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Lost In The Wood

Leonard & Ann Marie Wilson

There's Goodly Trade in Unicorns

I love a good charlatan. It doesn't take a deep analysis of my work to notice that. I've got a soft spot for fictional con-artists like Harold Hill, Bugs Bunny, or the Hugh Jackman version of P.T. Barnum. Yet somehow I can't abide a liar in the real world. Counterintuitive, yes, but it's hardly the only thing about me that appears like total nonsense at a superficial glance.

When it comes down to it, I love those fictional fast-talkers not for their lies, but for their ability to weave a better reality out of nothing but words. Bugs Bunny continually conjures karma for the bullies that cross his path. Harold Hill shakes the dust off a sleepy, unchanging little town and transforms all its residents into brighter and happier versions of themselves. The glamorized Barnum plays Pied Piper to the girl of his dreams, leading her into the wonderland of their shared imaginings even as he forges a troop of marginalized misfits into a family of awe-inspiring performers. Each of those liars has his dark side, yet each is also a study in harnessing that dark side for the greater good. In the real world, habitual liars seldom find such redemption, with one major exception: storytellers. A professional storyteller is a professional liar. And like Harold Hill, a storyteller can create a better world simply by convincing his audience it's possible for such a world to exist, making them long for it, and then leaving them to do the rest. It was following in the footsteps of Harold Hill that I convinced my lovely co-author that -- despite past discouragements -- she did have what it took to be a writer. One of my greatest achievements to date, the belief ushered in a world where she finished her first novel a month ahead of me.

As in that personal example, words don't have to be lies to change the world, but humans are hard-wired to love a good lie -- especially when they know going in that they're being lied to. No one wants to hear a minute-by-minute recount of your day manning the grill at your fast-food job. If they wanted that, they could just get behind the grill themselves. But lies can whisk people away to a magical life they could never experience otherwise. For a short while, they can feel what it's like to be the plucky orphan overcoming adversity to save the world. They can become a thrill-seeking star pilot or a cunning freedom fighter. They can become literally anything -- live any life -- that a skilled liar can envision. And even though their life in that fiction must all too soon fade, giving ground back to relentless reality, it never totally goes away. To paraphrase my all time favorite poem ("The Unicorn Trade" by the recently departed Karen Anderson), that fictional life is theirs to keep, as real as any memory.

If you're any sort of kindred spirit in loving and respecting the power of these benevolent, invited lies, then you'll understand how shattered I was to find such bald-faced, malevolent lies taking over our national halls of power recently. Only by appreciating the full power of lies and by studying the tactics of charlatans can you truly appreciate the precipice the world has been dancing along. Two years ago, I was giddy with the accomplishment of finishing my first novel and shopping around for an agent. Then poltics happened, and suddenly my little dream so recently realized after so many years paled into tawdry nothingness. It's taken this long for me to find faith in my own lies again.

So, here I am, back and -- along with my lovely co-author -- ready for another bite at weaving a better world using only the power of words. With your kind permission, I'd like to lie to you. Just be warned, my idea of a better world involves lots of roller coasters.

 

Outside the Asylum

Once upon a time, the greatest and most advanced super-power in the world built a mighty wall and set up strict laws to keep out uncivilized foreigners who threatened its way of life.

Outside the wall, shut off from becoming part of the super-power's shining dream, the rest of the world busied itself by developing fresh new technologies and vigorous trade networks.

Meanwhile, barricaded safely within its fortress of solitude, the great super-power became complacent and stagnant. Caught up in its own cultural quagmire, it woke up one day to find that the world had left it behind.

That's why it was the U.S. and not China that dominated world culture throughout the 20th century.

Trump 2016. Because it's about time we return the favor. </sarcasm>

Pawn or Protagonist? (Part 2)

Reconciling the Dual Nature of Player Characters

The 1980's was one long journey down the road from pawn toward protagonist for the player characters in RPGs. The novelty of controlling a pawn as he crawled through mazes, battling monsters and collecting loot, was wearing off. Jaded players wanted more from their time at the gaming table, and they set off in two different directions seeking it. One of those directions was simulating reality, but those attempts largely dead-ended. Reality does a good enough job simulating reality all on its own, and the harder you try to compete, the more you get bogged down in details that are boring or depressing or icky. Role-players never actually wanted realism, they wanted a good-parts version of realism, which is what stories are. Gradually we relinquished the work of simulating reality to the personal computers that were rapidly changing our lives, and we focused our search for something more in the direction of storytelling. As we entered the 90's, "Vampire: The Masquerade" would emerge as the poster-child for that movement, using "storyteller" as a synonym for game master where early D&D had used "referee".

To understand the dynamic that this new paradigm created, one really has to understand the job of a storyteller, which is to engage his audience with a plausible fiction that keeps it hungry to find out what happens next. Once all the questions have been answered, his story is done, and the storyteller hopes that his audience found the answers satisfying enough that they'll come looking to him to tell them another story later. A storyteller game-master, then, isn't some chess-master looking to test the limits of your resourcefulness in a game of wits, he's an entertainer who wants to keep you guessing and curious.

