Saturday, February 11, 2006

What Works, What Doesn't

artwork by llyn hunter; copyright llyn hunter; used with permission;
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Today's post is short [I just got braces and I'm slowly adjusting to them] and has no new game mechanics.

In the early 1980s RPGs were still a relatively new concept. Just about any release, no matter how poorly published, would garner attention and people would clammor around it. Game after game would be bought, characters would be made, and a few sessions would be played before someone got bored or a new game was released to grab our attention.

Everything was a horizon and the art of making characters was as important as anything else in the book. If you gamed at all in the 1980s, you understand what I'm talking about.

It was here we learned to avoid scifi games, gamma world, super hero games, and anything by FGU. These games may have been fun one or twice, but outside of the new names for sword, orcs, and ale... there was nothing different from these games, than DnD. And while some people migrated to Palladium, few people left DnD forever.

Many people still play champions, but this is hardly a roleplaying game, as anyone will tell you.

If you're new to gaming, none of this matters, so let me get to my point.

Scifi games are unplayable. Cyberpunk is for a different breed of person altogether. Superhero games last one session. Western games revolve around one theme. Post-apocolyptic games only draw in certain kinds of players.

There are many reasons why these games fail, and we always come back to DnD. There are a hundred reasons why DnD, Cthulhu, and Vampire are really the only games with any longevity, all of which I can address if you want. But, the meat of today's lesson is what makes DnD work.

This first definition, by the way will explain why Scifi fails.

Dungeons and Dragons has move plot possibilities than any other game. This is not arguable. Look at the lists. Examine the plot hooks in say... GURPS Space vs. Fading Suns vs. Basic DnD. While there are only 36 basic plots (according to the book, "36 plots"), the potential for adventure in a fantasy setting is nearly unlimited... which is ironic, because the save the village/princess/caravan story is so overdone... you'd think DnD was a video game. I could do an entire post about posts and it would be 10,000+ words.


The reason for the failing of any game world is that it does not ADD to this list, but rather detracts from it. It does not embellish, but rather restricts. I see game world after game world that violates this tenet, making the game less playable than DnD. The basic save the village, loot the dungeon, kill the orc, and recover the holy sword stories need to always exist. But, the game world should create NEW ones.

And these new ones need to be obvious.

Now. It's okay if you don't have orcs or dragons, but there need to be alternatives. If you're playing in a game set in an aztec empire, killing olmecs is the same as killing orcs and slaying dragons is the same as slaying the jaguar king. Pillaging tombs is easy enough and I'm sure there's a village or two that needs to be saved.

But, the aztec empire supported cannibalism in a very narrow way... eating the heart of your victims... swallowing their strength and virtue. So. When the aztec RPG comes out, I expect to see a chapter about ALL the potential adventure ideas and how to incorporate them AND the rules for eating the hearts of your enemies.

What are ALL the potential adventure ideas?

I'll use 7th Sea as an example... since I worked on this product. This game sorta did this, but sadly, the tools to do this were never evident. In 7th Sea there was a plot about the missing bishops and dead cardinal in Montaigne. Lots and lots of adventure potential. Where are the bishops? How do I as GM write stories involving these bishops? How does this change the game world when the PCs do rescue 1 or 2?

In Eisen, there was a stubborn baron named Steiger who burned and salted his owned land before letting the Castillians take it. How then do the PCs adventure in this land repairing the damage? What tombs exist in the realm that PCs might explore? What "orcs" might need fighting against?

Where are the nuggets of adventure that make this world MORE adventurous than the one I'm playing in now?

I would say, in this regard, we failed with this product. We didn't provide the tools to the GM to make all the stories work that we spent so long creating. And if all a game company is doing is selling you on their fiction... why aren't they printing fiction? Gaming fiction, to me, is masterbatory.

Note to Designers: The adventure chapter of your book
should be bigger than the adventure chapter in the DMG.

Dungeons and Dragons is about adventure, conflict, heroism, and potential. A truly memorable campaign involves the PCs changing the world around them, becoming the heroes of legends their new 1st level characters will come to admire. Remember those statues you saw of heroes that saved the world. That's what you want to become.

