December 31, 2010

FRE: Primer Release and Design Notes

Welcome to Free-For-All Friday! Today I’ve got something special for everyone, in the form of my first game release. Last week I mentioned I was taking KORPG’s 1 Page RPG Throwdown and writing up the ‘intro’ to Freeform Roleplaying Engine, AKA FRE. I wrote it, tested it against one of the most brutal optimizers I know, I’ve edited it. It’s as done as a one page document can be, so I’m giving it to you guys for free. In a big twist, you’ll be able to find it here on Googledocs instead of having to deal with one of the terrible upload sites. So, how about you go get that so I can get into my designers notes and you have an idea of what I’m talking about!

FRE: Intent

When I began designing FRE, I was looking for a system that’s easy to play and easy to run with as little need for outside determinants as possible. The reason I wanted such a quick system is because the intent was to design a system for forum based freeform roleplay. Dirty secret: freeform is how I got into the hobby!

I knew I didn’t want dice because dice are clunky and impractical to the flow of a freeform game, and while some systems have limited dice spectacularly, it was still too much dependence for my goal. I also knew that some systems being used by freeformers were overly complex, requiring many hours of complex calculations to produce a ‘balance’ that really wasn’t necessary for freeform games.

So my goal became obvious: a system in which any character was balanced with another regardless of breadth or depth of ability, and which was quick and easy to use.

FRE: Resource Management

I chose research management as it was the easiest way to determine outcomes without relying on flimsy statistics that could only handle a narrow band of power well. With resource management a god and a vagabond are equally ‘plot important’ even if the god attacks with world shaking power and the vagabond just creeps people out.

Resource management also lets the players have a ‘give’. By encouraging stake setting the system encourages players to go only so far as they are willing, so character death or removal is a choice of the players, not the system choosing to arbitrarily destroy them.

FRE: Plot

I want to bring up Plot specifically due to its major revision between versions. The original version of plot read as follows:

A User spends Plot to change the story in any way, including adding new NPCs, surviving death, rewriting history, or making an Offense or Defense when they are out of those two attributes. Plot that is spent is lost.

The power I originally gave plot made it the de facto ‘best’ stat in Primer, even if it didn’t recover like Offense and Defense. Combined with encouragement to give out much more Plot in the draft, this made the game more about convincing the Moderator to hand out as much Plot as possible to take advantage of the system.

While this is not the final form Plot will take in the full version of FRE, it’s what works for Primer, which had to be approached as a stand alone game.

FRE: Moderators

Because I couldn’t do it in Primer itself, I will offer my advice to Moderators here. Don’t hand out more plot than you can handle. The more you give, the more the players will write into the game (This is good.), but if you can’t keep up with all the plot threads, start pushing them to their conclusion in an effort to simplify your task.

NPCs should max out at about 4 of either stat, and only because that’s where players will be. While players can advance their characters with plot, it isn’t intended, and if they do it too much their ability to cause lasting changes diminishes, so even a combat monster should wreck the game too much.

FRE: Stakes

While stakes are only mentioned briefly in the Primer, they are at the core of FRE, and writing out the Primer has brought it to the forefront of my mind when I begin designing the Basic set stakes will play an even bigger role in the mechanics of the system. Part of that is to better model fiction, which is what most freeformers are trying to emulate from the start.

Stakes make it obvious what it means to win or lose in any specific scenario. This way ‘losing’ doesn’t have to be death, but can be more interesting to the overall plot in general.

FRE: Player VS Player

One thing that I’m sure some of you have noticed is that the system works just fine as a PVP system. This is intentional, and is going to stay in the system. Much of the drama of forum freeform games comes from player interactions and not Moderator plot. Even so, the system will be able to produce team based games just as easily, and I intend to make that obvious for the full product.

So there you have it, FRE, from the designer’s mouth. Any other questions, I’d be glad to answer in the comments!

December 29, 2010

System Considerations: Player Actions

Monday, I discussed what DMs can do to encourage players to get into the game, get a little nutty and add to the narrative on their own. Today, I want to approach that same topic from the designer’s mind set.

Obviously, different designers have different ideas on what the players should be adding to the story. In X-Crawl, for example, the players need to be showboating and doing crazy awesome things as much as possible. The Tomb of Horrors, on the other hand, is much less player oriented and more puzzle oriented, wanting to limit players from doing insane things. Since we have two possible extremes, I’ll just talk about the principles of building in incentives and disincentives for the kind of things you want your players doing.

The basic concept is of course that anything you build incentives for is more likely to happen, and anything with a disincentive is less likely to happen.

The issue then becomes how do you create incentives for a specific kind of action? Ones I’ll expand on include mechanical simplicity, mechanical bonuses, resources, and experience points.

Mechanical Simplicity
Why was grappling not used very often in OGL games? It had a long series of problems, but one of the primary ones was its complexity. In a game full of complex subsystems, grappling was by far the most complex action any character to partake in. Often, even if it was the choice that everyone at the table wanted to see, it was passed over just due to how much that thematically interesting action slowed the overall flow of the game.

So learning from that mistake, the obvious way to encourage actions is to make them mechanically simple. The less work the Player needs to do to make it happen, the more likely they are to do it. One or less die roll with a well documented effect allows the players to make a choice and have it done with minimal fuss. This allows people the ability to focus on the the action and flow of the game.

