Death Doesn’t Bargain

February 28, 2012

– August Strindberg

Anyway, two or three conversations not long ago got me to thinking about character death in RPGs.  The predominant one was a resurrected thread on the L5R forums about how GMs thought about killing characters.  As Alderac is incredibly strict when it comes to forum management, my response was killed and the thread locked since the thread was too old.

The gist of my response was how unfortunate it is that so many people think of death as the only threat to characters.  This ties in exactly to something Brad said at DunDraCon about how he always wants to feel like his characters are in mortal peril, that it’s unsatisfying not to have the feeling.

Of course, there’s a genre element to it all.  D&D (RuneQuest, et al) have always been about resurrecting characters, something I will comment more upon.  Comic books kill off their characters constantly, but they return at nearly the same rate.  Swashbuckling adventure not so inclined to demises.  And, so on.

The view of many L5R GMs is that the world is supposed to be very deadly.  Though, I still fail to see a close connection between L5R and samurai movies, the latter seeing much carnage.  I don’t have a counterargument to this.  L5R was predicated on deadly combat.  Fourth Edition isn’t particularly deadly, certainly far, far less so than earlier editions if you look at it in terms of speed of death, i.e. I see 4e combat being as deadly if not more for PCs but it takes three to five times as long to get there, so it’s nowhere near as instantly deadly.

I have two problems with the focus on character death.  The first is that it may be in flavor, but it’s a hassle logistically.  The second is that there are all sorts of other ways to fail that get overlooked when focusing on death as the threat to where the story takes a back seat to mechanics.

I suppose for some groups it may not have come up, but every time a PC dies, it creates a number of logistical issues for the play of the game.  Having a new character come in who isn’t too weak or too strong (in that all of the effort of the players who didn’t “fail” is undermined by a new character coming in at comparable strength) is a frequent problem, if one that varies immensely.

One poster pointed out that his party no longer had any of the characters who originally were on the mission, so nobody in the party had a goal of accomplishing the party goal.  I’ve seen something like this with our RQ group.  Similarly, a new character may have none of the connections to the other PCs that the original character should have had.  I can’t stand the metagamey conversations when trying to introduce someone new to a party, the most egregious being when someone got tired of talking to a new character and said, “So, do you want to join the party?”

Of course, you can craft a background for a new character so that it fits in better with a group.  Actually, some of the best of this I’ve seen is when someone takes over a NPC that is around during play.  This has come up a number of times when playing Conan, usually more when someone is off stage then when a PC dies, though.

Then, a particular character may be essential to a particular story point.  The Chosen One dies … now what?  While it may be possible to work around, the point of gaming is to have fun, and the fun can be decreased when the story collapses.

So, integration of mechanics – Balancing new character strength.  Integration of thematics – Where did this character come from?  Why does it care about the party?  Why does it care about the party’s mission?  The legacy of the old character – Was the deceased important to the story?

Moving on.  Besides the logistical issues of characters dying (permanently or, at least, inconveniently, it should be pointed out), there’s what I consider a strange overconsideration for this result.

I think it comes out of a hack and slash mentality, where the adventure is framed within a context of plot-unregardable [see Deceptively Disinterested for definition] combat.  Sure, even in hack and slash, there’s the possibility of gaining or losing treasure, gaining or losing experience points for things like not murdering every enemy, or whatever.  But, there’s typically no coherent story, so the personal story elements come down to things like:  I murdered monster; I am now a 9th level ranger/4th level druid with an AC of -1 and a Staff of Woodland Creatures; I died.

Meanwhile, there are too many other ways to fail to list.  I like to use the example, since combat is so important to so many games, of a combat where there’s a stated goal besides defeating the enemy, such as catching up with kidnappers before they get away.  The combat isn’t about survival.  It’s about time.  Take too long and you fail, even if you murdered everyone in existence.

I’m not in favor, by the way, of mutilation as a form of failure.  I’m not alone in rather creating a new character than losing a limb or the like.  But, others may think differently.  Nor do I care enough about fantasy wealth to have lost money be a consequence that really matters, though wealth accumulation is a huge motivation for many.

Rather, I care about things like status, reputation, favorable NPC relations, saving the lives/sanity/whatever of NPCs, making the world a better place.  I feel bad when I can’t save a NPC I try to save or when the world gets worse because the party failed (not to be confused with when the party was fine with making the world worse, though that is its own issue).  I also care a lot about plot and resolution to the story.  Some of the worst failure can be not knowing how the story ends.  “What happened to the princess?  Kidnappers got away.  You will never know.  Losers.”

To provide more concrete examples, I’ll use HoR.  There was one mod where I could have jumped in front of a fireball aimed at something we were supposed to protect.  It didn’t really make sense to do, but it would have been character defining.  The failure to be more courageous doesn’t exactly haunt me, but the failure of making for a better scene is memorable enough for me to write about it here.  In another mod, I was into a side plot involving an artist and bought a huge amount of her work but, unlike many others, never got to meet the artist in the mod.  To an extent, some of these failures aren’t due to player choice but GM/player communication being faulty.  A clear case of actually choosing a poor option was when I could have assisted a geisha targeted by assassins out of town and decided not to, even if it was somewhat questionable in character as to the propriety of doing so.

