Wednesday 31 January 2018

Sometimes, Basic D&D forces creativity

Image result for basic D&D
The original Basic set
The very nature of Basic D&D's pre-high level player character meatgrinder means that for any kind of campaign idea to outlast unlucky die rolls, the gaming group needs to be on their toes and ready to change tack pretty much on the fly.

A long time ago Big J, our usual DM, wanted a night off so I stepped in with a throwaway idea to do a 'Game of Thrones' inspired game. While the players created their human-only no magic characters, I quickly drew the game map, a Europe-sized land called 'Nurthund'. Players were allowed to create their own family House names and the first ready for play could choose where their kingdom was, the second could choose next, etc. Then I filled in the last few kingdoms with random House names, designed a capital with a High King and then we rolled randomly to decide how the Houses felt about each other. On a single D6 a 1-2 meant they were 'OK' with each other, a 3-4 meant they disliked each other, a 5-6 meant they were openly hostile.

The players were also allowed to come up with a basic culture for their House and kingdom based on the real world, so one player who had placed his kingdom further south opted for a Greek/Persian-inspired design, the player on the mainland chose Medieval Europe, and the other, from the north, chose a Nordic feel.

Then we had to decide why they were together. As the three Houses they were from were at odds, I decided that a small kingdom to the south, who basically acted as bankers for the realm and who the Kings and the High King were in debt to, demanded diplomatic help with raiders who were coming up from the unexplored southern lands.

In an attempt to stop, or at least slow, the fracturing of the realm - strangely, most of the Houses had rolled a 5 and 6 in their relationship with the High King, telling everyone that the kingdoms were hostile to him and this threatened bloody war - the High King's advisor instructs the three most temperamental Kings (ie, the player character's fathers) to send their youngest princes who would band together and, in a show of unity, travel to the south and deal with the problem.

There was an hour of wrangling as each son argued, made demands, threw tantrums, and tried to con each other. They played their characters as they had rolled them and the conflict between their houses bled into their group dynamic. It was great to game, and everyone had a hand in the creation of the campaign setting and direction that we made up there and then. That's a great night's collaborative gaming.

They finally got themselves onto a boat to head south to the small kingdom, with plans and ideas at the ready. Sadly, they were boarded by pirates and, after a series of disastrous rolls not helped by high damage rolls and low hit point scores, they were all killed.

Well, damn.

All was not lost, however. There were still three sailors on the boat after the raid ended. So, the players rolled up three new characters and I suggested that these new PCs were the surviving sailors who, in an attempt to gain riches, notoriety and a half-hearted attempt to stop the realm from collapsing around their ears, are going to attempt to pass themselves off as the princes and complete their mission to the small kingdom. The story was saved!

The notorious first-level deathtrap that Basic D&D is may not have been the best choice for the campaign idea but the fact that we were having fun with it meant that we didn't want the almost inevitable TPK to be the end of it, forcing us to improvise.

Basic D&D forces a gaming group to be creative. We didn't want to let go of the central premise but also didn't want to restart the campaign with the same characters. So, what we end up with is the same ideas and goals but with a huge twist on the story and meatgrinder Basic D&D was pretty much responsible for that. All the players have to do now is get through the next couple of levels without dying, but I think the fact that I allowed them maximum possible hit points might help.

Sunday 28 January 2018

Playing to 'win' in a roleplaying game

toy soldier by johnny_automaticThis guy I’ll call Bob. Bob was a good gamer, he liked to play and he liked to adventure. The problem was, he also liked to win.

I never felt that Bob ever got away from the games of Warhammer Fantasy Battles and Dark Future we used to play, games with a sense of winning and achievement through defeating your enemy. Bob was an old school wargamer and got into roleplaying for lack of any other wargamers in the area. He was a good roleplayer, don’t get me wrong, and we had fun, but he never shook that ‘me against you’ attitude.

Bob was a good wargamer and beat me every time, but in a roleplaying game he’d get a little lost, especially outside of combat. We never used to use miniatures that much but while Bob was in the game we had to so that he knew what was going on, and he would decide actions to the smallest detail. The problem was, if anything went against him outside of combat he would argue that he had been defeated at the whim of the GM and didn’t have any control over the fate of his PC. In short, he would accuse the GM of ‘cheating’ every time he was unsuccessful with anything that didn’t involve hitting anything with a sword.

