Monday, December 28

Online Campaign Managers

 I have found myself crawling into an online campaign manager and am surprised how it has captured me completely, enthusiastically as the new way to chronicle my campaigns. If you would have asked me would I use a digital record for campaigns let alone think it could be used in session I would have said no. I would wax on how the physical journals with homespun maps and weird characters was all part of the creative process, blah, blah, blah. The fall was swift and rapid. I was looking for a way out of my three ring binders, that is for sure. But my quest had only progressed as far as trying different types of notebooks and drawing pads. Part of the quick commitment came from my noodling with Roll20. I hated it. I could not see how it was going to help me run the game I want to. So, when I started banging away on my new kanka account writing up session notes from the latest run I went fuuuuuuck. I am going to throw out a bunch of old thinking.

Specifically, being unwilling to see the benefit of online tools for my online games. Because I was not getting any with virtual tabletops. What I like about the campaign organizer, the campaign wiki I think it is called, I don’t have to search through a three-ring binder to find shit. Cause it piles up and the binder gets thick and becomes horribly inefficient in session. This is the virtual note board of interlocking world-building pieces and I’ve so far found a spot for everything. Cutting and pasting in stats and details from PDF content makes these things at my fingertips. Only redundant task I have found slightly wearisome is attaching pictures to entries, but I can not do it because the return on investment, the visual payoff is high.

So, I get all the things in the wiki set for the current session coming up and take a look. Start at the Dashboard and drill down into the data I am going to want in game. I like how it works. I see myself running a session from its screen. I think it is going to give me a bit more focus on the situation at hand and roleplay more before a calling of the die.

Oh, and now my game is on the cloud. I can pop in and tinker on the game wherever I am. So my favorite materials, maps and images are all at my beck and call when inspiration strikes!


Thursday, December 17

What makes Champions 3rd edition (cont.)

 By far the first reason I say this great book is the best version of the game is size. It is slim. Total content clocks in at 135 pages in a reliable perfect bound softcover. It deserves a hardcover treatment. In the forward the writers come out swinging with the games strongest pitch, create any power, any ability to build your unique superhero. And this is true. The point-buy system of Champions coupled with the “Special Effects” rule wrapping the whole powers concept championed by the authors has not been superseded by any other supers game I’ve tried. And this is no different through any of the editions of the game, from first to fifth. But I think Hero Games kind of missed the boat here. The Crystal Ship, the flashing gem which really shines through the third edition lens. Through those few pages. And treating the game like it should be: Old-School! What I am talking about and will eventually get to is the utility of the system's damage mechanic. 

Now I can swallow fourth edition, it is the last iteration of the Hero System as Supers-centric game system, and fifth is a travesty. Most of the additional pages in the fourth are sourcebook stuff which gives the Game Master some useful features to use again and again, like stats for regular folk. But the lower page count in the third does not water down the game system at all and is the perfect set of rules for the GM who needs no assistance in how to play superhero rpg’s.

Fifth edition is an endless swirling mess around all the basic mechanical features which make Champions a genius of a supers game. Here is my case: The game has for a basic resolution mechanic of 11 or less on 3d6 for success. It is like Classic Traveller in this regard. It uses 2d6 with an 8+ needed for success at anything you are trying. The 3d6 bell curve is sweet though. You get a little more granularity with a bigger spread and I have come to appreciate the difference between a 9 or less chance and a 7 or less chance with three die. But what I find intriguing most is the damage system. There isn’t anyone reading this who doesn’t know how damage is calculated in a Champions game, total on the die is total stun damage while the number on a dice determines whether it should be counted as 2 Body, 1 Body or Zero Body. I think this mechanic is sold short if only used to adjudicate damage. I try to sell it at the table as a means to resolve contested actions. Take the arm-wrestling example. Hero A has a Strength or 20, Villain B has a Strength of 20, who wins? I have the contestants roll their Strength “damage” and count the Body damage. Highest total wins. With both participants at a Strength of 20

There is a universality across the game system which needs to be taken advantage of for optimum play. And this is in how, no matter the power, effect, or type of attack the values and scale never change. This means a GM can make a “ruling not rules” decision on the fly and if using a “damage” result from the rolled ability a GM knows it is always to scale. Not only is it to scale (in other words, fair) it has built in variability. Using our arm-wrestling example above, either one of the contestants can roll a value from 0-8. Variability creates tension. This is good. It begs for a player to figure out how to stack the deck in a fair fight, how to get their roll to be less swingy. I’m the GM so I don’t have to worry about how that would be possible, only to rule on it😊

Works for characters of wildly different power scales in any particular contest. Sure the 60 STR brick should win against the 18 STR martial artists in an arm-wrestling contest, but it isn’t guaranteed. And the correct and fair chances of a surprise upset is built into the system. The uncertain future of any supers action is baked into the damage calc pie. If you want to add an additional variable you can count the Stun damage as well. No matter how you interpret the results you can’t come up with a bad interpretation, but you can have surprising results! This look reveals the transparency inherent in the system as well. I can match Ego vs. Dex, Energy Blast versus Presence, any crazy-ass thing. And it will still be at a correct scale that results will always be an exciting roll while at the same time no one participant getting nerfed.