Mechanical Bonuses
Why do you stunt in Wushu? Obviously, because it made you effective. The more you added to the game, the more likely you’d succeed.

So write in bonuses for taking the sought after actions. Extra dice, bonuses to the die rolls, whatever it is that helps your Players succeed. The higher chance of success will draw them to it just for the chance to be more effective over all.

Resources are more abstract, but your system can encourage different things through its resources. Drama points, Action points, even in game currency can all be used to encourage different types of games. A micro-economy of earning and spending these resources keep the players focused on the actions you want in the game, while making unwanted actions ‘not on the menu’ or by raising their price. The only issue with raising their price is you also raise their apparent worth in Players’ mind.

This type of pricing creates an scarcity of the different types of actions, which makes taking the action as much a goal as the actual character goals themselves. If you’re trying to encourage actions, this type of scarcity brings more focus on the intended actions, but if you’re using it to discourage actions, you may unintentionally make those choices more appealing due to their rarity.

The final place that is easily designed around and good at encouraging actions is Experience. However the characters get better at what they already do is a place to put in systems for encouraging the actions you want to focus on. Set the rewards for only the actions you want, and don’t give experience for other actions you don’t want to happen.

To discourage actions you generally take the opposite approach. Penalize discouraged actions, make them more complex mechanically, dock potential XP.

So, readers, what kinds of actions do you want Players taking in your games? How do you plan to encourage those actions? How do you intend to discourage actions you don’t want taken?

December 27, 2010

Coaxing Your Players to Awesome

Do you ever get tired of coming up with all the cool ideas? Does it cause you undue pressure? Ever wish your players would come up with something neat for you to respond to once in a while? Let them know they have some dramatic license and they might start helping!

Dramatic license is about imposing your own ideas on the game world. Most of the time, the DM has all the dramatic license, controlling the world, the NPCs, planning the dungeons, moving the mountains. The old joke that a DM represents the ultimate god of the game world didn’t come into being for nothing. This truth, though, is on shaky foundations as more systems implement ways to empower players to affect the game universe through more than simple mechanics.

If you want your players to take control a bit and make the game more interesting, you need to give them incentives to do so and not create disincentives for doing so. Eventually, the combination of these things will draw out more creative play from your players, regardless of the system.

Incentive: XP
If you have a system that has XP as a reward, it’s a wonderful mechanic to offer for people who come up with great ideas. XP makes you more powerful over time, so even small awards add up. Any time they come up with a cool combat action or anything that you feel improves the game, give them a nominal XP award.

Incentive: Action Point/Drama Point/Bennie/Will Power
If your chosen system has a ‘sometimes’ resource used in combat, it’s a great place to award for cool ideas. If they spend a major action to do something cool, but not very effective, give an action point to make up for it.

Incentive: Bonuses
Mechanical bonuses, any thing that makes characters more likely to succeed, are a great way to encourage ‘cool’ actions. If the cool actions are more likely to succeed than normal, your players are more likely to attempt them.

Disincentive: Multiple checks
If it takes more than one roll to determine if the action succeeds, and they need to make all of them, your players are less likely to attempt it. The simple fact that they will fail more often is enough disincentive to keep the imaginative attacks from happening very often.

Disincentive: Penalties
This is similar to multiple checks, in the fact that penalized actions are more likely to fail, so why attempt? The harsher the penalty, the more likely they’ll ask to take a different action altogether. As a counter point, this is a spectacular way to discourage actions you deem disruptive.

So, more incentives, less disincentives, and encourage it verbally every chance you get. Very simple steps to a more imaginative game from your players.

What about you, DMs, what ways do you incentivize cool actions in your game? Can you think of any ways you unintentionally disincentivize those actions?

December 24, 2010

Free-For-All Friday: Player Motivations

So, I was good, I wrote my post for today back on Wednesday. Felt it was current enough to be interesting, and was a good topic to muse about. Then, while reading my RSS this morning, I stumble upon an article by The Chatty DM.

He’s covering the idea of player motivations, which is quite different from character motivations that I covered in Hook, Line, and Sinker. I’m going to leave most of his article over there for you to read, but to summarize for this discussion:

The 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide lists a number of core player motivations:

  • Acting
  • Exploring
  • Instigating
  • Power Gaming
  • Slaying
  • Storytelling
  • Thinking
  • Watching

He goes on to make the claim that, regardless of what’s written on the tin, that 4th Edition caters to Power Gaming, Slaying, and Thinking to the expense of the rest.

Now, while I agree that it does cater to these three things in a number of ways (See the character optimization boards scrambling for even +1 damage in the system.), most of these motivations are in fact covered by the design and/or marketing of the product.

Acting: If any of the motivations aren’t given a solid set of rewards or encouragement in the system itself, it’s acting. There is no mechanical reward for it, and very little in the way of support for players who want this sort of thing in the way of advice.

Exploring: Exploring is given a mechanical kick in the rear through action points. The concept of ‘one more encounter, and you’ll earn an action point’ can be enough to keep some groups going. The fact that once it’s earned, you’ll lose it if you sleep makes the odd number encounters something worth running through.