This came to a head, and effectively ended Bob’s involvement in roleplaying (with me, at any rate), with a single roll he was asked to make. He rolled, not knowing the difficulty number, and the GM declared he had failed. It wasn’t a game-breaking failure, but Bob didn’t like the fact that he had made a roll and the GM had seemingly ruled a failure regardless. He demanded to know what the difficulty number was. The GM gave him a number higher than what he had rolled. And, quite simply, Bob didn’t believe him. The game played out, Bob left, and he never attended again.

Now, you may think that Bob had a point and that the GM should have declared the difficulty number before he asked for the roll, and I’d agree with you to a certain extent, but the fact is that I don’t think it had anything to do with that. Bob, in his mind, had ‘lost’ the game. And Bob hated to lose, especially to what he saw as GM fiat. He had no direct control over every aspect of the game the way he had with boardgames and wargames, and so hated not being able to make judgements based on the rules as they were set out, clear and concise and covering just about every combat angle as in a wargaming manual. He enjoyed the games, I enjoyed playing with him, but he couldn’t get past the competitive angle. It really was Players-vs-GM to him. No matter how many times we told him this wasn’t the case, that was always at the forefront of his mind.

I remember feeling this way about the game in the 1980s when I first started but this was mainly due to the fact that we were new to tabletop roleplaying games and didn’t really know any better. By the time we got to the games with Bob we were all experienced in the hobby and knew the no-such-thing-as-winners mantra and that the enjoyment came from a cooperative experience but couldn’t convince Bob that this was how the game was played. He saw it as a detailed wargame; if it had dice, rules and miniatures then it was a wargame. That was it. And that was a massive shame.

I think the only thing I learned from this, as an observing player in the group, that all you can do is try, and keep explaining the game. You can’t change the nature of the game to suit one player, unless that’s what the group wants to try, and you can’t change a person’s unwavering perception of how the game should be played.

Tuesday 23 January 2018

What happens in-character, stays in-character

Conflict Silhouette by GDJIt can be difficult, sometimes, to realise that certain events that happen in a roleplaying game are just part of the game. A PC arguing with another PC or an NPC is an argument between two characters, not two players. Unfortunately, some gamers don’t see the difference.

Although this has happened to me a few times there are two incidents like this I remember: the first was during a Star Wars game with a new GM, and my friend and I were playing two characters that simply did not get on. There was plenty of in-character sniping and many barbed comments but we’d always help each other out, but one particular argument turned into a shouting match. The GM called time on the game to calm us down and it took us a little while to explain that we were arguing in-character. To be honest we were pulled out of the conflict by the interruption and never really argued or bit at each other again – you’d have thought that the GM would have realised that what we were arguing about and the way we were talking was all in-game but I guess in the heat of the moment you miss those kind of details. It kind of ruined the character dynamic, to be honest, it was a shame.

The second was much worse. I can’t remember the game, I’m sure it was some horror adventure, and an argument began between two player characters about the distribution of equipment. It was very entertaining and the volume went up and accusations started to fly. Now, I don’t remember the game but I do remember the moment when the GM looked at me, his smile dropping and his face a mask of shock, and the words ‘What the hell?’ spilling from his mouth. One of the players was now red-faced and angry, and his comments had nothing to do with the game. He started to go into detail as to why the player himself was annoying; it no longer had anything to do with the in-game disagreement. Now it was personal. The game collapsed, the campaign was abandoned and both players stopped attending the games. They were pretty good friends outside the hobby and it took a while for them to make up and start talking again. All this because the player couldn’t draw a line between game and reality and was taking the comments of the other player’s character personally, as if he as a person was being directly accused of the antics of his player character.

There has to be defined, clear rules when entering a game where such things might occur. There has to be in-character and out-character indicators, even if it’s just the player saying ‘okay, in-character – what the hell is going on, are you some kind of idiot?’ and the argument or disagreement unfolds from there. Every player at that table needs to understand the line between in-game and out-game, they need to know that what the player is saying is through the mouth of his player character and doesn’t reflect his actual feelings. It’s very easy to do; before you say anything just think about how it will sound or how the other players may perceive it, make sure you’re not just arguing for the sake of arguing and that it’s all to do with the game, with the drama of the moment. Maybe precede your comments by saying, ‘Right, this is in-character’.

Whatever you do, don’t use the ‘it’s all in-character!’ comment to help defend yourself if you intentionally want to act like a dick. Other players, especially seasoned ones, easily see straight through this and it does you no favours.