Let me take this to my logical extreme, where regular Champions players cringe in horror. Initiative! The rules for initiative for action tracked on the Speed Chart are fairly standard. You will find this set up in many a ttrpg. That is, when opponents square off and they both get to take action the character with the higher DEX goes first. All-the-time. Chaosium’s BRP rules have a similar approach to initiative and is even less dynamic. At least in Champions you have the 12 segment Speed Chart which makes for unpredictable, yet trackable results and situations. My distaste here is the predictability of such an accounting in what should be the most unpredictable moment in an action-adventure game. Here is the set up to illustrate my point; Hero A and Villain B are going for the doomsday switch in the same segment. They both are equidistant and have the same SPD but the Hero has a DEX of 30 and the Villain has a 20 DEX. Per the rules as written the Hero is going to win that contest every time. Every-single-time. Yawn. A smart, clever and good-looking GM will call for a damage roll based on DEX. Most BODY damage gets to the doomsday switch first! Hero has a better chance of winning out then the Villain, but it isn’t 100%. Yes, exciting! I don’t consider this an approach to be used all the time. Only for really cinematic, pulse-pounding moments in the story. This makes for the elasticity of the system to really shine. Unfortunately, you will never get players to accept it. They will run to FRED faster than my Derby pick for the back of the pack. And that book is proof-positive you can take a great supers game and fuck it up three ways to Sunday. 

What makes Champions 3rd edition the best edition of Champions?


No, seriously, hear me out...

Sunday, December 6

Rafael Chandler's Space Ship Generator

 Going through my DriveThru library I came across a booklet from the great Rafael Chandler and seeing as I am chewing my nails as Denver may pull out a win at +660 (I have Denver +50, even money) I am whiling away the final moments by converting the paper tables to an instant generator.

Wednesday, November 25

Slaughter a Sacred Cow for Santa

 On this Thanksgiving eve I feel a bit reflective, philosophical and wish to hold court and slaughter some sacred cows for the fires of Tar-Aweil.

Classic Traveller’s adventure modules. I will spill this beast’s blood first. They are uninspired piles of  space dung. It is said H Beam Piper’s stories were a touchstone of inspiration for the original Traveller game and it is apparent in the official adventures. I have read H Beam Piper. It is awful. Not only do the Classic Traveller

adventures present as limp lines of text it ushered in the “official” Traveller Universe, the Third Imperium. Official settings appear to be inevitable with any successful roleplaying game and I have no interest in moaning the soul-killing beast official settings can be for cool games. Not now. I will probably get up into that though at some point before the holidays are over.

But for Traveller it was tepid adventures laid into a tepid game universe. The Pirates of Drinax have been hired by the King to…. Aaagh! Snoozefest. Science Fiction is wild. It is really fucked up shit smashing through the technical power of humanity as it marches through the stars, it is the unrelenting incomprehensibility of the cosmos which make a science fiction adventure good. The first few published adventures for the game quickly buried the genius of the tight game kit for referees and players for years to come. Just for the record, I love Classic Traveller rules. I dream of building and running a Dune-like campaign universe to sketch my roleplaying ambitions on and I would do it with Classic Traveller.

I know this probably comes across like I’m picking on the slow kid in school but let us now turn to the Palladium Setting books. System dreadful and convoluted but great setting books. Yin-Sloth, Western Empire, Timiro. A paragraph here and there around a made-up name a great setting book this does not make. The maps in these books shows what the creator thinks of fans and players, not much. Your campaign notebook has better maps then Palladium setting books.

The one for the north has this bad ass illo on the cover. Coyle witch doctor and undead crawling out of a frozen forest pond. Metal as shit. Take my word for. Just tear off the cover and throw the rest away. So the total amount of ink I find reviewing the Palladium canon is depressing in its sucky-ness.

Gurps source books are great! No they are not. They are a dagger into the heart of good fun and inspired adventure in many a naïve new roleplaying heart. Did you want to play a game in the Rome Imperium because you wanted to know the names of how they measured wheat. Or what they called their houses. No, you want to stick a short sword in a barbarian’s neck, race chariots recklessly and burn down cities! Many, many ttrpg setting books have sickened a dreamy mind dry. Inspiration, not accuracy is what players and referees need. Take for example B4 The Lost City by Tom Moldvy. There is a pretty complete adventure and sketched out city for a setting. Not much. All in thirty-two pages? Since I’ve played that module in high school I didn’t see a full-on setting book worth a shit until Yoon-Suin! You see, the value of a setting book is guiding one into genre-fidelity when spit-balling the moon, not in “accuracy”. 

My advice is steer clear of Gurps and Palladium setting books. Take what fires you up about an adventure setting. It is not in the setting details. There must be a sophisticated layering of useful bits which end up imparting flavor. Not facts. 

Wednesday, November 18

Got Dune?

How would you do Dune?  

This is a regular on game boards. What game system would you use, what type of adventures would you run, where do the characters fit into the universe and their relative importance. Sometimes the talk turns to specifics, all system orientated, what would depict the psionic powers best, Sardukar, Fremen, Sandworms and spaceships. There are paragraphs written on how intrigue and interstellar politics are best adjudicated, what system will help you get it right. I fuss and fret over these things to when my mind drifts to Dune, the Moby Dick, of my gaming ambitions. When I see the same question (which interests me) being trucked out again and again, and the answers are all predictable I tell myself I and everyone else is looking at this ambitious goal, to game a Dune-inspired game worthy of the name fucking wrong! Okay, I will only include myself in this category. I am not here to bruise feelings. Unless you are a player in my game…

I start building a campaign world generally from this bas-ackward approach. Okay I want to do “this” and I should use “this” to pull it off. My latest approach to campaign and world building goes something like this, “What do you have that makes doing this worth it? How are you going to nail ‘It’?” When I consciously make these pivots, I have yielded impressive fruit. It more or less gets me to read the source material and reengage the artistic talent of the prose which first electrified me when I was a wee one reading comic books and Lovecraft and Howard and Moorcock. I started a Sword & Sorcery campaign years ago built on just reading the Conan novels and a generic minimalist system. I just kept breathing in that black lotus until my soul was dark and pitiless. Really, it is just paying attention to what and why a certain adventure was just awesome. You learn the pace of the campaign world from the source material, not the game mechanics. The language to, basic stuff. I’ve repeated this approach with the three other campaigns which have gotten significant milage here online since 2012 and it has always been successful. Like a sci-fi campaign. I always wanted to run one, but I haven’t done so because I don’t have a good, a great idea. I can’t answer that question in the affirmative, “What do you have that makes doing this worth it?” so I don’t move forward. Then one day I read an adventure module (doesn’t matter what genre, this occasion it was a fantasy adventure) and shouted eureka! I had a reason. I had a great opening adventure and it made all my spacey opera horror sci-fi dreams fall into place like instantly.

