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World Building 203

Ok so here we come into Question 3.

Just as a refresher we are looking at the following elements in this world I am building.

  1. The sci-fi style will be pulp sci-fi. So things can get weird.
  2. Humans are trash. So at the very least they will be low class citizens, maybe worse.

Question three is “How big is the known universe?”

Taking this from the human perspective we can get an idea of how intimidating things are in known space. We can also play with the idea that no one really knows. The real key is going to be tying the answer to this question into the answers for the previous ones.

Ok so what sort of universe settings are Pulp Sci-Fi known for? Well you have a lot of extremes actually. You have settings like John Carter of Mars where everything takes place on one world. You also have settings like Flash Gordon (yeah I consider it to be pulp sci-fi even with the actual origin of the setting being in a news paper comic strip) where you have multiple worlds that are all in contact with each other. And then if you go all the way back to the original Buck Rodgers it all takes place on Earth. So that really does not narrow it down. But there is one thing they all have in common. The main hero needs to have local allies because they dont really know jack about the technology and cultures around them. So it seems pretty common to have the heroes not really know how big anything is until they get hit in the face with it.

That gives me a great idea to keep the total scope of the universe the players are going to be involved with unknown to them. That way I can take advantage of the opportunity to build a little mystery into the game and give them tons of chances to role-play to find out information, and to figure out who might be taking advantage of them or lying to them outright. There would be things that I need to answer in later questions about the number of races and how humanoid and all that, however at this point I dont really need to worry about that.

Ok so since I have decided that I dont want the players to really know right off the bat how big everything is, I need to decide for myself how big things can be… or do I?

This is where you need to know yourself and how you want to play, and tell a story. I can break down things into really detailed info so that I can drive the players to specific things. I can sketch out a few ideas and give myself a feeling for the overall scope but let the details get built on the fly. OR I could do the whole bloody thing on the fly except for a few specifics, like alien home worlds and the like. But that is still not going to define the scope of the universe. The technique is important, but do I want to have the game and stories focus on just one world, maybe a whole solar system, a part of or even a full galaxy or just say screw it and run with a series of galaxies?

So this may seem a little rambly, but I want to talk about the game Star Frontiers for just a moment here. When the game was first published (Alpha Dawn) the original module/adventure in the game was on a planet that was new to the different powers in the game setting. The next two modules continued the story on that world. Introducing the games main villain race, and giving the players the chance to make first contact with some new sentient species. The following modules brought the players more into the worlds that made up the federation the game was set in. When the second part of the rules was published (Knight Hawks) players got the chance to expand their influence, and not only pilot ships (something that was not really even possible in the base game) but to command fleets. The scale grew as more material was published and the universe expanded. I really liked this way of getting players and GM’s into the game world. Sure you had to keep buying product, or you could come up with your own materials.

So what does all that have to do with the scale of the game environment? Well it tells me that even if I am going to build things out I really don’t need much more than names for some alien worlds, home worlds in particular, and a starting point. I can make things as big as I want, or need to as things go on. I mean something in the game can go completely Lilo and Stitch (yeah I went Disney on ya) and players get dumped into the middle of no where (so to speak in galactic terms) and that is what you get for hitting the candy stripped button (or lever or whatever) not really knowing what you are doing.

Hmmm I am liking this.

Ok so now we have, for my setting anyway –

  1. The sci-fi style will be pulp sci-fi. So things can get weird.
  2. Humans are trash. So at the very least they will be low class citizens, maybe worse.
  3. Players will not know how big the universe is, and I will sketch out a couple of places in advance but otherwise let the players drive things so the universe will become as big as it needs to be.

Now for those that think I am copping out, you have never let a group of players run anything in your lives. You cant predict where they will take things or what they will want to do next. That’s right ERIC… save the freaking dragon… I remember! Sheesh. Its like herding cats. To make this effective I will likely need more notes and stacks of ideas that I can flesh out on the fly than with any other option. It may be some serious work on my part but I think it will make the most playable environment for the players. I can set up some sort of over arching story, but not have to railroad them into it just because that is the only ting I built up in advance.

Ok well thats it for the moment… next post… who knows where I will go with it 🙂

So gimme the dice, I gotta see if I can make the roll for finding lunch.

Play well and play often folks 🙂

 

 

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Creativity Engines

Ok so to take a short break from the world building materials, I waffled back and forth between doing a review and a rant, and in the end I think the rant is what I crave more.

So I have talked a number of times about differences between two major game engine types. Point based, like what you can see in Hero Games or GURPS. And level based games like D&D and the Palladium game engine. Now then if you look with a wide enough lens you can wrap up nearly every table top role playing game into those two categories. Notice that I say nearly. Let me give you a couple of examples of how my lens looks at some of the game systems.

  1. Point based
    1. Hero Games
    2. GURPS
    3. Tri-Stat
    4. d6 system (even though the points are dice)
    5. Cardinal by Sanguine (another dice type but a rather unique application of it)
    6. Amber Diceless (a unique way of spending some of the points to be sure)
  2. Level based
    1. D&D
    2. Palladium
    3. True20 – a D&D 3.0/3.5 variant
    4. Pathfinder – like True20
    5. Cyberpunk 2020 – I signal this one out because the Interlock system overall can be used more as a point based than level based

I am sure that for experienced gamers there will be those who try to say I have the idea wrong, and that there are a bunch of games that blur the lines like Mutants and Masterminds. To which I say, yeah sure. But the point of the rant is not those games at all. That’s background so you can see where my point of view comes from.

