King Arthur Pendragon

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Legacy of the Ancients - The Towers

Warning: This post contains spoilers for my upcoming Numenera campaign. If you are a player, stay away..

Every campaign should have a name and this one is no exception: Legacy of the Ancients. The name just popped into my mind and I really don't care if it's already used somewhere else. I like it. It conveys what the campaign is about. Besides, it's a cool sounding name for a campaign.

Below, you can see a diagram of the existing towers. Eons ago, the network covered the whole planet. Are there other towers still standing? Most likely. However, they are not longer part of the network because the portals inside are no longer active.

The diagram is a handy reference. It doesn't represent the towers' geographical position nor the spacial position between them. I will place each tower on the map of the Ninth World as it suits my campaign. For instance, tower 8 is not necessary in the center of the existing network as the diagram shows. The lines indicate how the towers are connected as follows:

  • Dotted lines indicate non-functioning portals.
  • Solid lines show working portals.
  • Arrows indicate one-way or two-way portals and direction of travel. For instance, tower 3 connects to tower 5 via a one-way portal. The PCs will travel to tower 5 but cannot return to tower 3. Tower 3 also connects to tower 4 via a two-way portal. PCs can arrive at tower 3 from tower 8 but cannot go return the same way.

Each portal or transport bubble is similar. It's a large bubble - approximately 3 meter radius - floating in the center of a large chamber. Its transparent surface ripples much like water on a pond disturbed by the wind. Inside, there is no gravity. Many unidentified symbols glow on interior surface. Some appear and disappear. Occasional, smaller diagrams are visible but these are meaningless. The symbols can be manipulated by touch (like a touch screen). With an Intellect roll the PCs can "dial" other towers. Transportation is instantaneous and seamless. The PCs feel no transition other than that the chamber in which the bubble is standing changes slightly according to the destination ("The room changes slightly. You see a pile of dead bodies that wasn't there before").

I still don't want to go into much detail about the towers' location, precise operation or even layout as these will adapt to suit the story of the campaign. Many eons passed since the towers were built. The geography changed, some were looted, others are occupied by creatures - natural or otherwise.


Here's what I sketched about the first tower: it is now in a marshy area of the Orrimare forest - a fungal forest of giant mushrooms. Nearby is a small village. The tower itself is two structures: A cube made of an unidentified black metal that barely reflects the light. Each face is about 30 meters long and there are no doors or windows or any other openings. It floats on the air, slowly spinning on its axis, with one vertex pointing down to the top of a stone-like, tapering, rectangular pillar, 9 meters high. Inside the pillar, the PCs will find a control room. From there, they can teleport into the cube and explore further. There are many rooms inside the cube and these will be detailed for my first session. One of these is, obviously, the bubble chamber.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Numenera - Genesis of a Campaign (Part 3)

WARNING: This post contains spoilers for my upcoming Numenera campaign. If you are a player, keep away.

Now that we have a basic premise for the campaign and a potential powerful technological artifact - The Eye of Azhura - as the McGuffin (aka Ronin's suitcase), it's time to write down some of the potential oposition the player-characters will face either willingly or unwillingly. Not every one of these non-player characters are out to get the Eye of Azhura. Some want to loot the towers, others are secretely spying the player-characters and still others are doing their own thing but fate puts them in the player-characters' path.

Some of the following non-player characters were created by me, others were suggested during character creation. These are only the initial ideas. The campaign is always in flux and much can be changed depending on the players' ideas and characters' actions.

There are three characters in play so far: a nano, a glaive and a jack.
  • A Tough Glaive Who Controls Beasts.
  • A Mechanical Nano Who Exists Partly Out of Phase.
  • A Graceful Jack Who Entertains.
I asked the players to roll/choose from the connection table on each type.