Sure, I feel bad about lost XPs, lost possibilities for cool stuff (not to be confused with generic treasure) like the time I passed on trying to get a jade war fan for my character who was better with a war fan than anyone else in the living campaign and who was eager to oppose Shadowlands monsters, and other mechanical results.  And, these are also threats to characters besides character death.  But, just having an unhappy ending to a story, whether it personally affects the character in some way that isn’t death related like failing to get the girl or is external to the character, is enough for me to feel threatened by challenges that aren’t going to get my characters killed.

Finally, I was going to comment more upon the D&D, et al, model of (relatively) easy resurrection.  While it may be costly to get resurrected due to lost wealth or whatever, I find that death just becomes a joke in these sorts of games.  In part because you can come back, you are that much more likely to get killed.  The believability of the world just flies out the window with such a gamey mechanic, whereas in books and such, bringing someone back is dramatic and momentous and should be treated as such when gaming.  I thought it was cool when I started out a con game by putting a bullet through a character’s head – it brought home what it meant to be secretly an immortal.  When the conflict is die/not die, the game loses flavor and devolves into a mechanical structure that might as well be a videogame or a boardgame or whatever.

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Bushido Mechanics

February 26, 2012

Can’t spell Compassion without Passion,
Can’t spell Courage without Rage,
Can’t spell Sincerity without Sin,
Can’t spell Duty without … um … doh!
… back to the drawing board.

No, not talking about the RPG Bushido, though I do own it and met someone recently who ran/played it, much to my surprise – very hard system.

I’ve been thinking increasingly about distinguishing character facets by pulling out each of the L5R tenets of bushido.

Bushido Hierarchy

I have trouble seeing my HoR characters’ personalities.  Since I’m pro-Honor, I started thinking about which tenets they cared more about to act Honor-ably (try to up their Honor Ranks) during play.  It didn’t take long to realize that the obvious thing to do was to simply rank every tenet.  For the moment, not putting any numerical value on them but just seeing what was relatively more or less important.

My first pass was interesting.  I certainly realized that I didn’t really know for many of the tenets what they believed was important.  Also, I ended up with two very similar profiles, which seemed wrong.

Example:

Bushido Hierarchy:
Courage > Courtesy > Sincerity > Honor > Honesty > Compassion > Duty

I ended up redoing my hierarchy for my other character.  One thing that was throwing me was that I was using astrology, both Eastern and Western to aid forming these characters’ personalities and the keywords I pulled out for their signs pushed me into a lot of tenets.  At first, I had both characters caring little about Duty but realized that Duty was one of the most important aspects of my other character.

Of course, the higher one’s Honor Rank, the stronger the character feels in general.  The lowest tenet for one character may be more valued than the highest of another.  Which brings us to scoring.

Individual Scores

One of my characters is Honor 5 and the other Honor 7.  These are the averages of the rank values for the individual tenets, though I don’t think a lot of people really think about it from this direction.  While certainly people realize that Honor Rank is an average and that different tenets are ranked differently, that the average of those ranks should be the same as the overall can be surprising to look at.

A character may very well be 10 in Duty and 1 in everything else, a Scorpion say, and average out to a 2.  Not surprised?  Well, that’s a stereotypical case.  What about someone who is 10 in three tenets and 1 in the rest, averaging out to about 5.  This character is extreme, to the point where I couldn’t see it being all that reasonable.  Still, variance is an issue, though high Honor and low Honor characters are going to be much more limited in variance.

Example:

Bushido Hierarchy:
Sincerity – 9
Duty – 9
Courtesy – 7
Compassion – 7
Honesty – 6
Courage – 6
Honor – 5

This is, of course, my Honor 7 character.  What stands out to me isn’t the high end but that he’s really not all that Honor(tenet)able.  Just average.  Ignoring that Honor (tenet) and Honor (mechanic) get confusing, it helps me to realize what I can let slide.  There’s also a medium level of variance, in my opinion.  An Honor 8 character has to get into 10’s to have more than a slight variance.

It would be interesting to build more characters with one superlow number to really define the character in the setting.  Speaking of which, how do these numbers come about?

How To Score?

For my characters, I’ve given them astrological signs and went through my astrology books to pull out character traits.  Often, those traits correspond to tenets (or work against them).

Example:

Sheep – righteous, sincere, gullible, mild-mannered, shy, artistic, fashionable, creative worker, emotional, pessimistic, withdrawn, gentle, compassionate, forgiving, dislikes strict schedules, doesn’t take well to discipline or criticism, fond of children/animals, close to nature, homebody, subjective, food/shelter/clothing, lucky, survivor, placate/evade enemies, roundabout, worrier, romantic

This is for the second character.  Note that his Compassion isn’t all that high relative to other tenets.  Other tenets came up as important when looking at his Western sign.

But, not every character has had this much work put into it.  The mechanics of L5R, itself, help produce values or a hierarchy.  “Paragon of …” or “Failure of Bushido: …” should clearly distinguish tenets.  I’m working on a character at the moment with Paragon of Compassion and Failure of Honesty.  If I don’t score Compassion highest and Honesty lowest, I’m being inconsistent.