Sadly, the Forgotten Realms has none of this. In fact, I will go so far as to say that FR is a place for ren faire and SCA bard tales, but not for gaming.

And before you close this page and never speak to me again, let me illustrate.

In Waterdeep there are 100th-level wizards, hordes of paladins, Elminster, and the ivory palace (or whatever its called). Who cares when orcs attack? Where's the conflict? What challenges lie in this world that I could even care about? And who even knows who your PCs are? If they don't show up to fight the drow, I'm sure someone will.

Dozens of game worlds suffer from this, "My NPCs are cooler than your PCs" syndrome. The designers are so busy populating the world with their own bad-asses, that they've forgotten what adventure is all about; they've forgotten that heroes are borne from conflict; in most cases they've stopped gaming and have forgotten what the end user needs.

Game worlds like the one's we're designing here, require conflict... enemies to fight and a need for the PCs to fight them. There's more, but it's getting late and I need to post this before I become one of those people who never updates his site.

Warlords of the Accordlands actually gets this, btw.
And as much as I don't like Eberron, Keith Baker gets it too.

I want to end this article on one last piece of information.

Gaming is whatever you want it to be. If you like gnomes and bards (you're an idiot), then play them. Go have fun with your buddies, singing happy twinklebottom songs. The information and advice on these pages is for the benefit of those who want change. Those who want to spice up their gaming. Advice about sneak attack, races, initiative, and whatever else, are advice.

I have years and years of experience playing with every gamer under the sun. I've attended over 50 conventions and even gamed at a few of them <snark>.

I've played across from people who thought a candy bar up the butt was a funny way for a cthulhu character to die. Yeah. I've ran games for people who needed to be constantly entertained. I've endured stinky gamers, sleeping gamers, thoughtless gamers, power gamers, drama queens, rules lawyers, bullies, drunks, attention hounds, children, misanthropes, know-it-alls, and manic-depressives.

There is no constant thread amongst our breed. We come from so many dejected backgrounds, I don't even know where to start. But, certainly most of you love star trek and joss whedon (to whit I say... huh?) and so many other alternative entertainment mediums. Yet, nothing unites us... except perhaps our overly opinionated nature.

I've seen so many different types of gaming, that I'm sure what I say here is greek to the people who think Battletech is an RPG. You game how you game. I'm not here to judge that. And I can't and won't convince you these ideas are law.

What I know is how to shake things up. How to make what you're doing better, stronger, different, powerful. I know drama and dramatic content. I know dramatic conflict, plot, characterization, and adventure threads. I know how to end an adventure in 3 hours or how to stretch it out for 3 months. My published works are all examples of this; tools for gaming. I can't hold the pen for you, but I can tell you which pen and which paper work best for the task at hand.

I seriously just want to help people enjoy this craft at a higher level.

So... eat what you want and leave the scraps for someone else.

artwork by jim pavelec; copyright jim pavelec;
used without any permission of any kind;

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Dave said...

The comment about Forgotten Realms is all too true, but if you play D&D mostly as a DM as I do you begin to see the game change in a very fundamental way around about level 11.

At this level the players begin to realize that the only things powerful enough to stop them are monsters. City Guards are often written up as 1st level Fighters, the Captain is 3rd to 5th level and the King himself is often just a 9th level Expert.

Authority should erode at some point, but I feel it aught to begin at Epic levels. So, while 100th level wizards are just out of touch with reality, a 23rd level Cleric in charge of the Church of a major capital aught to be fine.

What deciding the level of the powerful NPC characters does is essentially set the upper limit of the campaign. However, as you mentioned, if you set it too high the PCs feel that they can never reach it. Seperate from that, but concurrently, the PCs begin to wonder why the high level NPCs just dont stomp out the 1st level threats they are presented with during their morning ride before breakfast.

According to the current system PCs can reach 20th level in about 80ish sessions. The gameworld time that goes by during that time is often something between one and three years.