What really gets me is how few totally creative game set ups are out there. These two background concepts are really common. They make things so easy to get a hold of and run with. But what about exercising the gamers, and writers, creativity to come up with things that are more unique? Is it really that hard? Or are there no big ideas? I mean I have seen several other ideas that work… but…

  • FASERIP/Marvel SuperHeroes(the old TSR one)/4Color – This game engine, like Villains and Vigilantes, is completely random roll. If you play this one by the rules as written, everything from character generation to interaction with others comes out to a die roll. You are in the hands of fate from the beginning and you just cant stop. House and alternate rules allow you a choice in some things but not complete control by any means.
  • Chaosium – Fate plus choice. Roll your stats and they determine how many skill points you have to spend, plus a base so no one is totally hosed. From that point on though the more you do the more you can grow, and they have a growth mechanic too.
  • Pantheon – small press that never took off but the fact it is just narrative roleplay. You design a character with nothing but words and then try to out talk the other players. There is not even a DM type position unless the group wants to have some sort of editor.
  • Cypher System – Descriptive narrative brings skills and abilities. This is sort of like crossing Pantheon with FASERIP. Its a really good cross though.

So here is my big challenge. Why is it so hard to get the more original ideas to take with people?

Is it lack of marketing? I mean without in print game mags like Dragon and White Wolf  around any more, White Dwarf is almost totally subscription only and rarely prints anything that might support other games, and Pyramid… well yeah, and Space Gamer or Fantasy Gamer… Yeah there are online sources to find out and review sites and so on, but there is little to no promotion. I mean if you go to a convention you might see business cards or fliers scattered about, but that’s it. Back in the hey day you would see game companies taking out adds in each others magazines, dropping in adds in comic books and really trying to push the edge.

Is it lack of sales venue? Back in the day game companies had sections in national chain stores like Toys R Us. Today you are lucky to see anything other than the top two or three sellers in Barnes and Noble, and local game stores are disappearing thanks to online sales companies like Amazon. You used to be able to go into your local mom and pop and find some of the weirdest and most innovative games that had ever been printed.

Is it low quality? You can still find some rather innovative ideas in games online. But without the glossy print pics and driving background stories written by high end fiction writers there is so little to grab someones attention that you end up with a book that is just rules printed in a text size you can get into place. Or if you are selling them independently in PDF format online most of the time the buyers cant get a good look at the product if there is anything they can preview.

Could it be that we are all broke now when it comes to games? Or maybe the big publishers are having so much of a hard time with costs that in the last 15 years a hard cover rule book has gone from 20 to 60 dollars? Are they pricing us all out of reach?

Or maybe, just maybe, and yes I expect hate mail for this one, have gamers just gotten lazy? Do they not want to experiment any more? Have they just found their one little nitch and that’s all they ever want to do? Because its a system or a setting or whatever. And because gamers have gotten lazy, when they teach others about games they dont say, ‘There is a lot of stuff out there, experiment and find the stuff you like.” Instead they say, “This is the best game ever and if you wont play it then you are not a real gamer and fuck you and the dice your rolled in here on.”

To be totally honest I have encountered all of it. All of it sucks. And all of it seems to be killing innovation in games.

I mean look at D&D 4th edition. That was just trying to make MMO’s into a freaking table top game. It sucked for me because I had seen the innovation and growth from 2nd edition to 3rd and 3.5 and had been thinking, ‘Holy shit if they did this much to improve things last time they are going to blow my mind, I know it.’ Yeah. No. But there are tons of people I know who loved it. It bridged that gap between the MMO games they had been playing and the RPG’s that others had played around them. So in a way it was just another step in innovation. In terms of game mechanics it was also sort of a step back. But D&D and all its changes are another rant.

Palladium games has not really had a change in their game system in, well, decades. Other than Power Creep. Champions by Hero had a small jump from 3rd to 4th edition and then from 5th to 6th. Is that the problem? Are the big companies failing to innovate themselves? And so no one else follows suit?

Sigh….

Ok so the point that I was trying to make here is that there seems to be very little innovation in gaming. There seems to be a few methods and no one gets past them. I am concerned that if nothing happens we may see the same thing we currently have in Hollywood when it comes to movies happen in games. Everyone spending all of their time and money regurgitating all of the same old things hoping that by pasting a new face on the front of it they can make money on the same thing all over again. Only to have folks tell them the new version is crap.

The only way I see to pull the industry out of that kind of loop is to get people online and purchasing the small press games that have new ideas. If they are great or if they suck. Just to let bigger companies see innovation, and I mean real innovation not just repackaged and repainted yesterday, pays.

Ok before I wander futher down any rabbit holes and turn this into some kind of omni rant, I need to step away from the keyboard.

Gimme the dice, I need to make a sanity check to see if this makes any sense.

Peace out and game on.

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World Building 200a

Back again with more sci-fi world building. This is not going to be 201 because we are still on the starting questions. I have two more that you need to consider at the start of your world building and there are going to be a lot of links here because there are a vast number of potential answers.

Also if you have not answered the original four questions first, then these may seem really insurmountable… or not. 🙂

So what do you think could be so big that two questions could warrant a post all their own… heh

5 – Other than humans, how many races are there, and how diverse is their knowledge, species, and tech? You may first notice that this question does not ask how important these other races are, then again you may notice that it also does not ask how many worlds they control or how they relate to humans. It asks how diverse they are. This question is to get into the idea of what is out there. The very first sci-fi RPG that I got into (Star Frontiers) had a couple of very cool PC races and a somewhat alien villain race. But they all shared the same technology and in most cases their cultures came together without issue. Well except for the villains that is. The Dralasites from that setting are still one of my favorite races of all time in an RPG due to the fact that they are not humanoid in any real way but they shape themselves to try and fit in. With this question you want to look at how humanoid are the races in your universe. I mean even in the new version of BattleStar Galactica the Cylons are the aliens. Even though they were created by humans and can look just like them. But if you look at things like Star Wars  you have a few non-humanoid races but you also have species that are just farmers who do not embrace technology.