Instigating: This one there isn’t a real mechanical reward, except as it relates to Power Gaming. Instigating players are as likely to cause trouble as they are to advance the in game narrative, and to them, that shaking up of the status quo IS the reward. In other words, this one doesn’t NEED a mechanical award.

Power Gaming: Optimization is rewarded.

Slaying: Like most versions of Dungeons and Dragons, most of the rules are how to kill things better and what happens when you kill those things.

Storytelling: This one is one of the better supported motivations below the key three Chatty DM called attention to. Via Skill Challenges, which admittedly needed work to become as good as they could be, and Quest rewards, the system actively encourages advancing the narrative in ways other versions of Dungeons and Dragons didn’t. It even produced support, not in mechanical aspects, but help for GMs in the Dungeon Master’s Guide 2.

Thinking: I actually feel this one could have been done better out of the box (Back in 2008), but think they’ve made some definite improvements with the new monster design and more cohesive classes that work even better as a team.

Watching: This is another one I think Wizards of the Coast did a wonderful job with. Watchers often just want to spend time with friends, and possibly make new ones, and between the character builder, Encounters, and an active push to make Dungeons and Dragons ‘mainstream’ to some degree has definitely made this a good time for casual players to get into the game.

To summarize, I think most player motivations that can be planned for were planned for well. Some in the core rules themselves, and some via the marketing efforts of the company. Does this mean some of them couldn’t be improved? Absolutely not, and I wish the Chatty DM the best of luck in his efforts. I’ve literally just discovered him, but even cursory examination of his blog is interesting, and if you like my thoughts on design, his aren’t far off. Definitely check it out.

FRE is going to be getting a one page Primer written soon to take advantage of KORPG’s One Page RPG challenge. And while the Primer is only going to be a page, expect a bit meatier version coming eventually after I’ve worked out how ‘fiddly’ I’d like it.

ExoSquad is on a back burner right now, the holidays sucking up most of my time.

Velocity is of course still awaiting its edit.

Last thing: Obviously, I've picked a new theme, what does everyone think? Better than white on black? Should I dig around for another good template? Or can anyone suggest a good (Cheap.) designer?

December 22, 2010

Designing From Top to Bottom

A common complaint I see when comparing one system with another is disassociated mechanics. Basically the mechanics do not emulate the players’ idea of the story. This is a load of bull.

ALL mechanics in RPGs are disassociated from their actual action. Casting a spell in universe is nothing like pointing to a block of text in a book and picking a target or two. Hacking a computer in game universe is not anything like rolling a pile of dice and hoping for enough high rolls. Swinging a sword in universe has nothing to do with rolling a die and praying for a high roll. Fortunately, or unfortunately, all of these mechanics are disassociated from their actual action in universe because we, the players and GMs, cannot do these things in real life with the same skill or speed our characters can manage. So we abstract them as dice rolls in an attempt to roll the characters’ skill, luck, environmental concerns, and other factors into a single easy to calculate system. Until you’re calculating attack damage with physics equations, you’re using disassociated mechanics.

That long winded explanation out of the way, I finally managed to figure out what people mean when they ask to remove dissociative mechanics. What these players are asking for aren’t mechanics related to the action involved (Really, would you want to cast a literal magic missile every time you wanted to use the spell in Dungeons & Dragons?), they’re asking for top down game design.

For those new to game design theory as a whole, and maybe even to games, top-down game design is when you take a concept, let’s say a wizard, and design all of the mechanics to support that mental image. A good example in games is Magic the Gathering’s Sleep card. Another example is pretty much all of the OGL rules for Dungeons & Dragons and the new Essentials classes for 4th Edition.

Top-down design has some major traps, primarily in the balance category. Back to my Dungeons and Dragons example, wizards in the OGL were just better, because that’s what the designers, and even some players, expected. Other times, it’s making options not powerful enough due to that flavor you’re aiming for.

The direct opposite of top-down game design is bottom-up design. In this case, you create a set of mechanics, and then add the flavor afterwards. Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition’s core classes all use mostly bottom-up design: solid rules that are given tenuous flavor that is simple to rearrange or ignore all together.

The traps in top-down design come in when things become far too homogenized, and therefore boring. When all options are literally the same, there are no interesting decisions left to be made. Beyond this, a number of players don’t like the feeling that the mechanics don’t actual mean anything and can be redefined at will.

As player, I much prefer bottom-up game design as it lets my imagination spin as fast as possible and lets me do things that top-down design often says are impossible. Really, no mechanics are so well defined as to be impossible to change the definitions to suit your taste, but many players and Game Masters have trouble making that leap from one set of descriptors to another.

As a designer, I do a little of both. Behind the scenes in ExoSquad I have a long list of ‘equal’ abilities that can be mixed and matched into the various weapon abilities, but the ones I choose for each weapon are based on a top-down analysis of the abilities and what I’m trying to emulate. Velocity’s pre-alpha rules, on the other hand, are purely bottom-up and are incredibly flexible as mechanics go.

My question for the comments is this: which style of design do you prefer, and why? If you’re a designer, let me know in the comments, and explain what challenges you’ve experience on either design ethos!