So, if in a gameworld the DM wants to put the high level (whether that be 10th, 20th or 30th) NPCs in the background, but still keep the feeling that the NPCs use the same rules as the PCs, the DM should make high level about as rare as a Masters Degree or above.

Herb said...

First, I don't see why you're so anti-core. But anyway, that's beside the point, (I haven't played a core character in the past year, and I have been playing... okay there was that one human, but she had NPC levels too...)

Okay now to get on topic. Yes, a lot of GMs like to bad-ass their NPCs. This becomes a big problem. But then again, having a dynamic setting where other adventurers exist, and they aren't neccesarily tailored to match your party level can be good too. As a simple example, start a world with a large number of commoners, some NPCs, and a few with PC classes, mainly levels 1-3, but some higher level, up to maybe a couple well known people 18-20th level. When you're that strong, you're probably famous somewhere (I mean, that is supposed to be pretty powerful). As your party gains XP, a roughly proportionate amount is given to all the other adventurers in the world (for simplicity sake, just give the numerical value, dont' bother with this 25 xp to these guys and 50 to these crap). Sure it's tedium, but the idea of having a few NPCs who are truly powerful, and not having your group of PCs as the only EMERGING group of powerful PCs is also interesting. Plus, maybe there's some teamwork, interaction yadda yadda, or there could be absolutely none. I mean, it's bit on the extreme end if there's a banquet in honor of people and you have 50 character sheets piled up for every NPC there who happens to be a hero.

Post-apocalyptic, does tend to cater to a specific group, but it still holds just as much potential. It's up to the GM to throw some creativity in. I mean, the item lists and monster lists are completely up to the GM. If I want giant preying mantises, I can throw them in. If I want to make rules for psionics or magic (and hopefully balance them), fine, I can. There's nothing wrong with exploring a pyramid just because the entire northern hemisphere is in nuclear winter. Finding a 'treasure' is just as easy to script into post-apoc as it is into D&D. The real problem lies in the degree of realism that is taken into account. Magic can't coincide with nuclear weapons. Or can it? At the same time, keeping it post-apoc and not warping it into some magic-technology coexisting thing that's a completely different flavor is also a pain. Still, the focus of the game's setting shouldnt' be a problem. It's about recognizing potential, and pulling stuff out of your rear to accomodate. Admittedly, there must be something that makes D&D more popular, and it isn't neccesarily the fact that WotC pumps out books almost as fast as they do sets for Magic: The Gathering. And besides, once you pick a system, there's really very rarely a need to switch to another system, since as long as it isn't broken, and you can live with the constraints. L5R's setting to me was rather repulsive actually. I mean it was really poser-Japanese. I suppose part of it is how the GM carries themself, but then again L5R was ported into D&D (that's Oriental Adventures).

I mean Fallout follows your template (I'm assuming you haven't played, but still.) You interact with NPCs in towns, grab a merc if you want (the game has SOME limitations), and you're on your merry way. Fallout 1, the 'holy sword' would be a water chip, Fallout 2, the 'holy sword' would be the GECK. We're going to ignore Fallout 1 because it was fairly unrefined, and lacked a lot of NPC interaction and direction. Okay, so Fallout 2, most your time is in towns, yes. But there's several dungeons that are available, such as the Mines. A lot more of the stronghold idea, but that's because you're working with intelligent beings here, not a bunch of awakened llamas that stole a powerful spell focus. The Vaults and Raider Den, as well as Navarro and the Rig are all dungeons. Each one is constructed differently. You have enough choice of weapons, which do different damage types and use different skills, to compensate for the lack of spells. While in the end, you probably pick one of four weapons, this is also true of spellcasters in D&D - they tend to rely on a few particularly nasty spells. A high number of sidequests, which is also important in a D&D campaign (this is why WLD is playable, it's not fight your way linearly A-O and then finish the dungeon (we aren't there so I dont' know anything about O), is present in that particular post-apoc too.

However, if it's going to be a big zombie crusade, then it's sort of the D&D equivalent of 'hey guys, let's wipe out every goblin in the world!'.