Early attempts at this style of game-mastering were clunky to say the least, and introduced us to the concept of "railroading". With no other road map to follow, GMs and game designers alike turned to the established storytelling patterns of movies and novels for inspiration -- all linear by nature. If you've been role-playing long enough to have read this far, you probably already know and loathe railroading. The problem, of course, is that it relegates players back to the role of passive audience, which is not the experience they signed up for.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from railroading, gamers generally say you'll find "sandbox" play, but in the storyteller's lexicon, the opposite of railroading would be "wish fulfillment". A railroaded RPG totally ignores the players' desires. Wish fulfillment gives them everything they want without making them work for it. In a dungeon-crawl game, in which the goal is to amass treasure, glory, treasure, power, and treasure, that's commonly known as a "Monty Haul" game: walk through some easy encounters, collect cool gear and lots of bling. In traditional storytelling, it's most infamously the plot of nearly all "adult" films and literature. In either case, the story exists as nothing but some context for a fantasy. Wish fulfillment is what you get out of an RPG when the GM realizes that it's all about the players, but fails to grasp that both pawns and protaganists share one common thread: they exist for the sake of conflict. Without conflict and uncertainty, you have no game, and you have no story.

This sets up another dilemma about the nature of RPGs. Assuming we follow the tradition of first-person role-playing in which each player is allowed control of a single piece in the game (i.e: player character), the clear and obvious goal for each player is to achieve any personal aims attributed to his character. The clear and obvious goal for the GM then becomes standing in the way of his players' goals. Yet within the game he's necessarily omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent. Even when he's showing restraint, you get scenarios like these:

Four goblins won't be enough to bloody them: I'd better put another one in this room.

There are five goblins in the room when the PC's enter. The fifth goblin rolls a lucky critical with its arrow on the first round, slaying the party's magic user just before he could get off his sleep spell that would have ended the fight. Half the party winds up dying in the encounter because the GM tried to make them burn a few extra hit points, based on nothing more than gut instinct.

They let the bandit king go. Guess I'll roll to see how grateful he is. 11...? Seems pretty grateful. He'd probably ask Redscale to spare their lives, and Redscale surely owes him a favor by now.

A total party kill at the claws of the dragon morphs into a total party capture. Rather than shredding their character sheets and starting over, the players prep their beloved group of 14th-level adventurers to go off on a quest Redscale assigned them, all because of the GM's subjective intepretations of one roll and of the relationship between two NPCs.

Hmmm... the druid's butterfly familiar flapped its wings in Minas Tirith. Wouldn't it be cool if that meant rain in Mordor?

Frodo suffers a -2 penalty to his climb check on the wet mountain side. He fails his roll by 1 point and slips to his doom. Sauron recovers the ring. Minas Tirith falls. The age of men ends because the GM saw Jurassic Park twenty years ago, and Jeff Goldblum's explanation of chaos theory stuck with him.

Each of these examples hinges on a single reasonable-enough but subjective GM's-call that completely alters the course of a campaign. For a GM to claim, "It's not me, it's the dice!", "It's not me, it's the rules!", or "It's not me, that's what's written in the adventure!" are all cop-outs. The game master decides. Even if what she decides is to roll dice and not fudge the rolls, she chooses how to weight the probabilities of each roll before it hits the table. She decides which adventures to pull off the shelf and play. She decides how to populate her sandbox. She decides what every NPC will choose to do in every unscripted situation, of which we hope there will be many. She decides whether any moment of play is worthy of an exemption from the normal flow and rules. ("You kick sand in the beholder's face?" Time to look up the sand-throwing combat sub-system? Yeah, right. Well, that eye's a pretty-big target, so... "If you can roll a total of 15 to-hit, you can disable it's main eye ability for 1d6 rounds.") Moment by moment by moment, throughout the life of her game, she decides -- because if she doesn't decide, she's not a game master, she's that Sigourney Weaver character in Galaxy Quest, parroting whatever the computer has already said to the rest of the crew because that's her one job on the ship.

The GM can't really treat player-characters like pawns because she can wipe them off the board with a few words. Nor can she really treat player-characters like protagonists because their players require the freedom to make choices with meaningful consequences, up to and including the inconveniently early demise of their own characters. All of which means that any argument on how to play an RPG that reduces the role of the GM to either impartial referee or artful storyteller is missing the big picture. I suspect that RPGs shall ultimately find their identity in the modern trend toward meta-game rules about how the story itself will progress (as opposed to rules purely about the minutae of actions taken by a character), because therein lies the crux of the matter. No matter how useful rules governing a simulated physical reality are, they will always play second-fiddle to the power invested in a game master, but meta-rules that impact the flow of the story itself can apply a whole new layer to the game that strengthens collaboration between GM and players without throwing dramatic tension out the window.

