Friday, June 29, 2012

Burning Wheel Recap

I ran that simple scenario for some of my players last night. Fun was had by all, but I don't know that they are sold on the game. Character creation is very complicated when the players don't know what half the stuff means. The actual play was a blast, and the only thing that gave them any trouble were the full Fight! rules. I chalk this up to their inexperience. None of them have played non-D20 based games, and Burning Wheel is a pretty radical game to throw in their laps.

Their favorite part is the collective world building, and I think we'll be importing it into our other games almost immediately. The other stuff, I think, will make sense with time, assuming we play it again.

Next is DCC RPG, which is a pretty big hit with all but one of the players.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

This Wheel's on Fire

My gaming group met up on Monday to discuss what's next. We agreed that a series of one-shots and shorter campaigns would be the right vibe for the summer. Even better was that they loved my pitch for The Burning Wheel, despite having never played it.

Rather than run "The Sword", which is a fine introductory adventure in of itself, I opted to pitch them a very simple theme: the players are Trolls guarding a bridge. I left it up to them to decide what they're guarding and who they're guarding it from, and they really took to the world-building part of the game. Here is what they came up with:

A few hundred years ago, the Trolls lived in the Aazoth forest. That was before the Elves moved in and swept them from their homeland, murdering many in the process. Afterwards, they traveled north, through the Grimgör Mountains, where they clashed with the Dwarfs. Deep beneath the earth, the Trolls seethed with hatred and vowed to someday get revenge. It wasn't until a wizard by the name of Golgomoth offered to assist them that such a day would be come possible. The Wizard plunged the land into constant, creeping darkness, allowing the Trolls to wander the surface freely without fear of turning to stone.
The players will guard the bridge that leads to Golgomoth's tower. In addition to collecting tolls, they are guarding against the Elven king to the south, who is rumored to be marching north to beat back the darkness slowly washing over his forest.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Angry Gods

In DCC RPG, each time you call upon your deity's power you risk offending them. The most immediate way is with the roll of your dice. Rolling a natural 1 on a Lay on Hands check or while casting a spell immediately incurs some penalty. Sometimes you have to stop what you're doing immediately and pray; other times, in an exercise of humility, you must defect to every beck and whim of your fellow party members.

Even if you succeed, your deity may be angered by how you've chosen to wield his power. Heal people of opposed alignments of Gods, rely on your divine power frivolously, or act against the code of your deity and you will find yourself consulting the deity disapproval chart. Powerful your God may be, but they are also fickle and angry.

Furthermore, every time you roll within your disapproval range, it increases by one. If yesterday's session is any indication, this is one of the most fun mechanics in the game. The party's Cleric fell under the spell of Lizardman Cleric of Bobugbubilz. Within that one battle, I watched the disapproval range of our Cleric change from 1 to 1-8. I know the results are random, but the dice picked a good time to go sour as our Cleric acted in faith of another god. Somehow, it seems, they knew.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Keeping it Short vs. Going Long

The Pathfinder game I was playing in wrapped up last night. We did not succeed at our given task, but we did not die. As I've said in previous posts, I'm okay with failure. Not every game can end with the PCs coming out on top, and whether they succeed, fail, or die, all of these stop the game. I got my cool moment last session, when my Dwarf Cleric single-handedly dragged a Troll that one other player and I slayed back to town.

As a group, we're a little on the fence about what to do next. One player, who has never DMed, wants to run his first, epic campaign. Others have suggested doing a series of one-offs to give us a break from a longer game. I'm happy to play either, but the conversation got me thinking about the differences between long and short games.
I got interested in roleplaying through the Lord of the Rings Trilogy (the movies, not the books, which I ha. . .we'll go into this another time) and RPGs like Morrowind. Naturally, I wanted to recreate how big those worlds felt in my games. I used to spend hours drawing maps, detailing fantastic locations, and developing my game world's mythology. It was a lot of fun.

It also took a lot of time. Preparing for these games requires a considerable time investment in the world building. This is in addition to the time required to prepare sessions. More importantly, epic campaigns also take a lot of time to complete. In my ten years of gaming, I was able to succeed at finishing exactly one of these epic games. The others fell apart for various reasons: I lost motivation, the game lost steam, players moved away, etc. Those are the risks you run when you go long.

The rewards, however, are real. Paramount among them is when your players begin treating it as a living breathing world. This does happen in shorter games too, but longer games provide more opportunity for this to happen. It also provides more opportunity to develop the NPCs and the Villains. Epic campaigns almost never have to rely on the generic big bad evil guy for a plot hook, and I think players roleplay more and more the longer they spend with their characters.
Recently, I've really come to enjoy the short game. My DCC RPG campaign, which kicked off last Sunday, has an overarching framework, but all of the adventures are episodic with the goal of each one being completable within a single session.