NPCs suggested during character creation:
  • Kreel, the glaive's pet. This NPC has lots of potential for GM intrusions. According to this focus, the kreel hates another player-character. I sketched the beast as it exists in nature.
  • The teachers of the nano and the powers that be who are keeping an eye on him rolled on the Nano Connection table. I'll leave these "powers that be" open for now. The players will provide me some ideas later. Perhaps they are the teachers of the nano, perhaps a different faction within the same school or a different group altogether.
  • The jack's troupe of travelling minstrels and performers rolled on the Jack Connection table. These can make an appearance anywhere as they are a travelling group. They can help or hinder the player-characters.
NPCs suggested by the campaign premise:
  • Tregor and Helion, a warrior and a nano. They lead a force of ragtag misfits and cutthroats. Initially, they will be pursuing the jack as she came into possession of information regarding the location of a source of potentially valuable numenera. Tregor is a violent man who leads by fear and force. Helion is no less violent but resorts to manipulation to achieve his own ends. He keeps Tregor in check. In fact, Tregor fears him. At first, it will seem Tregor is the leader of the two, but, in fact, Helion gives the orders.
  • Volarus, the wanderer. I don't know who this NPC is... yet! He will be introduced early in the campaign and perhaps play a major part. My idea is that once he was a normal man who came into contact with ancient technology. Something blended with him and rewrote his DNA. Now he is something else, more transhuman than human. He will seem to be a mere observer with an unknown agenda. He can heal the most serious wounds by touch and he has little recollection of his past.
  • The Outsiders. They crashed on Earth a long time ago. Longer than any living human. They seek a power source for their starship so they can return home. The only power source in existence powerful enough is the Eye of Azhura. They wear dark hooded cloaks and metal gloves and hide their faces with metal masks in the likeness of the human physiognomy  In truth, these are suits that allow them to survive on Earth's atmosphere. They are not human, although I haven't decided their true nature yet.
At this point I don't think I need to over-complicate things. Two or three opponents with conflicting agendas is all that's needed to propel the plot. Other NPCs appear on a scenario to scenario basis like the local innkeeper or aeon priest.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Gap in Play

This post in The Signe of the Frothing Mug mirrors most of my own experiences. Sometimes it happens unexpectedly. With so many busy working schedules, family issues and other real life issues, someone misses one session. As we are in a middle of a scenario, we take the time out waiting for the player to return. Suddenly, someone else fails to show up on the second week. Before we know it, we don't play for three weeks in a row, and I begin to lose interest. After all, I'm not willing to spend time preparing a session if I don't know whether we're playing or not. And then, the campaign implodes as everyone loses interest. Some of us been there and done that. So, what can we do to avoid a campaign implosion by lack of attendance?

In the past, we arranged for a quorum, that is, if at least half the players could make it, we would still play regardless. This almost guarantees the campaign never stops. I used this with mixed results. I never got the sense I was playing with a cohesive group as different players failed to show up on different occasions. I was never playing with the full group. This meant individual storylines failed to take root and even the overall story arcs didn't generate much interest because no player was there all the time to play through it.

We also tried to play in episodic style. This style meant sacrificing long, involving and complex stories for shorter stories of 1-2 sessions. This worked better specially if there were a rotating cast. Every story started with whoever was available and off they went. At the end of session, they returned to their base camp (or ship or whatever) to rest. Next session, rinse and repeat. The problem is this only works if the group is traveling in a mobile base (a spaceship or a boat) or if the campaign is bound within certain geographic limits and the group returns to the same place to rest. In some games, requiring lots of travel, it becomes increasingly difficult to rationalize why some of the missing characters manage to find the rest of the group if they travel all the way to the other side of world.

In the end, I find that both solutions are not ideal ones. When I start a new campaign, I just hope the players commit to the game schedule we agree and take it seriously. Currently, we play twice a month. We hope that, by devoting one week to gaming and another to our families, we will maintain a regular gaming schedule and the campaign won't implode from lack of interest generated by long gaps in play. It still doesn't solve the problem of one player missing a session and waiting three weeks to be able to play again, but then again, by not imposing a weekly game, perhaps the players will show up more often because they are not forced to choose between the game and other things so often.

I am interested in hearing about your own experiences and solutions to this problem, and how did they work out in the end.

Numenera Creatures: Kreel

WARNING: This post contains spoilers for a creature in upcoming Numenera campaign. My players are advised to stay away.

One of the players in my upcoming Numenera campaign is a Tough Glaive Who Controls Beasts. Instead of forcing the player to take of the creatures from the bestiary of the Numenera corebook, I allowed him to flex his creative muscles and give me a description of a creature he envisioned for his character. The Ninth World being a weird place filled with many creatures created by past civilizations, this was only fitting. According to the corebook, the creature starts as at level 2 and progresses from there, and since it exists in the world, there are more like it. So, level 2 is a good baseline for this creature. Below I present this new beast in Numenera format.

