Archive for July, 2013

Crazy RPG Time

July 31, 2013

I play a lot of RPGs.  These days not many of them are in the physical world, only like three, but I am involved in a lot of online games.  Just today I started up a play by post game on the pokemon forums.  I’ve run one pbp game before with a few friends and it was kinda slow, but a lot of fun.  The one that I started today is going to have somewhere around twenty players.  I’ll likely be spending several hours per day posting.  As such, depending upon how much time I spend doing that I may be cutting back on this blog a bit since I will definitely be getting my daily dosage of writing.  I’ll try to keep going with both, but we might be getting some super short posts like this one.  Also, here is the link to the game I am running if you want to play:  link.  

Friendship is Magic

July 30, 2013

I am a fan of the show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.  Depending upon who you are that may elicit anger, annoyance, enthusiasm, something akin to patriotism or possibly just confusion.  Many pages have been written about why the show is so enjoyable, and while defending my opinion on this subject is a mite bit silly, I am going to be extremely straight forward and simple in my explanation.

There are several reasons why I enjoy the show.  Its art style is pretty, the ponies and their world being something easy on the eye and enjoyable to look upon.  It has very strong character design, with each different pony in the world being very distinct and recognizable, each a character in and of itself.  It has clever writing: The scope and complexity of the problems that the group of characters in my little pony: friendship is magic solve through non violent measures and funky options is decently impressive and fun to watch.  The music is catchy and genuinely beautiful, its composer making sure to keep the songs easy to listen to, but still making them complex, new and good, in a near objective sense.  One of the main characters, Pinky Pie, has an incredible personality, which is a bit hard to explain quickly but is true on many levels.  Finely, the most important part, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is genuine in a way that few well written shows are.  It does not mock anything, instead trying to teach lessons about basic citizenship and the correct way to treat friends in a straightforward and classy manner.  Its straight up a show about the incredible magic that is friendship, and the many bounties that having a good group of friends can bring.  Having said my piece, I may reference My Little Pony again in the future, so understand that when I do so I am doing so in a completely straightforward way.  I like the show for itself, with no irony or subtle mocking involved.  It is a good show with nice simple moral messages and amazing, fun characters.

Character Optimization

July 29, 2013

In most role playing games, their is a great deal of choice when you are making your character.  In D&D you select a race, a class, pick your skills, pick your feats, pick your spells and then pick your equipment.  In PTU you select your background, your attributes, your skills, your edges, your features, your pokemon, your stat points and your equipment.  In Savage Worlds its just stats, skills, edges, hindrances and equipment.  In the narrative game Troll Babes, you pick only a number between 2 and 9 that determines the only three stats you have in the game.  Except in the case of Troll Babes and other “simple” systems such as that, you have such a wide range of choices that there are bound to be better or worse ways of allocating your choices.  In a theoretical game where you had two powers that you could choose, it would likely be a better choice to take one power and a power that boosted your first power than it would to take two powers that have nothing to do with each other.  Oftentimes these gains are because both things that you pick are good individually, but you also gain an extra advantage by picking them together.  For example, if you were trying to build a basket weaver in D&D you might be able to select both the Skill Focus (Basketweaving) feat, along with putting four ranks in basketweaving.  Both choices allow you to be better at making baskets, but together they allow you to reach even greater heights of basket weaving. 

None of this is particularly surprising or bizzare and pretty much everyone optimizes their characters to some extent.  In systems like D&D, where your choices are almost limitless, the character creation process can become a game in and of itself, as people compete to figure out ways to be better and better at specific tasks.  In Dungeons and Dragons 3.5, this ultimately culminated in figuring out a way to get every single power and ability in the game by first level 11, then level three and now by first level.  While such builds are really cool and character optimization on this level is amazing it is ultimately just a mental exercise, as in most cases such characters are so good at what they do that they would shatter pretty much any game that they were played in.  Character optimization is something that you have to self limit, as its irresponsible use can make games less fun.  In any event, this subject came to me because I realized that I am incapable of making characters that are not at least a bit optimized.  I had a specific character concept for a Savage Worlds game I was playing, but after messing around with the options for a bit, I could not figure out how to make it optimized and so I found myself changing the concept instead of just dealing with playing an unoptimized character.  I settled on something very different that had a strong and better character concept built into it, but it also allowed me to optimize my guy instead of just having a collection of loosely connected abilities.  In short, character optimization is a drug, and I am addicted.