Taking this phenomenon to the extreme, you wind up with games like Universalis and Microscope, that are nothing but meta-game rules and don't need a GM at all. Replacing the GM with a committee of players is a lot like replacing the GM with a computer, though: it addresses the problem of balancing the dual pawn/protagonist nature of player characters by getting rid of it entirely. That makes them a whole different style of game, and outside the realm of this discussion. But any existing RPG can be seasoned to taste with meta-game rules, as those game masters who aren't afraid to tinker have been proving for many years.

Next time, I'll finish up the series with specific thoughts on- and examples of meta-game rules.

Pawn or Protagonist? (Part 1)

Reconciling the Dual Nature of Player Characters 

Nameless, faceless, identical -- pawns exist to be sacrificed on the chess board. Growing emotionally attached to your playing pieces, struggling to keep them instead of staying focused on which ones to give up in order to move yourself closer to victory, is an amateurish mistake, and there lie the roots of role-playing. Our hobby sprang from a tradition of tabletop miniatures wargames, which sit nestled securely in the same family tree as chess, even if you're not going to accept them as direct descendants. 

Larger-than-life, flamboyant, enduring -- the heroes of adventure stories exist to do the things we wish we dared, or the things we hope we'd be capable of if we suddenly found the fate of the world resting on our shoulders. They're forever risking life and limb without ever really risking life and limb, because we know the all-powerful storyteller can't actually let them die before reaching the climactic struggle. Yet we lay down good money again and again, not to answer the question of whether our hero will live through his countless exploits, but how. And it was these sorts of protagonists that sparked the imaginations of the wargamers who invented role-playing games, and led them to adapt their rules from managing massed armies to covering man-to-man combat. 

So which is the "right" way to treat player-characters in an RPG? As expendable pawns on a chessboard, or as the charmed protagonists of a novel? My answer is, "Neither one." Even though RPGs are marketed as games; and despite the fact that many players approach RPGs with all the dramatic earnestness of a Shakespearean actor playing Othello to a packed house; RPGs are in that adolescent phase where they're struggling to establish an identity of their own, independent of their parents. Trying to pigeon-hole them as one or the other can quickly lead to pointless frustration. 

The very first player characters in role-playing may not have been identical, but they were certainly pawns. D&D's inventors just replaced their companies of soldiers with individual heroes. The players would still plan strategies; move pieces about the map; and roll dice to decide their fates. Sometimes they won, sometimes they lost, and when they lost, the pawn "died". It died because that's what happened at the miniatures table: once defeated, the units of a miniatures army were lost and gone -- forgotten as the swirl of battle moved away from the spot where they'd fallen. 

A funny thing happened on the way to this particular battlefield, though. In focusing on the individual warriors, players gave them names and imagined faces for them. Those warriors who survived one battle often moved on to the next, and when they did, they took their stories with them, accumulating a semblance of humanity bit-by-bit through weathering each storm, not unlike the Velveteen Rabbit. Without fully understanding the implications of this phenomenon, the pioneers of the hobby embraced it. In the days before home computers and sophisticated video games, after all, this was the closest it got to virtual reality -- stepping inside a story and living another life. So it came to pass that the players of the game began bonding with their pawns. 

Once you bond with anything, it becomes a part of your life, and you will naturally want to keep it there. The heroes of a D&D game could no longer be allowed to go so gently into that good night as just another pawn, and the creators of the game found themselves needing a way to ease the sting of player-character death. Attempting to address this issue brought them to the first great fork in the road in the history of RPG design. 

An experienced storyteller, faced with the knowledge that his audience needed its heroes to spend more time on stage before death removed them permanently from the tale, would typically think in terms of killing heroes less often -- but the pioneers of role-playing weren't storytellers, they were gamers. Killing player characters less often would interfere with the gambler's adrenelin high created by the perception of great risk; and a gamer thinks nothing of grabbing up a fallen token and placing it back on the board later so long as the rules allow. The minds behind D&D latched onto the precedent of stories in which the dead are brought back to life, and -- trusting that making it high-level magic and charging a hefty fee in gold would keep it seeming rare and wonderous enough -- they introduced raise-dead spells into the dawning world of role-playing. But once the precedent had been set, most players expected access to the spells, just as they would come to expect ability scores that averaged better than the 10.5 you get from rolling three six-sided dice for each. So overlooking the option to back off from making "to-the-death" the default standard for combat encounters, D&D instead re-defined "death" as sending your character to his room for a time-out and docking his allowance. Specific GMs might choose to keep death more harsh, just as specific GMs might reject the new methods of generating ability scores that skewed PC-abilities higher, but the overall trend had been established, and the stage had been set for countless squabbles between extremist role-players and extremist roll-players. 