So the Dune situation is how do you duplicate the awesome presence the planet has in everything. For a Dune-esque game you need to create a massiveness, a galactic presence which must eclipse the entirety of cosmic civilization. In the source material the planet is irrefutable and overpowering. Its importance has hardened the universe into the few space-faring civilizations which can cope with this and exist. 

However one approaches creation of the campaign world reflection on how the one important planet turns the entire cosmos into fits has to be nailed down. Characters are always reflected in their relationship to the dominating planet in a Dune campaign. The effects, the literary devices used by the source material are well known and discussed ably all over the internet. The roleplayer’s task when they pick up the Dune Gauntlet is how to impart that massiveness into a gameable expression. And that is why I would use Classic Traveller cause I find a campaign of this "flavor" would take much thought to come up with something worth playing. A simple system for sci-adventure will be my enabler more than a detailed system, even one designed to be Dune! I don’t trust any commercial game designers to take this shit serious enough to get it right. I have made, and this is probably unnecessary and
misguided, a Dune-inspired campaign the elusive unicorn of my gaming ambitions. I wait for the day when the idea gels and I scream "I got it!" and start scribbling some notes. I mean, you gotta come up with something cooler than psychotic-narcotic spice which allows you to fold space and well, you get the picture. Tall order. Another place where I don't think a system is going to save you. It is going to take a lot of passion and vision from everyone at the table to not be lame. I’ll tell you when I figure it out.


Tuesday, November 10

What are the Slaves Doing? Roll 1d8

1. Three Slaves and a Prostitute are beating a merchant behind a wagon.

2. Six Slaves are carrying the funeral litter of their former master. They have actually replace the corpse with valuable silver from the late master’s house. They plan on digging it up later.

3. Twelve Slaves are digging a hole. They know not what their master expected to find, but if the city guard sees what they are doing...

4. Four slaves are enjoying Yellow Lotus. Never trying it before their zonkers and have hardly touched the bag.

5. Two Slaves are beseeching a Priest of Toil to take them in and free their tormented souls. Zoari may find them useful…

6. A slave is afraid to deliver the “package” his master ordered him to do. He asks the PCs to do it for him. The contact is supposed to hand over a bag of gold in exchange, but the slave fears the rogues will slay him out of hand. But adventures as hard as you surely could walk out with the gold. The package is a mummified heart. Have fun with that!

7. Slaves of a Temple Priest are spying, looking to ferret out rival operatives and informing their masters! Karathsepo, the Lady of Torment, the Desirous Succubus has one of her slaves contact the PCs. She is looking for an opportunity to poison Silla Korafasa yet keep the Church’s hands clean. Could the PCs be of service to the Church of Toil?

8. Playing dice to pass the time while chained up here in the alley. They invite the PCs to have a few throws. If any of the players jumps into the game, one of the slaves will whisper that their master is away and if they free them, he will show the PCs where the valuable silver is in the house.

Thursday, November 5

Can there be too many charts? No!

 My latest call-in on the Vanishing Tower Podcast posed two questions. For those specific questions you can hear them at the front of the blog recording. Here are my answers, which I putting up.

The description of the game session watched was a less than optimal use of tables in a Dungeons & Dragons Game. The reasons why it is a poor use of a table are apparent, numerous and generally understood. So, I won’t dwell on that here. I have used a campsite set of charts in the OSR game I run. It was stuff from Wormskin zine. The PCs were deciding whether to travel in the wrong direction and take refuge at a village for the night or continue and hope for a suitable camp site in rough, rainy terrain. All for 50 men. They chose to move on and look for a suitable campsite. I rolled on a chart for this from the zine and told them what they found for use later. 

Notice I am not rolling to determine whether they have found a spot to camp. I’m rolling for what kind of campsite did they find. Finding the camp site and firewood is a forgone conclusion. I have decent charts which provide something I can use for descriptions and random encounters. If it does not, I shouldn’t be using it. And the roll, most importantly, will inform me if an interesting encounter happens in the night or is it dawn and time to get moving. I hope the tactile details I provided were enjoyable enough they pin the location for later use, but that is just icing on the cake if it occurs. We all did just add something to the campaign world, a camp site, all because the players made a choice and acted on the choice and details of possible results has been anticipated by the DM. So, whether on a table or from a block of text the information I'm throwing out there is in concourse with the game. It has a reason for being and is not wasting the player’s time.

As For the follow up question, no, there cannot be too many charts. Here is my thinking on this, the game designer included the tables and charts they believe should be used with the game. If I’m having trouble and frustrations with the amount of charts I need to reference, and I’ve given a good faith try in learning/running the system, then it isn’t a good fit for me as a DM. There is nothing inherently wrong with the game, I tried RoleMaster back in the day, but it was a backward fit for what I do at the table. But there were many other players who used it and enjoyed the game. They were able to use the tables in a learned way to make their play create what they were after.