Then, there’s background and the more common stuff that players come up with for their characters.  My Sheep belongs to a family that puts in a lot of hard work and is very traditional but also went to a school that is very much into hard work.  All of this lends itself well to Duty being an important aspect, which was why I redid my numbers for the character to where, now, Duty is a 9.

There’s another way.  I don’t have much respect for random character creation out of a book – any system.  But, inconsistently, I find randomizing for my own benefit very helpful for coming up with a more fully realized (or weirder) character concept.  While building the new character, I hadn’t decided what Paragon or what Failure (if Failure at all) the character would have, so I rolled d10’s to give relative values for each tenet.  As the character is starting out with 7.5 Honor, I simply added two to each die result.  The average was right on.  The results kind of problematic.

A disadvantage of random results, which is why I’m against being forced to be random, is that you get results you aren’t comfortable with.

I also randomly rolled d12’s for astrological signs, getting Ox and Pisces.  That was less problematic, though, going with this will force me to stretch some as a role-player.

But, why does this all matter?

Tenets

I see the tenets being rather confusing.  In particular, sincerity and honor are confusing.  What’s amusing is that L5R doesn’t really try to define honor, even though that only makes it worse for players and GMs.  At least there’s some attempt to separate honesty and sincerity.

Compassion

Not much of an issue here.  Though, it’s interesting how much of Rokugani society is predicated upon the idea that your lessers aren’t even people when the encouraged philosophy says to be nice to them.

Courage

Courage is not the absence of fear.  Courage is making fear your bitch.  However, fear, itself, is considered a weakness in Rokugan, which is also inconsistent when courage can’t exist without it.

Courtesy

Okay, be polite at all times.  But, it’s no biggy if you murder someone for disrespecting your sword?  Okay, kind of weird.  Metagamewise, anyone accidentally touching your blades, you, or whatever should be left off the hook so that you look compassionate and courteous.  Though, see honor.

Duty

Simple enough, until you get into Scorpion “loyalty”.  Is loyalty just duty or something more?  Do Scorpion even make sense?

Honesty

I get the distinction between honesty and sincerity when it comes to speaking.  When it comes to philosophy, it’s messier.  So, just being truthful, in and of itself, is honorable, yet being dishonest in a sincere way is also (partially) honorable?

Honor

Big problem of definition in L5R because Honor is a mechanic as well as a tenet.  I did a dictionary search of honor for guidance.  Very interesting in that it went in a direction I don’t think about for L5R.

Respect, esteem, privilege, exalted position – these all tie heavily into Status.  The idea that honorable actions are actions worthy of praise or reward is different from the internal concept of integrity, which seems to be what L5R is going for.

Killing an oni is?  Dutiful?  To an extent.  But, really, it’s honorable in the sense of doing something that should be esteemed.  Yet, the game would think of this more as Glory-ous.  Similarly, everything under Glory would tie into honor if you look at honor externally as something to be proud of.

If you look to define integrity, once you get past honest, you get into a definition loop.  Moral, righteous, virtuous – it all ends up being the same thing.  Correct action.  But, that’s circular.  What is correct?  Can only know that by knowing what is honorable/virtuous.

Sincerity

At least honor seems like something we comprehend even if we can’t define it.  Sincerity’s problem is honesty.  Again, it’s simple to distinguish the two when it comes to what someone says.  If someone speaks truth, then honest.  If someone lies or hedges, dishonest.  If someone sounds truthful, then sincere.  If someone sounds dishonest, then insincere.

But, that just means that honesty and sincerity are differed by perspective.  That’s not entirely the distinction with sincerity that L5R is going for.  There’s a concept of sincerity of action that honesty doesn’t really apply to.

Being one in action and word gets mentioned multiple times.  What does this mean?  There’s an element of believing in one’s actions, including one’s speech.  There is no try, there is only do or do not.  Even if try is more honest.

How does this apply to playing the game?  Sincerity, to me, is very much about the lack of doubts, whether internal or external.  Credulity, believability.  Overconfident types aren’t sincere even if they have no internal doubts as they aren’t believable in what they think they can accomplish.

Actually, I’ve been trying to come up with a good model for opposing the Three Sins of Rokugan:  fear, desire, and regret.  Courage clearly opposes fear.  Duty clearly opposes desire.  What opposes regret?  I thought about honor, which also fits with seeing duty/honor/courage being the “action” tenets to compassion/courtesy/honesty/sincerity being the “social” tenets.

While sincerity’s lack of doubts lends itself to opposing fear, I can also see lacking doubts being anti-regret.  Then, compassion could have some element of overcoming regret, like courage overcomes fear, by being compassionate to oneself.  Maybe it’s easier to apply every tenet in some way against the Sins than I thought once you get into this line of thinking.


DunDraCon 2012

February 21, 2012

While driving back from DDC, I said to my carmate, Joel, that I’d give the con a B.  I’m inclined more to a B- now.  In case anyone was looking for V:TES stuff, there’s very little.

Friday, I had to get to the con before noon to run my noon game.  Ridiculous that there were any noon games as it wasn’t that long ago that local conventions started at 7PM or so on Fridays.  There were 16 tabletop RPGs at noon.  I picked up Joel a bit before 9AM and we got there 1.5 hours before my targeted time.  It was actually quite pleasant.  I got checked into the hotel immediately.  I had time for a leisurely breakfast.

