RPG Yarn

September 19, 2015

So many good titles to use that I won’t remember, like Con-Fluence, which, of course, has to be used when I write something about a con.

Anyway, FFG bought L5R, which has primarily meant to me that I can’t read the RPG forums on a daily basis like I used to.  This, in turn, has caused me to read more rpg.net, since I’m interested in what people have to say about L5R, and I don’t use Facebook.

In reading rpg.net forums, I come across other things.  Add to that that our online group is talking about what to do next for online play, and I run into the question of the ages – what do I want out of a RPG?


So many times, I, 100% storyteller, get bogged down in talking about mechanics.  So, let’s start with this, first.

No fake Tolkien.  I don’t hate elves and dwarves … completely.  Norse elves and dwarves are goodsome.  Fairy elves are okayum, I aguessum.  I despise Tolkien knock-offs.  D&D did that.  Videogames did that.

Humans.  Occasional variants.  Melniboneans are fine, though I think that world is not so good for gaming in, not that I have a great idea since I’ve run far more Stormbringer than I’ve ever played.  This is where Conan shines.  Human races are totally the way to go.  Hawkmoon has this, though I’m a bit leery of Hawkmoon as a setting for both thematic and mechanical reasons.

Limited technology.  I’m not very forthright about this with the people I game with because I care more about gaming than I care about specifics or care more about doing things with people than care about specifics, but I’m really not interested in high-tech.  Mech games are fine to me because you just don’t feel the tech.  But, I’d much rather play something with zero sci-fi component, including near future.  I still think of phones as something you dial, not as a chat machine you live off of for everything, even if I do have WeChat installed (to coordinate with people in China, of course).

The idea of a bronze age game is so much more appealing, something like Greek Mythology.

On the other hand, modern is fine.  And, supers high tech doesn’t bother me for the same reason mechs don’t – it’s not really high tech.  Sometime, consider how many superheroes have magical backgrounds or some sort of ludicrous “science” background that is really as explainable as magic is.  “I am an alien, from the planet that gives us the ability to be superstrong at night.”  Yeah, sure.  “When this lightning bolt hit while I was taking chemicals to deal with my health problems, I can now fly!”  Yes, yes you can.

A world that doesn’t hurt my sensibilities.  Wow is this vague.  Mythology?  I get it.  Historical with vampires, witches, and shapeshifters?  Sure.  Some bronze age, religion is everything, yet all we care about is money setting where you bribe monsters who are the monsterification of everything you seek to destroy and which has an afterlife so that dying in a vain attempt to deal with the more powerful is meaningless?  I just don’t get it.

There are plenty of worlds I just can’t engage with because they either don’t make sense to me or I don’t care about what sense they do make.  Star Wars actually hits this.  Not the Star Wars of theory but the Star Wars of practice, where the party is typically a bunch of mercenary scum on the edge of the galaxy, playing Han Solo before the movies.  That’s not Star Wars.  That’s a less depressing Traveller.  My sensibilities in this case are epic space opera.

So, yes, it’s all about context.  It always is.  Expectations affect desirability of presentation of setting.

I think the Young Kingdoms doesn’t work well as a setting for gaming because the books really aren’t about the Young Kingdoms, they are about a specific demigod fighting gods.  I can see one-shots with Rackhir style stories where a PC could actually fit in, but a campaign to me seems to miss out on “I’m Elric and this is my Stormbringer.”

7th Sea is something I don’t embrace more strongly because it just feels like something is off about the world.  There’s a lot of putting forth pirates, then you have adventures where the sea portion is “You arrive at port, what do you do?”  Dungeon crawl angle that I don’t recall ever being used in a session?  Okay.

Yet, L5R works well enough.  I’d rip out a number of things from the world that don’t make any sense to me, but, at some point, I got that the culture is what it is.  So, maybe it’s just getting used to something over time.  I was attracted to L5R by the image of PCs wandering through an Asian Fantasy world smiting ogres.  I’d still rather do that (in a very Inuyasha sort of way, only without Inuyasha and without swords being more important than abilities).