In many ways, this fight over the word "death" is the fight over the identity of RPGs themselves. Players who sit down at the table for a story with some game in it will typically expect player-characters to die hard, but for death to be (more or less) the final word. Players who sit down at the table for a game with some story in it may expect PC survival to hang constantly in the balance, but then turn around and head for the banks of the river Styx when their characters do die, waiting expectantly for the ferryman to bring them back out of Hades. And always it comes back to that essential yet misleading question: are the player-characters pawns or protagonists? 

If you'll be good enough to hold that thought, I'll get back to it next time in part 2.

The Rules of Narrative: Every PC Comes to the Table Armed with Chekhov's Gun

 

"If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there." -- Anton Pavlovich Chekhov

 


Much ink, both virtual and real, has been spilled on the subject of how important it is for a GM, in his limitless power, not to break the rules laid down by the books of his given game. He must (it is often said) stand apart as an impartial arbiter, and let the dice fall where they may. I cannot entirely agree with that point of view, but I'm not here to argue against it, either. What I am here to do is discuss the sadly neglected other set of rules -- the rules of narrative -- which to my mind are at least as important to a game master.

The rules of narrative are not something written down in any game-book's contract of how play shall proceed -- at least not in any game book that I've ever seen. Rather, they're things etched into human nature by the way we think in stories. Yes, you can run an RPG without any conscious regard for the rules of narrative, but it perilously increases your chances of becoming the subject of your players' bitter "that game master who" stories. And if you want your game to truly sing, if you want your players to engage with it on a visceral level, you have to hit many of the same chords that a novelist does. Yet it's not enough to simply emulate a novelist. You have to understand how role-playing games are decidedly not novels, and adapt the rules of narrative to fit.

I'm going to make a start by discussing the famous rule of Chekhov's gun, and the way it applies to those character sheets your players are holding. In role- playing, when a player chooses for his character to be good at something -- anything -- it's a way of voting on the sorts of elements he wants to appear in the game. I would wager that most players have never thought to articulate it that way, but that makes it no less true. A player's character-creation choices are usually his first opportunity to shape the direction of the coming game, and he doesn't squander them on stuff he expects to be irrelevant. He focuses on empowering himself to accomplish the things he wishes to accomplish, and in ways he thinks will be fun and cool.

It follows, then, that a game master owes it to his players to take careful note of the strengths his players have chosen for their characters, and to liberally season his game with opportunities to make those choices meaningful. Every one of these character design choices is a metaphorical pistol hanging on the wall, with your player waiting for an opportunity to fire it.

Failing to indulge your players in this disrespects their most fundamental involvement in the game, and is just another form of railroading. The only thing that makes it more forgivable than most forms of railroading is that it's not so bloody obvious. A game master needs a higher level of social awareness to understand that he's doing it.

So if your player chooses goblins for her ranger's sworn foe, and you don't stop and tell her, "Sorry. There just aren't any goblins around. Why don't you pick something else?" you have just agreed that she will find goblins around to battle. Out of respect to this implicit promise you just made to her, please place goblins in multiple locations around your sandbox for her to discover; add them to your encounter tables; and/or commit to making them show up multiple times in planned encounters. And please don't make them all super-goblins in some misguided attempt to balance out her ranger's bonuses, because it's not the mere presence of goblins that fires that particular gun; the gun goes off when your ranger shows just how great she is at vanquishing goblins. Sure, having elite goblins waiting in the wings to make her sweat is an excellent idea, but they should absolutely be the exception, not the rule.

Whatever your player characters' individual specialties may be, recognize them, and allow them to be special. Keep failure as an option, but in these few things, go out of your way to set them up for success. The player still pulls the trigger, but she can't do that unless you leave her gun within reach.

 

 

Further Thoughts On the Resolution Bonus Chart

It was brought to my attention after my last post that the defensive fight maneuver was changed in fifth-edition Pendragon. It now longer allows a normal damage roll on a critical success, so the maneuver has been reduced to use as a delaying tactic. I only checked to make sure that the maneuver still existed in fifth-edition, and that it still granted a +10 bonus. I didn't stop to comb the maneuver for other changes in wording.

The +5 bonus for a knight fighting "unburdened" remains fully in effect in fifth edition.

I never did put the "fight defensively" tactic to much use in actual play, though. I just picked it out here as a quick way to underscore how above-20 modifiers can stack up, and what happens when they do.

The real point I wanted to make is that criticals are game changers. One critical hit from a typical 5d6 attack is generally going to deliver a major wound. One critical hit from a 6d6 attack (a reasonably common number of damage dice) will quite often strike an unwounded knight dead on the spot if he can't get his shield in its way. One critical hit from a 7d6 attack (e.g.: a typical saxon knight with an axe) will quite often strike an unwounded knight dead on the spot even if he _can_ get his shield in its way. A really big Saxon paragon of Wotanic virtue wielding a great axe is going to roll 10d6 on a normal hit, and he'll reduce any man he strikes with a critical hit into a bloody memory.