Charts and tables, just like the rules, should fade in the background as everyone roleplays. As a DM I would rather be fluid and concise in the moment and not have to look back at anything. Charts, rules, previous history. This is a broad generalization of my goals at the table. But those three functions I have just mentioned are guiding principles, the charts are easy and fun to use, I rarely need to refer to the rulebook because use has got me using the game mechanics well, and previous history does not need to be looked up because everything has been so exciting everyone knows what important “stuff” to do right now!

Thursday, October 29

The PC Party Returns to Rom'Myr

 Yes, finally. After trekking the multi-verse and getting a trans-arcana sun tan the PCs have managed to get themselves back to home base. 

Well close enough. This Dying Earth homebrew started in the city of Valla'Tair. They popped out on the windy peaks of the Yonni'Hor mountains a good sevens days east of their favorite sword & sandal city. They are eager to take care of unfinished business in Valla'Tair. Hopefully they will keep in mind "business" is a two-way transaction!

Here is the edited audio session for your nerd-geek listening pleasure on anchor.fm, and of course The Vanishing Tower Press podcast is on all your favorite podcaster.

Rom'Myr Dying Earth Episode #31 on anchor.fm

Monday, October 26

Jiro Yoshihara and The Gutai Manifesto

Jiro Yoshihara and their The Gutai Manifesto (1956) is the closest description I have for ttrpg’s as art. It soars really high in conceptual thought, but I pulled some ideas from the essay to hang my loose argument for ttrpg as a serious medium.

Particularly “The two artists grapple with the material in a way which is completely appropriate to it and which they have discovered tie to their talents. This even gives the impression that they serve the material. Differentiation and integration create mysterious effects.”

I do not pretend to know much about Gutai, but Yoshihara’s descriptive language touches on my most abstract thoughts on role playing. Specifically, differentiation and integration, but I feel it expresses my feelings for what I do at the game table.

Here is it explained,

As integration and differentiation are just the inverse of each other, the integration may provide the original function if derivative is known. It is also described as the fundamental theorem of calculus. Differentials is all about differences and divisions, whereas integration is all about addition and averaging.

See, the definition, or its use in real language did not help me understand any better so I will have to apply my own definition and use. But it is done much better further on by Yoshihara.

“In those days we thought, and indeed still do think today,  that the most important merits of abstract art lie in the fact that it has opened up the possibility to create a new, subjective shape of space one which really deserves the name creation.”

The interaction of a shared subjective space with each other resulting in a shared creation is an additional step which broadens performative art into a higher degree of intimacy. Intimacy in the most mutually supported play as evidenced by the group. So I guess this is where I end up. I need to think about this more…   

Friday, September 18

Anchor Podcast Question & Answer

 I've been receiving questions on the VTPs podcast from long time compatriot from across the pond, Mark Grehen, on how we been running games here on the Press. Specifically, we have been talking about what we have seen in the many different playbacks available at the VTP YouTube Channel. 

I've got more questions to go through from Mark, but here is our latest exchange on Anchor, the simplest way to do a podcast! :)

Thursday, September 10

Is the Cleric spell Protection from Evil too powerful?

This question, one of many from Mark, regular gamer and commentator on all things Vanishing Tower (VTP), is definitely an issue I put in the undecided box. And is a spell, much like Read Magic, which I struggle with cap-stoning with a definite and unequivocal opinion. The tendency for myself and players is towards specificity. The nebulous definition of “Evil” in a variety of fantasy relevant context is rendered more apprehensible with hard walls. Hard and fast definitions. “Elves are good, Orcs are evil.” Black is back and white is just alright with me, just alriiiight, oh yeaaah. 

But my game world, my fantasy campaigns tend to begin with the question, or nature, of evil relatively unanswered. Outside of societal norms defining moral and its opposite, evil, the nature of a roleplaying game is to have these big questions answered in play. And so is why everyone wants to know the answer to these type of questions before play, or when they come up.See the source image

So my answer is the bullshit one, it depends. What is the right call at the moment? Everything in a roleplaying game is case and or context dependent. Some one has to decide what is or isn’t evil in the game world and that job ultimately ends in the DM’s lap. My best efforts have come to a couple of “best practices” I’ve adopted for myself. Have the player define what their god considers good and evil. Accept it and incorporate their ideas into the pantheon developing. And when I say accept it I don’t mean make it all true. Just be super-mindful of it and you can be prepared for when you have something they believe their spell would protect them, and it doesn’t! If they really start to push on it sucking ask them if they have considered their god may not be correct in all things? Maybe their god is fucking with them? Maybe their god lied about this subject? It makes sense to attack, or frame, the PfE spell with less specificity on the front end because it preserves the fascinating feature of emergent play.

Saturday, September 5

A Caller Questions the Conversion Guides; previous post addendum.

One of my players poised a question on the podcast recently on some of the wherefore and why's of my 1e ADnD adventures fascination, specifically what was the genesis behind the DM Guild's 5th edition conversion guides, and perhaps what new found appreciation I may have uncovered. You can listen to the episode here - What is up with the 5e Conversion Guides?

Monday, August 31

Using 1e ADnD modules in your own game world...