The benefits of the short game run directly contrary to the the problems of the long game. The game never loses steam because each session is different, which I find to be a motivating factor as a GM. If one player moves away or leaves, another can be folded into the group easily. The short game is also the ideal situation for a group with rotating DMs and offers a unique opportunity for group world-building.

The problems of the short game are numerous. The game can suffer from "villain of the week" syndrome, making the campaign feel more like a comic book or a TV show. There is seldom opportunity for the big world building in longer games, which may or may not be a drawback for some.It also lends itself to a kick-down-the-door and steal all the treasure type of play, which can be fun but repetitive.

The single greatest advantage of the short game is that it puts your players at the forefront of all the action. That's not to say it can't happen in the long game, but I've found that the machinery of longer games gives a lot of screen time to NPCs. Occasionally, too much.
If we go with a series of short games, I'm thinking of running a very simple one-shot Burning Wheel game. I feel it may be soon to introduce the group to yet another game as it was only last month I dropped the Heavy Metal cover of the DCC on the gaming table, but I think a very RP-intense session would be a good palette cleanser.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG Birthday Bash

This Sunday is my birthday. Sunday is also games day around these parts (well, one of them). Two of my players have been away from my gaming table these last few months and haven't yet seen the glory that is DCC RPG. We'll be skipping The Funnel for this outing, as I've had my fill of murdering droves of peasants. For the moment anyway.

That doesn't mean I have anything less horrific planned for my group. In the coming weeks I'll post the full adventure, but here is an preview of my first homebrew adventure for the DCC RPG.

The area around the meteorite is imbued with powerful arcane energy. A Wizard who casts Detect Magic will find that everything, including the air, is emitting a powerful magical aura. This aura extends for a one mile radius in all directions around the impact site. All arcane spellcasters receive a +5 bonus to their spellcaster check while within range of the impact site. Likewise, this same bonus applies to all corruption rolls.

Non-casters and magicians who refrain from casting are not safe from the effects of this aura. Each hour any living creature spends within range of the impact site must succeed a DC 15 Will save or roll 1d24 on the table below.