Making Hard Choices

July 28, 2013

This post is not going to be nearly as serious as its title makes it sound. When I say hard choices, I mean choices that one has to make now, that have actual consequences, and include elements that you have to predict and can not know. These types of choices are difficult, as you are put into a situation where you have to immediately decide between two or more things, and while your choice matters, you won’t know if its mattering will harm or hurt you until you finish with it. Making these types of choices is painful, and exhausting. Having to make choices like this repeatedly in a short time scale is one of the quickest ways to mental exhaustion.
There are two situations that I have consistently making hard choices, that are not really all that life threatening or world changing. The first is in the card game Yu-gi-oh. Yu-gi-oh, for the uninformed is a trading card game that gets a bad rap for being a rip off of magic and is largely regarded as a more childish game. Ultimately the two games are actually very different, and while they share some of the same basic ideas, play out in vastly different ways. Magic is more of a game of resource allocation and logistics, while Yu-gi-oh is all about making tactical decisions in a very short time span to win the game at a critical point. In any event, while certain Magic decks will play in such a way that they activate a lot of cards during their opponents turns, for the most part people tend to only do important things during their own turn in Magic. Yu-gi-oh on the other hand tends to include a lot of playing during your opponents turn. Their is a certain class of cards, called Trap Cards, that are almost exclusively activated on your opponents turn, in response to a certain action that they choose to make. In order to activate Trap Cards though, you need to place them on the field face down. You may also place Spell cards in this same way however even though most of them can only be activated on your own turn. It is thus often the case that you will be making your turn and see one or two face down cards on your opponents field. It is then that you have to make the hard choices. Based on what you know of your opponents deck, their play style and what kind of cards they have already played, you have to decide what to do during your turn. Any of those face down cards could be a counter to pretty much any given action you might perform, so you have to constantly choose to do things that you know might give your opponent the advantage, while trying to make sure you don’t do the things that will definitely give them an advantage. Even when a particular sort of action is successful, you don’t know if it will be in the future, as it is entirely possible that the opponent had a counter, but chose not to use it then, in hopes of activating it during a time when it would do more damage. On the other hand it is entirely possible that any of the face down cards is a Spell card and thus not a counter to anything, and thus you are being beaten every time you choose not to do something for fear of that face down card. All in all Yu-gi-oh is a tactically intense game, that is one of the most mentally draining things you can do with your time.
The other thing that I do fairly often that causes some of the same sort of mental fatigue, is the game Humans vs Zombies. The game is effectively a week long game of tag, in which each new person tagged is added to the horde of taggers, which then is tasked with tagging the ever dwindling group of remaining humans. The humans are allowed to defend themselves with nerf blasters, socks and marshmallow, which prevent the zombies from tagging anyone for fifteen or so minutes. If a human is tagged however by a zombie that has not been shot recently, they will be added to the zombie horde and are no longer a human for the rest of the game. Considering that these games usually only happen once per semester, this makes the stakes extremely high for the humans, as one small mess up means that they are no longer human. This is not to say that they have lost, for the zombie side of the game is just as fun as the human, but as a human it is your goal to survive the zombies, and you are always only one mistake away from that occurring. Not only is this a physically taxing game, with a lot of running and whirling about and standing around in the cold and such, but a lot of the zombie kills come from stealth or inattention. Since this game goes on 24-7, you can never lose your focus, even for an instant, and have to be constantly scanning your surroundings. Long periods of time occur in which you won’t even spot a zombie, until suddenly you are being chased and attacked and you have to make twenty or so hard choices in a mater of moments. The constant vigilance already drains your mental stamina, and the adrenaline of the battles with the zombies make the times after the confrontations some of the most dangerous, as your body comes down off of its combat high and tries to make you relax. All in all the amount of hard choices made in just a few moments about which zombie to shoot, at what range, where you should be running, and whether you should switch clips or not risk it and run the risk of running out all combine to be one of the closest simulations of actual combat scenarios you can get.
Ultimately, what the point of this post is, is that these two activities are amazing practice for the sorts of things that can really matter in life. Learning to make the hard decisions from games that ultimately don’t really have any real consequences on you will set you up to be ready when actual hard choices occur and you only have a moment to decide something that could change your life forever.

