JP On Gaming

Thursday, May 27, 2010

I love Chaosium

It’s never been a secret that I love Chaosium and their flagship product, Call of Cthulhu.

This love affair started around 1995 or 1996 when I walked into Le Valet d’Coeur in Montreal on an ordinary day. As usual, I headed for their used-product section. There it was. Call of Cthulhu 4th edition. Beat up ol’ 4e (and not like the crappy 4e we talk about these days). For four dollars, it was a steal and the book immediately flew of the shelf and into my hands, never to leave them again. I then began to voraciously read any Lovecraftian literature I could get my hands on. And thus the love affair began.

Over the years, I increased my collection of Chaosium products to the point where it is now the largest, most looked at, most prominently display and best-liked collection of books I own. I still own and use that ol’4e, but now have added to this a 5.5 and a 25th anniversary edition (what would become 6e).

I want to say how responsive and open the people at Chaosium are with their fans. Every year, they put out adventure-writing contests for amateurs (like myself) to submit ideas in a contest. The winners of these contests are then placed into a monograph they then publish. Even the idea of the monograph, small-number publications available through them only is great. Thus anyone could write something of interest: adventures, collection of Mythos tomes, define one area, or even add new rules to the game. I personally possess a number of monographs: from the original version of Cthulhu Invictus to a Cthulhu-Viking campaign to the Mysteries of Hungary to the BRP 2008 Adventure Contest. While the quality varies greatly, I have really enjoyed them as they have provided me with many adventure ideas in the past, especially Cthulhu Invictus and Mysteries of Hungary.

Dustin Wright with whom I had a lot of exchanges is a top-notch guy. Every time I sent him an email, he has taken the time to reply to me in a timely fashion AND has answered my (many) questions in a way that did not make me feel like an idiot. A personalized response is something that I always try to give to people. Makes them feel special and fosters good will. Thumbs up, Dustin! Thumbs up!

As many of you know (due to my Facebook post), Chaosium have posted another contest, this time for Cthulhu Invictus. I have written an adventure which I call Lights on the Vesuvius for the contest. This adventure used to be the introductory part of my Invictus campaign. However, after play-testing the campaign, I came to the realization that though what I wanted was ambitious, there was no way I could write everything and get another Keeper (GM) to understand what was going on without writing a 200+ page book. The campaign was already 150 pages long and I still needed to write AT LEAST three chapters. Too long I thought. However, many of the adventures within were quite interesting. So I stripped out everything campaign-specific and there was my submission.

So why am I writing thing entry? Why now?

Tuesday (May 25th), I submitted my proposal to Dustin, along with a few questions regarding timeline and process. His response on Wednesday included answers and a few extra jests only old friends can share. It made me feel special. And I like that.

That’s why, I can say that I love Chaosium.


Monday, May 24, 2010

Last Minute Revisions

So it’s all done, you’ve fixed the immediate problems with your adventures, your tweaked a few things, added some extra details and completed that player handout you promised yourself you would be doing. Finally your adventure is done.

Really, it is.

You’ve done all you can for the adventure.

Seriously, you’re done.

Then why do you have a nagging feeling something is missing, that you missed a flagrant flaw, that the adventure is missing some added combat capability, that a new monster you just read/thought about would suit your adventure, or that you could fit that cool NPC you just made up watching TV?

That feeling is the revisionist in you trying to get out. It’s not a bad one to have, but one you must keep in check. The problem with over-revising is that you may invalidate your play-test! Yes. The last-minute addition you are thinking about may completely change your adventure, its flow, its own "thing". So you have to be careful.

So the question becomes… What do I revise?


The Encounter Flow

What you want to avoid is anything that could significantly alter the adventure or one of the existing encounters. Sometimes the alteration is in-game while other times it is a meta-gaming. As an author, you must seek to keep that flow.

Example One changing an encounter from a bear to a small dragon significantly alters the encounters and leads to a number of collateral damage. Dragons, even small ones, have hoards and thus players want to get their hands on them. Dragons often have servants. But the most important thing is… small dragons usually have a mother. So an encounter where the PCs walk through the forest, fight a bear and keep going turns into a risky and scary affair where they look over their shoulder all the time for Mama-dragon to show up or where they begin searching for a treasure hoard instead of being on their way through the forest... That does alter the flow and the adventure itself.