Perhaps I'm doing too much in defense of systems, or a particular system. My hope is that from these rants you can glean something useful. Incidentally, I'm not sure if you saw my comment on the Attributes post, I made it a couple days ago (yes I know that's rather late).

I agree that shaking things up is important. We're going to see just what a nightmare continual greater invisiblity is when coupled with flyby attack as soon as I get my character out. I'm always up for writing a new PrC to fit what I want to do, but that doesn't mean core is bad. Let's try a wizard who specializes in evocation, but aboslutely hates casting magic. Just so we have an excuse to do something other than lob a fireball into every encounter. Core indeed, but not to the point of "let's give the wizard a 10 int and make him built like a fighter!". Or maybe I'm just not experienced enough and these ideas are still intruiging to me.

I think I'm going too long now, so time to stop and get back to work. Thanks for reading.

jim pinto said...

No offense, herb. But you've totally lost me.

I'm not sure what anti-core means.

I don't know what a wizard who doesn't want to cast spells has to do with game mechanics... and I'm not sure I follow the very fast way you topic jump.

Again. No offense, you're just not making your case very clear.

The one thing I can address is your post-apocalypse example. And you've nailed the essential problem of genre-hopping.

While the point of this article was not to address the flaws of other genres, but to say what works and what doesn't about fantasy.

I'm going edit my article a tad, rather than drone on about your post.

But your post-apocalyptic scenario is a great topic for later.

I'll respond to your other post, below.

jim pinto said...

Hey dave.

Thanks for all the posts.

My number one complaint about FR isn't that the PCs are weak or impotent... it’s that they're redundant. There are SOOO many 100-th level wizards about, who cares if the PCs are never born. FR was not designed with the PCs in mind. It was designed for storytellers, wannabe bards, SCA glad-handers, and "bad-accent: ren-faire volunteers to sing songs and recount tales of things that never happened.

It’s like a frat party where everyone lies about the girls they’ve been with.

And my god, the pantheon alone is a subject of such immense debate of confusion and 10-lb bag nonesense, I don't even know where to start. I could fill a book on what's wrong with FR.

But I'd much rather make a game world that's more interesting with my time.

I used FR as an example of a fantasy world that’s less interesting than anything the DM could devise himself. Their game-world has LESS adventure possibilities than Greyhawk.

Not more.

And I have my own short-hand for NPCs, which I’ll post in another article. It’s very similar to Patrick’s NPC system in Spycraft 2.0… I think we collaborated… or share a brain. Anyway. It’s what 3.5 should have been.

Is this davemage, btw?

jim pinto said...

One last thing.

L5R is an incredible game... maybe one of the best.

If you know how to run it... which sadly the core book doesn't give you the nuggets to do well.

But then, I DID write a book this subject.

Dave said...

Unfortunately when I signed up for Blogspot I wound up forgetting that I might want to talk to people that recognize me as Traevanon.

I and my group used to play L5R card game instead of D&D, pretty much up until... not sure if you are familiar... the Kami. It was a set that put the L5R pantheon in card form complete with amazingly game changing powers. Since we play "anything goes" multiplayer it kinda wrecked the game for us. The whole game seemed to be taking a turn towards a one-on-one style actually. Anyhow you were talking about the RPG. We also played that, back in its original incarnation, for a while... about as much as Gamma World or Boot Hill.

Incidentally I do like Shadowrun as an addition to the playable RPG genres.

Herb said...

I'm defining "core" as everything in the PH, and maybe the DMG prestige classes. Probably a good idea to throw in magic items from DMG as well. Techincally core is PH/DMG/MM, so sorry for not being clear there. I just get the impression if it's been done a lot (which would the stuff that players typically see without doing some extra reading/GMing), you seem to be against it, for lack of originality.

Staying on topic has never been a strong suit in informal writing, and to be honest, I stopped writing in that last comment because I lost myself.

The wizard who wouldn't cast spells isn't so much a game mechanics thing, it's more an intersting roleplay idea. After all, D&D isn't constructed so one sided that you are restricted to what your class does, various proficiency feats and feats that use different stats are available to customize your character... to an extent. It's just a creativity thing I guess, but a wizard with 14 int and 18 strength is just as viable. (You lose some HP, yes, but then again you have the option of casting when you need to).

