Wednesday, January 18, 2023

I Remember My First Time

Noisms wants to hear stories about your first time playing an RPG. Unfortunately, I don't think mine is particularly interesting. 

I was onboarded to the hobby by my older brothers, one of whom is my co-writer on this blog. I was in 6th grade, making me about 11 or 12. It was 2008, the year of 4th Edition D&D's release. My brother had several years of experience with 3.5 Edition but was closely following 4E's development and was ready to make the transition like any loyal fan would. So he put a copy of the 4E PHB in my hands and told me to read it. I have a short attention span, especially when it comes to reading (ironic, I know). But I slogged through the main bits over a few days.

Then, my brothers helped me make a PC using the character builder software that WotC put out for 4E, since their game plan also involved heavy use of digital tools. We all remember how that worked out, right? I made an Eladrin Paladin who worshipped Bahamut. I think his name was Conall, since I looked up Celtic names.

My other siblings all made characters so that we'd have a party of four. My oldest sibling, who had all the experience, DMd a single session for us. I remember it being really fun, but I was a little kid who had to be coached through most of it. I never quite got a handle on the rules. I could only really approach the game with a "play pretend" mindset, which my brother translated into the rules for me. Which is, of course, still a very popular philosophy of play.

I remember that all my siblings played as various shady characters, whereas I was of course a goody two-shoes. It was a classic "here's a contrived excuse for how you all meet each other and become a team" first session. The setup was that all the other PCs were in prison but were going to be put on a release program under my supervision, a fledgling paladin. In hindsight, appointing the youngest sibling as the "leader" was doomed to failure anyway. Then our meeting was interrupted by a goblin raid on the town, so we stepped outside and had a combat encounter. I distinctly remember a crowd of goblins (who I now know were "minions," mechanically speaking) surrounded me, made a bunch of attacks, and all missed. Their blows just bounced off my armor with a pitiful tink tink tink tink sound. I remember that exact description almost 15 years later because it made me feel awesome. Then I killed all of them in a couple rounds, since I probably had some kind of cleave-like area-of-effect attack.

Shortly after this, my older brother was quickly disillusioned with 4E and decided to switch to the also-brand-new Pathfinder. He asked us all to switch to the new system before our second session. I was frustrated and disappointed because I was asked to learn a new RPG already and reading is hard and learning new rules sucks and Pathfinder didn't have Eladrin.

It didn't take long before my own RPG opinions began taking shape and I, too, became a 4E hater. I also eventually became a Pathfinder hater but I do still think it's a better option for what I want out my gaming.

This whole story is very typical, but in hindsight I see a lot of lessons learned and trends foreshadowed. I still really like playing Superman-like Lawful Goodies, I still like being a big powerful warrior in armor, I still slog through learning rules, and I still like thinking fiction-first instead of mechanics-first.

Maintaining a campaign with my siblings proved impossible. I realized soon that the only way I'd be able to play D&D was by running my own game. So I began studying Pathfinder, got together some guy friends from school, and spent a few months planning an unbelievably ambitious campaign based on Irish mythology. I ran one session of that and quickly discovered that the immaturity of 7th grade boys would guarantee my grand artistic vision would be completely ruined. But they had a lot of fun. I kept trying to start new campaigns over the next 3 years that all fizzled after one session, so most of my early history with this hobby came in the form of reading about games and game history by myself. Oh, and Order of the Stick.

I can't blame myself for making such typical mistakes when I was just in middle school, but I do really wish I hadn't wasted so much potential back then. In hindsight, I didn't truly begin playing RPGs until years after that "first time." I have a lot of criticisms of the modern norms of D&D's design and playstyle, but one of the most important has to be that... it's so geared against developing good habits as an RPG player when you're first starting out. Their design encourages you to spend more time reading and theorycrafting than playing. More time writing lore dumps, crafting all-too-serious plots, and carefully calibrating combat encounters instead of coming up with fun stuff for your friends to play with. More time investing in a perfect little original character than getting experience throwing yourself at challenges and developing those problem-solving muscles without fear of consequence. As Justin Alexander once said, asking your friend to play D&D is like asking someone if they want to join a fucking baseball league who has mandatory practice 5 days a week as an adult, when it should be more like asking someone "you want to play catch?" If I had been introduced to the hobby through something like Maze Rats, I have a feeling it would have led to a much richer experience early on and would have shaped me into a better GM in general.