Sunday 21 January 2018

Interview - Brian Fitzpatrick of Moebius Adventures

I'm very much into my science fiction RPGs at the moment, and a game that caught my eye recently was 'Aliens & Asteroids', a game 'written to evoke the terror of being on a spaceship in the middle of nowhere being stalked by creatures only wanting to survive and thrive'.

I got in touch with Brian Fitzpatrick of Moebius Adventures to find out more.

Hello, Brian, and welcome to Farsight Blogger! Tell us something about yourself and how you ended up wandering the wonderful worlds of roleplaying games.

Thanks for having me!

As far as my entry to the wonderful world of role-playing games, I was lucky enough to be a geeky kid in the early 1980s and managed to find a group of like-minded individuals who were playing AD&D. I think the first time I played was 1982 and I was hooked from that moment on. And my geeky nature worked to stoke the fires of my imagination, tapping into my love of reading where I discovered the Lord of the Rings, Robert Heinlein, Piers Anthony, and many many others, not to mention my fascination with myths and legends from around the world. Maybe not as exciting as the 80s setting of Stranger Things, but just as awesome!

Though there were a few lean years for RPGs in high school, I found them again in college and have never looked back. I've lost track of the number of RPGs we've played, from D&D and Palladium Fantasy to Ninjas & Superspies, Vampire, Heavy Gear, Battletech, Call of Cthulhu, and many others. And after college in the mid-1990s, I teamed up with a buddy of mine and we started Moebius Adventures. We've been tinkering in one way or another for a very long time!

These days, I still play some D&D 4e and 5e fairly regularly, but most of my time is devoted to working on our OSR game Mazes & Perils or our latest science fiction offering, Aliens & Asteroids.

Aliens & Asteroids sounds like my cup of tea; the darkness of space and the horrors that dwell there? Yes, please. What do you think this game brings to the science fiction roleplaying experience that’s different?

Glad to hear you're excited! I know I am! We've been having a great time playing at my FLGS with a fun group, romping around the universe, battling aliens, and trying to save humanity from the awful Dread (our big baddies)!

Originally I wanted A&A to be an OSR-inspired game of space marines and battles on alien worlds, but the system we developed felt very forced and clunky. Thankfully my friend Alan Bahr (Gallant Knight Games) chimed in with the ideas that became the Inverse20 system, so we came up with a very light system that is VERY easy to learn and yet has adapted to everything we've thrown at it so far. Keeping the system light has allowed us to explore more fast and furious adventures along the lines of Aliens, Predator, The Expanse, Firefly, Babylon-5, and more -- letting us focus on the story and using simple mechanics rather than bringing in a lot of overhead we didn't need.

The universe of A&A is a bit like the Expanse mixed with Aliens and a little Call of Cthulhu. If you've ever played the video game X-COM 2, we've gone for a very squad-level feel that still allows for gonzo heroics and a bit of the panic that sets in when you're facing creatures of unknown origin simply shrugging off any weapons fire and are definitely not of any world you've ever seen.

And when you pull in the Dread, things go from bad to worse. The Dread are on a mission to devour the life energy of the universe and something tells me Earth would be a really tasty morsel!

What was the attraction to the darker side of science fiction? Is it something you’ve always been interested in?

Honestly, I've always loved Lovecraft's ideas surrounding alien forces and intelligences that we simply cannot fathom. The Universe is a big place and I see a bright future once humanity hops to the moon, Mars, and beyond. But I also think that when we head into the dark, there will be things waiting for us we won't be ready for. It's true that humanity already has a pretty dark streak and is capable of beauty and horror in equal amounts, but when we work together against a common enemy we can do some simply amazing things. We'll just have to see what happens when we get that far.

That said, A&A presents a dark future with a lot of hope. At my own game table I've seen people band together to save complete strangers from horrors that make even the brave men and women of the space marines tremble in their boots. I think there are some great opportunities for amazing stories to be told to light the darkness for a long time.

Can you explain a little more about the Inverse20 system? How does it work?

Inverse20 is based on a few basic concepts. Each character has a set of attribute values like Toughness and Education that can be used to quantify their strengths and weaknesses. Each character takes traits to help define what they're good at, such as Guns or Medicine. And based on those two ideas plus the difficulty of a task, a player gets to roll one d20 or two d20s to determine success or failure. If you are shooting a gun but don't have the Guns trait, it's your Accuracy attribute. If you roll your Accuracy score or less, you hit! If not, you fail. If you roll a 1 or right on the attribute value, that's a Critical Hit. And if you roll a natural 20, that's a Critical Fail.