Critical hits are not terribly rare to begin with. No matter what skill-level opponent your PCs are facing, you can multiply the number of their opponents by the average number of rounds their opponents stand and fight. If the result is 20 or higher, it's reasonable to anticipate at least one critical landed against a player knight. So in just four rounds of combat with five player knights slugging it out with an equal number of axe-armed Saxon knights, you've got really good odds of a player knight falling dead from a single blow.

If those same saxon knights all had an axe skill of 21, the odds would go up from "really good" to "fairly certain". You might even be looking at a player knight falling dead from a single blow every other round or so. Against an elite unit of skill-23 Saxon knights, don't be at all surprised if you see one of those player knights fall dead from a single blow in a single round of combat.

There's only one true defense against all those criticals, and that's rolling criticals yourself -- preferably while holding a weapon that won't shatter when it parries someone else's critical. That makes rolling criticals as often as you can the key to long-term survival. And because this key to survival is no less the key to offensive power, as a player I found indulging in it to be addictive. I made a real nuisance of myself by piling on all the bonuses I could find toward achieving that end, until I hit on this house-rule to keep the essence of the mechanic intact while defanging its extreme application as impenetrable armor.

Your players may not react the same way I did. I'm a remarkably obsessive sort, in addition to being acutely aware of math and probabilities. But if you do find bonus-escalation is becoming a problem in your Pendragon campaign, I hope my experience will help you resolve that.

Wilsonshire Pendragon Mods: The Resolution-Bonus Chart

Here’s the first and most important house rule I made to make Pendragon playable with an over-achieving player: the resolution-bonus chart.

The number one thing that makes the game’s rules fragile is the over-20 resolution-roll bonuses. Grab yourself a sword (so that it doesn’t break on a tied roll), pump your skill up to 20 (which you can do before your character ever enters play, if you like), then take off your armor, and fight defensively. You’ll be criticaling 80% of your combat rolls. Since you’re fighting defensively, you’ll only be doing normal damage on a critical, but the important bit here is when you’re criticaling, your opponent is absolutely not hitting you. And if he manages to roll a critical at the same time and he’s not wielding a sword, you’ll break his weapon in the bargain.

Provided your luck holds until you’ve acquired another 4,000 glory, your sword skill will now be 24. That means that under normal conditions you’ll critical every combat roll.

From there, you fight your way valiantly through another 5,000 glory (or less, if you’re fortunate with experience checks), and you’ve got a sword skills of 29. That means you could put be getting the same results even with your armor on.

After that, if you’ve been pursuing glory with single-minded aggression, there’s a good chance you’re still young enough to have a solid adventuring career ahead of you to take advantage of that. With a 29 sword skill at your disposal, you could plausibly make that another 10,000 glory to bring that skill up to 39.

At this point, you’re golden, criticaling every combat round in which you don’t suffer a penalty, regardless of the tactics you use. Who cares if you’re aging and your stats are going downhill now? Get out there and quest relentlessly, using that flawless sword skill to rack up glory like points on a pinball machine. Maybe boost your sword skill up to 49, so you can fight surrounded by enemies and still keep your guaranteed critical strike against every one of them. Or try to perfect your lance skill so that you can win every joust on the tournament circuit for still more glory. When the dust clears, your younger sons may be able to start their careers with that 24 sword skill on the day that they’re knighted, and who knows what wonders they’ll be able to accomplish with that?

Certainly the strategy is not without risks, but this is a high-mortality game anyway, so what’s there to lose by taking some chances on the road to invincibility? The point is, by focusing on the mathematical realities that piling all the bonuses past 20 you can scrape together = winning combats; and that winning combats = glory = more past-20 bonuses = winning more combats; you can conquer the game, spoil everybody’s fun, and get pelted with all the dice you can eat before you get voted off the isle of Britain.

The resolution-bonus chart is my fix to this. Total up the character’s skill with all his situational bonuses, compare the result to the chart, and you get the bonus he’ll actually add to his die roll. Because each successive plus becomes more difficult to earn, you reach a point of diminishing returns, where even the most ravenous combat-monsters will stop pouring all their glory bonuses into the same weapon. They’ll also stop using stupid tactics reaching for a guaranteed critical. And because even Lancelot will now only critical about a third of the time in the joust, maybe your over-achieving player will be okay with that.

Teprigoth: Okay, so it's not the city that never sleeps.

But every time it closes it's eyes... it wakes up screaming.
 

Teprigoth is a sprawling Renaissance metropolis that's grown up organically into a seemingly endless labyrinth of streets and alleys. Going one's whole life without ever catching a glimpse of the world beyond those streets is not only possible for citizens of Teprigoth, it seems to be the norm.