Oh well. Instead you get a guy who just can't let go of Knowledge checks because he was trained by Pathfinder.

Monday, January 2, 2023

Picture Book Gameplay

I recently had a very novel experience running a game that I think has some potential that ought to be explored. Maybe someone out there has done this sort of thing and would like to share. It's a weird one.

Not too long ago, I was flattered to be asked by W.F. Smith (of Prismatic Wasteland fame) to do some playtesting for his upcoming crowd-funded adventure "zine," Barkeep on the Borderlands. The premise is simple: 200 years after the famous Keep on the Borderlands adventure from the TSR era of D&D, long after the Caves of Chaos have been cleared out by adventurers, the keep has grown into a large, bustling, cosmopolitan community. Its present-day culture and institutions of power are colored by the long history of consequences from that legendary adventure, and now your 21st-century players are invited to partake in one of the all-time great traditions celebrating that legend: six days of non-stop carousing in the Raves of Chaos. It's a barcrawl adventure with a hand-crafted town populated with lots of fun NPCs, factions, plot hooks, and 20 fully-detailed pubs.

I playtested it with three separate groups across 4 sessions, getting about 20 hours of experience running this adventure in total. I am happy to report that it was a great success, much fun was had, and valuable feedback was gained and incorporated. I recently gave high praise to one of Smith's previous, smaller adventures, and I myself originally backed the Kickstarter for Barkeep simply as a fan, not having yet really met him. Well before moving on to the main subject of this post, I'll go ahead and give a quick two thumbs up review. This adventure is dripping with that special sauce you want. I wasn't compensated in any way, save for the privilege of getting to play this adventure before anyone else on Earth. Here's a link to pre-order a copy.

But there was one pub my players went to that was a bit different.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Product Identity? In MY Monsters?

It's more likely than you think.

Notorious bird Prismatic Wasteland is up to his antics again trying to get decent, law-abiding folks to weasel their way around legal trouble, and I'm here to help.

I put together a similar list a while back and I figure it's worth sharing.

First, More Names for the Monsters He Covered

Mind-Flayer: Bathalian (Reaper Minis), Cephalid (Dark Sword Minis), Mind Lasher (Old School Essentials), Octopoid/Gastropoid (The Black Hack), Philosophers (Zak S), Brain Fiend (Fantasy Craft), and, arguably, Genestealers (Warhammer 40K).

Beholder: Eye Tyrant (the alternate, generic name they already have in D&D), Eye Beast (Reaper Minis), Eye of Terror (Old School Essentials), Gazer (Dragon's Crown), Watcher in the Dark (Fantasy Craft).

Personally, the name I'm using is an Oculus.


...Just... just get rid of the Orientalism, they'll be fine. Really.

I offer to you: Nagendra (Reaper Minis), Librarians (Zak S), and... that's all I could find. Really disappointed to see how many companies just go with "snake men" or "snake folk" for these guys.

Now, For Some Other Monsters

Bullywugs: Gullygugs (Old School Essentials), Boggards (Pathfinder), Squogs (Reaper Minis), Boglings (Greg Gillespie's adventures), and one of my own, Croaks.

Kuo-Toa: Deep Ones (Lovecraft, and seemingly the "default" name instead of "fish-folk" or something terrible), Dagonites (Otherworld Minis), Dagathonan (Dark Sword Minis), Pelagic (Darkest Dungeon).

Myconid (which isn't actually protected, but people like coming up with alternate names): Shrooman (Dungeon Crawl Classics), Funginids (Veins of the Earth), Fungoids (Reaper Minis), Sporling (Fantasy Craft), Mycelian (Old School Essentials).