I did not intentionally start the new campaign of Rom’Myr so as to stuff as many 1e AD&D modules as I have into it, but once I reviewed S4 I wanted to try. The Rom’Myr campaign is a homebrewed Dying Earth setting offering the trappings and tropes of an original Vancian city, and the colorful denizens to be found therein. I started with Jack’s own stories of his fabled dying earth. My cardinal rule of source and inspiration of a genre is to reread the original material. By and large a ttrpg setting is devoid of the magic and juice the original creator transfused into their work. Carcosa would be an exception here, but the author and setting writer are one in the same. An organic kernel of fucked-upness which birthed a nation. So, I was quite convinced when reading S4 it was utterly the most Vancian module Gygax wrote. I needed a sharp range of mountains to hem-in the sword and sandle city of Valla’Tair, the campaigns home starting point. S4 is on my shelf so I was eager to make it “work”. The nuanced harmony with Vance’s stories S4 has made hacking the module a simple process. Many, many things of the original module were left intact.

Remember in high school when the DnD adventure recently purchased was going to be the adventure to be played that weekend? That is how I remember it all. The only elements of a traditional DnD campaign would be using the same character for each adventure, giving the character survived the previous one. Rather unsatisfying considering the true potential of the medium. Hence the idea was born, and gauntlet thrown down. I became determined to weave as many classic DnD adventure modules into the campaign as I could! Not in any slap-on, haphazard methods of old, but only when the module “fit”. I was betting the best use of this material was exactly how the authors said to use it; make it your own! Now this does require re-skinning the mod. Changing names, replacing monsters with your own, tossing out material that doesn’t work for you, this will need to be done to slot correctly into your game. But if you have chosen wisely then the work is brisk and intuitive.

Here are the AD&D modules (among many, many other sources) used so far:

S4 The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth

T1 Village of Hommlet

X2 Castle Amber

C1 The Hidden Shrine of Tomoachan

B3 Palace of the Silver Princess

WG4 The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun

The early DnD modules, or at least the ones I have used, are masterful tools which willingly support whatever the DM is attempting to build with their players. I subscribe to the notion that other people’s ideas are intrinsic to a successful campaign world (also known as a “living world”). These different (they don’t always need to be good, I learn from bad) ideas and adventures help link my best ideas together. There wasn’t any connection by players of the classic modules they are battling through.  This is because the players were pursuing their goals, their advisories, the consequences of their actions. Enough slight-of-hand achieved so Tsojcanth is the Yonni’Hor mountains and the mysteries lying within. Tomoachan is the lower catacombs and sewers hiding the Cult of Sleep. Castle Amber and Hommlet is the home of the eccentric Ansulex family and their strange studies, werewolves in thrall to the Archbishop are stalking rebels and radicals, and the whimsical Palace of the Silver Prince is lost to the macabre house of the vampiric Knight of Gore. I don’t think I would have thought of a martial order of ghouls if it wasn’t for using B3. That dinner party was the shit!

See the source image

I know Gygax and others tied their unique creations, eventually, to an official setting. Just like coming up with unique traps and challenges weekly is hard work, having all the answers to the player’s questions is unrealistic. Having some fleshed-out pantheon provided, or collection of kingdoms presented, saves time creating buildings, towns, and secret labs. There is only so much time in the day. But I’ll say you have to have your own unique campaign world to give a good game a chance. You must have horizons you are passionate to reveal. A DM is on the right track world building when prewritten adventures are easily adapted to situations at hand. One, they are good. They are good spaces to move around in, there are ample examples of what threats can be encountered there, major NPCs to make your own supervillains out of. I’ve hung the best, weirdest stuff I can on these old modules and I’ll tell you, it isn’t nothing they haven’t seen or can’t help make better.

Thursday, August 20

Less games but More thoughts (Champions)

 Summer season 2020 is running like most summers since gaming has returned to my weekly schedule, big gaps between games. I get it, me, and everyone else in the gaming group does what summer begs us to do, get outside with friends and family! Vacations! Fuck yeah! Going on one tomorrow. All three of the games I’m involved with are getting hit with month long gaps. So, I got some time for a blog post before the holiday disconnect and I’m going to drivel on about the Champions United campaign. Eight sessions down and the superhero effort is, is, ummm, fun! I haven’t read comics on a regular basis since ’94. I like The Max and Savage Dragon and Marvel and Batman. Pretty standard fare, nothing exotic. I think it was the regular Magic tournaments held at my college comic shop that stopped me from visiting regularly. But like much of the “modern” genre in ttrpg’s I feel I run a rough game of supers. Specifically handling fantastic powers and fast combat procedurally while keeping the emergent relationships forming fresh and forceful.

 My belief rules are for the players and not the DM collide with Champions combat procedure. Injecting unpredictable and additional action during combat dialog is a refereeing technique I favor. Champions thick combat options are getting deliberated during the game sessions. It is almost unavoidable. The more rules in a game the more players will implement them to control the pace of the game, to exert control over their game world. With a DM which wants to push the action with a chaotic fight scene they will constantly have the PCs throwing roadblocks in the form of rules or debating a rule to try and wrest that control back. I want to dialogue and describe some actions the villainous villain is taking and we got to then start counting inches.

It’s a good game. Champions United is running with only two PCs and we have already survived (in style) with an initial PC backing out after three sessions, but the story unfolding is sticky with plot hooks, cool NPCs. The Capitol City Universe of 2020 has interesting things going on all at the hands of interesting heroes. First person, in character interaction is going really well to. Kind of essential in a supers game.