A kreel is a writhing mass, the size of a human head, of yellow-orange tentacles with purple tips. This mass envelops a minuscule body with a toothed orifice that serves as mouth. They slight shift coloration from deep red to bright yellow, perhaps a form of communication with other kreel. They move silently, gliding through the air in short bursts.
Kreel are rarely seen in nature. Scholars debate their exact nature but it is commonly agreed they are an animal / plant hybrid with a diet of small animals, complemented by some sort of photosynthetic process.
Motive: Breed and protection.
Environment: Found only in deep underground caves or the giant mushroom forests of Drej and Orrimare.
Health: 6
Damage Inflicted: 2 points
Movement: Short
Modifications: Moves silently as level 5.
Combat: Mostly found in colonies, kreel flee if alone unless cornered. They attack the exposed skin of the opponent, trying to wrap their tentacles around an arm, leg or even head. Then, the creatures releases a small, stinging poison, while biting with its mouth.
Interaction: With an animal level of intelligence and no means of communication, a kreel is very difficult to interact with. They are aggressive and territorial. More often than not, they attack whomever comes into contact with them. Even someone capable of handling animals will find it next to impossible to interact with one.
Use: The PCs wander into a colony of kreel while exploring. Someone hires the PCs to capture a kreel alive to breed as a pet or curiosity for some bored noble. The acid in their tentacles can be extracted and processed into a poison with alchemy (inflicts 1 additional point of damage).
Loot: None, although kreel flesh is a delicacy in The Steadfast and can earn the PCs good shin.
GM intrusion: The acid of a kreel is stronger than normal. The PC suffers wracking pain and muscle spasms loosing an action. A kreel is larger than normal. It has 8 points of health and inflicts 3 points of damage.

Final Note: In my campaign world, no one can tame kreel except the PC (who helped me create it) using an tattoo-like implant on his forehead that glows when he sends impulses to his kreel in a higher frequency range than the normal human ear can pick.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Comedy of Horrors

Today I participated in a meeting of several roleplaying groups under the theme Horror and the Fantastic. Being so close to the Halloween, this was only fitting. I took a break from preparing Numenera to run a session of Trail of Cthulhu. I used a Purist adventure called the The Dance in the Blood. For those who don't know, in Trail of Cthulhu there are two modes: the Purist mode, typical Lovecraft, in which the investigators will never make a difference, their efforts are futile and all their beliefs will be rendered null at the end of the scenario, and the Pulp mode, in which the investigators have a fighting chance, they will go down but with guns blazing, it's a mode designed to simulate Robert E. Howard's Mythos stories. You can mix and match several modular rules to achieve the proper mode or anything in between.

As I stated, we were playing in full Purist mode (and the game was advertised as such), meaning the investigators would be trying to solve the case and reach the final revelation before going mad or dying. Everyone knew the story would not end happily, although the characters would have a chance to solve the case, they would not survive unscathed.

It's was a public place. I don't like playing Trail of Cthulhu with background noise. I like my Trail of Cthulhu sessions in a quiet place to achieve the proper mood and immersion. These notwithstanding, we did quite well. There were three players: two girls and a guy, not that it matters, but I think Mythos games tend to attract a higher ratio of girls. The girls were doing quite well, but for some reason the guy was not, breaking constantly the mood and telling jokes. I ignored some of it at the beginning for the simple reason that I was playing in a public meeting and we don't get to choose the players. It's a a demo session, after all. However, the silly behavior was annoying me.

I had to pause the game to remind the players (I avoided talking directly to THAT player) that they were also responsible for preserving the mood and horror of the game. Despite the many nods, he didn't stop. He wasn't being a jerk. He thought it was only natural since it's "just" a game, and people play to have fun. To him, fun obviously equates to telling constant jokes and distracting other players. He finally admitted it was a sort of defense mechanism much like when we say something funny when the tension is unbearable. Not that it was that, we playing in a public place and all.

He was also the first player I met who actively resisted the system. In other words, he didn't think his character should loose Stability EVER, he justified every Stability loss with some logical reason (in his mind). It went something like this:

Keeper: "You finally understand YOU are a monster beneath your human skin."
Player: "Ah, I would never lose Stability because I already had a dream about it so I'm used to it."