WoD no longer matches my sensibilities.  It did.  It can when it’s just humans fighting things that reside in the darkness.  But, the idea of a bunch of supernaturals all acting like high schoolers towards each other just seems so passé.  It’s overdone in TV, in books, in games.

It’s the halflingification of vampires.  I got to use halflingification more often.  What I mean is that hobbits are cool because the point of Tolkien’s use of hobbits is that the loserman wins.  Halflings are just insipid caricatures of Bilbo.  In 1e V:TM, you get a sense of the otherworldliness of a vampire, that it has all of this ancient power that it uses to own the night.  Then, you play, and you go “Uh, during the day?  I try not to be discovered in my three hours of preparation to be useless so that someone doesn’t just fry me.”  No, most sessions aren’t like that.  It’s that that sort of thing becomes unescapable once you start thinking about it or have to do it once where it becomes pain.

Does Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, or whatever hurt my sensibilities?  Don’t know, never played sufficiently in them.

Exalted did.  I hear people talk a lot about broken mechanics.  I played Exalted a couple of times and was like “What is this world?”  Where Immortal throws so much jargon at you that you may just want to go himsati form and serenade into your … I don’t even remember the term off the top of my head … creche? as you give up on the stratagem of counting coup against the book’s authors, at least Immortal used the modern world as a backdrop.  Exalted was just “Wait, what am I?  What is that?  Where are we?  What is it we care about?  Who the hell is everyone else?”

There are numerous fantasy worlds that got created with some sort of conceit in order to set themselves apart form Tolkien.  I understand the thinking.  I don’t get the execution much of the time.

I just continuously come back to one of the following as a basis for a world:  real world (modern, historical); mythic version of our world; something I’ve read or watched.

The Land, out of the Thomas Covenant series, that sounds like a great fantasy world in certain ways, though I worry about the “I am not a leper who has a power greater than that of god.” situation with having PCs do stuff.  High fantasy based around parties rather than individuals requires a bit of thinking through the modeling.  Some of that is just modeling what it is the campaign is about as it’s probably not about the same things books in a series are about.

Related to sensibilities is that place names, character names, etc. aren’t silly.  If you set a game in some fantasy world that had nothing to do with Thailand and used all of the actual Thai city names, I might balk until I realized that they were real names of things (and begin to wonder why the game wasn’t set in a Mythic Thailand).  (I worked in an office where all of the conference rooms in the building were names of Thai cities.)

Sure, I’ve read stories with Bink in them a bunch of times.  Bink is frickin’ awesome as a character, with a kind of clever, kind of “this doesn’t really make any sense” nature to why he has a power greater than that of god.  But, I don’t want to game with characters named Bink.

No low.  No low fantasy.  No low anything.  If I want to live in a depressing world where I scrape by, I can look at my retirement savings.  This is where settings like Traveller are a fail to me.  Why would I want to be in that world?  Yes, I’m much more of a high fantasy sort, but Conan isn’t high fantasy nor is Hunters Hunted.  Feng Shui can be, but other martial arts settings … can be.

Related to low, is that I have no interest in money.  Wealth, to me, is a meaningless motivator.  I understand on some “intellectual” level that other people can get motivated by playing a game to pursue money, but I just can’t relate to that in any way.  Money in gaming, to me, is “You saved the Kingdom of Kool Kats, you get a palace made of Unobtainium and your garden grows Rubies.”  Otherwise, you just ignore money.  Now, again, this seems to fly in the face of how I like to shop in L5R, but that’s because I see shopping when it’s meaningless to your character to be ironic and about thumbing your nose at games where shopping actually matters.

The motivators in RPGs should be revenge, love, duty, overcoming weakness, building a better world, and the like.


I need to move on.  Probably a million more words on thematics in RPGs.