We play bi-weekly and only have a two-hour session. The reason why I get anxious about running an efficient combat encounter with Champions. I want a superhero game session to have investigation, interrogation, and an important combat. Not in any particular order, but as an outline to keep the action moving forward. If these three types of encounters are present the session will have an exciting pace and the settings surprising. The only conclusion so far I have drawn is Champions requires everyone at the table to resolve actions with the simplest application of the rules. Which means instinctively knowing when to follow strict procedure and when to disregard possible “code” exceptions buried in the rules. But this only works with a level of trust the players have to give the DM which I rarely see. How deep do you go with combat modifiers to find out if you need a roll less than 8, 11, 15 to hit? Could players be on board with reducing the amount of combat modifiers they can apply at any one time? Is it more important I have the PC roll the dice to hit fast and only use a big-picture conception of modifiers (I’m thinking like when you have a scale of 1 to 5 and you quickly reduce modifiers to an “appropriate” number). The only other way I can see combat avoiding lengthy rules discussion is everyone is responsible for knowing how their powers work in most situations. Velocity, Move Through damage, how to knock a person prone, these all need to be rote by the player using these abilities. Not so much that everybody is getting every rule right all the time, but everyone is comfortable with the logic of the game mechanics and can quickly decide how the 11 or less to hit should be adjusted.

I’m satisfied I can run Champions. I haven’t found any other supers game which solve these particular challenges in any noticeable way. 11 or less to hit on 3d6 with modifiers is a pretty simple method of adjudication. Contested attribute rolls where highest BOD count wins is fucking simple to. It must just be the eye-glazing effect of all the other considerations you can make which trip up players. At some point isn’t too many combat options unhelpful?

I’m not down on Champions, I’m trying to give an honest appraisal. For players to design their original superhero, for all these different designs being able to work with each other coherently Champions is really, really good. I think I could come to appreciate the DC Heroes resolution and effects charts and live with their character creation process. But I can get a Champions game going and not a DC Heroes game.

Yeah, this is the dynamic I’m working against. There has to be rules for all the powers and their effects. The more rules you have you end up slowing down game pace. Where is the sweet spot? As I search this out through continued play my final conclusion, for now, is to keep flapping my villain’s gums and have them performing extraordinary fucked-up shit. It is one of the ways I have found works to engage the PCs with the characters and not the character sheet.

Here is the list of systems researched and played with. Marvel FASERIP, DC Heroes/Blood of Heroes, Supergame, Icons, Mutant and Masterminds, Villains and Vigilantes, Cowls and Crusaders?, the Hero Instant. They are all different systems so it is a chore to get a comprehensive look on how one game may be an improvement over the other. My yardstick for improvement is a reduction in times I have to turn to the rule book during play. And I haven’t found any of these other games do this. I’ll keep playing Champions because like DnD, if I want to play a game of supers I can play with a system I want and have an empty table or use Champions and have a black and blue campaign world with real, original characters.

Thursday, August 13

Rick Stumpf and Swampfox1776 should be unwelcome in gaming circles

I understand and appreciate the turn of phrase “assume good faith, until proven otherwise”, but using a flying confederate flag as your avatar (its animated!) allows me to dispense with the effort and move on to the matter which must be dealt with. The matter of driving out and burying those who believe such racist signaling is permissible in society. Not to be debated with or educated or have a reasonable discussion with. Just marginalized and refuted passage on public forums dedicated to (well, anything else) the civil act of playing games.

I look forward to the day when such abhorrent displays of unethical attitudes held will be as embarrassing in civilized society as walking around and showing off your favorite child pornography.

The moderator has decided my position is in the wrong, so one can only assume Rick Stumpf (the moderator) holds the same ideology and hopelessly biased perspective. Perhaps he is one of those who sees good people on both sides?

Here is the recent exchange with this darkness.



I suggest this group on mewe be made to go bury their heads in the next “lowest rung” of society somewhere else. Forced to go find a place to set up shop on the melting iceberg which is racism. If Rick Stumpf is going to be permissive of this inappropriate, provocative and violent signaling he shouldn’t be welcomed in the greater gaming community. My guess he is not.

Anything in the greater game community.

So marginalizing this group and signaling to others it is not a good gaming group to support is a legitimate and lawful action to take against this kind of stuff. Pointing out the bald inappropriateness of this behavior and making them unwelcome in larger gaming circles makes for fewer racists in the world, eventually.

Not to spend too much time on this point before I make my plea, I did not go looking for this. I didn’t wake up this morning and decide I’m going to search the gaming forums to perform and get pats on the ass for stating the obvious. This is more of a toxic waste dump I have to pass on my way to school every day. I’m going to do something about it. I’m feeling it as a “local” problem, not something abstract and remote. Matter of fact, don’t comment on this post if you support my position, instead please inform the micro forum of gamers there promoting, and permissive of open displays of racism in a game forum that they need to take confederate symbols down and if not, good-faith efforts will try and get their ass booted. That is my plea. I can only tell Mewe and other gamers on the site this is not cool once. Mewe gets a 100 then you are going to get some action. I could be wrong, but that is all I know to do, ethically. Public shame racism trying to hide out in the open.

I did get a private chat request from Rick and in short, he told me I better watch it. There were two salient points he put forth as legitimate reasons for me to “watch it”. OF the first it is he is of mixed race? Not sure what to make of that. I guess I know more personal details about this person than I care to now? Second, his father flies the confederate flag. Really. That’s the whole of the argument for tolerating open displays of racism in a public game forum? It is a lovely display of how racism is taught generation to generation, the passing of the torch, so to say.

This isn’t the first time I have brought this up at Tabletop Roleplaying group. I noticed it the first time I checked it out. Yes, I play games and I check out gaming groups on the internet. And I got plain with the guy flying the flag avatar and got the same garbage back you see here. But I had left this sewer after saying my peace and heard encouraging words from other users, other members of this particular game group. I must have totally misunderstood at the time, but I thought I was told Rick had asked SwampFox1776 to take down the image. Because I was wrong about that.

So I said it again, as you can see.

