Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Model United Nations: the Most Popular FKR Game

We don't actually have the numbers of how popular Model UN (MUN) is but we can reasonably guess there's as many as 180,000 people who participate in it just in the United States alone. It's played all around the world by students ranging from middle school up through university and has been around for many decades. And even if it turns out I'm totally wrong and the number of people playing Matrix Games actually outnumbers the people playing Model UN ten to one, the point is that Model UN has a Parks & Rec episode.

And yet I bet you don't know much about it. I bet you didn't know that it's an FKR game. And yes, it really is. Not in like a "you know, if you really think about it, it kinda fits the definition!" way or something cheeky like that. It's very straightforwardly an FKR game, and if more was known about its history (it's a bit murky tbh) then I strongly suspect we could probably trace its lineage back to the original Prussian kriegspiel games.

I have not written much about my experience with FKR games before. I've mentioned them here or there, and at least once have pissed off some of its fans. But I have actually spent many years using the FKR philosophy of play! Just not in the form I think that most people would imagine.

I've written about Model UN before so if you've read that post, you can skip this. But I decided to write all of this again for 2 reasons: 1) I think it needs another pass and I've written it better this time, and 2) I think it deserves a post of its own, independent of the context in which I wrote about it in that series. And I promise that if, after this article, it is clear that no one in the RPG community gives a shit about this then I'll shut up about it forever.

But if Model United Nations is one of those things you've always been vaguely aware of from pop culture or the club fair at your high school but you never really gave it much thought, then let me tell you all about it and how cool it is.

A rough outline of this post (with each of these containing some sub-sections):
  1. What is Model United Nations?
  2. The "mechanics" of how it works
  3. What to take away from this for TTRPG stuff
  4. Some fun stories where I gush indulgently

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Iterative Design

If you work in any form of engineering then this is probably a familiar idea. I just want to talk about how valuable I find it to be when it comes to RPG design. I've always really liked that the standard in RPGs is to have new "editions", rather than straight-up sequels. And because it is, to greatly generalize, a fairly scrappy and accessible hobby, we get to do lots of communal collaboration. We build on each others' work. We actively encourage the theft of good ideas (within the bounds of intellectual property rights). Most RPGs list their "Rule 0" as being something along the lines of "the GM can and should ignore or change any part of the game they want to if they judge it best for their group." It's like you have a game designer at every table.

The problem is that a lot of folks are pretty amateur as game designers. The single biggest failing, I think, comes from this very gap: not enough would-be designers are engaging with iterative design.

You look at what's come before and you use it as a basis for what you'll create anew. You examine the previous version to understand its design, paying attention to the context which created it and asking yourself whether or not those same factors remain relevant. And at the very least, the common corollary to that rule 0 is this: "a good GM will first make an effort to understand the original rule's purpose before deciding to change it." All-too-often ignored wisdom.

I especially find this to be common in two cases: 1) people complaining about design they don't understand, and 2) people making poorly thought-out houserules. Let's talk about some examples.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

The New School, the Old School, and 5th Edition D&D

This was easily the funniest picture I found for "Edition Wars"
People have short memories.

Actually, that's only part of it. People also need tribalism, and tribalism needs enemies. Also, lots of people are new to the hobby, so maybe they genuinely don't know.

I frequent a lot of OSR spaces online, and while it's far from a consensus, one of the most pervasive sentiments among this community is that 5E D&D is the devil. It's representative of all things we old schoolers hate in gaming, and is the ultimate metric to contrast one's own game against if you want to appeal to this crowd. At this point, "5E" has literally become shorthand for "new school" in, seemingly, most old schoolers' vocabularies.

Which is funny, because I was there when 5E came out in 2014, and at the time it was being called "old school." It was a "return to form" for the franchise. "The legacy edition." A victory for the OSR, who had finally conquered the mainstream. It pulled back many of the trends of 3rd and 4th edition D&D and abandoned the way of the new school in favor of trends that had been started by the grognards years before. It openly embraced many of the specific Zen moments from Matt Finch's A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming. Zak S, who got credited in the book as a consultant, went parading around GenCon with his entourage wearing shirts saying "Zak S saved D&D."

Don't believe me? Behold, some archaeology:

Thursday, September 9, 2021

The Only Two Enemies You'll Ever Need

I have two types of enemies that I fall back on if I don't have something interesting or appropriate prepared:

A. Powerful but dumb

B. Weak but cunning

Between those two types, you can create nearly every type of OSR creature challenge you'll ever need. The key is that both types tell you about how the enemy thinks, which is the main thing the PCs must interact with. When you look at a big fancy statblock for some monster from a new school "Combat as Sport" game, you don't have any idea how it thinks. Well, pick one of these two.

Type A Enemy: Powerful But Dumb

I had a party of six different level 1 knaves all on a quest to go hunt down a troll. They were terrified, and the further they got into this quest, the more reasons they discovered to be terrified. The troll has a ton of HP and decent AC, does a lot of damage with a basic attack, but most importantly, is really fucking strong. A player tried chasing it down alone and got a tree thrown at him, shattering his arm. When the party tracked the troll down to its lair, they watched it being awoken by a damn fool NPC knave, whose spine was then compressed like an accordion.

