JP On Gaming

Friday, October 30, 2009

Moebius Adventures: A playtest review

Last Tuesday night, I took part in Brian Fitzpatrick’s Moebius Adventure Fantasy game. We had a great group of diverse players coming from a number of different “schools” of gaming. Just by looking at the players I knew the game would be fun and that a lot of ideas and thoughts would be generated by the game (which included Nathan, Shannon, Arpie & Johnnie (there was a new guy, Frank who proved to be a pretty cool guy too)).

Brian said that he wanted to test the adventure in a magic-less setting. I saw this as an opportunity to do some Conan-style adventure. No magic meant we’d have to rely on our heads a lot more. I must say I was initially very impressed. I sat down and was presented with a 4-pages condensed version of the rules (which I barely read) and a rulebook with art and everything. I was impressed! I was also wary that this would turn into a rule-heavy and clunky system (I was right).

I picked up a character almost at random (when Shannon arrived I handed her the girl I had picked and took another one) and ended up with the priest, Father Goul. Yeah it’s an awesome name! Me and the priest… a match made in heaven as I like playing priests anyway. So I began to look at the character sheet. SIXTEEN STATS! What?! That was just too much. Eight basic stats are about as much as I can generally tolerate. On top of that each sense had a qualifier. I had “Good Touch”… That made me chuckle…

I looked over my character. Nothing very exciting, standard Friar Tuck thing. No real combat capabilities to speak of. No great charisma-monkey. The biggest laugh I had was when I saw that my best skill was Fasting. When I asked what that was used for, I was told that it was to “make prayers more powerful”. Great… So I was a useless body! Well… when that’s no problem for me since I generally like to play the parts between combats anyways.

Brian’s adventure seemed interesting and could easily form the start of a campaign. The premise is simple: the Queen sends a party of adventurers to investigate this bandit problem in a small settlement on the border. For a play test, it was very acceptable. We had some immediate antagonists and something to do right off the bat.

The game started, we did some talking amongst each other. Good. Then Arpie picks up a dice to do some tracking. BANG! The game stops as no one can really say what he must do. Does he need to roll above or below a characteristic or a target number? The sheet showed two different systems that left everyone confused as all hell! We pitched ideas for the longest time and ended up changing the system completely.

When I first sat down and was handed a rulebook, I expected to find a game that was mature and established. Instead I then got the impression of a game that was just “getting tried out”. My interest at that point dipped further. Add the fact that, looking at my stats, I was completely useless in a stealth and infiltration mission. I had no useful skills and my characteristics were terrible enough that I would never succeed at anything! (Try rolling 4 or less on 2d6 to do anything physical).

As the game moved to combat, I lost all feeling of understanding. People were rolling dice to hit the bad guys (that part made sense) and Brian computed damage in his head. I still do not understand how damage worked as Brian was not able to give us a clear explanation. At that point, I completely stopped caring and became a lot more interested in the Warmachine game that was being played at the back of the Haven. I came home and told my wife that I would not be going back next Tuesday if there was another game.

Okay… that was how the session went for me. Not very good. Having had some time to mull over it (a snow storm in Colorado will give you time to ponder things, I identified a couple of things that really got to me.

  • When I saw the book, I set my expectation pretty high on the game. I expected a game system that had gone through a series of play-tests and reviews. Come to think of it, that book, and the image of a mature game might’ve been what really ruined it for me.
  • I had a character that was completely useless for the mission. He may have had uses in a full-blown campaign, but in a play-test, every player should feel he provides something to the party. My healing “skills” were terrible because my stat meant I would heal people very rarely. Good thing the party did not have to rely on me for anything! When the fight started I had no business getting anywhere near combat (again not great in a play-test).
  • The game is HEAVY. Sixteen characteristics, sense qualifier, skills, combat modifier for every weapon, hit locations, hp by location, hp for armor and a system of actions that made no sense to me. In all, the game felt very heavy and complicated to play with the rules. D&D is heavy, but the basics are now common D20+Modifiers >= Target Number (or opposed roll).
  • The one criticism I have about Brian was his inability to explain the rules to us. I remember asking him “how does damage work” and I only got vague “it’s the attack minus the defense” answers. No example, no clear presentation. I’ll sweep this to a “playing with unknown people” because I really like Brian but that felt frustrating. Since my character had no attack, I decided not to waste my time.