If the task is easy or you have a trait that makes it easier (like the Guns trait when shooting weapons), the roll is at an Advantage. That means you roll two d20s and take the most advantageous result (either the lowest or the die that's right on the score you're aiming for). If it's a particularly difficult task, it may be at a Disadvantage. In that case, you roll two d20s and take the highest number. And with No Advantage, it's just a single d20.

This task resolution system keeps things simple at the table and moving quickly as a result. We dig it and I hope to develop a few other variations on it, including a fantasy version I've been tinkering with.

The Kickstarter was successful and the game is due soon. Once the initial core book has been sent out, what kind of support can the game expect in the future in the form of scenarios and supplements?

Yes! I'm very excited for us to get the A&A core book out in February, but that's just the beginning!

We have a long list of projects on the horizon, from new professions and traits, to setting books describing different locations in the A&A universe, to adventures on alien worlds! Though we had a few stretch goals we didn't get to see realized during the Kickstarter, all of the folks willing to write for us then are on the hook to provide some great stuff for us through the rest of 2018 and beyond. I'm very excited to see what they come up with and I think we have plenty of ideas to keep us busy for a good long while!

What else does Moebius Adventures have planned for the future?

Though A&A has been our main focus over the last 6 months, we have some fun things planned for our Mazes & Perils line as well as some collections of older titles that may finally see the light of day. Beyond that, I really want to explore some older ideas from the Moebius back catalog in the cyberpunk and fantasy realms to keep things hopping. Our new partnership with Gallant Knight Games has provided a great springboard for some fun projects to come!

Art from Outland Entertainment and Jason Adams
Art from Outland Entertainment and Jason Adams

Friday 19 January 2018

The aim of roleplaying games

Arrow in the gold by SnarkHunterIn my early days of playing roleplaying games I was still in the mindset of playing the game to ‘win’. This ‘winning’ took the form of two things, defeating more foes and gathering more treasure than the other players. In general, the entire incentive of playing the game was to beat the other players in cash and carnage and therefore ‘win’ the game.

But as time goes on you have to ask what is the point of playing to this end. While the initial aim of the game is to win or earn gold there should be more to it than just that. Any in-game rewards do give you a sense of achievement but it’s ultimately hollow as there is nothing you can do with said gold in the real world. Playing a boardgame or wargame and winning is remarkably different as you are competing against opponents which, even though you are not physically taking anything from the experience, there is a sense of accomplishment in being the victor.

In a roleplaying game there are no true opponents other than the NPCs or events a GM throws at you, but a GM is representing both the friends and enemies of the players and so cannot be considered a true opponent. The other players in the group are usually working as a team so they are not opponents, either. So where does the satisfaction come from? Is it in the attainment of in-game wealth?

At first, I think the promise of in-game gold and riches and how much you get is a measure of achievement and this is true of both new and experienced gamers. I can easily say that this was what drove me as a new player but the habit has not been lost; when I joined a Pathfinder game a few years ago my main intention was to make as much in-game money as possible and, indeed, there was some dishonesty in the group to get that wealth. This may have been the initial incentive but after a while we (or, at least, I) had other, more story-driven reasons to quest.

But the truth as I see it these days is this – the incentive to play a roleplaying game is the game itself. When I run games now the original conceit for the reason to be adventuring - that there is gold and glory to be had - has been sidelined unless the game specifically calls for that approach. To me, the reward in playing roleplaying games is the experience, and winning is an enjoyable evening of collaborative storytelling that makes an impression, or a game in which all attendees come away with a sense of satisfaction of a job well done.

It’s the game itself that should drive the experience, not the outcome. Having events making an emotional impression on a person lasts a lot longer than the imaginary gold that has been earned. When my roleplaying friends and I talk about games of old, we never talk about how much money we made.

Tuesday 16 January 2018

J.R.R. Tolkien and my roleplaying hobby

A BBC ad for LotR
My love affair with The Lord of the Rings began when I was in the fifth year of school. I was ten years old and it's one of the things from childhood that I vividly remember.

Every week were made to sit in groups around a tape recorder that had about six huge, clunky sets of headphones plugged into it, and through this we were subjected to the BBC radio dramatisation of 'The Lord of the Rings'; all 26 wonderful, magical parts. It was the most exciting few weeks of my school life as I became immersed in this incredible world of magic, monsters and heroes of all sizes.