Dungeons & Dragons: Campaign Log 3

July 27, 2013

After the first party member stepped through the portal there was a fifteen minute delay before the next came through, then one minute, then a few seconds and then almost instantly.  It became fairly obvious fairly quickly that the two planes were becoming closer to each other in terms of time with each further passage, and that based on the relative waits, the dragon had come through like 40 years ago and the changelings brother like 2 years ago.  Their were five different portal stones in a rough circle, but only the one they came out of was active.  The party grouped up and explored the island for a bit.  They found a weird cave, fought some paper golems in the cave/dungeon and found a small green statue and some other random loot.  Then they found a town and were allowed to use the inn of the kindly innkeeper Tom.  It was at this point that they figured out that they were on a giant flying island.  The ocean was a good 2 miles down from the edge of the flying island.  They stayed the night at the inn and were woken up by the inn being attacked by sky pirates.  Tom hastily explained the situation, that the winged elves would raid towns since they could fly around.  Bows were taboo, as all of the winged elves would attack anyone who used any bows, but would not team up against those who defended themselves in other ways.  The party went to fight winged elves off near the forest, and partially through the fight a new party member arrived from the edge of the forest.  They were not sure if he was friend or foe, so I believe he got attacked a bit, but he helped them defeat the winged elves, so he was allowed into the party.

Amarakas:  Amarakas was an Aasimar Favored Soul, which basically meant that he was a weird version of a cleric who was descended from gods.  He came from Mulhurandi in the Forgotten Realms campaign setting and had run away from home after having thought that a surprise birthday party was an assassination attempt.  He got himself chased by giant dire elepaphants and went through a portal from his world into the one with the floating islands.  He had grown up as a high ranking member of the priesthood.  Ended up being the closest thing this game had to a protagonist. 

After the sky pirates had been beaten, the party regrouped with Tom and ended up doing a series of quests around town.  They entered the sewers, saved a girl from a group of rats and found a dead kid in an empty room.  The changeling decided to try to impersonate Tom for a while and found walking anywhere at all an incredible chore, as the townspeople in general were almost completely dependent upon Tom for a variety of things.  This part of the game was a bit slow, as this was the first time people had missed sessions, and I didn’t want the group to leave the island until everyone was their.  Some of the more memorable adventures occurred on the island however and they will be recounted next time. 

Citidels

July 26, 2013

Today I played a new game for the first time.  The game is called Citadels and on paper it is a very simple game.  The game starts, each player starting with a hand of cards and a few gold, with the object of creating the most magnificent city in the game.  At the start of each turn, the players take turns selecting character cards, then take turns playing their actions for the turn in an order decided by the type of character card that was selected.  On your action, you can first either gain some gold or draw two cards and discard one.  Then you can pay some gold to build a building.  Additionally, each different character card has a different effect that can be activated at any point during your action.  Most buildings simply have one of five colors and a cost in gold.  Some special purple buildings will also have an additional effect, but while these effects can be important, they are not the focus of the game.  The focus of the game is rather upon the character selection that happens each turn.  Not only does character selection effect turn order, but the special abilities can be really important.  The element that makes the game truly fun is the fact that many of the cards will effectively counter out other cards.  The card that goes first is called the assassin.  When you start your turn with assassin, you select another character card.  That character is dead for this turn, and if a player had selected that character then they do not get a turn for that round.  So while you might want to select the merchant, which gives you gold for every green building, if you have a lot of green buildings, if you have too many, then it is almost guaranteed that the merchant will be assassinated and so your only hope of having a turn is selecting a different card.  This element of prediction is further enhanced by the way that cards are selected, with a random card being selected to be removed for the turn, and then a set order of player selection.  The player that goes first will have the advantage of knowing what the discard was and picking first, while those that go later know what cards have been selected and act accordingly.  In the three player version the stack goes around twice so the game of “I know you know I know.” can become incredibly complex.  All in all it is a great game that actually requires a strong ability to think and act strategically along with testing your ability to get inside your opponents’ heads.  Like many games with simple rules, its complexity is of the right kind to be fun, and while I have so far only played once, I look forward to playing again in the future.

Building

July 25, 2013

The final way that I can currently think of to play rpgs, that is distinctly different than the first two ways is something I have really only seen in a couple of different rpgs.  The basic idea is that while the dm might make a few npcs and work on the world a bit, in many situations it is the players who are doing the creating.  If the goal of the party is to gain access to the castle treasury and steal the magic amulet within it then one of the group might be able to make a roll in order to say, “In my days in the army I became close friends with the man who is now the head servant at the castle.  He’ll get us into the castle.”  It is up to the dm then to either allow this statement to be true, modify it slightly, negate it entirely, or leave some of this up to chance.  Generally the dm serves as less of a content creator, and more as a moderator of the content created and an actor of the content created.  So while the pc has created this head of the servants at the castle, it is still up to the dm to roleplay the man when they get to the castle. 