Personally, what I really need is a good-sounding generic word for "bug-person." Can't (and don't want to) use "Thri-Kreen" or "Formian" from D&D, and everything else I've heard was way too setting-specific or bug-specific. What do y'all got?


Monday, December 26, 2022

Not All Balance is the Same

Artist Credit: Wayne Reynolds
This is a spiritual sequel to a previous post about crunch. Everyone uses the word "balance" in reference to something in RPGs but they frequently use it to refer to different things. Sometimes completely unrelated things. And yet it's become intensely emotionally-charged despite being, essentially, a non-word.

So while you very likely have strong opinions about this word, it might be useful to take a closer look. In this article, I'm going to examine six ways that the word "balance" commonly comes up when discussing RPGs, and why it's important to recognize that they are indeed distinct.

As usual, I will mostly be making reference to ol' D&D as my primary example, but don't mistake that for meaning that this only carries relevance to D&D alone. All kinds of gaming philosophies might benefit from a little bit of thought about these six different meanings for the word "balance," even if there are some that you can safely dismiss. So yeah, balance matters to other crunchy games like GURPS and Lancer and Genesys-system stuff of course, but it can also come up in your rules-lite games, story games, FKR games, lyric games, and so on. If you want to design a Star Wars game and you aren't sure about how to handle the Force, or if you're going to be running a Call and/or Trail of Cthulhu and are crafting a mystery for your investigators, or you're making a random mutation table for a Mothership adventure you're writing, then there's likely something in this post that you should be thinking about. It just might never have occurred to you before because you're only ever thinking of one possible definition out of many.

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Enough Dweeb Adventures

I have a hypothesis: Wizards of the Coast's 5E adventures are for fucking weenies.

I know, it's a tall claim to make. Let's prove this through rigorous scientific analysis.

[Okay, in all seriousness, I recognize that I'm really preaching to the choir here. But use this article for 1) knowing how not to write dope adventures, and 2) explaining to your friends who are squares what the difference is between dope adventures and mayonnaise adventures.]

The principal variables I want to examine are villains and conflict. They reveal a lot about a designer's sensibilities towards what's cool. Because as we all know, the bad guys are always cooler than the good guys.

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

You Suck at Keeping your One-Offs as One-Offs

Okay I'm sure that isn't true of all of you. But statistically speaking, it's probably true of you. Because I have never once met another GM who can run a game they say will be a one-shot and then actually finish it within a single session.

I have gotten pretty good at it, though. Pretty good. I still fail now and then. But I'm usually able to pull it off.

Here's my advice:
  1. Ask for everyone to commit to a long session length to begin with. Last one I did, I said "at least 5 hours" and everyone braced themselves accordingly. I'm not saying it's impossible to run a short one-shot (people manage it at conventions all the time, I hear). But I just feel like saying "we're gunna have a complete adventure, with a beginning, middle, and end, by the time we all head home tonight" and then only giving yourself 2 or 3 hours to do it is just setting yourself up for failure. You might pull it off, but it's so much safer to prepare for a longer session and assume you'll need that extra time. Nothing wrong with an occasional big marathon session anyway (provided that you let your players take a break every hour or hour-and-a-half).
  2. Have as much prep done ahead of time as possible, especially player prep. They should have their characters finished, equipment bought, basic setting info learned, and quest established before you even begin. It is so easy to lose precious time at the beginning of a session to "pre-adventure" gameplay. Regular readers of my blog will know that player-driven, open-world sandboxes are my favorite style of play, but they are optimized for campaigns. If it's only going to be a one-shot, then it's okay to just thrust upon the players your choice of today's quest, and then kick things off as close to the good stuff as you can get. They won't mind the lack of agency regarding that kind of stuff, because they'll be too busy having fun actually adventuring.
  3. Have something in-game that escalates the situation and keeps things moving forward. The stuff that tends to bog games down the most is player inaction. People talk a lot about "keeping your world moving even when the players aren't" but that's not just a saying. That's actionable advice. Personally, I like to use a timeline with planned events that make the scenario increasingly dire as the session goes on. I find that when I'm keeping track of time, and I'm routinely updating my players whenever the clock ticks ahead, then that does the trick by itself. You might prefer a more time-independent source of regular pressure application, like introducing more monsters or fatigue or darkness or whatever. Dread has escalation built-in because you're literally just playing a game of Jenga but with a story attached.

