Sunday, September 13, 2009

4e Sandboxing

I've been reading a fair bit about the railroad-sandbox dichotomy lately. Like most things on the internet, both sides of the argument are exaggerating to make their point. There is no reason that a sandbox can't have a plot, and no reason that a railroad can't have organically-growing spits and turnings.

I've also been reading a lot about the whole balanced encounter "problem". Of course, there is no problem, just exaggeration in order to argue against or denigrate other people. It's purely ridiculous for any DM to assert that they don't balance things somewhat. They don't ring the town with dragons, and they provide a mix of creature levels throughout the game environment. So they balance things, if not on an encounter-by-encounter basis.

Personally, I like the idea of being able to "balance" encounters, because it helps me fulfil my basic goal as a DM, which is to ensure that everyone has a good time. This is a role-playing GAME after all. I play sports for competition, I rescue people from car accidents to fulfil my community duties, and I play games for fun.

Having the ability to balance encounters doesn't mean that each encounter will be "balanced" - that's another exaggeration, spread by people who want to argue that their style is better. What it means is that I get some surety about the actual difficulty level of the encounter. Fine-edged control, rather than the semi-blunt spray and pray methods of many previous RPG's that I have played.

I, rather than luck, decide how tough I want a given encounter to be. This also lets me put in the appropriate "watch the fuck out" warnings in place. Again, something that sandbox purists may say isn't something they do, but which I consider essential for ensuring that I'm not that asshole DM that nobody will play with.

This section of the blog is going to be largely a design journal for my ongoing on-line campaign. We're running the game using Maptools and Skype, with Doodle for scheduling and MSN for private messaging. I'll be talking about encounter design, sandboxing, developing plot lines and working with online tools.

If anyone would like to read session summaries and more information about the actual campaign, go to

Sunday, September 6, 2009

My Gaming Style

I've been seeing this set of gaming style parameters around teh intertubes, so I thought it would be an interesting exercise. I can tell you for sure that my thoughts on this have clarified considerably since the advent of 4e, for better or for worse.

Comprehensive Rules (1) vs. Minimalist Rules (10):
I guess I'm more of a Comprehensive Rules guy, but with the caveat that the rules must not drastically impede play. As far as I'm concerned, there is a critical mass for rules - too many, and the game sucks - too few, and it's just constant arguing and house-rules. I like the line that 4e draws. Rules are for combat, where they matter. Everything else can be role-played, and should be, in fact. So put me in at about a 3 - comprehensive rules, but not for everything.

High Power Fantasy (1) vs. Low Power Fantasy (10):
This is a hard one for me. I love low-power, gritty fantasy books, like the Black Company. But I like to play stories about capital - h Heroes. Heroes games definitely call for high-power settings. Ultimately, I like the players to think of themselves as Heroes, and to create situations that really call for Heroes, so I guess I'm about a 4. High-power, with low-power inclinations.

Narrative Mechanics (1) vs. Simulation Mechanics (10): I don't think this is a valuable distinction. If I had to decide, I'd say that I like creating realistic stories - but that simulation does not appeal to me at all. A solid 3, maybe.

Strategic Chargen (1) vs. Simple Chargen (10): Simple Chargen is for people who don't like to think too much, and doesn't aid role-playing in any way. Cookie-cutter characters... yaay! I like to have a lot of options, and to have as many of those options as possible be viable, valuable and useful. Of course, in many systems, lots of the mechanics and options are blind alleys - they appear interesting, but aren't really worthwhile when you are actually playing (I'm looking at you, craft). So I'd say I'm a 3 - I like it strategic, but it has to be worthwhile choices.

Tactical Encounter (1) vs. Strategic Adventure (10): This is another worthless distinction. An encounter can be tactical within the sandbox structure. Tactical to me means "interesting features or structure", and I try to ensure there are a lot of those - but I never build with the exact party in mind - better to build something interesting and see how the party deals with it. Strategic, I guess, means a lot of boring shittly little encounters that use up healing potions. Did enough of those playing Final Fantasy. I'll put myself down as a 3.