I went to my game an hour early and somebody came by looking to crash soon after I arrived.  I never saw him again.  Either he got into another game or he remembered me and wanted nothing to do with my running another game for him.  In the end, I had one no show and one crasher, so it worked, and it appeared that noon on a Friday was a reasonable time to schedule 16 tabletop RPGs.  I was running an adventure I hope to eventually get published.

It went better than expectations, yet there’s a good reason I’m not a fan of GMing.  The whole rest of the con I kept thinking about how things could have gone better.  The main thing I would have preferred is fighting out a final fight, but my time management is questionable and we had to leave the room at 6PM, so there wasn’t time.  I definitely need to work on making character goals less vague, combats more common, and combats happen earlier in one-shots.

I probably should have tried to play something Friday evening – it would have taken my mind off of my game.  Instead, we walked 20 minutes to a local shopping center as we are all quite bored with the nearby offerings at this con.  We waited 30-45 minutes for a table, which didn’t bother me a whole lot since I had nothing to do, but it would be something of a theme to the con.

I also got bad heartburn and slept very little, defeating my being done for the day early.  In the morning, I checked to see if I got in my 10AM game or the 8AM backup game, tried to sleep a bit more when it was the 10AM but largely failed, and went to my 10AM.

Knotty’s Party

I got there very early, so I talked to the GM for a bit.  The system was his homebrew based on a few things he liked.  It’s downloadable, as is at least the main game he based it on.  The plot was what was highly amusing.

A puppetmaster has a teenage, animated puppet that has gone missing right before his birthday.  If he doesn’t make it to his birthday party in time, he loses what life he has.  If he does make it, he turns into a real boy.

This was exactly the scenario that I had played in an adventure at Gen Con.  Of course, knowing virtually nothing about the real story of Pinocchio until I just looked it up online, I didn’t catch that they were both riffing on the actual story.

Even more coincidental was that both adventures were set in fantasy worlds where the common Tolkien races could be found.  Since we created characters for this session, I recreated to the best of my ability the character I played at Gen Con – Grillo the Muslim Turk Goblin.  After the session, I asked the GM whether he ever went to Gen Con, but he said he never had.

So, an elf high wire entertainer, a dobbin (hobbit) thief, a human noble, a human musketeer, a dobbin musketeer, and Grillo went looking for Knotty.  Knotty proved very popular with the local brothel.  His two abductors were bribed and we went to find Darius, The King of Magic.  We scoped him out and he didn’t have Knotty, either.  We found Xerxes and a back entrance to Lord Montaigne’s residence, where the lord explained that he bought Knotty and sent him with his (infatuated) daughter to be presented to the Sultan of Turkey.  We take the lord’s flying carpet, get to the hotel they are at, continue to explain the need to get Knotty back in time or he will be lifeless (and, apparently, sexless), take out a few guards and start flying back.  The carpet becomes damaged, so we get stuck.  I and another fall 700′ feet into the ocean as we try to get to a fishing boat.  The Sultan captures us and lets us go.

It was perfectly fine.  One of the players was new to RPGs, but unlike a lot of new players, she was very active and outgoing.  The group was humorous.  The adventure could have been less linear and harder – a lot of NPCs simply gave us info and helped us.  Time had something to do with that, but it seemed like nobody really cared about preventing us from doing what he wanted once we told them what would happen if he didn’t get back.

I had no real interest in Saturday evening games, so I hung out with nothing to do and went for dinner.  Sandra found a Chinese restaurant online that was near but questionably walkable, so I encouraged going there but nobody wanted to give up a parking space.  Eventually, Misha was willing to drive but wanted to go to Zachary’s for Chicago style pizza.  Okay, whatever.  As it happened, this Zachary’s was table deficient and we waited an hour.  It didn’t bother me much.  One problem was that Eric got a thin crust pizza and it was overcooked, not that they seemed to do thin crust all that well to begin with.  The pizza I shared was decent and the small was the right amount of food for the two of us.

We got back, I ended up playing some pickup Alien Frontiers.  What was funny about this game, which had a lot in common with Alea Iacta Est as a Yahtzee style dice-rolling game where you placed dice, was that I liked it a lot more in the beginning and a lot less at the end.  It was obvious where everyone stood at all times and variances in points were small enough that the endgame was a bore of trying to manage two-on-ones (we had three players).  The endgame needs some serious work, but the rest seemed okay

Then, Brad, Jeff, and I played V:TES with a guy and his daughter.  He had just opened up a bunch of cards and had some decks, hadn’t played the game in a while.  Jeff is all thrilled to play Madness of the Bard out of a borrowed deck; the 12 yr.-old gets a couple of VPs.  In the second game, I realize my For/Vic anarch deck has no way to oust people.

Sunday, the only game I was trying to get into was at 2PM, so I tried sleeping in.