Personally I like to scale this question to the scale of my area of human knowledge question. If the human race is stuck in a solar system or two, then usually I will only scope out between one and three additional races. And I like to have the majority of them to be non-humanoid. This keeps the sense of being alien very strong. I think that in fiction we see that pretty well in settings like the Expanse where you dont see actual aliens but the residue of their technology (at least for the first five books). However if you are looking at a full galaxy to wander in then I will shoot for the Star Wars side of things where there are hundreds of races with tons of variety in tech and culture but strangely 90% of the races are humanoid.

There are of course exceptions to the standards I talk about for myself. I really enjoy things like the Babylon 5 setting where you have a limited area of the universe to play in, and major races are all over the place, but there are also tons of minor races. You can get really creative dumping just about any type of character you want into this from any race you want to create and folks will just have to suck it up and let it go because it is so open ended.

Now then all of the five previous questions lead us up to a single, big, ugly, painful question. Please pay very close attention to the phrasing here or you will scoff and miss the point.

6 – What is your worlds “magic”? Ok, do you see the quotes? Do you get the jist of the question? Let me break it out for you. Star Wars has both the Force, and technology. Star Trek and Babylon 5 have technology and genetics (psychic powers and unusual physical powers). CyberPunk has the matrix/net. And game settings like Rifts and ShadowRun have actual magic, with the tech, genetics and the net. The Expanse has hidden secrets in alien technology. And some game settings like Fading Suns and the new StarFinder game simply say screw it and have tech and magic. And then games like Eclipse Phase has technology that makes you question what it is to be human at all.

So why do I wrap it all up into a little package that I call “magic”? Well that is actually easier to me than saying something like, what makes your universe special? If you break down all of the other questions and then come to this one you will likely find that you have already answered it. Sure you can start with this question but if you do then everything else you are designing ends up revolving around this question. And sure Star Wars did a fairly good job of doing just that, but not every setting is going to be Star Wars. Hells, no setting other than Star Wars should be Star Wars.

I think now you see why I ordered the questions the way I did. If you are going to build a sci-fi setting you want to make sure you have something to draw the players in, and build it up from there. If you start with an element like the non-human races, or the things that give you a “magic” of sorts in your setting then you get stuck in those elements rather quickly and it becomes very easy (at least in my experience) to loose focus on the things that your players can relate to. And if you are running a game you need to have things that your players will relate to so that they can really get into the game and the characters they build. Even if they choose to play something that is not human. Actually in my honest opinion it is even more important to have the human relate-able items in place if players are going to play non-humans. That way they can capitalize on being alien. Not just humans with different features, but come from outside the human experience.

Anyway, relatively short post this week. But I wanted to make sure that readers had a chance to look at this and think it over before I bring up the 201 topic. Which may twist you a bit. 🙂

So gimme the dice. I need to see how many races I am going to use…

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World Building 200 – First steps

Ok so I know I have been non-posting, but hinting at the start of the 200 series of world building. So ya know what? Despite how much I know my friend over at Dan On Games is looking forward to a rant of some kind I am going to start here instead and categorize it as a rant 🙂 HAH!

So what the heck do I mean by First Steps? Well just like with building any other type of world or setting for any game or fiction you have a few things you need to know about your setting that can be summed up in a few questions. Once you get these down then you can really sort out the rest of it fairly quickly… well… as long as you have a little time, some imagination, a few other settings to steal from, oh and did I mention a little time… undisturbed… without other things going on… cause other wise this sort of thing takes forever. I mean if you have a job, and a life outside of gaming… well then…

Heh… see how I snuck the rant in there… 🙂

Anyway the questions that you need to ask to get to building a sci-fi setting/world are really similar to fantasy, or any other world really. The ones that I find the most important to answer go like this…

1 – Hard sci-fi, space opera, or pulp sci-fi? What you have here is the biggest aspect of sci-fi. Much like how much magic goes into a fantasy setting. Hard sci-ci is based on known science. Or even theoretical science that seems really plausible without a too much of a stretch. In hard sci-fi you will keep referring back to the science. A lot.. There are a lot of cyberpunk and a few hard sci-fi games out there that are good examples of this concept. Space Opera is more like Star Wars and Star Trek. You can mention the science but it is so advanced that you cant explain it so you don’t even try. You can use the science as color comments if you have a really good idea or want to make something dramatic, but it is not as important as in hard sci-fi. Pulp sci-fi is a category I may have made up for myself, but if you look back at the classic pulp sci-fi stories and the movies from the 40’s and 50’s that really got into the pulp style of sci-fi then you can see that they usually treated science with a mix of the space opera and the hard sci-fi at the same time. I mean that if you want to make a death ray out of a toaster to take on the 11th dimensional invading pumpkin people you better make sure you have three paperclips and a can opener… because SCIENCE!

Each one has something to recommend in it. Each one can be a heck of a lot of fun. All of them can be silly, or dramatic. Even with the little bit I put in there about pulp and science, it can be very dark and very serious for the characters, it is just the science itself that can seem, well, kinda like MacGyver on crack. There are a ton of other types of sci-fi but these three I find the easiest to start with.

2 – How important are humans? This is a very serious question to be asking in any sci-fi setting. You can find a lot of settings in which humans are the only sentient species. You can find even more in which humans are one of hundreds if not thousands of sentient species. You can find in the ones where there are hundreds of species that humans have been relegated to slave status in the universe, and others where they are the heads of empires. You can even find settings in which you question if humans are really human any more. The reason this is so important is because most sci-fi stories need a way to be relate-able to the players. And when you are dealing with technology that may seem like magic, and things that go outside of all current expectations of the future, a human being is going to be the way to tie things together and give you the most common point of reference.