This sort of RPG is rare and not nessisarily easy to get going, as it requires a lot more effort on the players part to help cooperate to make a world.  Additionally, the gm has to be willing to craft a world with enough ambiguity that the players can be creative, without making it a boring sort of place when they don’t decide to create content.  Furthermore, the gm needs to be able to improvise well, as they will often be called on to role play for a character that was literally created seconds ago, and not by them.  The rewards offered by this style are quite powerful however.  Not only does this sort of a game allow the gm to do less prep, it also ensures that the players are playing the sort of game that they want to play.  They are the ones driving the story, and if they see certain dramatic moments that need to occur, they can try to create that drama, instead of just searching for it in the exploration model, or watching it happen in the railroading model.  I do not necessarily think that this style of role playing is superior to the more traditional types, but I think it is a type that is unfamiliar to many, and worth exploring.  I may return to this type of topic in the future, but for now I will be done discussing the different sorts of role playing systems. 

Exploring

July 24, 2013

In my previous post I talked about one of the easiest pit falls for a gm to fall into, railroading.  Now I’m going to take a look at the other options and explain while railroading is such a common phenomenon.  The most traditional way of escaping the railroad was never hard to grasp or understand, but instead just took a lot more effort.  Instead of creating a plot, in which a series of events are supposed to happen, and the various dm controlled character (called non-playable characters or npcs) are just part of the the story, you can create a world.  Creating a world means that you create a set of characters and a set of places and things.  The characters all have their own goals and ideas, and the places are filled with these characters, along with a number of items and important information and such.  If you create such a world then you can allow the players to do anything.  Instead of having an idea of what is going to happen ahead of time, you simply have all of the various characters react to the players and each other in the way that you designed them to react.  You can’t break the story, because the story is emergent, it comes into being as the players make their actions.  The difficulty of course is in the preparation.  It is much easier to make a character that only needs to reach one way because they are only going to be met in one circumstance than it is to create a character that has actual goals and motivations and a will of their own.  In order for this method to work, the dm needs some combination of two things: Preparation of characters and setting, and the ability to improv and decide how certain characters would react.  If you can’t get into the heads of all of the characters, then this method becomes very difficult and if you can’t be creative with what the characters do when they have to react to something creative that the players do then again, you aren’t going to have a good time, but if you either have a lot of preparation or a lot of improv skill then this method is amazing for creating a living breathing world. 

Next time I’ll talk about another way to break the railroad.

Railroading

July 23, 2013

As I have referenced several times in the last few posts, I am a great lover of the Tabletop Role Playing Game.  In the traditional RPG, you have a set of players, usually three to sixish, who play individuals within the game, while a separate person called the Game Master of Dungeon Master controls the world around them, along with every other person in the world that is not the players.  Fundamentally, the DM has almost total control of the game, with rule zero being that the Dungeon Master is always right.  Since the DM has to put so much more work into the world and often also has to do the task of finding out when people can play, and getting the group together in the first place, and fundamentally his job is to make the game fun for everyone else, it is reasonable that he has a great deal of authority.  Even aside from all of these reasons, the DM also is the one who is making the monsters you are fighting and such, so if one ticks off a less than kind DM, they might find themselves suffering from the dreaded, “rocks fall, everyone dies” syndrome.  It is thus through both respect and fear that most DM’s lead their group. 

One of the greatest things about Tabletop games, over their computerized counterparts, is that since the DM can respond to any sort of situation, the players can do anything in the game that their character could do.  They are not restricted by what the designer of the game thought up, instead they are able to be genuinely creative in both the execution of actions, along with what their goals are.  On the other hand, while being able to do anything is something that is rarely possible in anything except real life, just like in real life, the random actions of people just doing what they want is rarely story-worthy and often uninteresting.  Hence, it is often up to the Dungeon Master to use a mixture of bribery and threats to get the players to head on a course that is more likely to lead to more interesting storytelling.  On a more practical level, the DM has only a finite amount of time to spend working on the worlds that they make, and most only plan for a small set of things compared to all of the possibilities of what could happen.  As such, if a DM were to have spent several hours constructing a small city with rival gangs and such and the first thing the players do when starting the game is hit the road and start camping out in the wilderness it is understandable that the DM would want to turn the story back toward his gangs. 