December 20, 2010

Don't Fear the DM's Seat

GMs, have you ever experienced burnout? You run your games for months or years at a time, doing everything you can to make the campaign as fun as you can. You’re good at it: extremely skilled with plenty of experience. But some days, you just want to play a game without worrying about the minutiae of running. What’s the usual barrier to you getting a game in? If it’s like my past experience: no one else knows how to GM!

If this is accurate, this post is for your players, and you probably want to share it with them post haste.

So, Players, as I’m sure you’ve now gathered, this post is for you. I’m going to spill the beans on some secrets of being the GM. Some secrets that I’ve seen guarded by some, but that only creates the burnout I’ve mentioned.

The first secret: GMing isn’t hard! It’s work, usually, but it isn’t difficult work. There are plenty of tools across the web and tucked in the quality GM guides that anyone willing to give it the time can actually GM. You know the rules, your GM has been adjudicating them and you’ve read the books. Don’t let what you don’t know be a barrier to entry.

The second secret: You’re allowed to get it wrong. Whether you know it or not, very little of the experiences you have at the table unfold exactly as your GM expected them to. Even after my series on designing games, I can’t stress enough how likely the plan is going to change. It’s also why I suggest talking to your players, before they make the decision to pack up and head to the Frozen North when the mission you had planned is in the great jungles of the west. If they let you know they think the Frozen North is a cool place they’d like to explore a week or more before you need to have the adventure ready, you can spend that time planning some cool conflicts and seeding some new adventures.

The third secret: GMing can be fun and rewarding in the right systems. Some games make GMing more of a chore than others, but like most creative endeavors, the payoff can be great. When a game you ran becomes the source of a slew of inside jokes, half of which were unintentionally funny moments you designed, you can’t help but feel a little pride. You did something people remember, that’s a tough thing in this age, as the Internet consistently makes the fifteen minutes of fame easier to obtain, and easier to lose.

That’s it, Players. You can GM. You probably have some crazy idea for a maniacal super boss trying to take over the world right now. And you probably know a bunch of heroes who would love to bring him down. Get to it! If you need help, ask your current GM, and make sure to invite him to the table!

December 19, 2010

Blog updates!

So, I promised you news. It’s good news, but I didn’t want to jump the gun too much with it.

First piece of news is good for you: I’m moving my blog schedule from Sundays to Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. So for those who have enjoyed my game design discussions, or my GM help, you’re going to be getting more of both! I’ve also got some ideas in store for both that I am sure you’ll like if you liked my previous blog series. The new schedule will be:

Monday: GM advice and theory. If you liked Hook, Line, and Sinker, you want to start checking in on Mondays.

Wednesday: Game design theory, ideas, and concepts.

Friday: Free for all. I’ll update everyone on my games on Fridays, and discuss whatever topic I feel like that week. Think of it as my day to go crazy and take along anyone who feels compelled.

So, first bit of news out of the way! Now we’re on to the next piece of news. In the long term, while I love my url, it isn’t appropriate for the long term focus of Thunderstorm Game Design as a business entity, so I will eventually be changing the url to something more accurate. Not happening immediately and I still don’t have a new url in mind, but it is coming, so keep an eye out for it.
Serious topic out of the way, now I get into the fun stuff!

Worked a tad on ExoSquad, got some idea of what all the attacks will be able to do, just getting to organizing and focusing them. Since I hate teasing, I’ll explain the idea I have for the weaponry and attacks. Each combatant gets a primary weapon, which is a basic idea, for example a Rifle. You can add various modifiers to this rifle who let you pick various tactics to use in combat. This goes back to my retraining argument in that after each mission, and sometimes during special conditions during a mission, you’ll be able to change out for new weapons and therefore get to pick new tactics, allowing you to swap builds on the fly.

The other thing I’m working on is a project I’m currently calling Freeform Roleplaying Engine, or FRE. FRE is a system for roleplaying that leaves the story in the hands of the players, the Moderator there to oversee interesting story and ensure conflicts are resolved fairly. It uses a simple system of narrative control to determine both power and longevity of characters. It definitely has its roots in FUDGE and FATE, with descriptive terms instead of a massive amount of numbers, and it’s completely diceless in its base form. The system is being designed primarily for online freeform roleplayers, but it should play just as well at the table and will not be very demanding on the Moderator (GM).

If you do like the blog, you should definitely subscribe to the RSS feed, available at right. Or you can check out my Twitter @pathunstrom. Come back tomorrow for a new GM advice article!

December 12, 2010

Hook, Line, and Sinker Part 4: The Climax

You set the hook by appealing to what drives the characters. You kept them on the line by putting that hook at the end of a series of smaller, more focused challenges. You designed those challenges with a series of smaller hooks and choices. Now, at the end of the game, you need the climactic final confrontation, you need to sink it and bring them back for your next adventure or campaign.

The climax is one of the most important parts of a story, and when it’s missing, people can tell.  In games, players often make their own climaxes, remembering the most iconic moments that present themselves during the game. The problem is that’s the relying on luck method, and this series is all about planning out awesome games.

When it comes to design, every adventure and campaign needs its own climactic encounter. That encounter, in order to give it prime memory real estate, needs to be the last challenge of the night. Beyond that, it needs a handful of things to improve its chances of success.