No accountanting.  One forum post from rpg.net I copied was ranting about character sheets looking like something on an accountant’s desk.  I’d take this a step farther.  I don’t want to spend my time doing accounting.  I’m an Excel expert, building reports is a core competency, I crunch deck win statistics.  I do not want to spend my time fiddling constantly with character numbers or their possessions’ numbers (i.e. money).

Why is a game like L5R so appealing mechanically?  Look at the character sheet.  Okay, don’t look at the character sheets that come with the books or whatever that are a mess of nonintuitive layout.  Look at my character sheets that nobody else can seem to read.  Traits/Rings, Skills & dice pools, technique descriptions, spell lists, about five combat stats.

As much as I get Hero in some weird way for character creation, just no.  The Speed chart I can sort of understand and oddly doesn’t feel broken when I play, but it has to be broken in some way.  Recovery stat to go with your Stun Pips, your Body Pips, your PD, your ED, then throw END on top?  Accountanting in play to go with the supercrunchish character creation.

When I say L5R 3e/4e hits my sweet spot on mechanics, that’s what I mean.  You don’t have too little information that describes your character, like not having any skills.  You aren’t a d20 character sheet, where you track irrelevant things like encumbrance or your AC varies three different ways depending upon which side you get attacked from.

Savage Worlds has a decent character sheet.  But, it falters in a different way.

Resolution mechanics should feel like you are doing something.  In other words, have a decent dice or card system.  But, what is decent?  I dislike d20, d100, 3d6.  I’m not fond of Savage Worlds’ system because it doesn’t feel like the dice are doing anything interesting.  I like d10, R&K.  For some reason, rolling a single d10 just feels reasonable, even though it’s rather simple.  I used to like the up die/down die mechanic more as well as FUDGE dice, but both have become a bit too focused on the middle to me.

But, what I love the most is playing cards.  I may find The Zero Movement’s high school students in a World of Dimness to be not thrilling in two ways, but play Tarot cards from hand to resolve things?  That’s just the best thing ever.

One chart … and it better be funny.  Savage Worlds does, on the other hand, have the amusing Terror Chart, where the normal result in my play is:  heart attack.  Other than specialized charts, like Conan’s out of control sorcery chart, no charts.  You roll your cards and you tick off your hit boxes.

No hit locations – screwjob.  No bleeding – screwjob.  No action loss (stun, knockdown, shaken) – antifun.  No AoO, no matter how unrealistic it is that someone can just run away.  No grappling.

Descriptors?  For one-shots, ‘k.  For campaign play?  I must admit that I haven’t played a host of descriptor based games in a campaign style, so maybe it works better than I think, but I just think it’s likely to exacerbate all of the problems that descriptor oriented systems have from a mechanical standpoint.  Namely, that descriptors are open to interpretation.

Funky dice?  Maybe.  If by funky, you mean things like having + on two sides, – on two sides, and nothing on two sides, that’s okayish, if kind of limited.  If you mean “Uh, so I spelled URAID10T, what does that mean?”, then take me home to my country road and my single d10.

Highly lethal?  Highly boring.  Unless the game handles PCs going from lifed to unlifed largely intact, it’s just too disruptive to be worrying about how any fight might require rewrites.

Hard times at Ravenloft High?  If my character just constantly fails, I can go back to creating solitaire games to play while watching TV.  I don’t know if it’s too high target numbers or that PCs are losers or what, but I’m shocked at how many games I’ve played where I just felt like my PC was less competent than I was.

Crits and fumbles?  Most of the time, these don’t work.  PCs build to do what they need to do without crits, so crits usually just screw them.  Fumbles can be funny, like that Mekton game I played where I twice shot my training sergeant in the back as I learned mech-jockeying.  But, mostly, they introduce a silly element into games that aren’t supposed to be silly.  Even having mooks stab each other in the brain gets tired pretty quick.

By this plate mail I shall rule!  Armor is not my glass of incredibly sweet tea.  I don’t always hate armor, just often hate it.  Conan was great for having reasons to not wear any armor and to have better reasons to not wear anything more than light armor.  L5R 4e makes armor too good, but 3e seemed okay.