In fantasy we look at how many races you want to have in a setting. And you will need to do that in sci-fi as well. But deciding the scope of human influence and impact will actually help you define that better.

3 – How big is the known universe? That question is going to seem to be a little misleading at first. But take it in the context of the previous question. What do humans know about what is out there? Are they still in their home solar system? Are they stuck to a single world? Do they roam the galaxy? This question is really just like the one for fantasy where we look at how big the world is. If you know the scope of your genre for the setting and you know how important humans are, you can give this a much needed look.

Now then unlike a fantasy setting where you need to have a really good idea of the primary environment (world/continents/nations) in sci-fi you can actually make up a lot of it as you need it a lot easier. You just have to take good notes as you go so you can call up worlds, or asteroid communities, or wandering groups of space stations as you go. You still will need to define your starting point rather well. But that goes for any type of game setting. It is just that this time the starting point is not limited to being a city or a nation, it can be just about anything.

4 – How far are we from today? This question will really lock in the flavor of your setting. I mean if we are in a galaxy hopping setting that is just next week… that is going to be completely different than a setting that is galaxy hopping a thousand years from now. It makes a big difference for what is human relate-able in regards to technology. And the sense of human achievement is going to be different. It will change the roles that people have in their lives regardless of race or gender. The jobs that can be done and even how trade and commerce are impacted.

You will notice that none of these questions actually try to define the technology. Talk about ships or how things move in space if you are even in space. These questions don’t ask what roles or classes of characters are going to be involved. They are all designed to get you thinking about scope. About how you want to define the realm you are creating.

Now then I have a setting mapped out and the following World Building 200 series will be answering these questions and adding some additional details to flesh out the world/s that are coming. Personally I am not trying to build a traditional sci-fi setting. So my answers to questions may seem a little weird. Then again this whole blog may seem a little weird. 🙂

Ok so that’s enough of a post for now.

Gimme the dice, I gotta give MacGyver a saving throw against science crack.

Play safe, and play well friends.

 

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Update on World Building and ‘That Guy’

Ok so to be totally honest last weekend I just had too much on my mind and wanted too badly to relax to even think about putting up a post.

So I have decided that for World Building 200 series I will be working on a Sci Fi world. A lot of people have tried to tell me that Sci Fi is the hardest of settings to work with. I disagree. There are a lot of options sure. And I will be walking through several of them. However there is a lot more to consider if you are going to build up a solid and sustainable Supers environment. Seriously. Supers will be the 300 series for world building and then you will see what I am talking about.

Ok so getting on to ‘That Guy’. Disclaimer – Yeah I know there are female gamers. Tons of them. And they fit the role of ‘That Gal’ but typing Guy/Gal or coming up with something witty like ‘Galuy’ just feels forced and non-conversational. Not trying to slight anyone or be a sexist ass. Because if I am truly being fair then I have to go beyond cisgender or transgender or non gender and that gets messy and so if I am going to play it neutral as hell I would have to say ‘That Person’ but someone would take offence to that too. So screw it I am using ‘That Guy’ and you will just have to roll with it.

Every gaming group has one. If they are a rules lawyer, a bad player overall, someone who just gets to bloody enthused about the game, the ultimate geek, the lucky roller… whatever stereo type they fit, whatever role they fill in your gaming group, they are unforgettable. The funny thing is that in almost every game group you will find that ‘That Guy’ is remembered by everyone. What they did wrong, how lucky they got when they got it right, how they must have cheated, and on and on.

Want to know a secret?

EVERY game player ever, is ‘That Guy’.

No joke. You may not figure it out until years later but everyone is memorable in their table top game groups. EVERYONE ends up having a signature move, an incredible event, a bad habit, or other feature that will make them stick in memory. Even the guy who just sat there an nodded and maybe smiled once in the three years they were at the game table.

The reason I am bringing this up is because I talked to someone recently who had no idea that they had ever been ‘That Guy’. They had thought that everyone else in their game group had a signature of some kind and that they had just gamed. None of the gamers they had associated with had ever told them they were ‘That Guy’, that they had done something memorable or had a pattern that everyone found predictable.

So why am I bringing this up?

I would just like my fellow gamers; male, female, trans, cis and every other option out there; to consider just what kind of ‘That Guy’ they want to be. If you know now that you will be remembered, that you will have an impact on others, how do you play that?

I am sure that every gamer out there has stories about ‘That Guy’ that made them want to play more, or quit gaming, or even go all stabby at the game table. I have met so many versions of ‘That Guy’ it is hard to say what ones have had the most impact. I mean I can tell you stories about ‘That Guy’ that almost made me quit playing LARP games. And the one that showed me not everyone was an asshole. I can tell you stories about ‘That Guy’ who made so many stupid errors in games that we thought he might have a hard time with basic thought, but damn he was enthusiastic about gaming and loved everything, even his mistakes. I can tell you about ‘That Guy’ who ruined a specific RPG for me. And I can tell you so many others it is ridiculous.

Are you getting the point?

To paraphrase DC Comics the Martian Manhunter (sorry but I cannot quote issue I just know it goes to him unless he stole it too) “Everyone is someones ‘That Guy'(alien).”

So really. Think about it before you sit down at your next game session. Know you will be remembered. You will have an affect on other gamers. You will leave a mark.

What do you want to be remembered for?

Ok gimme the dice, I gotta see if that warrants a dramatic exit crit or not… 🙂

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Excuses Excuses

Ok ok so it has been a while again.

