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Monthly Archives: November 2011

Interchangeable

First, let it be clear: I am a child of the pinkish-purplish-reddish box with the Erol Otus art on the cover, the “Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set” that came out and helped shove D&D into a full-bore fad. (It is my mother’s fault.) If anyone can be hit with the nostalgia bomb, it’s me. I have piles of great memories of being carefree with paper and graph paper and pencils, of running the Caves of Chaos countless times (but ignoring things like the mad hermit because who cared?), of Morgan Ironwolf and that poor unloved sap Black Dougal.

Therefore, I find the OSR — that movement to play as it was done in the olden days, with rulesets that are little more than tweaks to one’s favorite version of D&D circa 1977-1985 — intellectually fascinating. It’s all about the experiences people had back then, and moving them forward and refining them.

Intellectually fascinating, yes… but not emotionally engaging. That struck me as a little odd. Why doesn’t the OSR work for me? Why do I spend time wrangling with monster builders and power lists running 4e, instead of something more akin to the game of my youth? I played in an OSR game run by Justin Achilli some time back, and it was quite enjoyable. It didn’t suck me in, though; I certainly felt it was time well spent, but I didn’t get the fever to play again.

And when it comes down to it, I think the primary reason that the OSR doesn’t take root in my brain is the same reason I don’t use published adventures: I’m just not as interested in playing out scenarios that are designed for a generalized group. Old-school D&D, beloved a place as it has in my heart, is about one-size-fits-all adventures. The differentiation in the adventure is in what the players do; it doesn’t matter why they’re in there or what their goals are beyond money and power, the adventure is the adventure. And from the perspective of a game world that is what it is, not shaped by consensual reality or the players’ very presence, that’s a valuable thing. The Tomb of Horrors doesn’t care why your thief decided that going in there for riches was preferable to doing anything else with his life.

But the part I like about RPG worlds is the way they interact with players. Sometimes they’re player-agnostic “this is the way it is” adventures, sometimes they’re immensely personalized scenarios that result directly from player action. The OSR approach is that “character background is what happens between levels 1-5” — and I’m just not interested in playing a character that has had no meaningful interactions with the world up until the point he’s started play. It messes with my suspension of disbelief. I like a scenario that is at least a little collaborative, that the GM has gone out of his way to say “Here is a particular hook for you to get you started,” because that way I feel more connected to the events about to throw down.

Being a child of the B/X has apparently given way to being a product of my college gaming circle, where it was about the campaign. Characters fell in love, were betrayed, suffered weird retcons from time to time, set down roots, took over territories, had cynical conversations about philosophy and religion at all hours of the night. We played our characters without dice, paper or scenarios whenever someone had a loose idea like “Oh hey Thomas wants to talk to you again.” That was where RPGs became seriously addictive to me. Nothing quite beats that rush.

I’ll say it again, the OSR is fascinating, and I find it fantastic that a mode of play like that has a place to flourish. But I just can’t root myself in a play style that promises that maybe I’ll get the things I like — interesting NPC relationships, scenarios that spun out of decisions my character made, callbacks to background elements — if I play the game long enough and don’t die. For all that it’s a simpler, easier play style with fewer rules, levels 1-5 (or their equivalent) is asking a lot of investment, particularly in the adult “we have less time to play” phase. I don’t want to wait until 5th level to have a character that is not interchangeable, that has personal hooks embedded in the world, that may run into an old friend at any time. To me that’s not a reward for sticking through the “work” part of the game — that is the game at its finest, the part that I most delight in playing. Give me those early sessions to work on chemistry with my fellow PCs, and to work on some details refining the broad strokes. But as a personal preference, I’d rather not be asked to be interchangeable. There are plenty of other players for that.

 
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Posted by on November 16, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Wherein I Boast About My Players

This is a tale that I must relate, even though it is the dreaded social faux pas of “telling you about my game.” The players deserve it.

So, the context: D&D 4e ruleset, Renaissance Italy-flavored homebrew setting, swashbuckling theme. The players have spent the first five levels of their career making reparations for background troubles, fighting against a plague-cult, even at one point acting to prevent the assassination of a prince’s champion. They are graduallly making a name for themselves, as protagonists in a heroic fantasy mashup are given to doing.

And then they hit Cinquedea. So far the cities they’ve visited have been “Tuscan-inspired metropolis in agrarian heartland, sunny and boisterous” and “Forest-enclosed city built on ancient ruins, tenor of the supernatural.” Now they move to “Cramped port city full of intrigues, jealousy and duels.” They’ve roughly been chasing a subplot of plague-apples sold to a brothel within the city, investigating this as the “mission” that keeps them together but what the players are really looking for is more social intrigue. The rogue is coming home, after having had to flee the city for sleeping with the wrong girl. The mercenary is looking to get recruits and build her own company. The peasant-turned-landowner is looking for a good husband for his daughter. The necromancer is investigating the rise of a new, potentially troublemaking Sorcerous House.

As they investigate the plague-apples plot, they get mired into those intrigues they’re chasing. The rogue finds that his family has some troubles of their own, and sets up the former peasant and his daughter with the matchmakers his family has produced. The necromancer finds a sword school and begins speaking with other adepts in the city. The mercenary learns of an all-female street gang, and joins them with the intent of converting them into a proper company.