And this went on and on and on specially during the climatic encounter when revelations were coming fast and loose. Nevertheless, the girls were doing OK and much of what worked in that session was because of them. They were roleplaying their characters, they were investigating, the reacted adequately to every situation even in sanity-shaking moments.

My point being that some players don't really understand Call of Cthulhu or Trail of Cthulhu. It's not a game for everyone (worse still in Purist mode). However, some people also don't seem to get that their inability to play a certain game should never be an excuse to drag down the game and annoy the other players. Just walk away please or better yet, make sure you, at least, enjoy the premise before signing to play. I would be less miffed if he would be honest and say something like "Sorry guys, this game isn't for me, I'm bowing out".

Friday, October 25, 2013

Some Nice Pictures

Two weeks ago, I GMed my first Numenera session, the Nightmare Switch, an exclusive kickstarter scenario. It went quite well, I think. At least, everyone had fun so I use that as measuring stick as to whether I did ok as a GM. Perhaps sometime soon I'll post a brief review / actual play of that game that took three and half hours to complete. In any case, one of the players was constantly sketching as I was playing and here are some of his drawings:

This is the tower where the priests of the village lived, a clave of Aeon Priests. It was secured by a garden of poisonous plants and an odd device that rendered people unconscious should they get too near the inner tower.

Out in the desert, there was a mysterious dome of a previous civilization with many strange machines inside of unknown purpose. I was quite satisfied with these drawings as they accurately depict what I had in mind and my description of these places. It was also a first for me to have a player who was drawing my descriptions so I asked him to take these and scan them to share with you all.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Retrospective: Shadow World Master Atlas

My recent posts here and here concerning my Numenera campaign brought back memories of an old setting favorite of mine: Shadow World. Published by Iron Crown Enterprises (ICE) in boxed set format, it caught my attention at a time when I was being introduced to roleplaying games. Prior to 1990, I had only played the Dungeons & Dragons red box.

At the time, this boxed set was dual stated for Rolemaster and Hero System. I recall visiting my local game store with two friends. Each of us had decided to buy a different game so we could each take turns as GMs. I bought Middle Earth Roleplaying (MERP), another bought Shadowrun (1st edition) and the third bought the Hero System plus Fantasy Hero. He also bought Shadow World. This was my first contact with the setting, although I never had a chance to be a player in it. Instead, my friend decided that being a GM was too much work and I borrowed his books.

I played a lot of MERP in those days before finally getting my hands on a copy of Call of Cthulhu. My gaming priorities shifted from fantasy to horror. Even though I occasionally tried other systems (the occasional AD&D one-shot or a few sessions of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay), my heart was set in Call of Cthulhu and I never looked back.

However, I read the Shadow World boxed set. I even managed to pull myself from Call of Cthulhu for a week or two to try and create characters with my players (one was a centaur, as I remember) but, alas, it never came to pass. And yet, I enjoyed the setting a lot. It was a typical ICE product with a lot of emphasis on minutia such as flora, fauna and weather patterns. I was used to such information from the MERP books, although in retrospective much of that is unnecessary to create a good campaign and useless to all but the most detailed-obsessed readers. The layout was two blocky columns with a minuscule font filled with page after page of stats. Taking a cue from AD&D's Monster Manual, it even had stats for the deities, although I suspect (my memory is a bit hazy) that those were more super-beings than divine beings.

Shadow World was a typical high fantasy world where magic coexisted with psionics and divine spells so it could make full use of the Spell Law book from Rolemaster with its three schools of magic: Mentalism (psionics), Essence (magic) and Channeling (divine). Most of the standard fantasy races such as elves, dwarves and hobbits were also present as well as the more commonly known fantasy creatures, such as trolls, orcs and dragons.

In retrospect, what fascinated me most about it were the science-fiction elements. They were subdued, of course, but they were there. Kulthea (the main planet) had been colonized by beings from a galactic empire in the distant past, some of who were still alive working in the shadows. Technology from that empire could still be found in remote place and deep in underground dungeons. Unlike my present game, Numenera, the system made no distinction between these technological artifacts and magic items, but the very notion of them being there was enough to pull me into the world. I could envision fantastic underground structures with sleek corridors and technical panels, forgotten tombs with mechanical guardians and all sorts of mysterious technologies. The moon of Orhan, where super-beings live, is described as possibly having been terraformed a long time ago.