    Therefore, my personal evaluation of the game is that it is just too heavy and not mature enough to be playable. BUT THERE IS GOOD NEWS! Since the game is in play-testing phase, a lot of those hard chinks might be cleared in future iterations.

    Would I play again as is? No.

    Would I give it another shot once Brian has reviewed the game? Yes.


  • Wednesday, October 28, 2009

    FalCon 2009: Rising like a Phoenix

    This year sees the re-emergence of FalCon, the US Air Force Academy’s games convention. Last time it was held was in 2005, just a few weeks before I arrived in Colorado. I remembered thinking how awesome it was that there was a con in Colorado Springs. Then it petered out and died. I don’t quite know what happened (and I don’t really care to tell the truth). The important thing is that the con is back this year!

    Falcon is one rare opportunity where the cadets and the outside gamer population mingle. Note that I said "outside" because Colorado Springs has a large number of military personnel who are not directly affiliated with the USAFA. Before you ask: no, I’m not one of them.

    So I decided to offer an adventure I think the cadets may enjoy. Earlier this year, for V3 (in June), I wrote a Call of Cthulhu adventure with a D-Day theme. The adventure features Canadian para-troopers that took part of the Allied paratrooper drop prior to the landings on June 5th 1944. The adventure received some very positive feedback by the players, some of who had never before played Call of Cthulhu.

    Other events of interest are Mario’s Warhammer Game (Sunday morning) and Jeff’s Gurps games (throughout the weekend), in addition to the LFR stuff that Lenny once again runs and directs. There will be war games throughout the days.

    If there is one negative thing I have about the con is that it is on Halloween day… Because it is on Halloween, I will have to leave after one slot on Saturday to man the fort and keep an eye on little J-Pat… NO, I will not bring J-Pat to the con… though next year… While J-Pat & I stay at home and get begged for candy, the girls will be out trick or treating…

    You can register at the Warhorn site.


    Monday, October 26, 2009

    Shades of Gray... Bringing it together (Part 3)

    Still arguing?

    By now, some of you are complaining about how every choice cannot be a critical, difficult choice, about sometimes a DM must present false choices to players. And you are entirely right! Take for example a campaign where PCs are forced to take sides in a civil war, a religious conflict, a political argument, whatever. Some players may try to duck and avoid the "big choice" by trying to remain neutral in any conflict or by waiting to see who wins. It might be possible for the PCs to avoid choosing for a while. But sooner or later, the choice comes to them and it must be made. Not choosing is making a choice. Rush sums it best in their great song "Freewill".

    You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice

    If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice

    You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill

    Simple and simplified choices are fine most of the time. When setting up a "shades of grey" campaign, try to make the choices more difficult, requiring some thought. And by the same logic, the players should be given time to think about what they want to do about it. Why does the duke want us to go and kill all the bandits in the forest? Those are little more than peasants and he has a large army in his castle?

    Getting the players in the right frame of mind, in the right way of thinking, and eventually bring them to the inevitable choice they have to make rest squarely on the DM’s shoulders. I know, I know I usually say that role-playing is a two-way street, but in this case, you the DM are the only one who can bring the PCs to that point, give them all the rope they need and let them hang themselves! The hard choices are what you are trying to accomplish! The introduction piece of this blog entry presented you with a choice. One I think is rather explicit.

    "Please" mouths your love as your hands are slipping. From behind you, your fellow party members are screaming about the coming arrival of the dark god... Choose.


    Wednesday, October 21, 2009

    Gold is for chalices, Silver is for coins

    The first time that someone drew my attention to how stingy and ridiculous payment in LFR was, I was at Enchanted Grounds in Denver talking to my good friend Wes about LFR. Our diverging views about the game I always found stimulating. Wes was telling me how ridiculous he thought it was to have an employer send someone to Zenthil Keep with a payment of 10gp per PC. I was stumped and could only laugh with him at the idiots who would do such a thing.

    For the record, my ork Gurbaz was one of those idiots who headed to Gentile Keep a few months later...