And that was it. After finding out that we had copies of both the books at home, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I set about reading them from cover to cover and savouring every page, and I also did my best to record the BBC drama on an old radio cassette player. And that was it. I declared my love for all things Tolkien and as the years passed by my meagre collection grew and grew.

Roleplaying in Middle-earth never truly started until the late 1980s, and even then the games never really delved into the richness of the world. I'd been playing fantasy games since 1983, roleplaying since 1984, and even though I immersed myself in the fantasy worlds of the game I never had the chance, or really the urge, to game in Middle-earth. Tolkien's world never had the plethora of monsters that the D&D worlds had and I was having fun making my way through the beasties of the books, and exploring whole new fantasy worlds such as Titan, Forgotten Realms and several home-brewed locations of varying quality.

Image result for merp
I began to play once a friend of mine got his hands on the Middle-earth Role Playing game - MERP - and I created my first ever fully-fleshed and detailed player character, Tere Swordsong. It was with this character that I was able to finally understand the creative power of roleplaying games and I allowed myself to become fully attached to the character. It was an amazing adventure and I was giddy with excitement when I walked through the doors of The Inn of the Last Bridge in the Trollshaws, and I finally began to roam the lands I loved so much.

The divergence began when the gamemaster began to create adventures that became bigger and bigger in concept, and began to affect not just my character or the location but the world as a whole. We were both wary of contradicting established Tolkien lore, probably I was more than him, and so it was then that he decided to change it from Middle-earth to a general fantasy Europe. As it turned out, it was a great choice. Now he could bring in all kinds of monsters and bad guys and have full control of the game, without any second-guessing or worrying about what was right or wrong in Middle-earth, and he didn't feel hemmed in or restricted by the setting - or by my expectations.

The time I did spend in Middle-earth was incredibly gratifying and the fact that it also enabled me to finally get under the skin of a player character and play him to the hilt was a vital turning point in my roleplaying hobby. Every character I have created since Tere Swordsong has failed to recreate that feeling I got when playing him and, even though I played the characters as well as I was able, they never measured up.

It is strange that, considering my love for Middle-earth, I never spent much time gaming there. I could never figure out quite why that was, not until I ran my own somewhat disastrous MERP games in the mid-1990s and realised fully why it was I had shied away from it.

It was because I was a snob.

I was trying to run a MERP game with a couple of players - post War of the Ring - but couldn't quite figure out why it was I wasn't enjoying the game. It hit me at the beginning of the second session; the players weren't playing the game the way I expected them to. I had an image of Middle-earth in my head, the way everyone acted, spoke and basically presented themselves, and the players were not playing it that way. They were playing it the same way they played old D&D and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay games, speaking normally and messing around. They just weren't taking this amazing setting and world seriously enough. I'd even go as far to say that I was angry at them because they didn't have the same level of respect that I did for Tolkien's world.

Crazy? Oh, yes, it was a crazy attitude to have but after more than ten years being brewed in my head it was going to be difficult to let go of the images and attitudes I thought should be present in a Middle-earth game. Before the game descended into madness I did exactly what my former MERP GM did; I changed the setting to a fantasy Europe. The games were considerably better now that I wasn't emotionally dragging the game down and the campaign, though short, was a good one.

This was a dilemma; how could I game in Middle-earth when the players involved didn't have the same attitude - dare I say it respect - towards the setting as I did? Had I ruined any chance at gaming in my favourite fantasy setting? What I needed was something that would unite imaginations, make sure that we were all working from the same page and were approaching the game with the same attitude. This was why my Star Wars D6 games worked so well, because we all had the same visual and emotional attachment to the films so they were very easy games to run and get involved in.

So when Peter Jackson's 'The Lord of the Rings' movies were released, and the Decipher version of the rules was published, I finally had my visual and emotional anchor. I thought I'd give it another shot.

The Decipher CODA
Core Rulebook.
Peter Jackson's 'The Lord of the Rings' movies hit the cinemas and (after breathing a huge sigh of relief as I really enjoyed them, and had spent the previous two years anticipating disappointment) I felt ready to tackle Middle-earth as a campaign world once again.

Instead of using MERP or any other fantasy RPG I decided to start from scratch and use the new Decipher ruleset, the CODA system. This had been used pretty well in their Star Trek RPG and so I had high hopes for The Lord of the Rings.

Although it didn't tick all my boxes it was a pretty good system and it played really well, and having the visuals of the movies really helped. Instead of several people sitting around the table with differing thoughts regarding the aesthetics and attitudes of Middle-earth, we were all on the same page. The players could visualise their heroes, they knew the look and feel of certain locations and, dwarf-tossing jokes aside, they pretty much stayed the course.