Illness, injury, work load, working on improvements to the house, life obligations, friend obligations and more.

Ok and lets add Dr Who’s new season and Flash and Arrow dropping on NetFlix. Just for complete disclosure.

Needless to say there is a lot going on in life right now and while the blog here is a pleasure it had to take a back seat. I will still have things going on this weekend so I have to put the blog off until next week.

The plan for next week is to do a review of an awesome gift I have received. The Wheel of Time RPG. Done in the d20 system for D&D 3.0.

Now then while you wait for a full on blog post I want to ask folks out there a question about the d20 system for D&D 3.0. There were a lot of licensed and original settings created using it. When we talk licensed we have to talk about things like

  • Wheel of Time
  • Red Star
  • Star Wars
  • Farscape

And in the other category you might want to think about games that made versions of themselves in d20 like

  • Guardians of Order – Big Eyes Small Mouth
  • White Wolf – Trinity setting (Aeon, Aberrant, Adventure)
  • White Wolf – World of Darkness
  • TSR?? – Gamma World

As to original settings, there were dozens with one of my personal favorites being Spy Craft.

Now then with all these products basing themselves out of the same SRD (System Reference Document) and supposedly tied by the OGL (Open Game License), you would think that they all would be balanced and play well with each other. Welllllll that was not really the case. Folks tried but… yeah… did not always work that well.

So I was wondering if any of the readers out there have ever done cross overs, or super crossovers and just tossed balance to the winds and said screw it if you can find a character class and race bring it to the table and lets rock?

I did it a few times with a few game groups and it got… strange… quick. What happened to you?

Ok so thats it for now. Gimme the dice, I gotta see if I can roll up another excuse from the d18 table of excusology table…

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Epic Adventures

Good gods. Three weeks without a blog post. Ok while I will take full responsibility for not putting a serious priority on the blog, well, so goes life. I wont try to list all the personal and work things going on that took higher priority in that time frame. And I will not make excuses for putting my oldest friend first next weekend with his reception party for his recent wedding. Nor for putting my wife first and taking her on a vacation to the coast while we make our way to said reception event. So to my loyal reader/s who show up with regularity and read every one of these posts, now you know whats up. And if someone got me a job posting these things and creating wild and crazy ideas for adventures and worlds, well then and only then would I be here on a permanent basis. 🙂

So with all that out of the way, we can ask the usual type of question, what the hell does he mean by Epic Adventures?

So Epic Adventures, also known in some parts as Adventure Paths are a series of adventures and encounters set up to bring a group of player characters in a level based game setting from level one up to the top levels of play. The first example that I am aware of (please note that I say aware of, because there are likely more out there that I dont know of as this is a fairly cool concept) was Castle Greyhawk. This was originally published back in 1988 by TSR for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. It was intended to be a series of comedy adventures in a single castle that you could bring your players back to from time to time to unwind a little from more intense stories. However if you really cleared things out and did not mind creeping through humor all the time you could make it from level one to level 20 or so depending on classes by the time you cleared all the levels under the castle. While the next was not intended to have you start at first level, you could with a little tweaking make it work and that was The Ruins of Undermountain also published by TSR, this time in 1991. What made Undermountain and its sequel/add on  was that it was not designed to be anything more than a serious dungeon crawl adventure. However with good work by a good DM you could make it an ongoing campaign.

Later on you would see things like the Shackled City campaign that was originally published in series in Dungeon magazine in 2003, The Worlds Largest Dungeon published in 2004, and a TON of adventure paths set up by Piazo for Pathfinder. The later offerings went past meeting in a bar and starting up a series of raids to gain levels. They plotted a story, gave NPCs background and gave characters a reason to keep things going.

Dont get your undies in a bundle that I am not mentioning your favorite module series. While nearly every game system out there has published adventures that take a story-line over multiple modules (DC Heroes, Star Frontiers, Marvel Super Heroes, and all generations of D&D to name a few) there are a lot of notable exceptions (Champions, GURPS, and SLA Industries once again to name a few). But the reason I am not bringing them up right now is because while they may tell a story over a few adventures, they are not epics that can get characters from the start of their career to the very top of their game. There are also a few publishers that have made a full story-line out of their entire publication series, but only if you pay attention (Shadowrun and the original World of Darkness (all five main games) make great examples here). This last concept is usually referred to as a Meta Plot which means that not mater what you do or where you go you are playing in the same story line.

Now then these epics all have one really big challenge. The players. If they go off the rails of the story/adventure the GM has set up before them, well things go pear shaped really quick. Or at least they can. If the person running the game has prepped for their players to run out at just about any part of the game, then things will not go off the rails at all really.

For myself I happen to love epic stories. However I also happen to know that every group I have ever played with likes to go outside the lines of the story and may want to chase down very minor plot threads that could seem like a waste of time in the overall plot. Actually I have had game groups run from the main plot right at the get go. And while it will occasionally get frustrating, I have a method of working around that. I call it the Epic Clock. I put down a time line for things to happen in on the main plot. If the characters get involved then sure they are the chosen ones. If they run from it, well then whomever else becomes the chosen ones will either save everything or things will get messed up without them. This also means though that the characters can get involved at any time. Either being at the right place at the right point in the time line, or by finding a sub plot of some kind that leads them back into the main story/plot. Also I have a distaste for just setting up modules as offered for an epic. In recent times I have taken some old D&D modules (Basic, AD&D and AD&D 2nd ed) and put them into series so that they create an epic. All of these modules are fairly easy to modify into Pathfinder so I dont have to change too many NPCs or monsters in extreme ways. Or I just build my own out of whole cloth.

Now then dont think this keeps me from running one off nights, or even one off series. But having a over arching epic, and a timeline gives me something to run everything against.