In Numenera, the world is a fantastic place shaped visibly by impossibly advanced technologies. In Shadow World, the world feels more "natural" because the sci-fi elements are more subdued. They are there to be sure, but the setting never strays far from its fantasy roots, focusing on high fantasy rather than a melange of both genres. I can still find some inspiration there, as my recent posts attest, and I still find it a good setting to create adventures and even very adaptable to other systems (as was the original intent). It is one of my top five fantasy settings even if it's not one of the most original out there.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Numenera - Genesis of a Campaign (Part 2)

WARNING: This post contains spoilers for my upcoming Numenera campaign. Players: stay away!

In my campaign's first post I described the basic premise of the campaign. From the get-go, even before I considered using a network of transdimensional gates as a clothesline where to hang the player characters' stories, I decided I wanted to include a powerful artifact. And where there is a powerful artifact, you can bet there are all sorts of factions trying to get their hands on it.

This being Numenera, the artifact is called the Eye of Azhura. The players will find a mystifying veil of stories and old wives-tales surrounding the Eye of Azhura. Most of the people of the Ninth World is superstitious and understands little of the technology left by the super-advanced civilizations of old. They know what trickles from the distant past in musty old tomes and oral tradition. It's a powerful gem or perhaps the eye of a god that unleashed divine wrath and brought the dead back to life. At this moment, I'm still playing with the form these legends will take, but it won't be a gem except in the minds of the people who tell these tales.

Taking inspiration from one of my favorite settings of 80s, Shadow World, published by Iron Crown Enterprises, the Eye of Azhura is an energy source placed inside a shrine to power a force field around the Earth that protects it against energy forces inimical to all life. In fact, there are two Eyes of Azhura: one on the north pole and the other on the south pole. How does this tie with the network of gates? As the player characters explore the tower structures, they learn about the Eyes (perhaps both the artifacts and the gate structures were created by the same civilization) and that others also seek to control the towers for their own ends including a group of voyagers from the stars stranded on Earth long ago who seek a functioning power source to restart their ship and leave the planet. This, of course, poses a problem since the removal of either Eye will deactivate the Earth shield, thereby exposing the planet to deadly energies.

Since I like to complicate things, not all of these opposing groups want or seek the Eyes. Some just want to reach far away places through the gates for their own purposes. Some are just in it for the numenera. I don't want to turn this into an epic affair with whole armies battling for a powerful artifact. I want to keep low-key approach with a small cast of player and non-player characters. Numenera runs quite well by introducing little by little the sci-fi elements. When the players look around, they will be knee-deep in transdimensional gates, powerful structures filled with ancient machines, an artifact that is a power source of a planetary force shield, visitors from the stars and ancient space ships. I like where this is going so far.


In praise of Grognardia

I don't remember how I came across Grognardia, James Malizsewski's blog about old school gaming. I don't even remember if I learned about the blog's existence before I began playing AD&D 1st edition two years ago or if I was surfing the web looking for old school gaming advice after I started playing AD&D 1st edition. What I can say with certainty is that Grognardia was a source of inspiration and entertainment for a good many months, mostly between 2010 and the end of the blog in 2012. I was reading it even before I knew what OSR (Old School Renaissance) was. I wasn't part of that movement. My reading of the blog was more of an attempt to learn about that nebulous period (for me) that encompasses the origins of the hobby, from circa 1974, to the mid-1980s.

I came relatively late to the hobby around 1989 with Frank Mentzer's Dungeons & Dragons red box and skipped right to Middle Earth roleplaying game (MERP), then Call of Cthulhu. I never played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons regularly, except for the occasional one-shot scenario during the second edition years. Fantasy-wise I was mostly a MERP and Warhammer Roleplaying game fan, although most of my hobby time was devoted to Call of Cthulhu. My serious involvement with old school gaming, to the extent that involvement implies not only playing the game, but also reading about the early days and its key figures, began in 2010.

In the end, it matters little how I discovered Grognardia. What matters is that the blog was my go-to blog for a few months. It was inspirational reading and many a night I spent pouring through hundreds of articles. I learned more about funhouse dungeons, what particular historical context a certain module was published in, who some of the most influencial figures of the early days of the hobby were, and many other facts. I learned to what extent the Dragonlance modules influenced TSR to go from a dungeon-oriented model to a story-oriented module, I learned some entertaining facts about those who tackled the legendary Tomb of Horrors and something about the history of the long lost Greyhawk campaign.