Combat Balance (1) vs. Adventure Balance (10): Because you can't have balanced combat mechanics unless you unbalance the rest of the game right? Balderdash. I can balance my adventures just fine and still have mechanically balanced combat thanks. I'll take stupid distinction for 5, Alex.

Balanced Encounters (1) vs. Balanced Adventures (10): Holy god, these categories annoy me. The DM decides what populates the world. All encounters come from him. If he decides there is a lv 20 dragon in the woods when the party is lv 2, there is. We had a name for that GM. It was Asshole. Balanced encounters mean that you can control what you throw at the party with a reasonable degree of certainty. Balanced adventures means that you create an environment where the characters can (hopefully) choose things that will challenge then without massacring them. But then you get to laugh and say "You have chosen -- poorly" when they attack the really tough troll under the bridge. So once again, I'll take a 3. I balance encounters, but give them Adventure options that will make encounters easier or harder, based on their choices.

Wargame Combat (1) vs. Abstracted Combat (10): Wargame, put me down as a 2. I started with abstract combat, got into arguments, got confused, got a blackboard and never, ever went back.

GM as Player (1) vs. GM as Referee (10): I like to PLAY role-playing games. Impartial referee, I am not. My role is to have fun, and make sure everyone else has fun too - you do that by playing.

Fantastic Characters (1) vs. Common Characters (10): If I wanted to play a choleric beggar scrounging for pennies in the slums of a city, I would say that I like common characters. But I already said I like Heroes, soooo, 2.

Established Setting (1) vs. DIY Setting (10): I used to love me some Forgotten Realms. Bought all the splats, read all the books. Darkwalker-cover Grey Box, too, not your fancy 3e realms. But I'm totally a DIY-guy now. I like to create, write and draw maps - so it's the perfect outlet.

Resource Optimization (1) vs. Creative Problem Solving (10): I think the challenge of the game should come from overcoming obstacles with skill, flair and a dash of magic. Not counting tent pegs or rationing your dried fruit. Holy Shit, do people actually do that for fun? Who, accountants? Logistics officers? I'll take a solid 8 on this - I do still like to make sure that you actually brought a tent.

Sooo, that's me - pretty low numbers across the board. Of course, I think that a lot of these categories are not valuable distinctions - you can run a game perfectly well without worrying about them, and many people do.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Incorporating High Level NPC's

When I started this blog, I wanted to talk about two of my favorite things (but not brown paper packages, tied up with strings).  Those things are RPG's and fantasy novels.  Fantasy novels are great mind-fodder for any RPG player or GM.  They often have wonderful characters, settings, antagonists and ideas for you to crib, incorporate, rework or generally just assimilate into your games.

One series that I'm particularly fond of is the Malazan Book of the Fallen, by Steven Erikson.  The amazing scope, breadth of history, compelling characters and epic plots of the books really have to be read to be believed, but I think it's safe to say that, other than the Wheel of Time, another sort of series altogether, the Malazan Book of the Fallen is the most ambitious fantasy series ever written.  Lord of the Rings was ground-breaking and fantastic, but Erikson is a much more sophisticated writer.

One of the things that I like the most is the way that the books incorporate characters of various different power levels.  From the demigod-like ascendants, all the way down to the frequently deranged swamp-dwelling High Marshals of the Mott Irregulars (they are ALL High Marshals in the Mott Irregulars), pretty much every level of combat prowess or arcane power is represented.

I think that any DM who would like to work high-level NPC's into their game can learn a lot from Erikson's books.  In many cases, these high-level characters are powerful forces whose actions effect the less-powerful like natural disasters or forces of nature.  When titans clash, the wise get the heck out of Dodge.  

High-level NPC's don't just have to be mentors, rulers or antagonists.  They can also be inscrutable wanderers who occasionally devastate a continent for reasons only they know.  Or warring heroes whose battle destroy towns or countries.  It's possible to set all kinds of adventures around these kind of events.  Rescues, attacks that take advantage of the overall chaos, or even serving and supporting one of these powers, with or without their knowledge.  