    Most importantly of all, there should be a natural and visible conclusion to that escalation that will inevitably happen by the end of the session unless the players divert it. Think about it: how does a one-off end up needing 2+ sessions? Because you got to the end of that first session's scheduled time allotment but felt like the players still had more they could do. But if you decide beforehand that "the moon will crash into the PCs' hometown by the end of the session" and make it very, very clear to the players, then you can't be tempted into giving them a second session.

    And if they fail? Then fuckit, they fail. Honestly, failure is funniest and most easy to deal with in one-shots anyway. It almost always makes for a better story years later. "Remember when we all got together to play D&D at Bob's bachelor party and we went in the dungeon and the dragon killed all of us?" Fuckin' hilarious.
  4. Similarly, you can combat player inaction by giving them lots of shit to think about. You don't just tell them what today's adventure is. You give them rumors, relationships, personal complications, and lots of telegraphed resources and points of interest to seek out. I know it might sound like a lot for just a one-off, but think of it this way: 1) Bro, you should be re-using your one-shots on multiple groups anyway, and 2) Your players otherwise won't have much to invest themselves in knowing that this character they've made won't be seeing any more action after today, so giving them a handful of little things to grab onto can go a long way towards, in a sense, jumpstarting their investment in the game and churning their imagination. In a campaign, it's usually best for those things to emerge naturally over time. Players will befriend NPCs they like, build a mental picture of the world piece by piece, entangle themselves in drama more and more each session, and so on. But in a one-shot... it's surprisingly effective to just skip ahead and say, "alright, here's your character's life. Spend a few minutes catching up."
  5. If your game has crunchy tactical combat, then don't plan to have more than one fight in the session. I'm serious. Better to prepare one really cool and dynamic boss fight at the end of a short dungeoncrawl than to deceive yourself into thinking you can run a medium-sized dungeon with 4 or 5 combats in it. Only folks with fast-paced, rules lite combat get to have that experience.


Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Computer Hacking in RPGs


Today I will once again be speaking confidently on a subject about which I am unqualified to discuss. 

I've been thinking about hacking a lot lately. Not "hacking" like hacking a rules system. Not even "hacking" like "exploratory programming." I'm specifically talking about our favorite x-tremely kool 90's heroes who save the world by breaching computer security (and occasionally rollerblading). It's a well-known challenge of game design.

I have never actually played a cyberpunk RPG like Shadowrun or... Cyberpunk. Hacking was in Star Wars: Saga Edition but I kinda bullshitted (bullshat?) my way through those parts because I was like 16 when I ran that game. But I have read lots of different hacking rules and I've read lots of other people discussing their experiences using them, and these are my takeaways for the most common problems:

  1. It's complicated and a headache to learn, especially for the GM who has the rest of the system to learn as well.
  2. It's usually only for one player to participate in while everyone else waits on the sideline, and in Shadowrun especially is notorious for taking a really long time.
  3. Either it's realistic and confusing or it's abstracted and unsatisfying.
  4. The GM doesn't consistently integrate it into the game world, treating it almost like an afterthought.
This is really tricky because the easiest way to integrate hacking would just be to tell the players "make a hacking roll" whenever they want to cheese a device, but then there'll be a player at your table who wants to be the hacker, and they need something more in-depth in order to fulfill their fantasy.

So I have some thoughts about how to address this. Partly, this results in me creating my own loose ruleset for hacking gameplay. But also, think of this more as guidelines for how to create your own rules based on your personal design philosophy and priorities. I'm here to spotlight for you the kinds of important questions you'd want to ask and answer if you tackled this yourself. Especially the questions that'll help you avoid the kinds of mistakes that lead to something as unpopular as Shadowrun's hacking rules.

Also, prepare for some semantic satiation.