Eric was willing to give up his parking space, so we hunted for the Chinese place.  We hunted a lot.  Again, in no particular hurry, I didn’t really care about driving around shopping centers looking for the place.  I did have to finally call my mother to do an online search as neither of us had smartphones, and we finally found it.  It was closed.  We went across the street to another Chinese place.  It was bizarre.  It was dark.  There was lots of seating in multiple rooms.  I wondered going in whether it was a fancy place with ridiculous prices.  My thought wasn’t weakened when we got a simple foldup menu like fancy places do and opening the menu gave the same sort of limited choice style that fancy restaurants more often do.  But, the prices were reasonable.  Not good but reasonable.  The food was decent, though the portion sizes were modest.  Each category had about six choices, so there were enough options to find interesting things.  The ambience was just so weird, though.  The other group left and we were the only ones there.  Halfway in, they turned on one of the lights, making it less dark but still nightclubby.  The people were nice, probably because they were new and had no business.  We were asked to order some food to go by Jeff still back at the con, the cost of which was excessive for what it was.

Torchwood

Back to gaming, though apparently food was more interesting than gaming at this con.  I get into my 2PM game, Torchwood using the Dr. Who system (the new one) with slight modifications to make it deadlier to PCs.  We spent the first hour just learning about our characters.  We spent the next two hours going through a door.

The opening was that there is a real bar, The Edison, in Los Angeles across from the LAPD Station.  Torchwood’s LA facility was underneath The Edison.  The LA staff disappeared a few days earlier, the branch going offline.  I, Jasper Daly, was pulled out of retirement.  Two Torchwood staff, Carter and Helen, came over from Cardiff.  Our team lead, Mustafa, came from San Francisco.  Our LAPD liaison was Axel.  The Edison’s bartender Liz knew a lot about Torchwood, including one of the agents.  There was another player …

We spent a ridiculous amount of time futzing around in The Edison, arguing about who would go through the secret door to the facility, who would stay outside, etc.  Liz was too eager to go in for Carter’s interests, and this caused a huge problem.  The player of Carter was someone who believed that dice cannot change your mind, that dice are only used to resolve actions.  The group just wanted to explore the facility after we finally opened it up, but he didn’t want Liz going down, even though the team lead was cool with it.

I had a feeling even beforehand that things would be kind of rough with the personalities at the table.  Liz’s player just wanted him to roll dice, making a valid argument that suspicion was already built into a die roll, but saying it in such a way that would only antagonize the guy.  Another player tried to argue that this was like a TV show where illogical things happen to move the plot, which was a terrible argument for this sort of player.  Another player was of the mindset that, if you don’t want to roll dice, play a LARP, which is also valid but not helpful, though he also argued that in character the team lead had said it was fine, which was a more helpful argument.  Assuming anyone actually listened.  So many people were talking constantly that only the GM was likely to get anywhere.  The GM said that social conflict was part of this game system, so dice-rolling was appropriate.  The player bowed out of the game.  His wife was also playing.  She was new to role-playing.  She also left.

Me?  I gave up on trying to get a word in.  Too many people arguing, and I felt like nothing would convince the guy, anyway.  My argument would have been that suspicion that Liz was the enemy was appropriate – my character would be suspicious, too.  But, the player was being disingenuous in his arguments.  He had made up his mind that she was the enemy, not just had suspicions of it.  There was no basis to believe that.  Now, I’m fine with dice influencing thinking, but even if I weren’t, his thinking was unrealistic, for all his claims that he was being a true role-player and being in character.

3.5 hours into the game, and the seventh player hadn’t even been introduced.  She took over Helen and the group e-hunted the con for another player to get us back to six.

Once the new group got together, we finally did stuff.  Investigation.  Bomb going off killing our leader …  So, it may have been a conceit of the GM’s to show how deadly the game could be, but damage in Dr. Who is incredibly lethal, often one-shot lethal, and the GM took away the Story Point mechanic of reducing damage, which is how Dr. Who characters survive alien weapons.  Mustafa came back, well, in a new body, so the party remained functionally intact.  We fought a Cyber-Dalek before getting coordinates to the base of the tri-brid human, Dalek, Cyberman forces.

I think I’ll cut short on descriptions of the action to remain “brief”.  Jasper survived, transmatting by himself out of the crumbling base, and returned to his retirement without another word to the team.  Liz and Axel didn’t.  Mustafa got a new body.

We finished 2.5 hours late.  Scheduled for 8 hours, finished after 10.5 hours.  It didn’t bother me to run long as the last 5 hours was a decent game without player conflict, but everyone was a bit perturbed by the scene and/or the delays.

Dark Continent

Monday morning was not ideal as I just wanted to sleep but, my alarm at 6:30AM went off, waking me.  We had to get going for Brad’s 8AM Dark Continent game.  When I got down there, two people had backed out due to tiredness and Eric, who should have crashed with someone at the con, decided his lack of hotel room for Sunday night meant leaving the con.

So, we only had three players and only one who wasn’t part of the gang.  We skipped the outfitting part of the expedition, using the same outfitting we had done in our home run of the adventure.  We quickly made it from Adulis to Gondar where our patron wanted us to rescue her boyfriend from Emperor Theodore.  The home game only got to Gondar.  This group strode into the citadel compound and ran across the Vulture Cult advisor to the crazy emperor.  One member was started in on being corrupted by the cult.  The other two of us got poisoned.  Kevin’s character died.