I dont do this too often but I would actually like to hear from readers on this topic. Do you like one offs, epic stories, meta plots, timelines or just what in adventures? Just reply to the posting and let me know.

Ok signing off for now, so gimme the dice, I need to roll a d10000 to see how big the next adventure is…

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Not feeling the love… Unofficial Review #15

Hey there readers. So I have spoken up a few times about my dislike of G.U.R.P.S. For those of you that don’t know what the heck I am talking about G.U.R.P.S. is an RPG game engine created by Steve Jackson games. And the acronym name stands for Generic Universal Role Playing System. Now then while this article will not be a game review as such, it is going to be more along the lines of a rant.

First things first though. Remember that this is all my opinion and this game may be the very thing you have been looking for all your life. So take me with a grain of salt until you go over the game yourself. The materials published by SJG do have some very strong points, and their other games have been on my play list for a long time.

So let me start out by talking about what I think that SJG has done right with G.U.R.P.S. They worked very hard to make a scale-able universal game engine. In some respects they failed miserably but we will get to that later. Next comes the fact that they have licensed more properties since the game was released in 1986 than any other game engine that I know of, even to the point of licensing other games. The setting supplements that they publish usually have a ton of detail and fluff that can be used with just about any game engine. They make awesome reference material. To be perfectly honest if it was not for the game engine itself I would be hard pressed to find better material. And even though I don’t like the game engine I still have several of the books they have published to use as reference material. The engine is also point based, which should put it high on my list of great games. I love the design control that a point based system gives you, but that love falls apart when the engine becomes unbalanced.

Now then the things I do not think that they have done well revolve all round the game engine itself. I really have three major bones of contention. And while two of them can be worked around (one easily and the other with some serious rules shifting) fixing the third would just kill the game engine and you might as well use something else. And since I don’t feel like surprising anyone by saving that big one for last, lets just start there.

My big and unassailable issue comes from the games stats system. As most gamers will know the stats are the mechanic that you use to define a character in their broadest and bluntest strokes. There are engines out there like Champions that have over a dozen stats to give you clearly defined lines for what the basic character is capable of without skills, tools, powers or anything else. And then you have games like Big Eyes Small Mouth that uses only three stats and each one is very broad. The game mechanics let you refine them further to detail things how you like. G.U.R.P.S. however uses four stats, and three of them define physical traits. And these stats are used to define the majority of the other skills and characteristics that a character can develop. Now then this may work really well in a strategy game, but in an RPG I personally like to establish a baseline for the mental aspects for the character that have nothing to do with their raw intelligence. Now then while G.U.R.P.S. does have positive and negative traits that you can use to gain more of that level of detail, and has a disadvantage system called Quirks that you can use to give some cool little details that can really define the limits of a characters personality, you still have to face off with the fact that your strength of will is going to come down to an intelligence roll. And I don’t know about you but the number of people I know of with a high IQ, well they are not always the most strong willed. When it comes to scaling of the stats I also have a problem. The stats run from zero to twenty just fine. Very scale-able. Very much running up to peak human. However if you get into the truly heroic or superhuman the scaling goes a little, or even more than a little, out of whack. So much so that they had to create a separate point cost system for strength that you can kick in after a value of thirty for cost savings. This problem comes into play even if you are creating an elephant. Disproportion of costs so that you can build what you want. It ends up meaning that in any setting you will have stat values that don’t make sense for everything from animals to aliens just to try and balance the game play and point costs.

The second issue that I have with the G.U.R.P.S. game engine is an item that they put in called an Unusual Background Cost. Now then whenever I have played G.U.R.P.S. I have tossed this thing out. This is an additional cost that you will pay for your character to have something that is uncommon or unusual in the game setting. So if you are playing a spy game and everyone is building characters with 200 points and you want to be able to do minor magic the game master can charge you up to 50 points so that you can do minor magic. I find that lazy as (four letter word starting with F and ending with K). Personally I would call that a cause for a disadvantage. A reason to have the character hunted by gods only knows how many agencies and religious groups. It is something that I can use to build deeper stories and it gives me a reason to add weird stuff into the game. And if I don’t want that in a game I say NO. Really easy just say that the setting does not support that. End of issue. I mean, seriously… what… the.. FUC… is wrong here. So ok as I said this is the easiest to fix, just throw the dumb ass rule out. However it bothers me to think that game masters need to have a stick like this to either enforce the world they want to use, or have absolutely no ability to say no to players when it will screw up the setting. SIGH… ok… moving on…

Third issue that I have is the way that skills and powers get built out. Just to give you a quick basic way to go about things…. lets see here… Ahh yes. Most folks can relate to fights in RPGs, so lets take a look at punching someone. First we need to know your DX (dexterity) Punching is covered by Brawling so we put points into brawling. But I want to use martial arts so that means I now have to use my Karate or Judo skill which defaults to Brawling that defaults to DX. But if I have a specific technique I may have advantages I have to purchase and then a technique skill that is based off of Karate that is based off of Brawling that is based off DX. Now then if I want to be really good at that one technique, I just really want to use my Martial Master Plucks the Flowers punch better than anything else, and my character concept would agree that everything else I do in a fighting style sucks… I still have to buy up my Brawling and then my Karate and then my technique because I cannot exceed my base skills by more than a certain amount. Ok so my thinking here is how many people might you know that can cook one thing really well, but they destroy everything else? Or can draw one image over and over but then have problems with stick figures? Or or or or or… Now then the sad thing is that powers are built in the same way. Be they magical or super human, they do the game bloody thing. And if you have a power you need a specific skill to use it (back in first edition you also had another step in there where you had to roll one skill to hit something and another to hurt it on top of paying for the actual power to do anything with). This can be fixed, to a degree by cutting out middle skills, removing prerequisites and a few other things. But if you are going that far do you really want to use the engine anyway.