While many a protagonist in a fantasy novel will wear armor, they often don’t and, when they do, it’s often not something emphasized.  I can live with the idea that people sometimes have protective clothing on or whatever, but I just picture play involving things other than warring (including “dungeon warring”).  Then, nothing is more annoying than “I spend this round putting on armor because we once again got attacked in the middle of the night.”  Okay, there are more annoying things, but that’s pritnear the top of the list of tedious gaminess.

Have reasonable character creation and experience systems.  This is another place where I get concerned about descriptor games.  But, there are so many ways this goes wrong.

If I have to spend two hours making a character, even my sweet, sweet Ars Magica characters, fail.  If I have one stat at one and another human max because it’s cheaper to do this at character creation than to advance to human max, fail.  If I have no clue how my character will function after I build it, given that I’ve only created thousands of characters for maybe half a dozen primary systems and miscellaneous other systems, fail.  If I randomly can’t be a farmer, fail.  If I have to take Enraged: When angered, 11 or less, recover 8 or less to have enough points to make a functional character, fail.  If skills matter, and some other class gets tons of skills/skill points, and I get only enough to Spot for the party, fail.  Advance in stuff I don’t care about?  Fail.  Buy up one stat because that’s all that really matters to character effectiveness?  Fail.

Again, this is where recent L5R works for me.  You buy up traits, Void, skills that cost the same as they would when advancing, and that’s almost everything a player will have to do, with some odd exceptions for kata, memorizing spells, kiho, emphases, most of which only apply to certain characters, all of which you could ignore.  Advantages don’t work “properly”, but that’s usually tolerable (but not always …).  When you get XP, you spend them on what you want to improve.  You aren’t having to save up for 10 sessions to add one dot to your highest discipline.  You can improve multiple things in a not outrageous amount of time.  New skills aren’t prohibitive.  You aren’t getting better at things that are either irrelevant or out of character.  You aren’t paying one cost for one type of skill and another for a different type (though, I kind of understand the concept that not all skills are the same value and how problematic that can be).

Essential to my experience when playing a RPG is feeling like my PC is unique.  Mechanical distinctiveness goes a long way to assisting that.  If my only distinction is that my 4th level miller/3rd level ditchdigger has one more point of Intuition than Haifa Wehbe’s 4th level miller/3rd level ditchdigger, I’m not going to feel that there’s any difference between the two of us.

Then, I’m in the “My starting PC should be a badass as well as being an expert in pewter watch chains” camp.  So many times, when a game has a loserville phase, people want to start as losers, even when they’ve done the goat to G.O.A.T thing before.  I like character advancement, I just like it to be from major league all star to major league hall of famer, not single A to major league middle reliever.

Character features are either obvious or cool.  Feng Shui may have “feats” just as d20 has “schticks”.  But, FS (1e, 2e maybe not …) won.  Because Carnival of Carnage and Both Guns Blazing and Willow Step and Armor of Life are not Power Attack, Improved Unarmed Strike, or Exotic Weapon Proficiency.

Not everything needs to have a cool name.  Having a skill called stealth is fine.  This is where looking at a character sheet and going “I understand, understand, understand, whoa, what’s One With God do?” is better than “Does this Advanced Knack do the same thing as this Basic Knack?”

Everything on the character sheet matters.  While a preference, this will never happen, so this is more like some Kantian Ideal.  Well, as much as possible matters.  Don’t have more than 20 skills (sadly, the only game I can think of that I play that limits skills sufficiently doesn’t give you skills I think characters should have).

Don’t have combat be inconclusive up until you die.  This is where I find systems with parrying to often cause pain.  While an epic one-on-one duel should have “Btw, I’m underhanded.”, party combat just grinds in a hellish grind of grindiness when you don’t reduce something’s hit boxes every round.

Have something going on besides combat.  Well, by something, I mean something interesting, not just lockpicking or “you detect an ambush” rolls.  I like skills.  I like horizontal diplomacy.  I like brain stuff.  Harp strumming should be a thing.  Things that the system considers important and not just “secondary skills”.

