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Last issue, I presented an exercise called “How Did They Meet?” which called for GMs to roll up a random party and then concoct their shared backstory. Deciding to try out my own system, I selected a fantasy campaign and rolled a 5 for the number of characters. # 1 2 3 4 Name Dim Elena Ginger Nemita r 5 Rolo Sex Male Female Female Male Male Race Dwarf Elf Human Elf Halfling Class Warrior Assassin Monk Priest Assassin along so well. At least there are presently no hatreds between party members, a sure sign of imminent party disintegration, although my bet is that it wouldn’t take much to push Rolo over the edge. Finally, it is rather interesting that we’ve got two assassins in the party. In AD&D, an assassin is mainly just a thief with a little bit extra going on. The instantkill can be unbalancing, but just because they have it doesn’t mean they’re paying guild members looking for jobs. Nonetheless, a party with two of them plus a monk indicates that these guys may be some sort of surgical strike force or perhaps even a group of spies tasked to work together as a team. I’m definitely thinking espionage mixed in with a little bit of coldblooded murder. The Backstory: Long ago, the Elves of the Eternal Forest were chased from their realm by the fastbreeding orcs. Their kingdom shattered, they scattered into the lands of men where they were often poached or enslaved. A secretive order of monks, however, known as the Grey Sisterhood, began protecting the elves, giving them sanctuary within their network of safe houses that lay scattered across several mannish kingdoms. In return, the elves began training their benefactors in their arts of sorcery, and, in particular, in the age-old arts of item enchantment and potion brewing. Thus, the Grey Sisterhood grew in power, and magical items of disguise were created, allowing the elves to masquerade as humans. As per tradition, the Sisterhood composes its operational teams of five members, each team called a “Hand”. This particular Hand is nominally led by Ginger, a young member of the Sisterhood. Her team includes Dim, a dwarf fighter who the Sisterhood freed from enslavement deep beneath the surface world. Like many dwarves, Dim has a solid sense of personal honor, and he will not leave the Sisterhood’s service until he reckons that he has repaid his debt in full. Otherwise, he trusts no one. Elena and Nemitar are elven lifemates. Because the party has been magically equipped through the efforts of the elves, they both view their debt as paid and are therefore less likely to take direct orders than Dim, although both recognize that the elves and the Sisterhood still need one another, and, of course, they recognize Ginger’s position as party liaison to the Sisterhood’s hierarchy. Rolo is a recent recruit, rescued from a prison chaingang where he was forced to exercise more than his nimble, pick-pocketing fingers. Although happy to be free, he feel no special indebtedness and realizes that if he wants to prove his trustworthiness to the party,
If the players were up to it, I’d weave in whatever they might choose to give me in terms of back-story. Sometimes, however, they want the GM to start the ball rolling. To give myself a little extra data to work with, I decided to roll the pre-existing relationships for this party using my standard method1: d10 1 2-3 4-7 8-9 10 Dim Dim Elena Ginger Nemitar Rolo F A Feelings Hatred Animosity Neutral Friendship Devoted Ging. F A Nem. D A Rolo A A A
Elena A D A
Initial Thoughts: With all those A’s scattered all over the chart, I’m sensing a fair amount of ill-will between party members, however, there are also a few strong ties that are probably keeping the group together at some level. In particular, the two elves are probably life-partners. Likewise, Dim and Ginger get along rather well. Rolo seems to be the odd-halfling out, Ginger the only one who’s even neutral toward him. It’s possible that he’s distrusted. Perhaps he was caught stealing from the party. Or maybe they’ve been using him to check for traps, and he’s been whining and bitching and threatening to slit some throats. Finally, the two females don’t seem to be getting
See my article in A&E #348 for a more complete description of how this works.
he’ll have to go above and beyond the call of duty, something he’s not particularly sure that he cares to do. Afterthoughts: One thing that strikes me as interesting about this exercise is that rather than try to fit the party into a traditional fantasy niche, I ended up warping the world around the party, creating racial animosities (between elves and humans) as part of the justification for them working together in a sort of espionage-themed campaign. Essentially, what I’m saying is, “Show me your characters, and then I’ll come up with a campaign.” This might work well for players who are well-disposed to such GMexperimentation, however, what about the guy who wanted to play in a more traditional, fantasy niche where the demihuman races all get along more-orless? At a certain level, any deviation from the norm is a negotiated settlement between the GM and the players, but I can see the value of Brian Roger’s approach of sampling player tastes before simply forging ahead.