Its influence on the whole OSR movement, of which James Maliszewski was a fierce proponent, is undeniable. Now that the blog seems to be dead, I join others like Once More Unto the Breach in remembering. Would you care to share some of own your memories about Grognardia?

Monday, October 21, 2013

Numenera - Genesis of a Campaign (Part 1)

WARNING: This post contains spoilers for my upcoming Numenera campaign. Players: stay away! This is the first in a series of posts where I describe the genesis of my campaign and what sort of events I'm planning.

In about three weeks, I'm running my first Numenera adventure. Hopefully, it will be the beginning of a campaign. As experienced GMs know, a campaign doesn't require complex plots or even any long-term planning. You just need the player characters, an introductory adventure and things will develop from there. The players will immediately begin to develop their own plans either from scratch or from previous events, and I just have to develop things from there. I could make an episodic campaign, where each adventure is unconnected from previous ones, a picaresque story of sorts, with the PCs wandering the setting, getting into all sorts of mischief. However, I decided to create a connecting thread, something that provides a rationale for all that is going on.

Inspiration can come from unlikely places, and this one jumped right out of the Dungeon magazine pages, namely issue #10, volume II, March/April 1988. It's called Secrets of the Towers. I would hesitate to call this an adventure. Rather, it's a series of short descriptions of the eponymous towers, twelve in all. The premise is that there are twelve magical towers scattered across the world. They are ancient structures (at least 2000 years old) that once formed a quick transport network via magic portals. Now, you are beginning to see how this could easily be transplanted to the Ninth World. The towers become structures impossibly old. The 2000 years become millions of years and the structures true purposes are all but lost in time. They don't even need to look like towers.

Each tower vignette in the article includes a short description of the place (easily expanded) and some antagonist that is also interested in the place. For instance, in tower one, it's an orc shaman leading a band of orcs. Again, this can easily be changed into humans or margr or other abhuman interested in the tower (or, in Numenera, structure).

I'm still collecting my thoughts about this, but already ideas are flowing. The structures are nothing but a mcguffin that propels the campaign forward. What happens in each location or in-between is what's important. Since the towers can be placed anywhere in the world (after all, they are connected by transdimensional gates), I can lead the player characters to wherever I want and drop any adventure in their path. For instance, let's say they activate the portal in tower one and travel to tower two but a malfunction deactivates the gate in this tower leaving them stranded away from home. They can search for a power source for the tower, leading to all sorts of interesting side-plots or return home, which can also lead to all sorts of adventure or any other thing I can think of. I can even place a tower outside Earth or in another dimension. There could also be a number of opposing factions vying for control of the structures.

Does it matter what the towers do or that the player characters are able to find them all or even control them all? Not in the least. As I said, it's only a plot device to keep the campaign going. It's also a source of numenera and even these can be potential story hooks. In the end, what matters is the journey and not the destination.


Combat: The bane of roleplaying?

One thing I hear a lot goes something like this (not exact words): "We were roleplaying the scene when suddenly combat broke out. After we killed / drove off / defeated the enemy, we resumed our roleplaying of the scene."

I am always perplexed by this way of thinking. It's not universal but it's more frequent than we think. What does it even mean? People are roleplaying their PCs' interactions with NPCs and when combat starts, roleplaying ceases to be and it all becomes a tactical / mechanical game? Is combat mutually exclusive from roleplaying? In my opinion, no, and it's a fallacy to play any roleplaying game based on this false assumption. It's true that I see this more often in games like D&D and GURPS where the rules that govern combat are more complex and extensive, so there might be a reason why people stop thinking in terms of roleplaying during combat when they are forced to micromanage an endless rooster of mechanics. On the other hand, it's perfectly possible, and even preferable, to maintain a modicum of roleplaying during physical conflicts of any sort.