The climactic encounter should have the highest stakes of the entire adventure or campaign. One set of stakes that’s perfect for the climax is of course the life, or at least story importance, of the player characters. Lethality of some sort should always be in the game, but during the climax, life and death become a genuinely interesting set of stakes due to the fact that failure by being removed from the campaign can have far reaching effects on the shared narrative. Another perfect stake in the climax is the hook itself: the ownership of the McGuffin, the secret, the revenge, or the glory. Finally, bring in the fates of non-player characters, allies and enemies known and unknown.

Tension is a difficult thing to generate, but by raising the stakes, you’re halfway there. The next step is to make losing a real possibility, or even a probable outcome. Some of this is making it challenging via the statistics built into the game, the enemies in the climax should be the most powerful of the adventure, but other ways are from your style as a DM. Don’t pull blows, fight dirty. Make the players feel like they have to work for it. That said, don’t make it impossible. If the heroes can’t win, it kills tension just as much as if they’re sure to win.

If the climax is a combat encounter, it should have the most interesting terrain features. If it’s a social encounter, public locations are best, especially if they have a lot of people involved. These types of locations make it interesting on a fundamental level. A combat with a dragon is interesting; a combat with a dragon on a stone bridge over a lake of lava with minions flowing from both sides with the McGuffin resting on a pedestal on the far side is climactic. An argument with a Vampire Prince is interesting; an argument with the Prince at Elysium is climactic.

The Unexpected
The last thing a climax need is a shift. The climax is where hidden allies throw their hand in with the heroes, where traitors turn on their ‘friends,’ where hidden plots come out, and nothing ever seems to go right. Besides the story implications that are usable in any type of conflict, combat encounters should have some major turning points, more so than a standard encounter. Take a page out of a video game’s book, make the ‘boss’ monster go through changes in tactics, or changes in forms. Have minions appear halfway through. Change the battlefield mid combat.

When it comes to ideas for a climactic conflict, the best place to look is your favorite movies. There’s only a handful of ways to successfully climax a story, and they’re all closely related.

So, readers, what do you think, did I miss any critical elements of a good game climax?

So I’ve reached the end of Hook, Line, and Sinker. I hope everyone has enjoyed it, I know I did! From the things I spoke on, I have a few more ideas for GM based articles coming, so expect this to become a regular fixture for the blog. I also have a few things I’ll be discussing next week regarding the blog itself and since the school semester is finally over, I’m going to buckle down and do some serious design work on ExoSquad, and a new project I’ll be announcing soon.

December 5, 2010

Player Interviews

This week, I’m finishing up the semester at school and trying to set up a game so have been conducting those GM-player interviews I’ve discussed in Hook, Line, and Sinker.  The game is 4th Edition D&D, and one of those interviews went fairly easily, but the conversation is a perfect example of what I want to happen in such an interview.

A GM-player interview should be a time where both sides can come to an understanding on the expectations and goals of the other.  A GM is going to have an idea of what kind of campaign they hope to run, and what kinds of characters are appropriate to that campaign world. A player will have an idea of their character and the goals that character would have.  These two need to come to some sort of focus point where they are compatible, as a problem at such a core part of the game is sure to cause bumps later.

Following is the conversation I had with one of my players.  As the game is via Gametable, most of this conversing is happening via e-mail, I also took a few liberties with order so that it reads better in this format.

I've got a character in my head for your campaign but I want to know:
a. What the other players will be playing so we can have a balanced party
b. What you will allow in your world
c. The amount of roleplaying that you usually do

Just some basic questions so I can decide the extent to which I will flesh out my character.

In case you are wondering, the character I have in mind is a Eladrin Ranger. Now, depending on the races you are allowing, that can change, and depending on what the party needs, that can also change. But for now, that is what I have in mind.

Well, one of the other players also is looking to do a ranger, so that in mind, I can modify encounters so they're balanced based on the party and not on expectations, so don't worry about that so much. If you are really worried about party balance, why don't you take the idea 'ranger' out and explain to me the character concept in narrative terms and not mechanical? Maybe we can find a class in another role that will do your 'ranger' just as well?

As for b: I have no world except for that which comes out in play. So basically, have fun with your character concept.

C: Also depends on the group. Some groups, I end up with more role playing than anything, very few dice. Other groups, it's hack and slash heaven. It really comes down to the individual players.

Alright, that sounds lovely, here is my basic idea for my character, though if you don't mind I would really love to stick with the Eladrin race.

She is a wanderer, someone who prefers to get things done alone rather than with a group because she feels that people get sidetracked too easily when in a group. She worships Melora and Corellon, and prefers nature over the civilized world. Despite her upbringing, she is a very accepting person and uses her words to her advantage, whether it be in getting her out of thick situations or in getting a higher reward. She grew up wanting to be a hermit in the woods, wanting the company of animals, rather than humanoids, but instead decided to go into the world of adventuring in order to gain gold to increase the beauty in the world. She plans on settling down in a wood somewhere once she has gained enough riches, and have no family. The reason that she joined the party is because she is knowledgeable enough to know that she can't fight dungeons on her own. She is often selfish, though, and will kill without thinking because she knows that death is the natural way of things.