Easy death seemed oddly common for the con.

I critted my medical check, shot some cocaine into his heart and revived him.  His fit after being revived was passed off as epilepsy.  We bought some guard disguises and did the “we’ve brought a new prisoner” bit, which led to fighting guards in the night.  We broke out a Euro from the dungeon, but it wasn’t our man, though he did tell us where the others had been taken.  Jeff showed up to play the new character.  I shot him with Coke to get moving and Morphine to take the edge off.

Guards made a move on our caravan, but the influenced PC showed them the nifty statue he got from Vulture dude and we got out of Gondar.  On the way to Wenchi (not the one in Ghana, have no idea where this is on a modern map), we are followed by a vulture.  We shoot at it, someone besides our group shoots it in the heart – the heart being our preferred location for mayhem.  Our guide to Gondar reveals himself as someone who knows about the vulture cult.  We recover the body, which turns out to be a cultist with a letter saying to kill all of the prisoners.

Using copious amounts of walnut oil to disguise ourselves as Ethiopians, again, we go to the mountain top fortress of the cult where they are preparing festivities – torturing and eating people.  After locating the prisoners, Horace Pocock (not to be confused with the famed Pococks) has had enough of this villainy and directs our Askari escort to open fire on the celebrants.  We retreat into the church while Alexander, the American engineer, works with a priest to lower prisoners down the mountain with a winch, Samuels, who we liberated at Gondar goes after the leader who got shot in the groin and can’t get up, and James, the Scot explorer, starts crawling that way too.

After much shooting, including Alexander taking out flying cultists, and jumping down the rope with the priest, leaving our patron’s boyfriend behind, Samuels offs the leader, and we stagger back down the mountain while the horde tries to make sense of what we did.

Failure.  Though, we did save three prisoners, so we got a good amount of Renown for the mission.  I only hope, when I pass my journals to the children of the priest’s daughter, that future generations will know that Horace Pocock did what he could in the Almighty’s name to smite the abominations.

One last thing about the Dark Continent session:  it had a lot of combat.  We had more combat than we usually do playing Conan.  I find that notable, even if con games might be inclined more towards combat because of more aggressive players.

Did a reasonable amount of stuff, actually got into every game I signed up for, though I think preregging had something to do with that as I’m inclined to believe they favored people who registered for games before the con.  Games were good.  Food waits didn’t really bother me.  By the way, did go to the Chinese place after the con, cheap, good ingredients, not exciting food, no place to sit so ate it at home after dropping off Joel.  Why not a higher grade?  Guess it’s more a lack of anything really special.  I didn’t buy anything.  My world wasn’t rocked by a new game, though I did like the Dr. Who mechanics, they have a very strong Buffy/Angel feel, just replacing a d10 with 2d6.  I didn’t sleep well at any point.  Solid but unspectacular.


From West To East

February 11, 2012

I was watching an episode of The Wild Wild West recently and got to thinking about how to run it in a RPG.  While I could just focus on the one show, I thought I’d look at other shows from the era as material for role-playing.

The Wild Wild West

James Bond as a Western.  Oozes cool, even kind of dark, giving it some edge.  Why in the world did Will Smith have to crap all over it by casting himself as James West?  I didn’t see the movie, so I don’t know what else is offensive besides the image I have in mind of running from a giant mechanical spider.  Nothing wrong with giant mechanical spider in the technoweird world of TWWW, but Robert Conrad would have climbed it, face punched a guard, planted explosives, and dived off as it blew up … which may very well have happened for all I know, not that I will ever know due to Will Smith’s casting as James West.

I can’t shake the idea of using Savage Worlds for the system.  As much as I don’t entirely get SW and as much as there are other systems that handle normals well at least at a character sheet level – WoD, Unisystem, etc. – that Solomon Kane wasn’t that painful to run and that I actually ran it some gives me more of a feel for how to model the game.

Would it be a good campaign to run for more than two players?  Maybe three, but I don’t really see more than that to capture the same feel.  That’s not a bad thing.  A lot of games aren’t that great for just two players without rethinking how to run.

While I’m rarely a fan of actually playing characters from source material, there is the important question of whether to play characters just like James West and Artemus Gordon or let players create different archetypes (probably two characters like Jim rather than more characters like Arty).

Bewitched

It has been ages since I’ve watched Bewitched.  The set up for the show might suck for RPing, but the world might suck less.  There were gatherings of witches and warlocks …

… nah, it would still be dumb.  The idea of witches in the modern world is already covered by Witchcraft, Mage, and other RPGs, so there’s no real point to drawing from Bewitched.

Get Smart

I love Get Smart.  I’d even be willing to watch the movie, which I’ve heard good things about, overcoming my strong reluctance to waste time and money on movies.

However, it’s a terrible RPG world.  While (intentional) comedy is possible in role-playing (unintentional is the norm for my groups), I deplore the lack of subtlety it routinely has in the RPG industry, such as Paranoia.  Then, I don’t think people realize that Maxwell Smart is not just a buffoon but a combination of Bond and buffoon.  The serious aspects help keep it from dissolving entirely into juvenile humor.