But something sinister is going on in the shadows of the great city. Bad things are happening to people who, if not particularly good, are at least reasonably innocent. People are dying in ways both mysterious and brutal. Even worse, the victims aren't all faceless strangers. And perhaps worst of all, in this low-magic society where anyone who can't hide being non-human gets labeled a demon, and anyone who can't hide having magical talents gets labeled a witch, whoever or whatever is killing people seems inclined to target people with such secrets to hide. Even on the off-chance that you're not one of those people yourself, you have friends and family who are, and the city council is in the business of placing bounties on the heads of demons and witches, not protecting them from "vigilante justice".

Can you stay alive long enough to put an end to the nightmare? Or if you're more inclined to run, can you stay alive long enough to even find the city gate in a town whose urban planning committee seems to have been made up of particularly sadistic minotaurs?



For the sake of those who've expressed interest, Teprigoth is my current RPG campaign, an urban Gothic horror setting which I've been running online using the MapTool virtual tabletop software. At least for now, I'm relying on text-chat instead of voice communication. The action moves more slowly that way, but the players seem pleased with the added immersion factor of text-only, and it certainly works well for my own comfort zone.

The game has been going on for about a year and a half now,  and has been very much a learning experience for me in the ways of online gaming. It began after it became clear that my local gaming group would not be getting back together after various family priorities caused my wife's most recent Pendragon campaign to grind to a halt. Daniel Rivera of d20 Pro, whom I knew from all the wonderful things he'd with my old "Ghost of Mistmoor" adventure, encouraged me to try getting my gaming fix via virtual tabletop software. With his d20 Pro installed and my shining collection of hardly-used D&D 4E books on the shelf, my first thought was that this would be an exercise in electronic miniatures adventuring.

Having long ago found that I possess a particular flair for Gothic horror, I conceived of Teprigoth as a way to combine that atmosphere with all my expectations of virtual-tabletop gaming and needs for accommodating D&D 4E characters. I got together a few friends, both near and far, and we set out to see what we could make of the medium. But before the first session, I'd already decided that D&D wasn't really what I wanted to play. And then I got to wondering if there might be virtual tabletop software that would be a better fit for what I did want to do. It wasn't long before I'd decided that none of the game systems out there were quite what I was looking for. I gave up trying to house-rule an existing system, and admitted that I would be running the campaign using my own 2d10-Teprigoth home brew. Many of the rules remain uncodified -- I finally hit on an experience system I was happy with just two or three months ago, for example -- but that seems to be working out okay for a horror game, where uncertainty is part of the fun.

The alignment of the campaign (per  my earlier "What's Your Role-Play Alignment" post) is "Empath". I've got a life. My player's have lives. We're trying to get together when we can and have some fun, and the game is never so important that it can't be adjusted for the needs of the players. I certainly want rules that are solid enough to provided some structure, but the focus is more on the choices the players make than on the dice they roll. I'm going for story and atmosphere, not tactical simulation.

Perhaps I'll talk more about Teprigoth and the lessons-learned from running it via virtual tabletop, but for now I think this will serve as suitable bird's-eye view of the campaign.

 

 

 

 

 

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Game

Hello. My name is Leonard, and I'm a power gamer. It feels a curious thing to admit to, given some of my other beliefs about myself, but there you go. And I think it's why I was able to get my mind around D&D 4E and have some fun with it while my friends were dissing it as a lost cause. I've also got a reputation as a strategy board-game shark, and let's be honest: at its core, 4E is a strategy board-game dressed up in role-playing clothes.

I got to thinking about this recently for multiple reasons, but they all boil down to two things. First, I clearly make a much better game master than I do a player; as a player I can get insufferably competitive. Second, I've been running into many a gamer on the internet whom I don't see eye-to-eye with because they believe that the rules of an RPG should be inviolate. I don't. And it's dawned on me that my own history as a power player has a lot to do with my looking at the rules of any RPG as "more sort of guidelines" when I game master.

I've learned to never take the published rules of an RPG too seriously because whatever those rules happen to be, I can break them. I've been doing this RPG thing since the dawn of the hobby, when I could still count my age on my fingers, and I make my way in life on a talent for pattern recognition. I've never had my IQ measured, but I've more than once taken MENSA sample tests and thought, "Is this all there is to it?" My brother who actually did have his IQ measured once at 145, always used to complain that I made him feel slow. Between gigs as an actual software developer, I once did a few months as a software data tester for a major international data company, and I was the guy they threw all the tough jobs on that project at. If I couldn't break their software, they knew it was solid. So bring it on. There is no RPG system in publication that I can't drag through the mud and stomp into a thousand little pieces.

And in the end that proves... what? Accomplishes what? Even if the game designer was aware of how thoroughly I could break his game, and even if he cared, it's not like he could fix it. Whatever changes he could make, I'd break those, too. Even trying to make a system to challenge me on that front would alienate most of the players who haven't already spent decades immersed in the business of virtual strategy. That would be publishing-suicide.