Example Two we replace the bear with an owlbear. Similar monster and its base purpose (a goon) is unchanged. No one thinks much of an owlbear in a forest. They don’t really have major treasure (except maybe in their stomachs). So we can change the bear to an owlbear without serious alteration.

Sometimes you may alter the flow so that the simplification completely alters the encounter. Reverse example 1. You have a small dragon, making the crossing of the forest fraught with peril and worry about the mother showing up. Instead, with the bear’s appearance the forest trek because rather mundane and not so worrisome. That can also alter the flow.

The story flow

This one is harder to spot and remedy. Here, through the addition or modification of a non-combat encounter – usually a non-combat encounter – the story changes significantly. Many of those are linked to in or out of character knowledge about an NPC or NPC groups.

Example One in the original document, the PCs met with a generic merchant who told them about the king’s evil plot. But you decide that this information should come from the local crime lord whose minions the PCs have been fighting for the last while. His inclusion into the adventure may lead to all kinds of unique tie-ins. Why is he suddenly helping us? Is the information reliable? Should we trust him?

Example Two instead of some existing NPC, replacing the generic merchant with someone you thought of and plan on using later on. Many players will catch on that "NPC joe" has a name and is not portrayed like everyone else. While the players may notice the man, they may simply note him down and continue. This does not alter the flow too much.

What to do?

Well, if your revision caused something you believe might alter the adventure in a significant way, the best thing is to run another play-test. I cannot emphasize this enough.

But if you do not have the luxury of doing that – and let’s face it running two play-tests of an adventure is a luxury, then you must sit back and play the adventure through your head, using the "QA Method". Be VERY thorough and exhaustive when doing that. If you can find a potential flaw, the best thing is to remove your fix. If you think fixing something will make it worse, then it’s not worth doing.

Why drop it? Your text is written taking into account what you had originally, not what you changed and creeps and other mistakes may appear because of the change. Many adventures in LG were branded as poorly edited or written when they were the result of last-minute edits or revisions.


Friday, May 21, 2010

Play-testing: What to evaluate?

During my latest trip to Montreal - in the grips of Hockey fever - I play-tested this setting I’ve been posting about for the last few months. I was very excited about finally bringing my creation to the game table. There was a lot to prepare: writing up the pre-gens, sending a short background to each character, giving some details about the gods to the players, finish the adventure, pack everything up and then set up the game itself. All the players were on time and ready to go.

In short, things went well or as good as could be. The PCs "got" what I was trying to do, and did the kinds of things I wanted them to do. Their evolution through the adventure was as expected.

I could simply pat myself on the back and say how awesome I really am. But that would not be who I am. No, I have to dig to find some dirt, something to improve. So by trying to find out what was wrong, let’s see what went right with the adventure.

The timing is good since I was aiming for an adventure that would run around four hours. Including a lunch break, giving a description the world and its particularities, and the chit chat of a bunch of gamers who hadn’t seen each other in months, the whole thing took about five hours. By focusing on the game, the timing is fine.

The plot hook works finding a plot hook that works, that is original and that is engaging for players with different motivations. That is one thing I reproach to the Pathfinder Society, its plot hooks are terrible! I’ll let you in on a secret: they’re all the same. You have to do that because I tell you to.

The players’ flow make sense this is always one of those points that I personally find to be the most important. The "flow" is the player’s thought process and discovery of the adventure. Do they go from conclusion to conclusion based on the clues / discoveries logically? Do they have to reach very far to come to a discover something that’s in the adventure.

For example, that the PCs deduce that their employer is evil when they see a letter with his name on it is a natural deduction. That they come to the same conclusion because a painting on the wall shows him being dressed in black and sporting a goatee is not.

The fights are interesting This one is particular. LFR (the wrong-standard) defines an interesting fight by having something cool and unique in the encounter, over story reason. While that is a part of it, coolness and uniqueness are not the only factor in creating fun fights. Why are the villains there? Why do they fight the PCs? Is there a good reason for them to be there? Would other monsters be more likely? Should they be toughened up? Wussified? Diversified? Those questions all go through my head as I try to review a combat encounter. Do the players have fun with the encounter?