Far better, though my recollection of the show is so much worse that I can’t be sure, is probably Man From U.N.C.L.E. for the spy genre.  Of course, James Bond already exists and there are plenty of RPGs based around spies, so “why bother?” looking for inspiration from a TV show is a cogent question.

Perry Mason

Very formulaic.  But, why not RPing normal detective work (taking the detective work aspects from this courtroom show)?  Pure detective is not something I recall doing.  It’s almost always supernatural detective or investigation activities in miscellaneous genres (Vampire, L5R, etc.).

Even the courtroom focus of the show provides a hook that other games wouldn’t have.  I am just very fearful that playing this repeatedly would be incredibly redundant.  Not like, say, doing a Sherlock Holmes style campaign might be, even if ACD’s Sherlock Holmes stories tend to fall into only a few categories.  Though, how do you play Sherlock Holmes without Sherlock Holmes as the star?

I don’t know that system should matter much with such a game, though any system that makes skill use or perception rolls lame would be a bad choice.

Hogan’s Heroes

I have often thought about how to do a Hogan’s Heroes game.  Not only do I love the show – some of the best comfort TV ever, but the ensemble cast and WWII setting both scream role-playing.

Of course, the obvious issue is being in a POW Camp and that the threat of being discovered is not a credible threat when gaming since it destroys the genre.  I suppose that there could be some sort of penalty involved in the threat of discovery that never results in true discovery – Fate intervenes but you lose XP or bad things (TM) happen or whatever.  Or, you can even come up with a victory point system where “discovery” causes a massive loss in VPs to track reduced XP/rewards or sucky stuff happening (e.g. successful mission -> sleep with secretary, “discovered” -> secretary is too “busy” covering up your mistakes).

The system here should be easy and heavily skill-based.

Daktari

I had never heard of this show until today.  It ran four seasons.  The premise is okay.  I don’t care anything about it, even after reading a bit.  I just was amazed that I ran across this while looking for lists of shows from the 60’s as it’s actually the sort of show I could have seen watching back in the day – guess it wasn’t syndicated like the 50’s and 60’s shows that predated my birth that I did watch.

 

Anyway, if anyone is wondering about the likes of [insert Western here], Star Trek, The Saint, The Avengers, [insert cartoon here], et al, the point was to take a look at shows I watched enough to remember and that weren’t obvious choices that people had already done.

Certainly, the Western genre, without weirdness, is a rare enough choice for people to play, and I did watch a variety of Westerns when I was young, if not all from the 60’s.  But, The Wild Wild West is such a good variant.  The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. might be another take on variant Western that could have some legs.  Sure, there’s Deadlands that supposedly people play though I only recall witnessing people playing the CCG, but the supernatural elements are a different flavor.

For cartoons, none of the 60’s ones really grabbed me as a world I’d choose.  I’d expect there to be more such offerings from the 70’s and onwards.  I don’t remember much of Blackstar – I wonder how many people remember it at all, I only mention it because I do – Thundarr’s world would be far better for gaming.

One thing about TV shows is that they are very possibly better constructed for campaigns then movies/books are.  Ironic?  I don’t tend to think of episodic play when I think of campaign play, so why episodic source material rather than serial material?

Overwhelmingly, the nature of books and movies having an ending, a completed narrative, is what makes them problematic.  While there are series of books and movies, I tend to think of an entire book series as the source material where the episodic nature of so many TV shows makes them more consistent whatever time period you take such that sampling the show covers the source material.  Or, looking at it another way, a book/movie is about what happens, while a TV show is about the premise.  Many a RPG campaign wants to retain the basic premise rather than evolve a story far beyond the initial premise.  Even a five-year, designed campaign like Heroes of Rokugan may see very little change in the nature of one’s character.  Though, not every TV show is alike, as we can see with a five-year, designed story in Babylon 5 that was very much about what happened when looked at in its entirety and not just “we are diplomats from various races on a space station”.


Random Walk Down Wall Street Night

February 2, 2012

I fully expect to ramble.  Disclaimer out of the way, here’s what I’m not going to talk about:  decks and cards.  I may have had lots of ideas early in January for decks and not so much in the way of ideas in late January, but I always think the value in talking about V:TES is in talking about play rather than decks.  Even other CCGs, where deck composition means so much more, metagaming is likely more constructive than how to build particular decks.

Playing the game has, of course, a variety of features.  I could try to organize this post better by doing something like “here’s how to lose” or “the five things that matter … your deck being fifth” or whatever, but I’m inclined to be more free form.

The Player’s Guide does well to speak of stances to take vis-a-vis one’s opponents.  There are a few I find rather common and rather surprising.

It is turn two, you’ve brought out Dom-dude, DEM-damsel, or PRE-provocateur on turn one, prey has no minions.  Bleed for 5.  Now, many will question this play.  Many will claim that the play depends upon cards in hand – after all, if nothing but bleed boost, why bother discarding it?  Deck archetype certainly has something to do with my reaction.  If you brought out any of these minions on turn one, reasonable chance of a weenie bleed deck.  Let’s pretend it isn’t.