Traditionally then, players are taught that the DM should take initiative in making adventures and quests for the players.  While they could theoretically just skip town or stab random folks or whatever, they tend to sticking to listening for anything that the gm is using as a plot hook.  ie, if the barkeeper talks of the mysterious happenings in the mansion to the south, it is likely that the DM has something interesting planned if you head to the mysterious mansion to the south.  As such, while theoretically players can do anything, it tends to get restricted to specific situations instead of driving the plot.  Luckier players will have the gm read their back story and make some of the adventures be specifically focused on things that that character is interested in, but for the most part, the players are expected to all work together as a team to solve whatever sort of problem they are being payed to solve at the moment. 

For many years, this formula largely went unchallenged.  Some rare groups however changed the formula around a bit, and actually had choice.  These groups were of course excited about it and the idea of railroading was born.  The traditional structure, in which the party simply walked from point a to point b to point c and onward, besting each challenge before moving on to the next, was called railroading, as the players were like drivers of a train, they could only follow along the tracks that the gm laid down before them.  Suddenly the basic structure of the railroad was considered a sign of a bad game, and players didn’t want to play in a game in which they were being railroaded.  While one might think that this would create a Renascence of roleplaying, in which every character was an independent agent acting upon there own while the gm acted a master manipulator, moving things around in the background so that the individual threads of story that the players created with their actions wove together into a great tapestry of Story, unfortunately that was not the case. 

Rather, gms still created railroad like plots, but were expected to either hide the railroad through fake choices, or allow a limited subset of choices that made the game a railroad with a few branching paths.  For those of you wondering about the first method, fake choice means that in a situation where the players got to choose where to look for the wizard, with several likely places, the place they chose to look always ended up having the secret trap door, the creepy cat outside, and the same multi-layered dungeon underneath the location.  The gm would create one dungeon, and then put that dungeon down wherever it was the players decided to go. 

As can likely be inferred by this point, I am not a fan of the railroad.  I understand why it exists, but there are better ways.  In a later post I will talk about the better options, but for now I simply inform you of the problem.

Dungeons & Dragons: Campaign Log 2

July 22, 2013

All of the characters described in the previous post met in a bar, which is the iconic place for adventurers to meet in games such as this.  It started out fairly slow, with none of them having much reason to talk to each other or even acknowledge each others existence, but when one of the patrons picked a fight with the elf, the rest of the party quickly came to her aid and became fast friends.  They got some rooms together above the bar after agreeing to team up to protect a merchant caravan on its journey through a pass.  It was the next morning when the first combat of the game began, as the changeling’s personality changed when he was asleep, along with his appearance.  So the elf woke up, to find a naked person she had never met before standing in the middle of the room.  She responded as many adventurer’s would, and immediately pulled out her bow and shot him.  He tried to retaliate, but was shot with more arrows, until finally the paladin heard the commotion and put a stop too the fight.  None of the characters knew exactly what was going on with this random scary naked guy, but eventually they all got together and joined the merchant caravan.  As it so happened, this caravan already had as part of its protection, the next party member.

Rowan the Lucky:  A human bard who had had a very bad experience with elves and was in fact racist towards them.  Tended to be much more cowardly and less heroic than many of the other party members, but was ultimately one of the most interesting and integral characters in the campaign.

While Rowan didn’t really like the elf and the elf didn’t really like him, they all bonded over killing a group of evil giant ants, and Rowan joined the party.  They got the caravan where it needed to go and ended up fighting a larger group of ants along with some kobolds, who for those who don’t follow D&D, are small lizard men with a talent for trap-making.  The party ended up finding out that the tribe of giant ants would follow the scent of the ant corpses that they had taken with them, and cooked up a scheme to get the ants to wipe out the kobolds.  Meanwhile they all ended up travelling to the kobold village and hanging out their for a while, and the Ot got himself kidnapped by the kobolds some how.

The party ended up freeing him and being in the kobold caves when the kobolds where attacked by goblins, who in turn where attacked by the horde of giant ants that had finally followed the scent to the kobold village.  The crew ran deep into the kobold cave in order to not be consumed by ants.  They ended up entering a chamber that contained a magically dark corner of the room, a magical portal and a blue dragon.  The dragon was battled and the fight was not going well, until the elf managed to get a critical hit with her longbow, forcing the dragon to flee.  It ran into the portal, which, after a few experiments, apparently led to a world that moved faster in time then the one that they were currently in.  Deciding that they would rather face whatever happened to be on the other side of the portal then get eaten by ants, they all jumped through.  There was also something to do with an elf with a glowing spear opening the portal or something, but its been more than three years, and I don’t remember the details as well as I once did.