And then things start getting… out of control.

Situation: A partly-failed infiltration of the brothel in question brings out a ledger, wherein it’s revealed that some of the apples have been sold to the Prince of Cinquedea’s champion, along with other city dignitaries.

Result: The rogue makes plans to call in a favor with the local assassin’s guild to have the champion assassinated (in a fantastic reversal of their “prevent the prince’s champion from being assassinated” plot of two cities ago), and the apples brought to light.

Situation: The ex-peasant landowner starts trying to raise awareness of the plague-apple symptoms by openly spreading word among doctors, healers and the like.

Result: He finds himself tailed by a wererat, revealing that wererats are part of the forces aligned with the plague-apple vendors, and that they’ve noticed him.

Situation: The mercenary discovers that the Cinquedean branch of her House (the Rovino) are leaning on a master swordsmith, trying to encourage him to produce more, shoddier weapons that they can still sell at high prices due to his name. She starts getting involved with the local Rovinos, hoping to guide them subtly out of this process.

Result: An open standoff near the swordsmith’s results in the rogue revealing himself to the Rovinos — the very same people he originally fled the city to avoid after sleeping with one of their young ladies. In addition, it’s clear that he’s standing alongside a Vargari (who the Rovinos hate) and a Sespech (the necromancer). The Rovinos start to wonder about conspiracies.

Situation: The mercenary attempts to convince the paranoid, belligerent head of the Rovinos that there’s no telling who might be aligned against the house if it’s a conspiracy, and tells him to lie low. She critically fails the check.

Result: The players discover that the Rovinos are now shoring up allies among other Houses, contacting assassins, gathering street-level soldiers to incite riots, and preparing a strike to cripple one of the Houses they suspect of working against them to make an example. Their target? One of the Sorcerous Houses. Who are themselves, of course, completely innocent.

So as of last night, the players discovered where their intrigues have gotten them: they’re behind an assassination plot reaching up to the Prince’s court, wererats are looking for them, and one of the Houses is about to start a civil war in the city if something isn’t done. None of this was planned by me, except maybe the wererats. This is what is going on when the city reacts to the players.

“This is going to end with the city in flames,” they said last night. And it might. And it might not. It depends on what they do.

I have no doubt they’ll do something, though. They are an amazing bunch that way. And they deserve to have it said. Cheers, guys. Looking forward to next session.

 
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Posted by on November 9, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Loot Up Front

I finished Disgaea 4 this last weekend. Well, to be fair, I finished the main story: I’m not sure it’s possible to finish a Disgaea game, but whatever. And along the way, naturally I was addicted to the Item World subgame of power-leveling items and raking in the loot. And there’s something very interesting about how they handle the gambling aspect there.

If you’re not familiar with the Disgaea series, it’s a turn-based strategy RPG. You get loot in one of two ways: you can steal it from your enemies before you kill them, and you can get loot-table bonus rewards when you clear a stage. There are nine slots on the bonus gauge, filled with random items, XP bonuses, extra money, etc. The more you fill the bonus gauge, the more stuff you get.

Now, the interesting thing about this is that in the Item World, you can powerlevel an item by running through stages, but you don’t have to finish them. You can just race for the exit for the next level, and that counts for adding a level to the item you’re running through. Whether you stay to fight the enemies depends on two things: if you’re trying to level your characters as well as the item, or if you see some nice, rare stuff on the bonus gauge. If it’s worth the effort you stay and fight, if it isn’t you don’t. But the point is you see the results of the random loot when you start the stage. You know what items the enemies have (you can mouse over them), you can check the bonus gauge before you deploy a single character.

It’s a fascinating system, and it’s profoundly addictive. You know what you’re going to get, and you can go for those rewards, or dive down another level and “roll again.” You don’t fight the same mob over and over again hoping to see the reward you want. By listing off the rewards at the start, you can choose your engagements. You still aren’t guaranteed most of the rewards (it’s hard to steal items, for instance, unless you really grind up a thief), but you know what you can get.

It really makes me think about how you could use a similar arrangement outside of the Disgaea series. Much as I’d love to see it replace the “commit to the fight, then see if you were lucky” loot system of the average MMO, I confess it’d be near-impossible there: the only way to hold most groups of players together is the hope that there’s something for everyone. If you see right up front that the dungeon’s gonna be dropping mostly druid loot and nothing for warriors, the warrior will probably drop the group instead of running the dungeon anyway. You get something similar with event-type loot — the seasonal boss will be dropping X loots this week — but it’s still not really the same model. It’s still “commit to the fight, then see if the gamble paid off,” rather than “gamble, then decide to commit to the fight or not.”

All told, though, I think it’s an approach worth considering. Yes, it lets people pick and choose their fights instead of spending more time in the game — but it becomes remarkably addictive in its own right. So much so that I’m pretty glad I can now set the game aside with a clear conscience, telling myself “I’m done for now.”

Until Skyrim hits, of course. Urgh.

 
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Posted by on November 7, 2011 in Uncategorized