I tend to get offended by this play.  What is the natural reaction of someone who loses 5 pool out of the gate?  Try to have 15+ pool at all times, which means bringing out fewer minions, staying untapped to block/react, rush backwards, whine incessantly to everyone about the table threat.

I’m not sure what everyone else thinks the point of the lunge is, but to me, it’s conservation of resources.  Hmmm … wrong thing to mention first.  Lunging should be mentioned after …

“The most efficient way to do pool damage to your prey is to have your prey transfer out more vampires.”

You have very possibly managed to cause your prey to spend 5 less pool on bringing out vampires, thus doing no net pool damage at all and allowing your grandprey to play with no predator.  That might not be all bad.  I tend to think in terms of five-player tables, where it’s typically counterproductive to have a strong grandprey, but a four-player table might see some benefit to it, though there’s a lot about four-player strategy I need to learn.

Now, I’ve considered an advanced strategy, based on how I see a decent number of games go, around pounding one’s prey as hard as possible, losing steam (probably in truth, but a little faking doesn’t hurt) to pass the “table threat” moniker on to someone else, then magically finding bleed cards (this is easier with bleed decks than vote decks) when people stop caring as much about you to explode with rage.  This would work better for me if I had decks full of bleed cards, but that’s fairly rare, so not one I can test very well.

Moving on.  There are some common traits to bad players.  One of them is playing within their own little worlds.  People who probably shouldn’t play the game include those who don’t pay any attention to anything anyone else is doing and just do their own thing.  That’s kind of extreme but happens.  More likely, moving along the spectrum, you get those who think they are playing some two-player game and battle all game with either predator or prey.  How often do you see someone destroy a predator and hand the game to grandpredator or destroy a prey and hand the game to the predator?

These aren’t terribly exciting scenarios to talk about.  What’s more interesting to me is the person who pays attention to predator and prey and none to the true enemy – those crazy people crosstable who are always trying to screw up your game.

The predator/prey dynamic is a robust one for multiplayer play.  It’s also a predictable one.  Sure, whether your predator is weenie rush, bleed for 5, Parity Shift, Ahrimanes wall, or whatever has an impact on strategy and tactics, but the goal is generally the same.  Not cripple you, though this seems to be a goal of bad rush/Temptation/whatever players.  Reduce your pool.  The more enlightened predator will hope you reduce your prey’s pool significantly while your pool bleeds out.  Meanwhile, the prey wants to have pool and be able to reduce your grandprey’s pool to oblivion.

But, what are your axe doing?  Again, 4-player vs. 5-player is relevant, but in both cases, what they are trying to achieve is harder to fathom and, yet, has a huge, potentially large, impact on your game.  Your beloved crosstablemate may want you beaten down, being all in favor of your predator maiming you.  Your beloved crosstablemate may think you aren’t doing your job as predator and think your predator could do a better job.  I’ve even been in weird situations where my prey threatened my predator with rushes because I kept bouncing my predator’s bleeds.  People crosstable are insane.

On the other hand.  Back in the day, the card pool and the playerbase were both much better suited for aggressive ousting strategies.  It was within that environment that I began looking around and seeing that I had to be deathly afraid of the psychos over yonder.  In recent years and by recent years I mean at least five, I wouldn’t say the same thing.  There are plenty with bad threat assessment skills, but sometimes, it really isn’t worth sweating over every little turn of a card.  Losing sight of the goal gets more tiresome than letting somebody build an unstoppable war machine because you can’t be bothered to form “table threat killing team”.

Winning the game can be simple, complicated, somewhere in between, and even random.

I don’t know that any particular style of play, from my overly passive one to the howitzers, makes for a better or worse game or achieves at a different rate.  I’d say tactics has something to do with it.

Speaking of tactics, I have a relatively new aphorism that I enjoy.

“Play the situation, not your deck.”

I get so tired of the answer to “Why did you do that?” being “It’s what my deck does.”  Are there decks with limited flexibility?  Can my Choir deck suddenly decide to wall up?  Yeah, I guess people build such narrow decks, and I understand that the player’s hands are tied.

Yet, it’s incredibly rare that your choices don’t matter.  Maybe the Choir deck can’t wall up, but it can stop going forward.  Or, it can bleed forward into bounce that goes crosstable.  And, that’s an extreme.  Many decks are far more flexible.

I noticed that at some point when I play that what my deck is designed to do ceases to be relevant.  The situation dictates my stances, how I try to use my cards, how I shape my board.  The tools might differ, and I rather hate the hammer that is rush because it makes decisions so much more difficult, but the game evolves and the player must adjust constantly.

Once upon a time, while the cards existed (Direct Intervention, Eagle Sight, Life Boon, Parity Shift, …), I didn’t expect it to be so hard to oust players.  Maybe it was an offensive philosophy.  Maybe it was fewer ways to get intercept or fewer rush decks.  Maybe it was less random crap and a lot more Govern + Conditioning/Bonding.  I might have some reputation for being a hassle to oust, but I find that everyone is more of a challenge to oust, which means that there’s a lot more tactical play required to manage a game to a productive outcome.

Darn, wasted this title on a post that wasn’t about Wall Street Night.  Oh well, not a lot I’d ever want to say about it besides that I’m not sure if it’s one of the best intercept locations or not.