his response in The Clash of Spear on Shield, Chris C brings up Searchers of the Unknown, a slimmed down D&D variant where all the rules fit on the character sheet. In SotU there are no classes and, as Chris explains in his post, armor plays a large role in your character abilities. While I have never run a megadungeon campaign using SotU, I have run several games using the system, and I have some ideas on how I would use it in campaign play.

Character customization and differentiation will quickly become an issue in a long term SotU campaign. As Chris points out in his post, magic items, especially of the wondrous nature, will become highly prized. Not only are they rare in a low magic world, but they are a chance to customize your character and add options. SotU also treats scrolls a bit like a roguelike, everyone can use them and they are the only way to cast spells. The standard megadungeon/Underdark tropes also offer an opportunity to customize the characters, by actually changing the character. In a game with only one character class, fountains, potions, pools, altars, statues, and fungi offer the possibility of giving your character some permanent unique ability. As the characters progress through the dungeon, their abilities should be diverging as they gain different unique items, get cursed, receive boons from altars, and powers from drinking from fountains. Of course you will have to make sure that players are willing to engage the special dungeon items more than usual.  

Rob Conley, from The Bat in the Attic, also gave his thoughts on Ken's post. In his post he brings up the very interesting idea that adventurers might treat the megadungeon the way early explorers treated uncharted lands in a world with little magical healing. The adventurers would set up base camps as they went and return to them to heal. This could be combined with something like the entourage system to alleviate the 15-minute dungeon day concerns. With a robust downtime system for the camps, it could create even more interesting opportunities and a more strategic level of resource management.

I think a game like the one described in the original post could work. In fact, I am a bit excited to try it myself.