People who consider combat extraneous to roleplaying are splitting up what are essentially two complementary elements. Everything should flow naturally from one scene to the next, and roleplaying should be always on the forefront. After all, if roleplaying is acting like a character would in any situation, why would the character stop acting the way he does in combat? In the reality of the setting, does the character thinks in terms of turns, rounds, the mechanical bonuses of his sword or the level of the opponent to determine spell resistance? No, he thinks in terms of moments, of how sharp or strong his sword is or how tough or mind-resilient his opponent is. He would think in terms of the elements natural to the setting. The mechanics don't exist in the setting, though they exist in the game to define what is permissible in the setting.

This is why so many roleplaying games take the time to encourage the players to describe their actions in combat, to embellish what is happening. Otherwise, combat turns into an exercise of cold management of mechanics and bonus crunching. And this is why so many players complain that combat cease to be roleplaying and turns into a boring tactical conflict. There's nothing wrong with tactics. It's even encouraged in some systems. What I contend is that both can coexist.

Perhaps it would be more helpful to think in terms of social and physical conflicts. These terms do not preclude roleplaying, so they are not so restrictive in the mind of the players. In both types of conflicts, rules are called for and applied. I roll Persuasion to convince an NPC of something he does not believe in (Social) and I roll my Sword to attack an NPC who doesn't want to be hit (Conflict). In both cases, I'm acting against an NPC and that NPC is an obstacle to what I want to do. In both cases, I always consider what my character is doing or thinking before I act. And this includes speaking IN CHARACTER. The character shouts orders to his men in combat, he/she runs to a beloved friend to protect him from the orcs and he cries in anguish when an ally falls down.

To sum up: combat is not a game apart from the main game, where the act of roleplaying is diminished or even banned, not matter how tactical it gets. It should be an opportunity to highlight those traits that are not evident in more social occasions ("I hunger for the blood of fallen enemies"). It should be as heroic or as grim as the game allows and encourage roleplay in that sense. It should also be acting in character. Remove roleplaying from combat and you're just using mechanics and moving pieces like a chessboard. In this sense, it ceases to be a roleplaying game. You might as well be playing a boardgame.

What do you think?

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Numenera - First Impressions

Last Saturday I got to run a small session of Numenéra. In case you have been living under a rock, Numenéra is the new roleplaying game by Monte Cook. Set a billion of years in the future, after the rise and fall of nine unimaginably advanced civilizations, the game is about a world littered with these pieces of numenera - remnants of technology from those previous civilizations - that the people of this age don't fully understand and consider to be magical. The premise is the third law of Arthur C. Clarke: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". I won't review the game here as I'm sure a Google search will return a number of good reviews about the system.

The system is simple and flexible. It won't be to everyone's tastes, especially if you like your systems more complex, but it gets the job done and in an extraordinarily efficient manner. After a few rolls, in the demo session I ran, the players were using the system without checking the rules within minutes of play. It faded into the background allowing us to focus on the story. The fact that the GM NEVER rolls the dice alleviates some of the burden of running the game. Every action in game is rolled by the players, even those initiated by NPCs. The PC wants to attack someone, he rolls the attack. The PC wants to avoid being seen by a guard, he rolls his stealth. The NPC attacks the PC, the player rolls defense. The NPC wants to sneak by a PC, the player rolls to spot the NPC, and so on. In play, it's runs very smoothly.

The system goes something like this: whenever a PC tries to do something that needs rolling, the GM chooses a difficulty from 1 to 10. In turn, the player must roll the same or higher than a target number equal to that difficulty times 3. So, trying to climb a wall with a difficulty of 3, the PC must roll 9 or higher (3x3=9). And this goes for every thing in the game. NPCs have levels which determine how hard is to target them or how difficulty it is to evade their attacks. For instance, if a level 2 NPC attacks a PC, the player must roll 6 or higher to avoid the attack. If they player wants to attack, he must roll 6 or higher. Remember that the players always roll. Since the players can change the difficulty using a series of mechanics such as skills, equipment or by spending points from their attributes pools, they are always in control of how difficult the task is.

Making NPCs is as simple as the GM noting down: Korr Vehn, village leader, level 2. Since the NPC level determines everything mechanically pertinent about the NPC from health to difficulty numbers for and against the PCs, the GM only has to focus on the visuals, bringing the NPC to life.