Now that I've got that written out, ranger, though a perfectly reasonable class, seems to fit less then Druid might. Do you have a druid in the party yet? And I don't know if that is what you wanted, but it made much more sense for me, and now has me thinking of what I want to do with the character.

Unfortunately, I won't stand for the loner characters, as they too easily cause problems. (Note: This is important, sometimes, for the good of the game, the GM absolutely needs to say no.  This is one of those times.) Besides greed, what else would drive your character to rescue hostages from a small village?

Now, are you playing an Eladrin because you like the otherworldly nature, or just the pictures? If it's the second I'd recommend forgetting the mechanics nature of eladrin and just describe the character like those pictures (Or using them for your character token.)

As you haven't talked about how your character intended to fight, I'm still at a bit of a loss as to what class to offer. Do you imagine a warrior who uses weapons specifically, or a spellcaster with a nature bend?

How about this:
Would you rather lead a group and make them fight more effectively (This might be a way to reconcile the 'loner' characteristic with something actually useful to a group scenario. Keep the 'people in groups often get sidetracked' and become a bitter and exacting commander type.)?

Are you perhaps just at home in nature and have become something of a natural predator?

Or maybe you would rather use your abilities to defend people, your friends and allies, or even animals caught in the crossfire?

Completely understandable, I was worried that you might not allow loner characters, but I thought I might give it a go. I am completely okay with being much more friendly. I like the idea of her being a leader, because I can make her seem distant (as in she feels she is above everyone) but still need to have the group to support her, for she would be little without the rest of the party.

I intend on playing the Eladrin because of the otherworldly nature, not the pictures. Though I do prefer to play an attractive character (just personal preference). I want her to seem distant and somewhat unreachable, hence being otherworldly.

I think, with the direction that I am now bringing her, I think I shall make her a melee character, rather than a spellcaster. Ahhh, this makes me want to be a ranger again, so she could use multiple swords/weapons. That would be great.

But I can resist. I think I will have her fight as the person who goes in, takes a ton of damage, deals a ton of damage, and keeps the enemies off of the cleric/archer.

Definitely she is definitely a natural predator, no question, and doesn't care about helping others because she feels that if they cannot protect themselves from what they are facing, then what is the use of them living.

In the case of why is she rescuing villagers, I'm going to invoke a little bit of her history here. When she was but a small girl, she was thrown into the abyssal realm by an evil Eladrin mage. She was rescued by the god Faerinaal, but only if she promised to help any person who is in need of rescuing. This competes with her personality, but she is forced to obey the god.

Sound good? Or a little bit too.... much?

You don't need to make her 'friendly', just needs to be team oriented. Begrudging respect is fine.

What you just described is a Tempest Fighter. If you don't have access to Martial Power, I can help walk you through building it. Basically, two weapons, bonuses when wielding two weapons, draws enemy attacks and defends its party. They are cool because unlike most fighters, they can attack multiple enemies a turn if they play their cards right. I'll house rule your skills a bit to bring some more 'nature' flavor if you can't fit it in the baseline skills.

[Your back story] is the most interesting information yet. I might change the god's name eventually, but for now, you've got a solid back story here.

Alright, sounds good! I enjoy begrudging respect. Haha.

I'm happy to say that I do in fact have that book, I'll take a look at it...

I'm glad that you think so! I took a good look at the history of the race and their gods, and am happy to come up with something semi-original.

Thank you by the way for helping me out, I have a brother who is very deep into d&d but refuses to tell me anything about the actual game, and I did a lot of ad&d when I was a lot younger, but haven't for awhile. I'm sorry if I ask ridiculously ignorant questions, I've read the Players Handbook, so I have a basic idea of what to do, but it's different in action.

This was a great conversation, as she made it clear what type of character she wanted to play, I expressed my concerns and we came to a wonderful compromise and a character I can’t wait to see in play.

Come back next week for the next part of Hook, Line, and Sinker.

I do have to say that the last paragraph from my player bothers me. Why do gamers feel the need to hide the rules from new players? Why is keeping the concept of role playing an esoteric past-time so important to some people? You tell me readers, what is it that’s wrong with our community that we fight so hard to keep it small?

November 28, 2010

Hook, Line and Sinker Part 3: Adventure Design

So we've developed an overarching goal for our players, with an antagonist who's going to continue on his path regardless of the players actions. But that's just ideas, something you'll definitely need to revise before the end, and your game is starting in less than a week, you need something more concrete!

First step is of course picking a hook.  If this is a first adventure, you're going to need to pull something out of your initial questioning, something concrete and short term that you can fit into your ideas for a long term campaign. If this is anything BUT the first session, you should have ended the last session with some idea of where the player characters were going.

Once you have a hook you have a 'victory condition'.  The players get what they want, they win, if they are stopped, they lose. This is an important concept for RPGs as every single fight including 'Survive' as the primary victory condition gets boring after a while.

Going back to last week, let's take some of our 'outline' and make a quick and dirty adventure plan.  We'll assume the adventurers stopped the thief, so now know their trinket isn't a mere trinket. Hopefully, you find out last week they want to know more about their gem.