Monday, May 3, 2010

Playtest Jitters

Saturday the 24th, I ran a trial, “alpha” version, of the adventure and setting I have been blogging about for the last few months. The game was an opportunity to sit down and play with my buddies in Montreal: Steve, Alex, Yves, Dan, and ET. Such a “reveal”, I always found nerve wracking as so many things can (and usually do) go wrong. Such things like impossibilities in the system, aspects or perspectives that were missed or overlooked in previous phases of development.

Again, many things can go wrong.

For one reason, play-testing always bring image of my good friend David (Bibi)’s vampire game for Helios 2000 where the adventure came to a screeching before we (the players) followed a path that was sensible but that he did not expect. Btw, this says nothing about the adventure, it was very good, but we put ourselves into a corner.

As I said, nerve-wracking.

So I was thinking. What are the best ways to avoid such pitfalls? This article aims to work on “convention” or “tournament”-style play, those games where the DM is not necessarily the author. A regular DM often gets the option to “explain things later” (and I do that a lot myself).

Use the QA approach

I am a computer engineer by trade. And thus, I often approach problems (and solutions) in gaming in software development terms. As a developer (author), I try to come up with code that work the way I want and I strive to make things work according to my vision. The QA guy’s role is to find ways to break my code. So he throws all kinds of weird things at it. As an author, the QA guy’s role is to try and solve problems by sending unique or strange case at it. “What if the PCs have a protection from evil spell up?” or “What if the party has a character with a ridiculous score in [Perception/Sense Motive/Diplomacy]?” See how the adventure reacts to it. Be realistic in your evaluation here.

Of course you cannot catch every single possibility, but try to catch most of it. The goal is to figure out how to break the story. Again, I say story because the artifices you can use are many to reach your goal.

Here is one example. The PCs are invited to a feast as guests of honor where a noble NPC will be poisoned by the villain. Sounds familiar? Yes. It’s a simple premise.

What if, one of the PCs, ignoring the laws of etiquette stands up and casts a detect poison spell? What happens to the adventure then? Here, using a simple spell, your premise may be broken. When thinking in D&D terms, I try to think of low-level spells and powers as those the PCs are most likely to throw around without any reason. Perhaps the villain uses a poison that is in two parts. Say something that reacts to wine?

At some point, however, the game must be allowed to go on. The rules for etiquette must apply and a certain measure of common sense and consequences must be applied. PCs that constantly break the rules of etiquette should be thrown out of the hall. They may also become suspect, “how did they know the food was poisoned?”

No substitute for experience

I said it a million times, nothing beat playing the game. Someone I strongly dislike comes to mind (Greg-I) immediately comes to mind as a good example (don’t worry the dislike is shared). The guy knows what every DM & author should and should not do. I played one game under him and it was as tedious as most of the lectures I had to endure while in college. He would read two lines, then whine about bad adventure design, then explain what is wrong and why he wouldn’t have done thing one way. Reading the adventure after playing it under him, I found that it really wasn’t half as bad as he said and in fact, enjoyed running it.

He knows everything. But he doesn’t DM for a million bogus reasons (truth is: he may find out he’s not as right as he thinks he is).

Be flexible in the design

Many adventures are made so inflexible that it’s like watching a movie. The players have no real say or impact on what is happening. You keep thinking “you know, I would do something different.” Slasher movies… WHY oh WHY does the hot girl run up the stairs instead of running for the back door? Dramatic effect, yes, but in an RPG, many will go to the door OR through a window if need be.

Now, certain types of adventure (such as dungeon crawls) are by nature linear, but putting some thought into the design and rooms is a big one. I generally prefer to write “point A” and “point B” and assume the DM/party will make their way through.

Come up with options/alternatives

Your ideas and writing are not sacrosanct and a holy gift from God (you) to the world! No. They are not. Really. Most of what I write end up in a “see you later” bin. Play-tests are an opportunity to expand and flesh out what is happening, with the benefit of having 4-6 heads and ideas flowing through into your adventure. Use the input they give you to make your writing better (and without necessarily telling them…).

Again the goal is to have a product that is very fun, interesting and that almost any DM can take and use in their game world. The more alternatives you have, the better the result.


I’ll detail how the play-test went next time.