I guess my point with the wizard that acts like a fighter was really that even within the PHB constraints you can get fairly creative without creating a character that's bound to end up dead prematurely from poor construction. Maybe I misread in general about your opinion on the PHB races.

Just seemed like you didn't like gnomes today, and of course you are rewriting the rogue class (we hope).

L5R's rule system didn't bother me, it was more just... the feel I got from reading it. But then again, I'm a unforgiving personal about mass cultural illusions, so maybe that's my fault. Like I said, depends on the GM too.

Over spring break I'm going to take a look at Shadowrun (not the new version), and I'll say my piece on it then.

Enough said for today, have an exam in an hour and a half.

jim pinto said...

[Dave I was talking about the RPG.]

Thanks for another tangent, herb.


I was speaking to the culture of L5R, not the rules... those stink.

The game is so gorgeous when it's played right.

Back to DnD:

Yes. I hate gnomes.

Yes. I intend to show you a new Rogue class.

As for the "core," I have a problem with certain classes and the function they perform in the "team." Paladins, rangers, clerics, druids, monks. There's so much potential for unified themes among these classes... but they fail.


Heck, even the fighter is kind of lame and deserves some oompf. [Actually, my vote is to make the fighter a 10-level class and force people into a new or prestige class at level 11. A 20th level fighter is essentially ONE feat better than a 18th level fighter. And that's just stupid.]

I also think that 1st through 3rd level adventuring is always the same, based solely on the range of options available... hence my hatred of power attack, cleave, sleep, and magic missile. Why would you take any other feats or spells?

Anyway. I'll address all of this in time.

Herb said...

Okay, i'll stop posting on this particular thread now that it's been covered in lengthy comments.

Anyway, about 1st to 3rd level, yeah, I tend to push for starting at least at 4th level. Dunno why people have such an aversion to it.

Sleep, has the HD limitation. The magic missile spell is a great parallel to say, fireball/lightning bolt, and oh I don't know, time stop? Delayed blast fireball is up there too. Spells that everyone takes. Have a dex bonus? Of course you'll take combat reflexes. What spellcaster doesn't take combat casting?

Unfortunately, a lot of character build ends up being templated. You see Combat Expertise? Either somebody wants a higher AC (like a venerable fighter, which can't hit worth a damn anyway), or they're going for Spring/Whirlwind Attack. You don't see people go for it so they can take IMPROVED DISARM.

You know, I've always wondered, just why anyone would take the Virtue spell. But sure. A study of 1st levels (ECL 1 please) show common feats / spells selected. It was so strange having everyone yelling at the spellcaster for NOT having any offensive spells. No sleep either, though Color Spray was in the list.

There's so much potential for unified themes among these classes... but they fail

When you experience this sort of dissatisfaction, don't you want to write new classes, or rewrite the classes? In which case, why don't you make a new PHB, in which case you're well on your way to making another RPG anyway. Oops, guess I just left another tangent on here. I really need a blog called "great cleave responses".

I anxiously await your post on overused feats, I'll have my 10 cents to put in there too. Unless I'm supposed to stop commenting that is. Well take care.

Dave said...

Its hard to avoid commenting on L5R the card game when I get a chance. It just kinda escapes my mouth before I get a chance to stop it.

Dave said...

Two things I want in a new RP system:

Illusions that work. I want a concrete system that allows imagination on the part of the illusionist, but also removes the feeling that you can invent anything you want, because it doesnt matter, it all works the same.

Rogue Rules that work. From picking pockets, hiding and sneaking, tripping and feinting in combat all the way through trap detection and removal, the rogue rules in 3.5 are horrible. Its a long story to post all the problems I've experienced, and I realize that stealth is a tricky topic, nevertheless there it is; request #2.

jim pinto said...

I actually have some good ideas for Illusions and all mind-effecting magic.

I'll be stealing a cue from torg, actually. But, we're weeks away from that chapter.