Wings sprout from your back. Roll 1d5 to determine if they are (1) feathered (2) scaly (3) fleshy (4) skeletal (5) insect. All Fly checks should be made untrained.
One of your arms splits in two up to the wrist and a fully formed hand grows at the end of each stump. This mutation allows them to wield either a two-handed weapon in one hand or two weapons on one arm without penalty.
Roll 1d3 and apply the appropriate result: (1) Your legs fuse together and become scaly, like snake flesh. All Move Silently rolls are rolled as if the character were trained and with a +2 bonus. Your character leaves behind a slimy trail on smoother surfaces, such as stone or marble (2) Your legs mutate and shape themselves into grasshopper’s legs, granting a +2 on jump and acrobatics checks. (3) Your character’s legs harden into tree trunks reducing your base speed by half. Each round, the roots attempt to plant themselves into the ground. Characters who succeed on a DC 10 strength check prevent this from happening. While planted in the ground, the roots drink up nutrients healing 1d8 hit points per round. Cutting the roots off prevents them from burrowing, but they will grow back in 1d4 hours.
Gills appear on your neck allowing you to breathe underwater. Characters who fail to swim for an hour once per day begin to suffocate. Each hour beyond the 24th spent away from water, they must succeed on a DC 15 (+1 for each additional hour) Fort save or suffer 1d6 damage.
A second, smaller head sprouts from your shoulder. This second head is fully functional and has a completely independent brain. Roll 1d3 to determine its alignment: (1) Lawful (2) Neutral (3) Chaotic.  Though it may find itself at odds with its host body, it has a sense of self preservation and will never endanger its life purposely over a disagreement. If either head is severed, the remaining one takes over or maintains control of the body.
Spines protrude from your flesh on your knees, elbows and back. Take 1d6 damage. All grapple checks are made with a -2 penalty against this opponent. A successful grappler takes 1d3 per round while maintaining a grapple. Characters may increase their unarmed damage by +1 on the dice chain.
The character’s hands mutate into one of the following forms, granting a claw attack. Roll a 1d4 and apply the appropriate result (1) skeletal claws (2) eagle claws (3) bat claws or (4) slimy frog claws. Attacks made with these weapons deal 1d6 damage.
The character’s flesh hardens into insect-like plates of chitin granting a +2 natural armor bonus. All skill checks are made with a -2 armor check penalty.
A tail sprouts from your character’s behind. Roll 1d3 to determine what effect this produces (1) cat’s tail, +2 to all reflex saves and balance-related skill checks, (2) an alligator’s tail, granting +2 to all swim checks and a natural attack dealing 1d4 bludgeoning damage or (3) scorpion’s tail, granting a natural attack that deals 1d4 piercing damage + poison. 
Your character’s hair begins growing rapidly, a foot’s length every ten minutes. Observant ropemakers will notice its durability and could easily braid sections of it into usable rope.
One of your character’s arms mutates into a mass of tentacles. Roll 1d4 for to determine how many tentacles there are. A character gains a number of action dice equal to the result.
Your character’s skin becomes translucent. Everyone who gazes upon your visage must succeed at a DC 12 Will save or become frozen with fear. Those who fail the save may re-attempt once a round.
A clock appears on your character’s stomach. All move silently checks are made at a -1 penalty due to its incessant ticking. Roll 1d4 to determine how often the cuckoo inside springs out and crows (1) every 15 minutes (2) once every hour (3) once every 12 hours (4) once a day, at midnight.
Roll 1d4. Your character’s head mutates into one of the following forms: (1) lion (2) raven (3) dragon (4) ant. All forms grant a bite attack, except for the raven who pecks. All attacks deal 1d6 damage. Characters retain the ability to speak, though their voices change due to the mutation.
Roll 1d5. The result is the number of fingers that have been transformed into keys on one hand. Each key will unlock the first door it’s used upon and no other. If all of the fingers are affected, it is impossible to wield a weapon in that hand and all fine-motor skills automatically fail. If the majority are affected, attacks are made at -4 on the dice chain and all skill checks are made as if they are untrained. If a minority are affected, all attacks are and skill checks are made with a -2 penalty.
Your eyeballs fly out of their sockets and begin circling the top of your head like two tadpoles swimming after each other. While this is happening, you have 360° vision and receive a +1 bonus to all sight-based perception checks. You also suffer a -2 penalty to all Personality based checks.
Horrible pustules grow all over your body and begin to itch. Roll 1d5 to determine what’s inside. (1) honey (2) wine (3) mercury (4) gasoline (5) molten rock, take 1d4 damage each time one is popped.
Your skin becomes the texture of parchment. Scratching yourself or suffering wounds makes it fall peel and it can be easily torn off your person. To the unknown, there is no distinguishable difference between this and normal parchment.
Your character begins sneezing uncontrollably. Roll 1d4 to determine what happens each time you sneeze. (1) A swarm of angry bees bursts forth from your mouth (2) A bouquet of flowers erupts forth from your mouth (3) lightning strikes at the exact moment you sneeze followed immediately after by deafening thunder (4) A 20-foot cloud of fog surrounds you.
Your character feels a prickling in their arm. Someone or something has carved a message into it. The first message is always a question. Players may respond by carving their message into their flesh. Each message sent or received deals 1d3 damage.
You feel a tingling in your ears, mouth, and nose. Roll 1d4 to determine what crawls out (1) sandworms (2) spiders) (3) snakes or (4) slugs. Natural sleep is impossible while this effect is occurring, though characters may rest using magical or chemical means.
Horns sprout from your head. Roll 1d3 to determine what form they take (1) ram (2) bull or (3) rhinoceros. Your character gains a gore attack dealing 1d4 damage.
Each time speech is attempted roll 1d8 and replace your character’s natural voice with one of the following sounds (1) a busy tavern (2) a hideskin drum (3) horse hooves against stone (4) glass shattering (5) a door being slammed shut repeatedly (6) waves crashing against a rocky shore (7) church bells ringing at Sunday mass (8) two swords striking each other. These effects are inaudible to the speaker, who hears their voice normally.
You feel your teeth shift in your mouth and taste blood. Upon inspection, you notice that your fangs have become frighteningly long and sharp. You gain a bite attack that deals 1d4 damage. In addition, each time you successfully deal damage using this attack, you heal a number of hit points equal to the damage dealt. Hit points gained this way can take you past your maximum HP.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Magic is Not Science

Nearly the entirety of the fantasy genre embraces magic as a dangerous, unpredictable force. Those who practice it are looked upon with some combination of fear, suspicion, and awe. Historically, those who were accused of practicing witchcraft or sorcery were ostracized and usually killed in some horrific fashion, like being tied to a post and immolated. Yet, if you pick up any recent edition of the world's premiere roleplaying game, there are no consequences for using your arcane powers carelessly. Even worse, failed castings seldom result in the kind of catastrophic misfires one expects from reading any amount of fantasy lore.

Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG reintroduces that danger. You'll never see a Wizard or an Elf cast a spell to illuminate a room. They'll never cast Cantrip (Prestidigitation) to impress their slow-witted friends by levitating their mugs of ale at the tavern. The risk is simply too great. When the time comes to invoke their arcane powers, Wizards will make pacts with demons, cut off fingers, cast aside prized possession to ensure they achieve the maximum effect.

Unlike D&D, you make a spell check each and every time you cast a spell in Dungeon Crawl Classics. Rolling less than twelve is always a failure. Rolling a natural 1 means dire consequences. You will lose that spell for the day, suffer a misfire, and you may gain corruption. Conversely, the higher your roll, the more powerful the effect, which allows the lower level spells to remain useful for the entire game.

Another major difference is the availability of schools and libraries from which to conduct your research. In DCC RPG, they do not exist. A Wizard's spellbook is guarded with his life. Most arcane knowledge is accumulated by exploring the dangerous parts of the world, taking to the planar realm, or doing the bidding of dark forces.

I find this take refreshing. The versions in Pathfinder and D&D feel too much like an exact science. Perhaps the best way to sum up this representation of arcane power comes from Joseph Goodman himself: "Low level wizards fear for their lives whereas high level Wizards fear for their souls."

Monday, June 11, 2012

Appendix N Adventure Toolkit

I know I've already plugged this Kickstarter in a previous post, but in case you haven't noticed, they've hit the first three stretch goals, which means anyone who tosses $20 into it is going to receive five modules. That's not even the best part. Due to the overwhelming response Brave Halfling has received in the week since the project went live, they've added one final stretch goal. Copied from the Kickstarter:
Five years ago, I spent many months working with Gary Gygax on a unique campaign setting for his game, Lejendary Adventures. We shared back-and-forth almost daily about designing settings, npc races, magic item creation, divine beings, etc. Maps were created and art was commissioned. With Gary's passing and the end of his game, I decided to not release this material. However, from the first time I got to read some of the early DCC RPG play-test material, I knew this campaign setting had found a new home! So my friends, if this kickstarter reaches $15,000, everyone who has pledged $20 or more will also receive a pdf copy and a print copy of, Appendix N Adventure Toolkit #5: "The Old Isle Campaign Setting." This product will include a 11" x 17" color campaign map, a digest Player's and Referee's Guide. While all Appendix N Adventures are generic and can be placed into any campaign, they all do have specific locations in the Old Isle Setting. This campaign setting will ship in April 2013.
We're still a ways away, but you may want to consider upping your pledge or contributing if you haven't. $20 for five modules, an old-school gaming box, and an entire campaign setting co-authored by one of the fathers of industry is by far the best gaming deal there has or will ever be.The trick will be getting there. Do your part!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Conversations from the Gaming Table #1

I exposed the group I play Pathfinder with to DCC RPG last week. Everyone loved it. Well, almost everyone. One of the players really likes the crunchiness of Pathfinder and laments the absence of feats and skill points. I can understand how DCC RPG might feel very empty in comparison.

At this point, I have no interest in GMing a Pathfinder game ever again. The rules are just too cumbersome for the kinds of stories I want to tell. At the same time, I want my players to be excited about the games I run. If that means hacking the system to suit their needs a little, I'm more than happy to do so.

That's one of the core differences between a game like Pathfinder and DCC RPG. In the former, it's very hard to add or remove elements from the game without destroying the structural integrity of the system. Even published material can do this.. The simpler design of DCC RPG makes it much easier to add and remove elements without breaking the game.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

In Defense of the Deus Ex Machina

It seems a shitstorm has erupted due to a recent post over at Jeff's Gameblog. You can read the whole thing here, but the comment that received the most attention is this one:
If by the numbers I can't murder your starting PC with a single lousy orc-stab, I don't want to play. It's that effing simple for me.
There's a certain grimace to this attitude, one that very easily leads to cries of GM/Player entitlement depending on which side of the table you find yourself on. That's one of my least favorite conversations to have, honestly. The game doesn't happen without both, and driving a wedge between the two is the quickest way to ruin a group.

I want to refocus the discussion by asking a simple question: is character death interesting?

With few exceptions, I find the answer to be an unequivocal no. Before we get into arguments about DMs coddling their players or verisimilitude, bear with me. Character death is not interesting because it stops the game. No matter what your position is, I think we can all agree that playing is far more interesting than not playing.