So if you want some inspiration on creating a world where level 30 characters exist, then give the Malazan Books of the Fallen a read, and tell Kharsa Orlong I said hi.  From a fair distance.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Psychology and "Enchantment"

I think that saying modern games lack "enchantment" is nonsense.  Trying to compare a game that you look at with educated, experienced eyes, after 20 years of role-playing with the game picked up when you were ten is not worthwile, because you are a totally different person than you were.

When we started playing, we played the rules as we understood them. We messed with them, sure, but that's it, at first. We were enchanted with it because it was new and cool and we were in control of it.  We felt that feeling of enchantment, but it didn't have much of anything to do with the system, it had more to do with who you were.

In the book "Happiness" the author writes about how human being anticipate and remember. We expect things to be better than they are. And we remember them as being better than they were. That's how our brains work. Which brings me to the bad news:

The bad news is - you cannot get that feeling back. Not ever. Blaming systems because they don't evoke the same feeling of enchantment you felt is like blaming your wife of 20 years because you don't feel that same rush of passion you felt when you first met. I've sat in recently with teenagers who are just starting RPG's, playing D&D. And guess what - they are enchanted - just like we were with 1e or red box or whatever.  

Blaming systems or designers is ridiculous. Blame yourself - blame your memory, blame all the years you played and all the different games. Time makes enchantment go away, time and experience. Play 1e or OSRIC or whatever makes you happy, but be aware of why it does - because of the connection it makes you feel with that old feeling of enchantment. Now if only those darn kids would stop changing things...

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Myth of Causality

*Reposted from my comment on Whitehall Paraindustries*

A post I read recently on causality got me thinking about the "direction of causality" issue in gaming. I think that a lot of this discussion and disagreement comes down to people misunderstanding what the purpose of the "rules" in games actually do.

When we really boil down what game rules are for, it's very simple:

Something might happen in the narrative and you determine how likely/unlikely that is to happen. 

Factors that are commonly considered are the difficulty of the action and the skill of the people involved. Add randomization, and voila - you have determined an action.

Pretty much every game rule, in all systems addresses some part of this basic equation. Rules are just shortcuts to these basic questions, and different rules address or combine these questions in different ways.

As an example, lets look at AC (or any defense rating, really). It's a shortcut for "how difficult it is to attack something", and the shortcut includes factors like physical protection and agility and overall skill of the defender. 

Attack modifiers are similar - they are a shortcut that say "this is how good I am at striking aggressively".

Different systems use different shortcuts and probability structures to organize this stuff, but the basics are always the same.

It seems to me that the whole concept of "direction of causality" is mistaken - the only causality that exists is the consensual one that the players agree to. Different styles and rulesets imply causality, but they cannot create it.

Maybe an example will help, if only for myself. Let's take one action and look at the different ways that it can be handled, using different shortcuts. In game, a player says "I try to knock the monster into the pit".

You need to determine how difficult this is going to be - factoring in how tough the monster is to knock around, how skilled the player is at knocking things around, adding some randomization (if you like) and then determining the actual in-game effects.

For OD&D, this process is going to be largely up to the GM, with input from the players, and will be primarily based on AC, to hit bonus and a generous helping of "common sense", which really means deciding what you think might be realistic and then arguing about it. This is because OD&D doesn't use a lot of shortcuts.

In 4e, there are more shortcuts built into the game system. Rule of 42 gives mechanical guidelines for determining how difficult things are generally, and the player may have a power like "Tide of Iron", which is just a shortcut for saying "this character is hella-good at smashing things around by running at them".

The difficulty here is that the shortcuts are implying possibility - things like the rogue power that hits as a close burst on multiple targets, and can be done with a crossbow. Now... I've used a crossbow, brother, and there ain't no bursts with em. The power is a shortcut for saying "this character is really good at shooting a bunch of people in the face with missile weapons", but it asks you to agree that the possibility is there in the first place - which is where people who like OD&D have issues with 4e, it uses shortcuts that imply possibilities that they would rather not have.

I like 4e because it's made the mechanics of determining lots of this stuff more transparent and easier to use, but you need to be willing to use the shortcuts they built as well, and those don't sit well with everyone.