Nor does my breaking a game ever endear me to my fellow players. To them, it's all selfish grandstanding. I get so wrapped up in my own cool that I step on theirs, and convince them that they've got better things to do with their time than to hang about in my delusional shadow. I turn myself into a living poster child for the affliction of "smart = dumb". Having the sort of brains that IQ measures is a convenient talent, but it's not by itself a socially redeeming feature, and it's sure not any kind of silver bullet against the failings of the human condition.

So if trying to crack and overpower the rules of an RPG is bad, where does that leave me? Contentedly pretending that I don't know how to break the game while I purposefully stumble along failing at stuff so that it will look like I'm being challenged? Or perhaps I'm just relying on the GM to use his infinite power to give my characters special mistreatment? The game may not be able to outmaneuver me, but the GM sure can. That comes standard with the localized omniscience/omnipotence package deal -- which of course makes it every bit as pointless for him to prove he can break my character as it is for me to prove I can break his game system.

No, in the end I simply have to discard the notion that the rules of an RPG are there for any other reason than to add structure and unpredictability to a cooperative effort in storytelling. I can't play to win, I won't play to lose, so I just play to play. And when a rule consistently steps up and interferes with the basic point of play for the sake of play (i.e.: fun), I don't care where that rule came from, it's nominated itself for the chopping block. Assuming I'm the game master, that rule will be revised, or it will die.

My best tangible examples of this process usually come back to Greg Stafford's Pendragon RPG, simply because he did enough things right that I've continued to play it over the years no matter what bits wound up getting house-ruled. Also, excepting the older versions of D&D I played as a kid, it's unrivaled for the number of hours I've spent looking at it from both directions (player and game master). Every other game comes up dreadfully short of it from either one perspective or the other. And the game as-published, straight up and unrefined, is to the power-gamer in me what the Hollywood version of a frat party would be to an alcoholic nymphomaniac. The most munchkin-ish dungeon crawl game ever dreamed up could not hit me in the same visceral way that Pendragon has, because Pendragon combines the potential for rampant abuse with the chance to actually care about the narrative. Then it gets in my face and pulls out all the stops, trying to entice me.

(Caveat: I've never played the latest edition of Pendragon, so some of these observations may not apply to it.)

The getting-in-my-face part is the heroic NPCs. Every character from Arthurian legend is built to be an unattainable paragon with abilities no player character could ever hope to achieve. Tagging along with these NPCs and basking in their awesome is supposed to be one of the highlights of the game, a presumption to which the power-gamer in me responds, "Oh, really...?" Then he starts plotting a thirty-session game plan as to exactly how he'll accomplish driving a sword through the guts of the impossible, cheating, and essentially invincible Sir Lancelot. At least one of the classic adventures, Circle of Gold, is designed to be nearly as bad -- not really meant for player-characters to win, and certainly unattainable if you play a campaign as recommended and you don't power-game it. So, yeah, I took up that gauntlet, too.

Even as I'm power-gaming, I can care about the Pendragon narrative for two big reasons. First, a PC's personality is a quantified and essential part of power-gaming in Pendragon, so even the worst combat monsters don't need to be complete cardboard cutouts. Second, the dynastic element of the game means that every success is something to build on, not just for the future of your character, but for the future of his heirs. That makes it very easy to fall into the trap of thinking, "Sure I'm making the pure power choices now, but death is a very real and permanent option for a Pendragon character; I need to make sure mine stays alive for the long haul, then once he hits a certain power level, I can ease up. It'll actually leave me better positioned to develop his non-combat aspects than if I'd focused on them from the word go." Of course that time for focusing on his non-combat aspects never comes, often because I've disgusted the other players into quitting before I can get there. But the combat power also works like money: "enough" is always more than whatever you have right now.

That brings us back to the question of why the Pendragon rules are so easy to break. The short answer is "compound interest and critical hits". I could draw you a mathematical map, but probability screams that for reasons of basic survival, every character should fight to get a weapon skill up to 20 at the earliest point possible. From then on, every point of character development you pour into that weapon skill makes it easier and easier to earn more character-development points, quickly leaving behind anyone who doesn't choose to go that route. The result is a spectacularly dysfunctional cycle that preys on the addictions of power gamers.

With Pendragon being my wife's game-of-choice as a GM, and me loving the game as well, I didn't think twice about taking a hatchet to the broken bits of the rules and offering her ways we could enjoy the game together without it dangling constant temptation in front of me to act like a jerk. If you don't think our house-ruled version of the game can truly be called "Greg Stafford's Pendragon RPG", I'm okay with that. But it's at the very least an homage to "Greg Stafford's Pendragon RPG", and he's convinced us to support his creative endeavors by buying many of his books over the years, so I'd certainly like to think he'd be okay with that.