But the players killed the troll with not a single tree thrown at them this time. Why's that? Because they talked to it, and they lied, and they made it angry, and they kept distracting it, and so on. They did everything they could to play on how dumb it was. My rule of thumb for a Type A enemy is this: any type of trickery the players attempt against it will succeed by default.

Type B Enemy: Weak But Cunning

The most frequent candidate I use for this type are NPC knaves, because I like to show the players a dark reflection of themselves. Other common choices are any kind of monstrous humanoid, such as frog folk or hobgoblins. The key is that each individual member is either roughly as powerful as a PC, or less.

In this example, I had three different level 1 knaves enter a dungeon that had been set up as the HQ of a band of brigands. Long story short, they had worked their way into the center of the dungeon and had either killed or scared off each NPC they'd come across, funneling all of them towards one corner of the dungeon where their leader tried to coordinate a counterattack. There ended up being a standoff in two dungeon chambers with a closed door in between them. The players were desperately holding the door shut on their side, as were the NPCs. Neither realized that the other was not trying to barge in. But that gave both sides the chance to prepare a surprise attack.

The players lost. They were simply not as clever as the NPCs. When the door swung open, they saw a brigand training a musket towards the ground, and a gunpowder horn rolled to their feet. The gun shot and hit the horn while the door was simultaneously slammed shut. One of the PCs died in the explosion.

My rule of thumb for a Type B enemy is this: they play like an experienced, skilled player would in their position. Retreat, ambush, strength in numbers, leverage resources, and NEVER FIND THEMSELVES IN A FAIR FIGHT.


Monday, September 6, 2021

Happy Birthday Knight at the Opera: A Blog Retrospective

I started this blog two years ago. At that point, many people were already saying that the OSR / DIY D&D blogosphere was dying out, but they were probably being unnecessarily bleak. Still though, I was throwing my hat into a competitive ring with a small, small audience. Attention is hard to grab, so if you aren't a Grognardia or a Jeff Rients or maybe a Patrick Stuart then your chances of catching people's eye is pretty small.

Considering all that, this blog has done much better than I ever anticipated. It's not huge or anything but waking up to see your post has gotten 1000+ views overnight is pretty damn cool. That's 1000+ people who chose to read my nonsense in their cubicle on a Monday morning over a cup of coffee instead of doing something productive. That feels pretty good.

So for this blog's 2 year anniversary (as well as a celebration of my favorite holiday, Labor Day), I wanted to reflect and share wisdom. This post will have 3 parts: 1) How to Start a Blog, 2) Things I've Learned About Successful Blogging, and 3) a Celebration of This Blog's Greatest Posts and Products.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Associates vs Parties

Art Credit: Dan Scott
Side story: so I was just gunna use some generic art
of "an adventuring party" here but then I thought to
share this piece, which was the first D&D art I ever
remembering firing up my imagination. I stared at
this picture for hours when I was introduced to 4E D&D
back in 6th grade. I especially love that wizard-y dude
in the front.
I have just discovered an unconscious assumption I've been making in my design work. I discovered it while reading Matt Colville's Strongholds & Followers and then his follow-up book, Kingdoms & Warfare. It's a major philosophical difference between those two works than I'm having trouble mentally reconciling, but I also think it's one of the many general differences between the Old School and the New School. And it's a fracture I think I've already unintentionally baked into Brave.

Are the PCs a true party or are they just adventurers who associate?

Obviously that depends on the players, but game structures can have one of those two assumptions built in and won't really work that well if you disagree with the assumption.

The difference I'm imagining is, I think, easiest to describe by painting a picture of two different campaigns.
  1. A true party is united by a purpose. They either all have the same patron or they operate a single enterprise together. A party that's also a thieves' guild or a pirate crew or an order of knights or something would be an example of this version. A victory for one is a victory for all, and they are frequently attacked, aided, and rewarded as a group. They probably share a single headquarters. Some games go so far as to create a "party sheet" that's like a character sheet but for elements that only exist as a feature of your unity, and aren't an element of any one single member alone (e.g. reputation or turf).
  2. Adventurers who merely associate may still go out on adventures every week, delving into dungeons together and saving each other's bacon. But they each have separate goals and will break off from everyone else if they have good cause to. The wizard owns his own tower from which he performs magical research. The rogue owns her own tavern where she smuggles contraband. The cleric has built a temple in order to better serve their personal deity and the fighter has raised an army to conquer a fortress in order to better protect the peasantry. Especially if you're playing an open table game, then you may not even have a consistent party makeup from session to session. There is no "party," there's just instances of adventurers in a shared world choosing to work together temporarily, and the stories we play out are following different combinations of adventurers each time. You'll also almost certainly not all be the same level, and there may even arise competition between you! An old party member may grow powerful and corrupt and become a villain for everyone else!
In the rest of this post, I'll spell out more thoughts arising from this, how I see this affecting my own RPG, and my thoughts on those Matt Colville books as they relate to this concept (for anyone interested in his work since I'm sure I got some 5E players reading my blog).