At the same time, there needs to be risks of and consequences for failure. If death is the least interesting and least desirable form of failure, what are the other options?

The easiest, most common alternative to death is to take the party hostage. This creates a lot of great opportunity for roleplaying and building character motivation. If and when your players escape, they will want to get revenge after they've been tortured or maimed. The trick is to make the reasons why they've been taken prisoner specific to their captors. Cultists have something very different in mind than Goblins, as do the ranking officers of the neighboring kingdom who believe you have valuable information.
Giving the party a second lease on life can also be as simple as answering the following question: what does death mean in your world? Most of these games imply a universe where the gods play an active role in its function. What good is the players' devotion if their corpses get dumped in the ground with the rest of the unbelievers? Give them a chance to fight their way through the realm of the gods back to the land of the living! Even if your game doesn't have deities, it's pretty easy to create an analog to limbo where they either choose to perish or fight for their lives.

The least rewarding alternative is to have a band of NPCs conveniently swoop in and save the day, At its worst, it's going to look exactly like that: convenience. The important questions to answer in this situation are: why did the NPCs lend a helping hand and what did they expect to gain by doing so? This kind of help should never be free. At the same time, the cost has to be something the PCs can obviously provide.

This whole discussion is framed within a larger debate of power creep. I agree with Jeff that many modern systems start players off with far too much in the way of resources. The lowest levels of the game should feel destitute and dangerous. What I can't do is join the chorus lamenting the days when many a game were ended by the hooked blades of the Orcs. There are just more interesting ways to handle failure than tearing your player's character sheets in half and making them start anew, ad infinitum.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Brave Halfling Publishing Presents: Appendix N Adventure Toolkit

I was wrong on Friday when I said that the Tales from the Fallen Empire Kickstarter had been funded in one day. I've since edited the post, and, though I was wrong, an incredible amount of money has already been donated to that cause. This time, however, I can make such a claim rightly: the DCC RPG community funded Brave Halfling Publishing's Kickstarter in less than one day. Even better, the first stretch goal was reached in two.

This means that the The Ruins of Ramat, the first in BHPs line of modules for DCC RPG, will become reality. Listen to this pitch:

It’s mid-spring, a time when Lords venture out with their men-at-arms to wage war with one another.  Every able person in the land is entangled in the conflict -- one way or another.  Into the midst of all this trouble a young girl comes crying that her dog has been taken by a monster. She is clearly terrified, and the dog (ever by her side) is nowhere to be seen.  All that can be got from her is that she and the dog were playing down by “Rose Hill,” when a giant, clawed creature burst out of the ground and took her dog. The villagers agree that you should investigate the incident. Indeed, they are relieved that anyone seems willing to do so...

It also means that the second module in this line is funded. From the Kickstarter:

Bonus Goal #1 ($2,500) is the module, “Appendix N Adventure Toolkit #2: “The Crumbling Tower.” A young magic-user's apprentice failed to return home for the fall holiday and you and your companions are sent to investigate what has happened to him. This is a level 1 module and will ship in September 2012.

Of course, there is still work to be done. Each stretch goal funds an additional module, except for th last, which is for an old school gaming box. For only $20, you will receive a copy of every stretch goal that gets met. What are you waiting for? Open your wallet here.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Tales from the Fallen Empire

Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG is here and it's awesome. You know what's more awesome? The community. The Tales from the Fallen Empire Kickstarter has been up for three days and it's already 53% funded. I haven't opened my wallet yet, but next payday I will be joining the list of backers. In the meantime, I've thrown up a link to this project on my sidebar, and will do the same for any DCC RPG-related Kickstarter.

What are you waiting for? Show your support here!

When the Players Fail

Last night I ran Sailors on the Starless Sea for a second time. This session was different than last, for a few reasons. No one at the table had even heard of Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. They too reached the consensus that the quick, random character creation is a lot of fun in of itself. The other difference is that everyone died.

In ten years of gaming, I've only killed the entire party a handful of times. It's just not something that I, as a GM, relish. I want my players to succeed. I also want them to fail.The risk of failure that is commonly hung over the player's heads is the possibility of character death. This is a risk that needs to be there, but it should never be the only, or most frequent form that failure takes.

What made the total party kill acceptable in this case? A few things. 0-level play is particularly lethal. You have all the strength, cunning, and resources of a peasant. Heroics, like rising from the dead, feel pretty out of place here. That's not enough for me to stop a game though. The biggest deciding factor was bad player decisions.