The point all of this comes back to is this: yes, in the days when the pioneers of the hobby were first feeling their way into what this new hybrid of game and storytelling was, back before the internet and even before the home-computer revolution, pretty much everyone approached RPG as the next step in the evolution of wargaming. We played it like it was all about beating the game system, excepting those of use who played it like it was about beating the game master. With Gygax leading the charge, we had our Tomb of Horrors and our Grimtooth's Traps and our tournament modules all telling us that this was a competitive sport, and we should be playing paranoid, constantly on our toes and working out the optimal strategies to beat the system. And I fell for it, same as anyone back then. And I truly had fun doing it. But computer games have long since taken cultural ownership of that particular niche. For fair and impartial test of wits against a game system, no human "referee" can compete with a modern computer for impartiality, speed, and audiovisual presentation. Where the human game master rocks in ways that a computer still can't touch is personalized storytelling, improvisation, imagination, and pure human companionship.

If as a role-player in the 21st century, you find that you can sit down determined to prove something to yourself -- or to anyone else -- with your tactical expertise, and you get a lovely adrenalin rush out of it, cool. Knock yourself out. There's nothing wrong with it. But that's you. It's not me. I just can't do that anymore. I haven't been able to for a long time. Even when I was enjoying D&D 4E, I found myself wearying of the battlemap treadmill and wondering when the real game was going to start. The power gamer is still in there, but he mostly gets his fix from Civilization V or Settlers of Catan. When I pull out all the books and the funny dice now, I just want to relax and have a good time with my friends.

So while I may still pay a game designer for his system or his story ideas, the moment I get my hands on that book, it's not his any more. It's mine. It belongs to me and my friends, and we'll twist it into any crazy shapes our demented little hearts desire. I do it because I've been the pedantic, rules-lawyering power role-player, and I've discovered I just don't like me when I'm him.

Ed Greenwood Still Owes Me an Apology


I recently threw out as a one-liner joke on Google+ that, "I blame many things on Ed Greenwood. Some of them might even be justified." After that, another participant in the conversation observed that he didn't "get the anger toward Ed".


I can't speak to any issues other than my own, but personally, I'm waiting on an apology from him. Of course, I've never told him that, so you know... whatever. It's just that I realized -- while trying to put into words what I have against Mr. Greenwood -- that his name conjures up the sorts of ill-feelings that drove a wedge between me and my older brother. My brother did some things in his life that I was never able to forgive because he just couldn't seem to grasp that he'd done anything that might need forgiving. In short, he never apologized, so I was never able to let it go. There was exactly one time in the last few years of his life that -- after he'd made me so angry that I got up and I walked out of a family-reunion to sit in the restaurant parking lot while everyone else ate -- that he admitted he had gone too far, and he offered me a simple apology. Those few words made a world of difference, and I'll never forget that gesture.

As for Ed, I never met him personally. I know very little about his business dealings. I know him only by his game writing, and back in college, I actually used his Forgotten Realms as the setting for a Fantasy Hero campaign that became quite popular and would eventually introduce me to the love of my life.

When all is said and done, there are exactly two things attributed to Ed Greenwood that really make me angry. The first one is Elminster. Please pardon my bluntness, but I loathe the character. He's everything I hate about the Merlin archetype rolled up together with everything I hate about the pet characters of game designers. When Dumbledore died in the Harry Potter books, I was not the least bit moved; I was just relieved he would no longer be there to cheapen the decisions and accomplishments of the characters I actually liked. And any time a game designer introduces a heroic NPC whose power levels would break the game were it a player character, he's entreating every GM who ever picks up his work to run a campaign in which the players will envy the awesomeness of the author's creation, and live forever in its shadow. Sorry, but when I want to be astounded by someone else's heroism, I'll go read a book or watch a movie. When I sit down to a game table, it's the players' turn to be awesome.

The second thing is also what elevated my dislike for Elminster to real loathing, and that's the Avatar Trilogy of adventures used to introduce 2E-rules to the Forgotten Realms. I saw on a forum just now that someone remembered reading somewhere that Mr. Greenwood actually hated writing those adventures -- that he had his arm twisted in writing the worst parts -- but his name is the name that's on them, and they're not merely awful: they're the toxic waste of adventure design. Don't take my word for it, though. Google the adventures and see what the internet has to say about them.

My brother had taken over that Forgotten Realms campaign by the time the Avatar trilogy came out. He insisted on running it, despite the fact that we were playing Fantasy Hero instead of D&D. We slogged and we slogged and we slogged miserably through it, week after week, because we loved those characters and that campaign and we all just wanted to get to the other side of that mess and start playing the game again. And in the end it was for nothing, because by the time it was behind us we couldn't put it behind us. No one cared about the campaign anymore. No one cared about the characters anymore. No one even wanted to give the thing a decent burial. We all just kind of turned our backs sadly and asked, "Well, what do we play now?"

Bad game adventures get written all the time, but that wasn't just a bad set of adventures. That was personal. So two decades later, I'm still waiting for my apology.

 

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