Our players want to know about their gem, so we obviously need to give them an opprotunity to learn.  A wise sage character, a fairly well stocked library, or even a local legend can all be useful in this situation.  Let your players guide you through this very roleplaying centric portion of your adventure, they'll let you know what kind of story they are expecting.

Now that your players know that the necklace is from the old Empire, and, if there research didn't turn up the fact, now's the time to let them know there are ruins nearby.  Hopefully, off they go.

Depending on your system, your next step is combats or traps, or something with a bit of an edge, it's time to make them to question their bravery. If they survive the trials, and they should, they should meet up with our bumbling archivist trying to find clues as to the whereabouts of the keys to the end game tower.  This is more roleplaying, and again, let your players lead you through this.  You know the character's motivation, let that guide your responses.

Once they know a little more, or have determined the archivist is unhelpful, you need to set up the keynote encounter.  This almost certainly should be a combat, something explosive, and you should find a way to bring the archivist back into the game, trying to steal the amulet.  Of course, beating him, and the rest of the encounter, means another piece of the amulet, and a hint that the item is for something very powerful.  What will our heroes do? Find out, because that's your hook for your next game!

Tying encounters together (Even as simply as this) helps fortify them in memory, as they can be grouped easily.  You want your players remembering this game, right?  So do what you can to help them do so.

To recap: Have a goal, tie the encounters together, and make sure to capstone with a great encounter.  Next time, I'll discuss making those excellent encounters.

What do you think, readers, are plot based victory conditions effective?  Try them out, see what your players think.

Read part 4!

November 21, 2010

Minimum Competence

I promised an ExoSquad update, and while there isn't much in the way of firm rules yet, as I'm a firm believer in designing by design. But that said, even after the ideas are there and the design bible written, you have a crazy idea that you've just got to try.

I stumbled upon that idea today. Imagine never missing. You roll the dice knowing you'll hit, but the dice tell you something more than a simple pass or fail: they tell you how effective you are.

Low rolls mean you graze or just scare your opponent, high rolls are deadly accuracy.

Applying this idea to ExoSquad, I've got a quick idea of how I can go about it.

Assuming a twenty-sided die, I'd make 1s always give a single point of heat.  After all, that's what heat is, right? It is something to worry about, even if it doesn't hit. Then, in the 2-5 range, it'd be based on weapon, maybe a smaller amount of heat, or a small beneficial effect like forced movement.

Stepping up the ladder, we get into the 6-13 range, the classic range of potential hit zones.  This will be your baseline effects, mostly damage, with an added benefit.

Then we push into the 'guaranteed hits', 14-18.  They aren't 100%, but a good portion of the time, a 14 (Or 70%+ for percentile.) or better is going to hit the target.  These get bonuses: a more powerful secondary effect, more damage.

Then we have the 'critical range' of 19-20. In Exosquad, this zone will be for the absolutely amazing effects at each level. And most of them should include an immediate threat roll from the enemy, in addition to whatever benefit it offers.

So, one roll determines effect, another spits out the specifics of the hit. Of course, each type of weapon and attack will have different riders and abilities, with different levels of damage to go with it.

In an effort to speed up game play, as most tactical RPGs have a bad habit of bogging down in combat, how do I apply this concept to the NPC killables? My idea is simple: a choice. Each enemy offers either two effects, and the player may choose which they want.

Perhaps an infantryman with a mounted machine gun can offer either an amount of heat (Say. . . a four-sided die.) or one heat and a forced move to represent a tactical retreat.

This system leaves the effects entirely in the hands of the players, who can choose between significant damage and stuns, or movement into what may be a less useful position and damage.

So, think about it, maybe try it out at home with a quick system hack in your tactical RPG of choice.  Let me know!

For a little bonus, I’ve also been thinking on Velocity, and have decided it’ll be more interesting as a ‘shared story’ type RPG where winning the dice roll means you decide the narration of the event, instead of determining pass/fail. I’ll need to set the thresholds regarding when you can actually knock an opponent out of the race, though leads will be determined by the narrator.

Come back next week for part three of Hook, Line and Sinker, and find out how Adventures should be planned using narrative tools.

Your initiative, readers; comment below:

Do you think removing the ‘whiff factor’ from games is a good idea?

How would you like to steal the DM’s thunder and choose the outcome of events in Velocity?

November 14, 2010

Hook, Line and Sinker (Part 2)

You've set the hook, the players are on the line and aimed for the end, now how do you reel them in?

Start with the high level plan you made: What is it the players are after that should be the focus point of the end game? 

If it's a Greed hook, is it a legendary item?  Maybe they want to rule the world?  Perhaps, they just want a country?  If it's Revenge, is the enemy truly a challenge for the end game? Glory had better be something to go down in the history of the game world.  If it's Knowledge, it should be something that only the party will know when the end game is over. Whatever it is, it has to be something characters of the suspected end can achieve.  In Dungeons & Dragons, it better be multiverse changing, in World of Darkness it should at least affect the city, if not the country or world.  The important thing is to know your system and its end game well enough to make the call.