Enemies should not be so complicated that I ignore the rules.  Actually, this is a place that L5R doesn’t work for me.  I routinely overlook or ignore NPC techniques or mastery abilities because tracking on all of them exceeds my interest level.  This *is* a place where Solomon Kane has worked for me, as monster abilities might involve many more lines than PCs, but there’s not much more going on besides their specials to have to think about.  I actually don’t mind systems having one set of rules for PCs and another for other, as long as there’s still enough mechanical clarity to balance encounters.

Gah, I’m sure I’m missing tons of other things, but I have failed my Endurance + P: Blogging check.

So …

From a mechanical standpoint, there’s a reason I keep mentioning L5R.  Other systems just end up bugging me from a little – Conan’s imbalances, grappling – to a lot – my 366 year old Ventrue cannot possibly survive combat with an angry teenager wielding a brick – to “I have no idea how anyone plays this”.

From a thematic standpoint, obviously, generic systems – Hero, GURPS, d20 – have as much theme as the supplement someone wrote provides.  So, it’s not so much about system.  And, I’ll tend to buy only those games where I like the thematics when the system isn’t generic.

So, it’s more about what groups decide to do in the game, which really isn’t the publisher’s fault.

However, there are a few things that will get me to not Kickstart your RPG.  Fake Tolkien, low fantasy, sci-fi, worlds that mean nothing to me.  Meanwhile, I will totally consider buying a hard copy of Against the Dark Yogi.  I will totally sign up for your beta Babylon (not 5) RPG, your “a man or a multi-layered archetype?” game, your fantasy pseudo-Nigeria game, though I’d only look to campaign one of these if I thought it would have the mechanics to support campaign play.

Thematic Advancements

April 30, 2014

There was a point, long ago, when I realized that my forum presence and my actual gaming interests were wildly at odds.  While I realized this when posting to CCG forums, it possibly applies even more with RPG forums, though I’ve tried to point out or make jokes about the discrepancy.

What is the discrepancy?

I’m extremely analytical.  As a player of games, I study the rules, the probabilities, how to maximize efficiency in decks or characters.  Then, I play goofy crap.  I’m a min/maxer to the extent that I often go for the min.

So, when I post to forums, it’s with the analyst’s hat on and it’s all about what players can do to optimize (and what I see players in my groups do that is highly effective).  I have the strong sense that this makes me come across as some powergamer, which is hilariously at odds with the truth.  I very much am interested in how to be a powergamer, which is, of course, different.

But, that’s public image versus private image and not really all that interesting to talk about.  Instead, what I am going to talk about is the internecine struggle that is advancing my characters.  No, I’m not going to go into some tedious explanation of the details of the characters advancing.  My intent is to get into philosophy.

Every campaign has different incentives.  Well, duh.  One campaign is more about the fight.  Another is more about the detectivework.  And, so forth.  Then, every GM is different.  Some of it is making clear what abilities are going to see use and which aren’t.  Some of it is how useful different abilities ultimately end up being for overcoming challenges and achieving goals.

To a significant extent, I ignore those differences.

As a 100% storyteller, my overriding concern is the narrative.  Now, sure, there are mechanical narratives.  I averaged instadeath with every attack against ultragods … blah, blah, blah.  But, where I have mechanics foremost in mind (usually) when designing characters, I throw my copious advancement plans out the window when it comes to actually making choices – XP expenditures, Feat selection, Skill Rank boost, etc.

As an example, my current Saturday L5R campaign character has had buying up Athletics in my character advancement file (yes, I keep separate character advancement files) since before I started playing the character.  Thirty-three sessions and 104xp later, the character still has the same level of Athletics.

So, what have I been doing, given that I only have 6xp unspent?

Buying up the character’s social ability for the most part.  “Yo, dude.  That totally makes sense, yeah.  You were totally rockin’ the court for like, totally, months.”  To some extent, that did make sense.  Except, Winter Court could have ended at any time, based on the interests of the group.