The setting is the highlight of the game. The blend of medieval technology with the remnants of numenera bring a sort of surreal quality to the world. The players, and by extension the PCs, never know what they will find around the corner or over the next hill. They could find a metal dome with all sorts of odd machines inside or a cube of energy floating in the air with a person frozen inside. It provides a sense of wonder and mystery which encourages the players to explore. In the demo session, the adventure started with a typical "go there and deliver something" quest but it turned into something more as the numenera became more and more pronounced. The players are constantly reminded that they are not in a standard fantasy world. That priest tower may be stone and mortar but is surely protected by a force field or an automaton or a deadly cloud of nanites. The villagers are plagued with strange dreams that may be data being wrongly transmitted by a malfunctioning machine that the PCs must repair.

Even the creatures remind us that the Earth we know or any other fantasy setting. There are no orcs, dwarfs, dragons or elves. There are no horses. Instead people ride aneen, a long legged quadruped creature. In play, the players loved this strangeness, the blend of sci-fi with fantasy, or sci-fantasy. To sum up: it's a game well-worth playing and I'm looking forward to start my campaign soon.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New Year Resolution

It's true that as 2012 came to an end I began to really consider GURPS as a viable alternative to my previous gaming choices. It's also true that 2012 was not a good year in terms of gaming, not because I had any lack of player (if anything, I had too many players), but because, for one reason or another, every game fizzled. I won't go back to that subject. You can read all about it here.

I read GURPS 4th edition cover to cover. I enjoyed it but as I began preparing my space opera campaign, I realized I was wasting an ungodly amount of time wrestling with the mechanics. I could just sketch the beginning of a campaign and let the players loose with the rules to create anything they wanted within the premise of the game: a ragtag band of misfits wandering the galaxy, treading the fine line between law and crime. Not unlike Firefly or Traveller. However, I knew that none of my players had read the Player's Guide, so it would take God knows how much time to finish their characters by having them pick and choose from the hideously enormous list of advantages, disadvantages and skills. For the neophyte, it can be a daunting task. I set out to prepare templates of occupations instead, so I could pare down the list of available choices to only those I deemed appropriate to the genre. And the more I did this, the more I felt the need to do something else.

GURPS is a very fine system that does what it sets out to do. It just isn't for me. When I waste more time thinking about the mechanics and how to translate into numbers what my imagination creates, it isn't for me. Almost all roleplaying games have this element of conversion from imagination to mechanics in one way or the other, but I'd rather  spend more time conjuring  people, places and plots than defining what are the appropriate skills for a space academic. I even tried to switch to swords & sorcery with GURPS Conan as it's a genre close to my hear, but I felt that trying to pare down the list of skills to maintain the fast-paced tone of the stories was inglorious. I ended up cutting out almost half the list (do people really need business acumen in S&S?) and the more I cut, the more I wanted to cut. Savage Worlds does it so much better with only half a dozen skills.

Looking back to what I most enjoyed playing in 2012, AD&D 1st was at the top of the list. I only played about half a dozen sessions using the venerable Keep on the Borderlands, but they were immensely enjoyable. I never held the players hand or led them by the nose, they showed lots of creativity in dealing with the NPCs at the fort and the obstacles outside, the thief with 3 hp was having lots of fun just surviving combat, the ranger wanted to kick the bad cleric's ass and take the magic plate mail for himself and overall the level of excitement was high. We ended up cutting it short because of a rules lawyer and a whiner. I had to let these two go and, in retrospect, the whiner was whining because his expectations of what an AD&D 1e game ought to be were different from the group's. By the end of it all, much time had been wasted dealing with internal conflicts leeching most of the fun from the game.

We fumbled the rest of the year but nothing was as fun as those first months when the group adventured in and around the lonely keep on the borderlands. I kept the core group so I decided to make my New Year resolution: to play a campaign of AD&D 1e for as long as it was fun. Will I be able to do it? I am not averse to accepting new players but I have to be more picky. There's a huge disconnect between old school gaming and player's expectations nowadays so I have to be totally open when explaining the gaming style I want for my campaign. I will blog about my experiences as the campaign develops. What's your New Year resolution? Tell me what do you intend to accomplish this year in your hobby?

The True Master

For a few weeks I have been avidly reading stuff about The Tomb of Horrors, that most classic tournament module, reviled by some and praised by others. One thing they all agree on is that the module is a real meat grinder, although some spout that it's an unfair scenario that tricks the players into certain death while others defend it can be "won" by a careful and methodical approach and by ingenuity. I think the picture below summarizes it best. It certainly made me smile.