Past Zines Floating Online
I mentioned last month that I put my past zines online at esnips.com. Well, it looks like esnips has partnered with scribd.com, and so now my zines are appearing there as well (and who knows where else). This is slightly embarrassing, but who know…maybe it’ll enlighten some gamers as to the existence of A&E (at which point they’ll say, “Oh…it’s like a bunch of gaming blogs except on paper…but why?”).
Comments on A&E #399:
Michael Cule: Enjoyed the write-up on the party cleaning out the necropolis. I was also very impressed with your handling of the missing player, and how you turned this into side-adventure, going back in time to establish event that linked into the campaign. This was absolutely brilliant. Well done! Spike Jones: ryctm on Traveller being hard science vs. space opera: Traveller, being one of those old games that wasn’t terribly well-defined when it first came out and which has subsequently gone through several incompatible editions, is a bit hard to nail down in terms of exactly what it’s supposed to be emulating. Bear in mind that it now has two competing timelines, one involving a civil war and subsequent war against a killer AI, and the other where the Imperium went on without so much as a hiccup. Hence, if Ty or anyone else wants to screw around with the astrography, I can hardly see how
they could do any worse damage to the feel of game than the powers that be have already inflicted. Likewise, it is worth noting that when it comes to SF-RPGs, flat maps and reactionless thrusters aside, Traveller is still harder SF than any of its popular rivals: Star Trek, Star Wars, Dragonstar, etc. If you can think of an SF-RPG that is further along on the Hard-SF continuum, let me know. Universe, perhaps, comes closest. In any case, I could see how pushing Traveller toward Soft-SF would substantially change the feel of the game, but I don’t believe that pushing it slightly toward Hard-SF would have a deleterious impact. It would, however, have some sort of effect, one of the seemingly most obvious relating to the permeability of space to invading forces and pirates, both of which Ty has already considered. These could be ameliorated to some extent by positing “jump drones”, unmanned sensor platforms (some active, others passive) that would monitor strategic areas, the locations and movements of which would no doubt be top secret. The problem, of course…and this is something that Traveller pretty much fails to address…is that when it comes to this issue of permeability, there are lots of strategic areas in space—too many to be effectively monitored. In order to get through an area, all you need is a refueling point. There are probably hundreds of not thousands of such locations around any given star system in the form of the star’s cometary halo or Oort cloud. Likewise, no cubic parsec in galactic space is likely to be utterly vacant. Given what little we presently understand about astronomy, brown dwarfs, rogue worlds, asteroids and comets should all abound, all of these being possible sources of hydrogen, which Traveller supposes to be the fuel for interstellar travel. Hence, unless the Imperium can afford to put thousands of “jump drones” in and around every star systems along its periphery and extending this defensive layer for some distance within its own borders, then space in Traveller really is porous, regardless of what Ty does, but I think that what he is suggesting would at least make things more interesting. ryctm on Liberalism vs. Conservatism: Just for your information, you’re talking to a Californian who voted against Proposition 8. ryctm on not wanting to be labeled a liberal: Sorry, I didn’t realize that you’d be annoyed at the inference. In any case, you’re right. Most of us cannot be so easily categorized into either of the two major political camps. ryctm on your status quo of not defending status quos: Silence is often interpreted as a tacit form of acceptance, although to your credit you did bring up Sapienza’s quote from A&E #88. This, incredibly,