    Later, I sat down to write a MyRealms adventure set in the Moonshae Isles, Wes’ words echoed in my mind. MYRE1-1 Blades for the Moonshaes includes a trip from Waterdeep to the Moonshae Isles for the sum of... Yes. Fifty gold pieces per PC! I kept thinking. Man, is that guy cheap! He sends people across hundreds of miles for 50 gold pieces each! I’d never do it!

    I certainly understand that there is a certain level of suspension of disbelief but still... Once the adventure was complete, the question of payment kept annoying me. I thought of a few things: have the employer renege on his offer and pay less (that did not feel right), offer one lump sum (PC x 50gp, although that did sound better, it was still unsatisfying) and offer payment in gems. None of those solutions felt right.

    I did not like it but found no way around it.

    I was talking to someone at Gamers’ Haven who always wondered why coins were minted in anything but gold in D&D. He said that in his game, everything was counted in silver. Silver being more common and harder than gold was better suited for coins. Gold and the fact that it is very stable (does not tarnish or rust) was better used as to create items such as chalices, cups and other items. It was such a revelation! He was right! I wish I remember his name, but I don’t. Silver coins!

    So I got back home and looked at my adventure... Using silver coins allowed me to offer the PCs the same amount of money BUT increase the number, and therefore the sound of the man’s offer. Thinking about it... Silver makes great coins, leaving the rich to surround themselves in gold items.

    Now, I can see some of you going I’m still getting paid 50gp to travel that far! The answer is: yes you are. But it sure SOUNDS better to be paid 500 pieces of silver to do so. Having run my MyRealms a few times by now, the effect is very noticeable and those PCs who are of a more mercenary nature feel they get a good share! The reaction of all was very positive.

    Why not copper pieces then? It would give a bigger number but frankly... copper pieces don’t cut it. When people would offer 5,000 copper pieces to do a task, the word "copper piece" gets stuck in your mind as "worthless". Copper pieces are the Rodney Dangerfield of D&D... They get no respect.

    Silver pieces are a good compromise. They increase the number of the payment and are still seen as valuable. So from now on, future Moonshae adventures will offer payment in silver pieces! You'll get a lot more coin for your services!


    Wednesday, October 14, 2009

    Shades of Gray... The Good and the Bad (part 2)

    What makes a good Shades of Grey?

    A good shades of gray campaign requires two things. Everything can be brought down to those two.

  • A crucial, difficult dilemma At some point in the game, the players have to face a dilemma. This dilemma should change the characters, reinventing them in some way. The dilemma must be presented so that once the PC(s) has the information or is presented with the dilemma, both sides must have advantages OR both sides must present disadvantages. Those choices must not be trivialized or presented in a way that only one is valid.
  • Multi-dimensional characters That means both PCs and NPCs. Bland, vanilla characters rarely manage to catch or get involved in the depth of the plot or make any important decision as they would buy a scroll of cure light wounds. Having interests and ties into the campaign completes the picture. People feel loss more readily when they hit closer to home. Similarly, for the NPC maybe getting his minions scattered and his loot stolen by a bunch of upstarts can change things.

  • I think of Magneto who, around X-Men issue 200 turns from his villainous ways to become the leader of the New Mutant and an X-Man. Later, he realizes that this new way is wrong and he turns evil again, but by now some of the X-Men have a better appreciation for the master villain.
  • One small thing I wish to point out is that you don’t need to have the NPCs fully fleshed out to be multi-dimensional. One way to give that appearance is to have them do something off-camera, while the PCs are not around. When the PCs realize what is happening, they are now in a wasps’ nest. For example, the PCs have taken a dislike to a group of druids. Coming back from a quest, the PCs discover one the druids is now the local constable!
  • Watchmen... The whole plot is just about defines shades of gray. Read/see it.

  • What makes a bad Shades of Grey?

    This list could go on forever. A bad campaign is a bad campaign. Players who refuse to "play the game" generally ruin a DM's best attempt at coming up with something interesting and exciting. But what makes a bad "shades of grey" bad? I will try to focus only on that and ignore the rest of the bad stuff...