After several successful sessions it was the lore of Middle-earth that started to cause the problems.

Fifteen years earlier I had created and gamed in a Star Wars setting called 'The Setnin Sector', and we had been very careful to create a slice of the Star Wars galaxy that was somewhat removed from the rest of the universe, so it not only existed alongside the official Star wars universe it didn't intrude on it. This gave the sense that the players could still have their huge sector-shaking adventures yet not have any direct influence or effect on the Star Wars galaxy at large. It honestly gave them a sense of really 'being there'. The only golden rule we had was that no player character or story could outshine or contradict the established characters and saga.

Not so with this game. It was not the system that was at fault but, once again, it was the attitude to the game. Once the players were comfortable with the system they wanted more. More adventures, more places to explore, more power and glory. We had come to the game with the same mindset as far as the setting was concerned but the players still wanted to grow in power an influenced as they had in other RPGs. As I was trying to treat Middle-earth the same way as I had treated the Star Wars sector I had created and that was simply impossible; thousands of planets versus a continent? Where could the players honestly go?

With things like Warhammer's Old World and the Cthulhu Mythos I had more than gladly taken liberties with the setting, even changing the entire history and the pantheon in the case of the Old World, but with Middle-earth I could not bring myself to do such a thing, similar to how I couldn't intrude on the Star Wars setting's reality. This was partly my fault as I had come at the game wanting to adventure in the world but I still had the 'epic campaign' mindset, in that the players would expect their adventures to be world shattering. I simply couldn't do this with Middle-earth as it was far too dear to me and changing it in any way, even though it was just a game, just felt wrong.

The games were abandoned and the Decipher rules were discarded. I haven't really ventured into Tolkien's world since and that really is my own fault, but I have the books for Cubicle 7's 5e Middle-earth game, so at some point I will play there again.

I wonder how I'll feel about it?

Saturday 13 January 2018

Wargame Review – Dracula’s America: Shadows of the West

Dracula's America: Shadows of the WestBy Jonathan Haythornthwaite

Published by Osprey Games

It is 1875, and Count Dracula is President of the United States of America.

In the wake of the Civil War, with the country struggling to regain its balance, Dracula seized power. The Count's thralls assassinated President Lincoln and his entire administration in a single night and, in the ensuing chaos, their master made his move. Dominating the Senate, he declared himself President-for-Life, and now rules the Union with fear and an iron fist. His vampiric progeny, the Coven of the Red Hand, infest every strata of society, and enforce Dracula's will with ruthless efficiency.

Drawn by the shadows gathering across the nation, secretive cults and evil creatures emerge from their lairs to thrive in the darkness of the new regime. Fleeing from the oppression and menace of the East, hordes of pioneers head to the West, hoping for a new life.

Dracula's greed, however, knows no bounds, and his reach is long…

Dracula's America: Shadows of the West is a skirmish game of gothic horror set in an alternate Old West. Secret wars rage across the country - from bustling boom-towns to the most remote wilderness - as cults and secret societies fight for power and survival. Players will throw their support behind one of these factions, and will lead a Posse in fast-paced, cinematic battles for dominance and survival.

I like my alternative histories, the idea that if something was done differently or if a certain side won a conflict they originally lost could change the course of history, and how the repercussions of that would echo throughout the ages. The power of a ‘what if?’ story can be quite an eye-opener.

But when someone puts a wargame rulebook in your hands and says ‘Yeah, it’s the wild west but Dracula took over America and it’s all a bit gothic’, it’s something of a surprise. It certainly wasn’t the first thing that went through my head when I thought of alternative realities, so how do you make that work in tabletop skirmish wargame?

The book is a 140-page hardback and is really well presented. An evocative cover and some really nice interior art by RU-MOR sets the atmosphere and the mood of the game, and the layout is crisp, easy on the eye and simple to follow. It’s a great quality rulebook that you can leave open on whatever page you require without fear of the pages falling out or rolling over onto the wrong page.

The writing is sharp and to the point – sometimes rulebooks can be filled with flowery descriptions and filler material, but this game gets to the point in the first four pages with little preamble; this is the game, this is what it’s about and here’s what’s expected of you. I like that, it gets me into the very reason I have the book in the first place; to play tabletop battles.