was more than anyone else did, and I say that with no small measure of disappointment. ryct Patrick Riley: Unless, of course, God is schizophrenic. Louis La Mancusa: re the rant by Jeff Rients arguing that the peak for RPGs was during the 1980s: Thanks for pointing out this blog. As for Rients’ thesis, there are a few factors to keep in mind. First, I don’t know how many active roleplayers there are now versus how many there were in the 1980s, but I do know that finding them has gotten a lot easier.2 Likewise, I don’t think it’s just my perception, but I would hazard to guess that the amount of published material available for roleplaying games has increased exponentially since the 1980s, and there are more avenues to obtain it than ever before. Now, much of the reason for this is probably due to the existence of the Internet, which has positively impacted us in more ways than we might even guess. Regardless, there are now more roleplaying games out there than I can ever hope to read, let alone actually play, and there are more roleplayers in my immediate area than I am ever likely to meet, let alone game with. In short, Rients is right when he says the “golden age is happening right now,” but I think he’s dead wrong in calling the hobby a fad. The signature trait of fads is that they die off, by and large, and this hobby is very far from dead…at least by my reckoning. Conversely, I think the biggest obstacle the hobby faces is the diversification and segmentation that has been prompted by its own success. When I started a gamers’ guild back in college, almost everyone played 1st or 2nd edition AD&D, and the two versions were close enough that if you knew one, you could easily play the other. Differences among gamers came down primarily to the question of style: hack & slash versus problem solving versus characterization/roleplaying. AD&D was still the de facto standard that people assumed when someone talked about gaming. It was the common reference point. Now, we’ve got a whole bunch of different games…lots and lots…and for the popular games, we’ve got many different, wholly incompatible versions. You brought up this problem some time ago, citing it as a potential reason that politics keeps cropping up in A&E, because gaming-content is often too nichespecific to draw general interest. I think that there is a good deal of truth to this observation, as it is far easier to reply to a political comment than to a discussion of some game system with which I am unfamiliar and am, perhaps, disinterested. And this is the big problem today, in my view. We’ve got so many options that the market is overly segmented. The d20 system did help us quite a bit, in my opinion, providing a
common ground3, but with the advent of D&D4e, I’m not altogether sure that the market will follow in the way that WotC evidently expects it to. It’s a big gamble, as in trying to get the goose to lay another golden egg, they may end up inadvertently slaughtering it, which is the risk they’ve taken every time they’ve introduced a new edition. The problem, I think, is that not only is their challenge a bit like Russian roulette, but it’s also a bit like trying to move a big pile of dirt by just shoving it across the grass. You lose a little bit no matter which way you go. In any case, it’ll be interesting to see what happens. Brian Misiaszek: RAE the Raiders of the Lost Egg write-up. I’m wondering, however, since the rat-men had the party cornered in that tunnel, couldn’t this have been a good opportunity to use this to their tactical advantage? I could see a flask of oil doing wonders in such a confined space. Lisa Padol: re A Touch of Evil and your professor’s take on Shakespeare, saying “…those who said that people control their own fates are villains. The good guys understand that there is a providence that shapes our ways”: Of course, this reliance on providence didn’t quite work out for Hamlet, reminding me of the old saying that the Lord helps those who help themselves. Nonetheless, this does illustrate what is perhaps the key difference between those who are focused solely upon the ends versus those who are cognizant that the means can easily become a slip-n-slide to Hell. I’ve also struggled over how to define evil in RPGs, if only for the purpose of allowing paladins to detect evil with some measure of reliability, and some years ago I finally threw up my hands and redefined the ability such that it can only detect emanations of the lower planes. Hence, the paladin would detect evil on a devil masquerading as a mortal, regardless of the devil’s intentions, while he or she would be unable to detect evil on the murderous assassin sneaking up behind him. Granted, this is more of a “shooing away” of the ability and could be viewed as unfair to the class. Nonetheless, it’s the way I chose to handle the issue. Brian Rogers: Regarding question 1:4 of A&E #395 and your reaction last issue to my reaction in A&E #398, I do see your point. The players have a certain right of expectation. But my criticism goes to the heart of a story, which is its surprise. You see…and this relates to my question last issue regarding the guy (or gal) who wakes up naked and bloody…at a certain point the characters find out who they are through the course of the story. I suppose they have a right to know what sort of world it is that
See my article in A&E #300.