  • Bad Setup For the choice to work, the PCs must understand the difference between what they are are about to choose. Poorly setting up the choice destroys the angst and torment you wish to inflict on your PCs at this time. The two most common

  • Trivial Choice You can give the artifact of mega-super-healing to the priests so they can cure the sick little children dying of the plague OR you can keep it to yourselves to try and uncover more of its powers? The way the choice is presented to the PCs gives them the answer to the dilemma. Although some jerk PCs might try to get away with it, it is very likely that the party will vote in favor of helping the kids.
  • Bad Choice The Prince’s 50 highly trained men surround you. "You can give the artifact to me or I can take it from your cold, dead hands..." Although this is presented as a choice, the setup really indicates that the PCs should not try anything funny, making the choice trivial. Some PCs might try to look for a way out, but it seems that most of the ways are blocked.

  • Letting the PCs know the meta-gaming repercussions The PCs should know that keeping that great artifact will bring in thugs, muggers and assassins after them. Having them know that you prepared a full campaign about those thugs will influence the PCs’ decision.
  • DM forcing the choice In RPGs, the illusion of free will is one of the most important things. The players should always feel like they have their complete destiny in their own hands, even when that is not the case. The DM here must be particularly careful not to influence the choice. This means that a more open style of writing must be used. Having a strict Encounter 1-> Encounter 2-> Encounter 3 adventure flow makes it very difficult to follow and give the PCs the impression of free will.
  • Not part of the climax Now... what is the most boring part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy? That’s right... the chapters following the destruction of the One Ring. Once such a choice is made, lives are changed, group dynamics are no longer the same, or the world might breathe differently. I can see why some of you are going "but my best adventure starts with something like that". I do not see how you could create the tension, the dilemma, the angst needed by *starting* with that. When writing a novel, you can... I mean the author gets to inject whatever he wants into the character and through his prose communicate that to the reader. When it comes to role-playing... the best prose cannot give a starting character, of even the best role-player that feeling of personal investment. I’m always willing to hear how you pulled it off but I doubt there will be anything of interest mentioned. If the Lord of the Rings started with Frodo throwing the Ring and walking out of the volcano, it would not be very memorable... But when he comes to the edge and then hesitates about throwing the Ring into the lava below... I still wonder to this day. Would Frodo have destroyed the Ring?

  • How do I make it work?

    Here there are many ways to do this. I leave the individual DM to think about how they would like to accomplish this. Unless a game system is pre-disposed toward gray-ism (such as Elric/Stormbringer, Vampire or Warhammer Fantasy or the D&D settings of Lankhmar and/or Midnight), or the game was not presented to the players as a shades of grey campaign, you have to be sneaky about it.

  • Payback is a bitch! One way to get the players to suddenly realize that things aren't as clear-cut as they wanted it to be is payback. Do you remember that special armor none of us wanted to use that we sold or stored in our vault? Well there was much more going on with that than we thought... Ars Magica's A Winter's Tale uses precisely that plot device to get things going with GREAT effect. What you do here is you draw the PCs into a story about something they knew or assumed in the past and change it so that it now bites them in the rear. Maybe the bejeweled sword was not that of King Arthur... What if it were Mordred's? One of the keys to succeeding here is to allow some time to pass. Make players memories blurry a little, but clear enough that they remember what you are talking about.
  • Do not start a session with the dilemma Wait for the players to get into the get, to get into character and begin to think like they should before springing this on them. Plus a little fatigue mixed with the usual gamer's caffeine-filled evening heighten the tension. You goal is to play on those elements to help the players get into the mindset of the game...
  • Introduce the object of the dilemma early If your dilemma involves a person, introduce that NPC early. If it is about an object, introduce it early. If it is a moral choice, start dropping hints early. The earlier in the adventure you introduce the element, the easier it will be for the PCs to understand and have to make a choice. By then, hopefully they will have some investment in the dilemma. A previous point says not to start with the choice, this point has you introduce the main element of that choice.

  • JP

    Tuesday, October 13, 2009

    Shades of Gray... A difficult choice (part 1)

    You are on a rope bridge over a bottomless pit... In one hand, you hold the love of your life as she grasps your arm and begs for you not to let go. In the other, you strain to hold the very heavy chalice of mega-power that can banish the dark god back to its own dimension forever. Your hands are getting sweaty and you know you can only save one or the other... What is your choice?