Now then I freely admit that I have not played G.U.R.P.S. since third edition. I have heard that they updated several things but it is really hard to get past twenty years of annoyed and try again.

Overall how would I rate the game I have ranting about, just remember this is for the WHOLE enchilada of G.U.R.P.S. not just the main rule book or any one supplement, this is an all or nothing…

  1. Fluff – 5/5 – They have some cool stuff
  2. Crunch – 0/5 – I really dislike these rules and I… I just cant
  3. Mod – 0/5 – Oh you can mod the hell out of it, you have to, then it still wont play well
  4. Fun – 2/5 – Some of the supplements really rock, when used with another engine.
  5. Total over all score 7/20 – You have my sympathy if you play this game.

Ok so let me finish off this crap sandwich here. I have never been impressed with G.U.R.P.S. I quit even trying after third edition. While the game engine, to me, is one of the worst with all the flaws, the supplemental materials, worlds, settings, references and so on are almost all awesome. And when they get a licensed product they treat the materials with respect and go into levels of detail that really impress me. And I know the game system has been hideously successful over the last 30+ years, where games that I find more balanced and playable have fallen to the roadside. So maybe I am an outlier, and maybe its just that SJG has more money to toss at marketing and slightly less expensive books. I really don’t know. So as I said, take me with a grain of salt.

Anyway, peace out, play well, and gimme the dice, I need to find out how deep this rabbit hole of skills goes…

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Getting into Character

Howdy all, another week, another blog post 🙂

So I have run around talking about world building, games, reviewed a few things and ranted about others. Ya gotta ask from time to time what the hell is he going to talk about this time.

Well what I really want to talk about is finding and getting into your character.

Why do I want to talk about this? Well, from my perspective there are hundreds of table top RPGs out there. And about two years ago I wrote a very short article about choosing a game to play. But I looked over my posts and while I have mentioned using music and settings and a ton of little things that you can do to get into a game, or character I realized that I have never talked about actually choosing a character to play.

Now then regular players of any single game will usually end up having a favorite that they always play, a favorite that they never get to play because the people they play with dont allow that rules supplement to be used, or they have a non-favorite that they frequently play because they are really good at it, or they have a character they are stuck with because the party needed one. For new players they will either be dropped into the middle of selection and just given free reign, or they will have friends and mentors who guide them to a type of character that is easy to learn the rules with. And then with time and practice they get to see what they might like, and develop favorites.

Some people never do develop a favorite. They enjoy exploring concepts and ideas and the latest thing they have seen on tv/cable/video games/movies/convention/that hot chicks tattoo, or wherever. And personally I think that concept players actually are playing their favorite. It may seem like a flavor of the moment to others, but in that moment, they are playing the coolest thing they know. So it kind of balances.

Now then for the folks that are not concept players… really… how do you pick your favorite. Let me blow your mind for a minute here. At its peak, when you include third party publications Wizards of the Coasts D&D 3rd Edition, had at rough estimates, over 1000 character classes that could be played. You have over one thousand options just to start playing a character. And then if you have a path for the character to grow in mind you have the ability to multi class. Meaning you can add more than one class together at a time to make something more unique. And if you wanted to absolutely useless you could make every one of your twenty base levels a different class, meaning by the time… yeah… ok you see it there, that damned big number. Ok so Minds blown a little right? Now imagine you are playing a point based game engine like GURPS by Steve Jackson Games or Champions by Hero Games. No classes. No restrictions. Build as you see fit in the points allotted. Totally free form.

So again, really, how do you pick your favorite?

Well, really, regardless of the genre you just need to answer a few questions and you can get right to it. I know that everyone is going to have their own way to do things in the end but here is a method that I have used in the past and I know it can be helpful.

Questions –

  1. Do you have a character from a movie or book or comic that just fits and you love and want desperately to play something just like them? If yes then make that character. Please do try to give them an original back story of some kind because we all know the story of Conan the Barbarian by now. But other wise, if you want Conan make freaking Conan. If you do not have a preexisting character you want to bring into your game, then go to the next question.
  2. What do you find the most fun to play in a game? This can usually be broken down into a few really big ideas. Physical Power. Skills. Esoteric Powers (this can be magic, psi powers, holy powers, super powers and any number of others). Toys and Gear. Speed. Combat Skills. Charisma. A combination of the above. I usually find that if I rate these seven items on a scale I can get an idea of just about any character type.
  3. What sort of backstory do you like? Money (lots of or lack of its still money). Mystery. Race. Gender. Weird. Basic every day until the adventure starts. Again if you set these up in order of importance you can really get a quick outline of a background.
  4. What is it that you want to drive the character forward? The Past. Money. Adventure. Justice. Balance. Quest. Gods this place is boring. Shank a Bitch. That last one used to be called something else. Thanks to the ladies in my life though it got changed.

So did you notice how nothing in those questions talked about a genre? Thats because if you like a character concept  you should be able to move it from genre to genre. It does not have to be the same character, but it can be a theme in what you play.

If I build with these ideas you will see the following happen.

  1. Skills, Toys, Combat skills, Speed, Esoteric Power,  Physical Power, and Charisma floats it either bottoms out or hits the top.
  2. Mystery, Race, Money, Weird, Gender. Basic everyday life does not usually show up at all in my idea of fun.
  3. The Past, Gods this place is boring, and Shank a Bitch. These are the drives I have the most fun with usually.