they inhabit in terms of their character’s perception of it, but at a certain level they have no right to know that which their characters would not normally know. I mean, in a way, I think what we are mimicking here is life, because if the thing doesn’t feel real, then how can the players experience immersion? It’s bad enough asking potential players to immerse themselves in fairy tale universes or visions of the future that seem increasingly remote, all in the name of telling a story which can only be worthwhile in terms of the themes that it generates, or the characters, or the either too thin or perhaps too convoluted a plot, which, albeit straining, somehow manages to cling together and make some vague semblance of sense. I mean, you’re right in that players should be given some choice about the mood of things, but not so much that it destroys the surprise. One such genre, of course, is horror…where the characters aren’t supposed to see it coming. Likewise, gritty adventures…say a war story…the players would do well to suspect that it’s not going to be a freaking comedy. But if it is, say, by surprise…then that’s just what happened. I think we’ve all run gritty adventures which a nice bottle of wine may have devolved into side-splitting laughter. But yes…overall, I do see your point. To a great extent I even agree. Let’s look closely at the question.
4) What’s the mood? a) Highly optimistic and fun loving. b) The good end happily, the bad, unhappily – that is the purpose of fiction. c) Things generally work out, but not without some effort. d) Things generally don’t work out – it takes a lot of effort for a tie, extreme sacrifices for a win. e) Dystopian cynicism: basically, you’re fucked. Try to scratch out whatever you can.
If I were to use this question, I think I would have added one of more of the following:
f) I don’t care what the mood is, as long as it fits the story. Surprise me. g) I prefer that the mood be generated naturally during the course of play. h) I like the mood to vary from scene to scene. It should be unpredictable.
Partly, what you are asking here is how difficult are things in terms of setting and rules as well as the degree to which the GM will pull punches and steer the game toward a certain type of outcome. In short, what is the game’s challenge rating? My argument, I suppose, is that I, even as a long-time player and GM, can’t really say with absolute certainty what sort of story (i.e. campaign) I would find enthralling. I might think I like heroic action adventures and suddenly discover to my eternal humiliation that I like a little
bit of romance tossed in, or perhaps I’ll discover the joys of self-sacrifice and the internal reward therefrom derived, or perhaps a little bit of “Alien” style horror will rock my world. Sometimes I want to win, but sometimes winning should be very, very hard. Beforehand, how do I really know? Possibly, I might think I know or perhaps I do and I don’t realize it, but my first guess is that I could be genuinely surprised, even after one session. And as a GM, even within a single campaign, I might flirt with different moods, at one point horror, at another point romance, at others action, and perhaps ultimately sacrifice…. I guess the reason I’d be hesitant to use this question as a GM is that I fear it would be too constricting on the group’s style (whatever that may turn out to be); the reason I’m hesitant to answer it as a player is that I’m open to any sort of story that the GM can weave, regardless of the mood or difficulty; but the reason it might be useful, as you indicate, is that it might help the GM to at least discern the self-perceptions (and, thus, the initial expectations) of the players. Overall, you may be right that this final consideration is closest to the true weight of the matter, and that the others are somehow superfluous. I don’t know. You mention some campaigns that you didn’t like, some difficult ones that you thought would be easy and some easy ones that you thought would be difficult (The Cthulhu campaign that not merely let the players win, but which forced them to do so by design, is truly egregious…but you say you played in more than one of these??). I suppose, as a player, I might like to know what I’m getting myself into, and if a certain GM has a particular theme or style in all of her or his campaigns, then let the players know about it ahead of time so that they can respectfully decline the invitation. I agree that free time for gaming is rare enough that we have a well-deserved right to protect it. I’m just not 100% sure that we can wield this information any better than we can decide that all stories of a particular bent are equal. They clearly aren’t, just as sometimes a particular mood is right for a movie, and sometimes it’s wrong. Sometimes the hero lives when it would have clearly been a more meaningful story if he or she didn’t, and, of course, the players usually don’t want a hopeless situation, or if they do…you know…this brings up a great question. How did they answer question #4? In A&E #396 you write that they wanted “…the definition of a typical RPG campaign.” You then go on to draw up an assortment of campaign prospectuses, some based on their responses, others not so much. Incidentally, I should have mentioned this previously, but I think much of what you’ve come up with is wonderfully inventive. It is true that most of it falls outside my main niches of interest, but I could easily see players enjoying each of these campaigns.