Take the time if you can and report this crap. It’s a good time to push back on permissive happenings of overt racism. The majority of the world rightly assumes owning people as property, slavery, is wrong. You won’t end up having to face public displays alone. You will get support. Flying the confederate flag means you are okay with that. Complain to moderators who are exposed to public pressure and get that shit off the gaming walls and halls.

Tuesday, August 4

How I Run A Game (and other things I never tell my players)

Ha hah... 

No, I'm thinking on this topic right now. Look to put these thoughts into this blog post. Stay tuned... 

See the source image

The first thing about running a game is I must love it. I need to love the genre the game is to be played in. I believe the first session the DM needs their enthusiasm for the setting to be palpable and relatable to the group of new adventurers. Maybe I need to rename this post, How I Start a Game? Point being players are going to start whacking at the game world to get orientated. The best tool for this is the same tool as the pulp writers of the 20’s used in their stories, media res. In action. Players like to ask a lot of questions during the first session which tread towards the mundane. “Do I have enough of and the right gear, can I hang around the tavern and collect rumors, who’s running things in town? This kind activity. They are using mundane actions and routines to safely pull initial facts out of the DM’s world. Armed with facts the PCs feel they can now exert control over the game environment and ready to jump at the first thing of interest that pops up

I try and drop all that shit. A problem up front takes attention away from equipment lists and on adventure occurring now, in the moment. Granted, the PCs will go right to the character sheet when play first begins and they are facing conflict hot and frothing. This is all for the good. Players should be using their valuable time to infest their imaginary friend with genre-appropriate goals and ambitions. My prep before the first session is voluminous, and then gets whittled down to an opening scene I think is cool. If I have certain events or encounters which will happen, I put those in a simple list I can refer to so as not to forget dropping cool stuff down on the scene. The voluminous nature of the prep comes from my inherent enthusiasm for the genre to be played. It is also a good method to get any predictable, not cool, people and places axed out of the scene immediately. On prep, you can always do more. I do not think lots of prep is an indication of anything but enthusiasm for the game. Just make sure you come back to the central conceit; the action is where the PCs are and what does this action all needs to facilitate interesting roleplaying? I’m not trying to remember all this world data, I’m trying to get comfortable moving around in it and I know what the interesting NPCs are up to.

Getting into the action right away cuts off wasted time dithering about looking for an exit into fun world. It offers plots afoot which must at least be recognized. The PCs need to have an investment in this initial encounter too, if you want them to develop their own relationship and reaction to the opening scene. It can be as simple as “Here is what you are doing, and this is happening.” Or more involved. That does not hurt one way or another either. Enthusiasm for the genre by everyone at the table self-directs the PCs into daring feats of heroism without the need for extensive backstory. Giving the PCs a job to do at the start at least gives them something to walk away from and say “No way!”

Okay, first session is done and the PCs have some trouble they either want to run towards or run from. Now I am thinking pacing. What is the flow of events, outside of the player’s actions, which will impact what they are doing now? Is something a straight up confrontation and resolution? Then the pace is straight up confrontation right now. Is the encounter dropping a bit of information on their current ambitions? The importance they assign the information will inform pace. Just to back track a sec, what is the pace of the opening session, or what do I do? Pretty hot. And this is created by having NPCs worth interacting with. And you can’t have NPCs worth interacting with unless you know what they want, what motivates the NPC. My important NPCs get a lot of thought. I want to confound expectations while still securely moored in the tropes of the genre. Keep the best stuff in and throw out everything that gave you an eye roll during your genre-relevant reading. Confounded expectations are created by having characters which interest them, or are needed, and find the one or more things the PCs and the NPCs won’t see eye to eye on. Make sure it comes up. 

In between sessions I’m writing a lot, and much of it goes straight into the waste basket. I imagine screen writing for a television show is very similar. The best version of the playable information is in the last revision of the session’s material right before you go on air. Rewriting the connections and possibilities of NPC reactions is standard with the way I run a game.

I probe players with advanced knowledge or refined tastes on certain topics hoping to polarize some of their character’s views early on. What is their importance in relation to the topic/guild/practice? Why does a god care about them, and what are you supposed to do to honor these gods?

Retaliation. Retaliation by those the PCs have come across. I never give up an opportunity on forgotten hounds of hell to catch back up. This makes the world more personal to everyone, I think.

And that is basically what I do to run a game. Think about it constantly so when game time comes around, I have a better chance of interesting things to say and maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to keep my nose out of the rule book.

Wednesday, July 29

Champions United #5 The Sentence is Death! (audio edit for fast play)

My walk down memory lane continues with Champions, logging in a 6th episode last night. All in all still strange, the unfolding of events and complications for the PCs. Here is the edited edition of our 5th session two weeks ago. An audio edit makes the session replay faster, and the dialogue is stripped of most items unrelated to the adventure. From what I've seen, a two-hour game session can be cut down to one hour of adventure content. I'm working on the audio edit of Issue #6 Night of the Leeches as we speak!

Monday, July 27

So the game didn't happen but here is this cool video on styles for inDesign!

Rom'Myr Dying Earth game, last weekend didn't have enough players available so one of the players rocked out and demonstrated mechanics on your inDesign software and fielded some of my dumb questions... 

Sunday, July 26

Critical Hits & Dramatic Fumbles: A View

I love critical hits and dramatic fumbles in my rpg's. As a Game Master (DM) I enjoy the on-cue, flash card style prompt to the fighting dialogue these charts tend to provide, and as a player I enjoy the thrill of knowing any fight could be your last by a well-placed blow and the opportunity to totally nail my advisory with that devastating called shot I'm attempting to make. I also want, as Player or DM, the sheer swingy-ness of "crit" tables because it bakes exciting role-playing opportunities into the results. 