Now consider what the players need to obtain the goal.  Let's look at a few examples:

The players want to control a mythical artifact that was shattered long ago.  Obviously, they need to obtain all the pieces with the final piece being obtained JUST BEFORE the final climatic battle/encounter.  Why just before?  Because what's the point of an awesome artifact if you don't get the chance to use it?  If it's a weapon, someone should be attacking with it.  If it's something more abstract, perhaps an item that can redefine reality, the final fight should be with an enemy who wants it for themselves, and is willing to plaster the party to get it. So, depending on how many pieces you want to have, you have a rough road map for the campaign: Piece 1, Piece 2, Piece 3, Piece 4. . . End Game.

If they're after revenge, it's a bit more abstract, but the same idea: They need to find out where the enemy is, they need to know his true capabilities, they might need something to counteract a specific strength, and then, they need to get to him.

If they want to control something or do something mythic themselves, they need to prepare.  They need to have the goal, they need to get help, they need to make themselves better, and they have to DO the thing.  Using the Hero's Journey as an outline for this is probably a good idea.

If they're after knowledge, the steps are also similar: They need to know the knowledge exists, they need to find out who or what has it, they need to find out where this thing is, and they need to go get it.

So now you have a basic road map, each major 'step' should take about equal portions of the experience ramp.  I'm going to combine a few of the above ideas into one as I walk through a campaign plan that should keep players on the line.

End Game Hook: The players are trying to assemble an artifact that will let them revive an ancient empire to bring light back to the world. They will be opposed by a man who will stop at nothing to use that same artifact to gain unlimited demonic power and create an empire of his own.

Note that this hook combines three elements, and can include the fourth: An artifact of great power for Greed, a Glory in saving the world, Revenge in a long term antagonist, and Knowledge can be drawn on by making the ancient empire or artifact not something easily found out about.  By using all four hooks, I hope to draw any potential players toward the same goal.  Also, by including all four hooks, I can drop elements the players don't like without greatly affecting my ability to plan for their choices.

Now, steps for each goal:


I'll use the artifact as the initial hook for the game and break it into four pieces: The first will be a large gemstone on a necklace that acts as a scaling magical item over the course of the campaign. The second piece will be a rod, wand, or staff (Whichever one is most useful to the players) that the crystal can sit in.  The third piece will look like a piece of accent on another scaling magic item.  And the last 'piece' is a tower from the old Empire where the final battle can take place.


This is a hard one to work with, but likely, he'll be a 'behind the scenes' man, sending loyal henchmen who drop clues leading to him at the end, where he will personally try to dispose of our band of heroes.  The first clue will be when someone tries to steal the necklace from the party, the next will be a man who was trying to get the rod, and the final clue can be a man who has the last piece of the artifact. Then, of course, we have our climax.


I'll say that the use of the artifact is going to be a hidden thing, with clues hidden in the pieces, the antagonist’s friends, and a few wise sages littered amongst the overarching story.  I don't want to make this too specific, but the information should be paced so as to not give out so much as to have 'cut scenes' that slow the game down. We also want to make as much as possible relevant to the current story as possible.  For our case, the first clue that the gem is more than it appears comes when they stop the 'thief,' who lets it slip that the group doesn't know what they're dealing with. From there, investigation should reveal its connection with the old empire, and lead to them seeking out ruins where the rod is kept. At the ruins, they encounter the second thug, whose murmurs reveal that there is an artifact that helped shape the old empire.  If they investigate further, they should learn of the existence of the tower, and at least some of its function.  Another piece of the puzzle is of course the 'key' hidden on another item, which should come into play when the last henchman tries to obtain the other two pieces, revealing that his master knows where the tower is and knows how to activate it. The players should be able to trace the antagonist enough to learn who he talked to, and where he went.  Then we go on to our final encounter.

Glory takes effect pretty much anywhere along this path.  Perhaps they're doing things for a specific king, or spreading their own names so as to more smoothly take control.  It doesn't matter as long as people start talking about them.

So there we have a basic outline:

Adventurers do a dungeon crawl, find a special necklace.
Thief attempts to steal necklace, revealing that its worth is more than it seems.
Group seeks a sage to learn more (Or does research on their own!).
They go to ruins from the old empire.
A man they find wandering through the place reveals that there is an artifact of great power left from the old empire.
Upon defeating him, the players learn he worked for a man who wants all the parts of the artifact.
They find the rod.
They find information on the tower.
They seek out the last key, tracking the man who wants the artifact for himself.
A thug tries to stop them; they take the last piece from him.
They follow the trail left by the thug.
At the tower, they face off with their antagonist.
Win or lose, someone uses the tower.

With this in hand, you have a basic idea of where to go, and what small scale plot hooks to lie down in the players’ path. Combine some of these elements with the players’ short term goals and fill in any dull moments with the players tangents, and they’ll be enjoying themselves to the end.

As this article has proven much longer than I intended, I’m going to break the series into a few more parts.  We’ll get into Adventure and Encounter planning in the next few segments, and end it with the Sinker: clinching Campaigns, Adventures, and Encounters in a way that satisfies.

Next week, I’ll look into discussing more mechanics ideas for ExoSquad, find out more about the load-outs I mentioned in my post on system mastery.

So what do you think, GMs, is this type of planning likely to help you out in the long run?  What about players, you guys think this is too much of a railroad?  Sound off in the comments!

Find Part 3 Here