Also, I thought it was interesting how you separated story arc from metagame from mechanics, talking about each in turn. Nonetheless, like I said before… the lack of a science-fiction option was a bit depressing, although I suppose the first campaign could almost be classified as such. Also, with respect to that first one, Escape from Sktarsis, I’m wondering if the idea of mixing real world with fantasy world comes out of the questionnaire, what with some players preferring real world, some liking pulp, and others preferring fantasy. If so, I think it’s interesting what you are trying to do. You’re essentially trying to build a campaign option that merges all the players’ expectations, or at least does so as much as possible given that natural state of managed chaos that any campaign is likely to produce. I think it’s very interesting. However, this Islands of Dawn…I guess I realized that Earthdawn and Traveller: The New Era were close in terms of some of the basic ideas, rebirth of a people and all, and, come to think of it, Ragamuffin has much this same theme, albeit in each premise we’re looking at a different sort of plot mechanism at work. In Earthdawn, however, there are many things that I think make it much more interesting, and it’s a game that I’m rather surprised that I never played. Hence, I expect that I will be reading your write-ups with some interest. Also, while I like your writing, I think it might have been interesting to telling the story from the party’s point of view, sort of a party journal if you can push them into keeping one (at the point that you read this, it may be too late to establish the practice, and, at any rate, perhaps none of your players are inclined in this direction). Indeed, perhaps this could have been a question for the questionnaire: “Would you like to play in the sort of game where the characters must keep a written journal of their travels?” Then, to the players who answer yes, their characters are the anointed scribes/historians of the expedition. This might be a good idea to include next time, as not only might you be interested in what sort of game they are interested in playing, but you might also be interested in learning at what level they are willing to play and contribute to the campaign.4 It’s just a stray thought for you to consider. Regarding 3(e) in your questionnaire of A&E #395: I’m now not sure if I thought that was an NPC talking to the PCs or a PC talking to the other PCs, but yes…I still prefer campaigns which go all the way to this extreme, where the PCs can more or less navigate
their own course. It is interesting that your players apparently stated in their responses that they prefer to be told what to do, but then, when it came time to choose a campaign, they chose one that gave them more or less complete freedom from their society. Granted, they are on a mission for their society. I guess this is sort of a way of having it both ways, although you mention in your write-up in A&E #399 that they aren’t used to having this level of autonomy. I wonder if perhaps the questionnaire could have been designed to isolate this sort of campaign, where the prospective players would have an option of selecting the type of campaign where they have absolute freedom to explore a big, strange setting that their society barely knows about, but that they are still doing this on their society’s behalf and are therefore explorer-ambassadors in a manner of speaking. I guess 1(a) (exploration) covers this somewhat. Also, I see from your summary of the survey results in A&E #396 that they mainly wanted combat and exploration, and, indeed, this campaign gives them both. Re: An upcoming Star Trek Babies movie, I have no freaking idea what you’re talking about. You’ll have to forgive me, as I haven’t had television for some months…around half a year now…and so I’m somewhat clueless as to what’s going on out there on Planet Earth. Star Trek Babies? As Bones would have exclaimed, “What in the devil…?!” Oh, dear God. I just found the trailer online. Damn you, Brian! How dare you yank me into your Hell?! This looks truly horrible! I can’t believe they actually released this trailer thinking it would make people want to see the movie. It feels more like a warning: “Stay away! This is gonna suuuuuck…” Steven Warble: Thanks for the mention of Finch’s A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming. Read and thoroughly enjoyed. Part of it reminded me of my comments to Paul Cardwell in A&E #364. Other parts, such as the section on removing traps and finding secret doors, I had never really considered, perhaps partly because the rules that I started with already included odds for thieves to find and remove traps or elves to find secret doors and such. I can’t recall ever playing a version of the game that lacked these rules. Likewise, I added a perception stat to the game fairly early on, as well as rewriting the rules for detecting invisible creatures and such. What Finch is saying is that this should all just be played out in a freeform sort of way. I think there are various pros and cons, but this idea certainly merits further examination.
I’m reminded of the short campaign journal I included in my submission for A&E #359, where I played a Troll in D&D3e Warcraft. The GM seemed to enjoy the fact that I was doing this, but…sadly…my interest in the campaign did not hold up.
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