There are far better examples of a common decision I make – to advance characters thematically based on what they’ve done and not what they might do or what would make them better at doing the things they should be doing.

Whether it’s picking up ranks of Games: Shogi after winning a shogi tournament, picking up Craft: Cooking after using the skill in a HoR2 mod, or whatever, there’s so much of a “lagging indicator” to my purchases.

This is rather awful for character effectiveness.  That shogi player never played another tournament.  Even if he did, so what?  How much does being good at shogi matter?  Matter in a living campaign?

While my mind is blown by the purchases my fellow players don’t make, I’m neither surprised nor critical of purchases they do make that improve their ability to murder our enemies (or whatever).  In fact, it’s great that I can rely upon others to get better at high yield abilities, like enemy murdering.  Well, to an extent.  It depends.  If the GM adjusts to the party power level, not keeping up with the rest of the group is a problem.  While I don’t have any meaningful choices when it comes to RuneQuest characters, that campaign has suffered from the imbalances in combat prowess.

With combat and other challenges, it doesn’t make sense for a GM to factor in wide discrepancies in abilities that much.  This is an incentive to not allow PCs to get too far from each other in abilities.  The party of all specialists has tons of problems with having balanced challenges and, therefore, fun.  Our Conan campaign saw one character be vastly more effective at combat than the others, and it was suboptimal.

Then, there’s HoR.  With HoR, the challenges are more predictable and mostly fixed.  Players have strategic control in approaching different mods, though they may not know whether combats are easy or hard or the like, but knowing that combat will happen means having some sort of party plan for what to do.  And, there is some GM control to factor in party composition, if not player intelligence.

I’m bouncing around, unsurprisingly.  Let’s try to get back to me, myself, and I.

So, if these thematic buys are so terrible, why do I do them?

It’s not actually to make the characters worse.  Well, rarely.

It’s because they are the most important buys to making the character live, to having the campaign be more than achieving a high score.  Whether they get any use is not essential, though it’s welcome.

My Saturday PC was built fully formed … to be an asset to the party.  Some of the buys were to maintain mechanical puissance.  But, that didn’t last that long.  One idea led to buying three ranks of Perform: Storytelling and an emphasis.  Another idea led to picking up Artisan: Painting.  A combination of a couple of events led to Battle being tied for highest skill (with a lot of others, including P: Storytelling).  Do I get enthused by having Investigation and rolling it?  Not so much.  Everyone should have it and everyone will roll it.  I’m more amused by my one rank of Polearms than I am my three ranks of Kyujutsu.  I’m even more amused by the idea of whether I’ll ever end up rolling Temptation again, something the PC has more than one rank in.

Rolling a bunch of Craft: Bowyer rolls was far more interesting and dramatic than rolling yet another 50+ with a Kyujutsu attack roll.  While it’s possible to have stories from combat – my Conan archer got some key shots off over the course of the campaign, the crafting of a gift bow had far, far more narrative impact than I can imagine any attack roll.

One thing leads to another.

A good example of this is how one interest/goal/event at our year long Winter Court led to another interest/goal/event and on and on.

The fleshing out of a character, the ability to know where a character came from and where it might go and how it should deal with different stimuli, compounds based on initially minor things, at least in my case.  I pick up some skill no one else has, then it blows up into why that skill matters, what the character was like before having that skill, how the character will change views on NPCs (or PCs) based on knowledge of that skill.  Etc.

So, different players look for different things in their RPG experiences (or other gaming experiences).  With my interest in the story, any story and not just the on stage story, character advancement takes on a crucial dimension that has nothing to do with mechanical improvement.

I was reading a thread on rpg.net about whether character advancement is necessary.  For me, in campaign play, absolutely.  I may be able to build characters whole cloth mechanically, but they are hollow until they experience …  Not just gain experiences but gain Experience – the mechanics go to supporting the thematics.

Okay, yeah, sorry, I did start mentioning details of PC buys.