You’ll need three kinds of dice for this game – the D6, D8 and the D10, which can also be halved to be used as D3s, D4s and D5s. You’ll also need a deck of normal playing cards, which is a nice touch because there’s always been a connection between westerns and poker.

Image result for Dracula's America: Shadows of the West
Image from rulebook

The game mechanic is quite simple. A game is divided into eight game turns, and each game turn is split into four phases; the Draw Phase, where each player draws cards that help decide the order of play. The Action Phase where cards are played, models are activated and they perform their actions. The NPC Phase where all non-player models take their turn, and the Recovery Phase where models are reset for the next round.

Each model can use dice depending on their skill; Novices use the D6, Veterans use the D8 and Heroes use the D10. These have different costs when putting together a Posse, a player’s team of between 6 and 8 miniatures, and the die used determines their skill. You roll a number of dice and aim for a target number of 5. 5 or better is a success and 4 or less is a failure, and the number of successes determines the outcome of the test.

A posse can be chosen from different factions; The Twilight Order,The Red Hand Coven, The Skinwalker Tribes, The Crossroads Cult, The Congregation, and The Dark Confederacy. These give your posse a selection of powers and abilities you can use and abuse during a game. Each of these factions help to realise the atmosphere of a supernatural gothic wild west, but you can also use the game as a straight forward western skirmish game if you drop the insane reality of the setting. In fact, we played out our first game that way to get used to the rules, just kept it simple, and then used the supernatural elements and the advanced rules in the book to fill the game out. We found it much easier that way, as there are plenty of options and it might be a little overwhelming if you played it as it is straight out of the book.

There’s a nice section on campaigns in there, too, so there’s a great framework for an ongoing battle against – or for - the darkness, and the seven scenarios included give a nice cross section as to what you can do with different situations. With arcane powers, insane supernatural events and some unnerving monsters, the game is filled to the brim with ideas and opportunities to create some really interesting encounters.

So, how did we get on with it?

We started with two simple Posses; the Plonkertons, a team of six private agents had a shootout with the Messy Wales Gang. We had no dedicated miniatures for this game – these can be purchased form and - so we used some 28mm figures from a sci-fi range for the first game and some random wild west printable figures for further ones. It was good fun; we didn’t take it too seriously and it was a great way to shake down the rules.

As we progressed and introduced new elements, got into our chosen factions and used the powers on offer the game dynamic changed. The setting didn’t play much of a role in the game itself, to be honest; the whole ‘Dracula takes America’ story was fascinating and adds depth for those looking for extra levels to their gaming experience, but with only a few pages dedicated to the actual events that led to the installation of the big D into the Whitehouse there’s little to go on. However, the story is a means to an end, and we get all kinds of gloriously cool and cruel powers and monsters to play with in the game itself. Hopefully, further expansions to the game will help grow the mythology of the setting, but right now what you have here is exactly what the game offers; dark and bloody conflicts in a strange, twisted, untamed land.

In fact, we seemed to play two kinds of game here; there was the straight-forward shootout game, a fun and fast-paced western skirmish wargame where we could quote Clint Eastwood, look at each other with narrowed eyes for few seconds before rolling dice and shout ‘Yeehah!’ as we rode into battle, and then there was the darker supernatural game, where we could really sink our teeth into playing out a dark, twisted nightmare of a setting.

One thing we did notice was that the miniatures we were using really pulled us out of the game, and there were only so many times we could play out in the wild as we had no model buildings. What this game really calls out for is immersion, and there are some lovely photographs in the book of well-painted miniatures in some amazing surroundings, like towns and wildlands. If you had the right miniatures and could put them onto a game board that gave you the main street of a wild west town, with saloons and general stores and the like, the game would be amazing. Alas, we had some paper cutouts and some cardboard with hastily drawn shop fronts and small boxes as buildings. Hey, it worked and we had fun, but modellers will have a field day recreating the world to get the full experience. It just takes a bit of dedication.

This is a really good, fun and entertaining system that will benefit from further books to flesh out the lore, the setting and playing options.  Longevity will come from mixing things up and having a love of the wild west as a whole, but overall the matches were satisfying and, if you take the options in the book one at a time and build up the experience, it’s a very rewarding game.


Image result for Dracula's America: Shadows of the West art

Thursday 11 January 2018

Making sure that the PCs and the Campaign match

Old man with a Flashlight by j4p4n
Players sometimes go to a lot of trouble to design a PC that they can really delve into. This can take the form of a detailed history on multiple sheets of paper, a drawing, a short story; any and all of these things can give the player character depth and a player can take great pleasure in playing the PC and exploring their character further.