Now then if I was going to look at that list, and I was playing a D&D game, I would be looking for a Rouge, maybe a Bard or Monk. Who came into their skills and training from an unknown location and likely an uncommon race for the area the game starts in. They are either running from something, or out to kick some ass, or maybe both.

When I use that list playing Shaowrun I usually end up creating some sort of Rigger with a few extra items you wont find on a regular character template.

If I go into Champions I have some unusual mutant martial artist that may have a bit of a Batman complex mixed with a Punisher attitude. But they wont talk about why.

The fastest way to do something like this is to only pick one or two items from each question and make a really focused character. Then add things as you grow them. If you are used to building this way then you can do like I did and mix and match you your hearts content.

I will freely admit that this is a process that is not for everyone. Some folks may like using something like the Life Flow chart in Cyberpunk by R Talsorian, or the background generator in Palladium Games books (even though it wont help you really pick a character it will give you a background for one). Or if you want to go to real extremes using tables to create backgrounds I would suggest looking into Buttery Wholesomeness, a supplement for White Wolfs HOL game, or if you are ready to search for them, Task Force Games put out three books in the late 80’s under their Central Casting blazon – Heroes for Tomorrow, Heroes NOW, and Heroes of Legend (supposedly system neutral but if you are using their stat bonus’ for characters you create you have best be using a percentile system).

So did this blog post really lead anywhere. In a zen kinda way, yes. By now you should know that there are a ton of different ways to come up with a character. Using whatever system you prefer, whatever method strikes your fancy. The only thing I would suggest is that you make a character you like, to play in a game you like, that represents a genre you like, with people you enjoy spending time with.

Be what you want to be, dream or nightmare. Here, all things are possible. Just remember that as in any other world, your choices will have consequences.

What does that mean? Well I have a feeling I will go into it in a later post about playing villains in a hero setting or something like that.

For now, gimme the dice, I got to see what happens when I roll up a half dwarf half giant using the 3.5 D&D rules… because I can.

Peace out, game on, and have fun while playing nice people 🙂

 

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Game Settings

Ok so yeah I am teasing everyone by not just jumping in to World Building 109 and closing out the series. That is going to be a slightly longer than usual post and I am trying to build things up so I can cover everything I want with less than my usual grammar errors and not be quite as stream of thought as I usually am.

Now then the title of this article may be a little misleading to some. I am not talking about worlds here, but the settings we set up for individual game sessions. The tavern, the house on the hill, the local graveyard and so on are the topic of the day.

Depending on the person running the game your settings can be as simple as – You step out of the hallway and into a really big room with all sorts of wall hangings and a throne – all the way up to – As you are coming toward what looks like the end of the hall way you note the flickering of lights that you have come to associate with multiple torches. There is a scent of some kind of incense in the air that just barely covers the smell of worn and ill treated cloth. As you cautiously enter the room ahead of you, you can see the tapestries that cover the wall, once well made but now filled with mildew and rot surround a dais and throne. The flickering light you noted in the hall is coming from braziers on either side of the throne that give off an oddly colored smoke. Which may be the source of that incense you smell.

Now personally I enjoy adding as much description to things as possible, but I really dont see anything wrong with either of those descriptions. The first one is something I would use with a group that just wants to get in and hack and slash their way through the game. The second I would use for a group that wants to roleplay more and also for a group that wants to investigate everything.

I was going to put a link in for a manga-ish graphic novel series called King of RPGs but the Wiki sort of sucks and I cannot find one by the author himself that is not really a sales page. KOR is the only place I have seen setting up the setting go, in my opinion, too far. I mean when you need to set up a tent so you can add a dry ice smoke machine and have coolers set up with different sealed items to bring the correct scents to the game space and you brought your friends constrictor snake to put onto the game table with the minis so that you can have an accurate representation of the big bad monster snake… yeah… a bit far.

Also I have talked about music in games before, and I really feel like having a bit of well selected music can really enhance the game session. Adding music though you really have to consider the setting and the music you want to use. Its hard to mix things together unless you really know your group. Cranking up I am Iron Man with a fantasy setting may not be the best, unless you know the group loves rock, loves the song, or you just need something a little more intense for that Iron Golom that just crested over the trees. I can say that with all the streaming music apps though that you really want to have a plan going where you do not have commercial breaks as they can completely kill a mood.

Now then normally in an article like this I sit back and stress that every game, and every gamer is different. And that everyone needs to do what they enjoy or are comfortable with or whatever. Never feel pressured into doing something you dont want to do in a game. I would in this instance though like to suggest, that instead of thinking about yourself. You think about the group you are gaming with. Establishing a setting, be it the way a game master does it for the players, or the way the players establish their own presence in a setting, can have a serious impact on everyone who is playing. I know that many game tables have a mix of players at them, some wanting to roleplay until the world ends and some wanting just to get to the next combat. And that can be a hard mix to balance if you are trying to establish a setting. So make sure you have out of game conversations to really see what everyone wants. It may actually be possible to add a lot of detail in things like online blogs or classic blue booking to give the more detail oriented players what they need, and keep the time at the table fast and furious for the combat junkies. Then again other things may be needed.

What I am trying to get to here, really, is that the single most important setting in any game, ANY game, is the communication setting between whomever is running the game and the players. If that setting is get in, game get out, that is fine, just make sure that everyone has agreed to that setting. If the setting is tell a rich in depth story with every detail milked for the most dramatic and emotional response… again make sure everyone has agreed.

I am not going to drop a link in here but almost two years ago I did an article about sound tracks and theme music if you want to know my thoughts on that topic in more detail.

For the moment though I think I have the point across. Communicate. Build settings that you as a GROUP can get the most out of. And have fun damnit.

Ok now gimme the dice I need to see if I can pickpocket myself without me noticing…

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