But they are horribly unfair to Players. Even if the Players enjoy the tables they will never escape the ultimate, grim conclusion of death at the hands of a crit table. All things being equal, there is only 1 PC and an endless amount of NPC's. After a while a long-lived hero dying at the hands of a rando critical from the town guard will grate on everybody's senses of dramatic play. Brand new adventurer, no problem, take that axe to the stomach and bleed out like a, a... hero! But the PC which has achieved great success at great cost, a meaningless death annoys me. 

Another inescapable fact was the more PCs engaged in mortal combat the more they cement the inevitable. The act of a fighter fighting becomes a sub-optimal play. 

My first stop on the train of reflection and thought was to appreciate the original parameters of the first critical hit and dramatic fumble mechanism in a rpg. A natural 1 is always a miss, and a natural 20 is always a hit. No bonus to damage, no increased penalties beyond the miss, kind of captures all the back and forth thinking I have on crits in a simple solution. But damn it, I love random, descriptive killer hits during combat when luck has prevailed in favor of the PCs! I have, in the past, modified tables in all sorts of ways to minimize the chance of an inappropriate crit coming up in the course of regular play. Qualifying the critical was an obvious choice for me, but in the end I came back to the facts of a closed system; just delaying the inevitable. A lucky shot which blows apart years of quality play. 

So my current solution is Critical Hits are only for Players. Only the PCs get those extra rolls on a critical hit table when the score that magic number. No NPC gets anything more than just a hit, no matter what combination of rare results they pile up. Same for Dramatic Fumbles, NPCs only. The dramatic fumble always makes an exciting turn in the events of a combat, and quick players will grab onto additional environmental "things" and make something interesting out of the action. And I don't think this is tilting things in the PCs favor all that much. The PC is always exposed to death during a game session. Eventually it will come when all is reduced to a single role. In a closed system with endless amounts of time the unwanted event will come about no matter how small a chance, and come often! So the PCs are going up a steep climb anyways. Why not make it vivid and colorful along the way?

Saturday, July 18

What OSR Means to Me

I have had a hard time finding a definition which works for me and my sensibilities. I get the logic behind Old School Rules and Old School Renaissance as terms and definitions, but it feels hidebound, locked in to a Dungeons & Dragons starting point, and maybe, on a bet, someone will define OSR as the early games which developed the hobby or a certain period of time ending in like December 30th, 1979. Like the way comic books are broken up into particular ages. These definitions are too limiting. They don't capture the essentials of the art or reduce the art to entertainment only. That the form of play should emulate the gospel, RAW.

I approach my role-play gaming the same way I immerse myself in any of my art projects. You will hear me talk about ttrpg's as an art, or refer to an artist's approach, alot. Let us clear up one thing right away; I have no schooling, training, track record or anything else to point to that my artistic education and experience is valid. I'm a dilettante, whatever catches my interest I dive in, deep. Obsessively until I burn out. So I have a valid process which rests on exploration, getting lost, and scaring myself. My artist process is basically an exploration of fear. Or working through fear to find the undiscovered country on the other side. So this puts me in conflict with rules. My thought currently on ttrpg game rules is that they are for the players, not the GM. Therefore I guide my efforts by an Old School Rational. A rational is flexible, looking for only a "truth" of a thing. Another way I put it is "Fantasy is the playground of the inappropriate." This popped into my mind during the current discussion on imaginary content disproportionally insulting people of color. I consider these positions rubbish and a lack of developed artistic and honest thought. 

So what is this Old School Rational then? The GM must have the freedom to explore and depict regardless of rules and players must accept the rules as a tool to force them to "not make shit up". I mean you can make shit up, we do it media res, but rules work for a player like choosing the size of canvas works for an artist. Every choice in an artistic project is a restriction of focus. Merely by choosing what rules to run a game begins the process of choosing canvas size. So the here and now can be experienced in its truest sense (as much as possible for puny humans). That which is cut away leaves only the essence of something, or should be the goal. Put another way, for the GM the choice of canvas size cuts away all that is possible and begins a reduction to a "what am I doing?" place. What will develop. This is counter-intuitive to me, but I believe each choice leads to the next choice, and the next. The more I reduce the closer I get to an answer.

My Old School Rational is rules don't matter, the intent of everyone at the table matters. My OSR is most of everything in the game is undescribed, does not exist yet and the participants need to start slicing away at everything to get to something. Not so much to describe surroundings to play in, but bring new things into being in which to own. The sum total of our experience My OSR is players challenged to expand their ideas on a rapidly shrinking iceberg to find a means to not drown. The GM is challenged to be drowned in the endless possibilities of "what if, what about" at the moment and land on the right response. Or make that response "right", and then pull something new out of that, again and again in response to the player's challenge of thinking in new ways to overcome abstract problems with no obvious way to solve. To reduce, comprehend, make useful knowledge and cultivate a juicy experience of fear. First impressions, initial reactions to visual and oral art, capturing what that means to you, how it informs your interpretation and belief and make your next choice as this new being. These experiences happen in an instance, but sometimes these experiences give you something to chew on for years. 

That is my OSR. And my definition is as meandering as a willful stream and as urgent as the violent waterfall coming up. 

Just so there is no misunderstanding, this is a post of subject matter I invite discussion on and there are no rules. You are going to have to take chances around here. I don't yet know which way is the right way to discuss the art of ttrpg's, but this is my opening cut.

PS: Just came across the band Tyranny of Imagination. That is another useful term for me in the artistic language I try to use when describing ttrpg's effect on me.