    Note that throughout this post I use Campaign, but the same can be used for change of pace or change of theme adventures. Older games in particular have a tendency to migrate towards gray instead of the more obvious black and white they were at the start.

    First things first, what do I mean?

    Shades of gray often portrays a number of factions as good and evil at the same time, with the protagonists having to choose the lesser evil (or the evil they like best). Shades of gray rarely try to convey a sense of morals to the player. Often times the player leaves with a sense of "it could have been worse" or "there was no good choice".

    One system that immediately comes to my mind is Vampire: The Masquerade where the PCs are easily classified as monsters and evil (seeing what some of my old players did... yes, VTM PCs were evil monsters). In Vampire, no one is really good, people have "diverging goals" or "similar interests". At least the good Vampire games worked that way.

    The biggest pitfall is to turn shades of gray into a series of major defeats on the part of the PCs. For the choices to be hard there must be something more than defeat. The heroes must also enjoy triumphs for the choice to be harder.


    Monday, October 5, 2009

    OurRealms: Better than Expected!!!

    OurRealms has come and gone. OurRealms was an all-Saturday madness that brought together around 30 different players around a total of 9 full (and sometimes more than full) tables where 5 local DMs showcased their creations. The DMs were Rich Clark, Timmy! Creese, James Hicks, Linda Weygant and me. A particular shout-out to Linda who really saved my butt by coming up with her adventure at the last minute.

    Between searching for lost treasures, exploring old mines and busting pirates, the vibe was very positive. Cries of "Everyone is bloody" and "Those are way tougher than regular adventures” were heard many, many times. Ahhhh music to an organizer’s ears… Nothing sweeter than the sound of PCs crying out in pain! Makes me feel all nice and fuzzy!

    The games ran in the allotted time slots (which saved my own butt once) and players were on-time (for that, I commend you all for being on-time). Because of the very tight time-limits we had, timeliness was but one of my worries. Food was cheap and plenty.

    Finally, I must thank Rob & Troy of the Gamers’ Haven for the venue. Much appreciated guys! And to Terri who closed the store and had to listen to the many tales of adventure… Thank you again.

    So there it is… OurRealms is done… Maybe next year? We’ll see. Now I have to get back to editing…

    Friday, October 2, 2009

    Pre-Event Jitters: OurRealms

    Anyone who organized events bigger than a single table knows what I’m talking about: Pre-event jitters. Like a singer or athlete feels just before their performance or event, I am now a nervous wreck. You know, when you walked to the end of the 30ft diving platform and though you KNEW you should not look down, you did anyway. I am now standing on that platform looking down. I guess I should try and relax some, but I pride myself in associating my name to events now fondly remembered by people. Make it right, make it big, and make it awesome.

    The jitters aren’t all bad. I mean they get me going. They are an extra jolt of adrenaline to keep me on my toes and trying to preview issues before they happen. I have always been a firm believer in the old saying "If you build it, they will come." and once again pre-registration have proven that there is interest in my wacky ideas.

    Now is the time where the train is steaming full speed into the unknown and there is nothing you can do to stop it. The many pitfalls, obstacles and snags are still up ahead, but by now, things crash and burn OR jump over the obstacles. There is a certain serenity one feels when an event reaches that stage. A certain feel of release. I have prepared almost everything I need to the best of my ability. Things are now in the hands of the DMs and the players…

    Under that blanket of calm is a teaming, bubbling sea of worry. Will all my GM show up? Will they all be on-time? How many walk-ins are we going to have? Will there be a lot of no-shows? Do I have enough sodas? What will the noise-level be like? How will people like the game day? Is every DM ready to go? Did they forget to mention something important? OH God, please don’t let me be that one guy who forgets to shower! (note to self: don’t be that guy) Note to reader: don’t be that guy. Do I have enough certs? Enough tracking sheets? Should I bring extra battle-mats? Should I bring pens & other writing implements and materials? Argh! So little time.

    A poetic view to basically say “You’ve done pretty much all you could. Things go forward from now on for better or worse!” and "Plan for the worse, hope for the best…" Trying to be objective (which rarely am if you read this blog with any measure of frequency), I’m pretty sure that things will go off as well as they could.

    In the end it is about mixing 2 things together: Gamers and Games.

    Dear readers, I will see you on Monday.