With small groups, I tend to create games based around what the players have created, on the characterisations and personalities that the players have spent considerable time designing in and out of the game. So it gets somewhat frustrating, then, when the personality of the character changes suddenly, or the player turns up with a completely different character to the one you catered for in your adventure design.

I was setting up a game of mystery and suspense in a Call of Cthulhu game set in the 1930s and the two player characters taking part were both university professors. They were learned men, in their forties and very well educated and both had been designed with the idea that they had travelled the world and experienced all kinds of things that drove them to learn more. The game was set in the jungles of middle Africa and was going to be a game of travel, exploration and mystery. I designed the NPCs around that, with low combat skills and high knowledge skills. It was going to be a fun, investigative game. I was pretty shocked, then, when the game became an Indiana Jones-style escapade and instead of communicating with the NPCs the players simply beat their way through them, got into fistfights to obtain information and hacked their way through the jungle with machetes and Thompson machine guns. In the intervening time between creating the characters and turning up for the game the players had completely changed their minds about what kind of characters, even what kind of game, they wanted to play. The only problem with their change of mind was that they had neglected to inform me of their decision and I was totally unprepared for it. To be fair, I managed to run a fun action-orientated game but my heart wasn’t in it as I was in the mood for mystery and suspense, and this came across in the session. We never continued that campaign after that one game, so that was a lot wasted work for everyone.

These days, I tend to create games with two different versions of the same NPC – the combat and non-combat versions. If the playing style of the game swings towards either action or mystery then I’m mostly ready for it but there’s nothing I can do about what mood I’m in. It’s easy to have NPCs prepped for different kinds of games but being in the correct frame of mind, that’s a whole different thing entirely. If a game’s atmosphere is disrupted by the GM being on a separate level of expectation, or even a couple of players out of the whole group, then the session will suffer.

When players create PCs, when they detail the characters in both history and personality, and they hand them over for the GM to agree on then they have to realise that the chances are that GM will design a game based around what kind of PC they have designed. Players have the right to change their minds, of course – they may have a better idea of what they want to do with the PC the very next day - but it helps to give the GM notice of this change so that he can plan accordingly. The same sort of thing applies to the GM; if the players create investigative PCs and the GM throws them into high-adventure battles that the players are unprepared for then the game will collapse due to either expectations not being met or PCs biting the bullet.

Decide on a style of game and try to stick to it. If anyone has a change of mind about their game or their PC then make sure that everyone knows what it is they want to do. The whole game doesn’t have to change but at least these changes will be expected and catered for.

Originally posted March 2012

Monday 8 January 2018

My convention disaster

A simple table by photofree.gaIt was the UK Games Expo in 2009 and I offered my services for the Friday RPG sessions as a GM to help fill a table and demo my SKETCH game. I designed a dungeon, advertised it and got some interest. I was allocated six places and I filled them all.

I got there in plenty of time on the Friday, set up, and watched the eight or nine other tables around me fill up. I sat there eagerly waiting.

And nobody came.

While the other gamers roared and laughed and rolled their dice I sat there with a vast empty table, the seats all pushed under, the spaces filled with character sheets and notes. The dice were piled in the centre of the table in a neat pyramid and didn't move for the two hours I waited. I sat and wrote notes and tried to look busy, but considering the trade halls were not open until the next day I couldn't even take a wander around the show.

As I was also covering the show for two online magazines I was given a free pass for the weekend so it wasn't a total loss. But I never found out why they never came - as far as I can tell they all signed up independantly and they never knew each other, so it's not like they all bailed for the same reason.

The thing I remember the most is the DM running a game at the next table looking over at me with a pained expression, like she really felt my pain, and then she leaned over and whispered, 'Are you sure you got your times right?'

Yes. Yes, I did.

Friday 5 January 2018

My ego-trip gaming period

EGO Man by aungkarnsI had a huge problem in my first few years of running roleplaying games.

I had a huge ego.

When I used to GM I loved to have complete control over the game to the point where the players became mere spectators. But I also had another problem, one that was much, much worse than railroading the game. I used to love my GMPCs. That’s right – I had Mary Sue characters.

There was one particular NPC I had in a Star Wars game who I’d heap adoration onto. The problem here was that this character was also my own PC so, of course, he’d automatically be the cool character in my game. There’s absolutely no excuse here – I’d use my powers as GM to fully control the destiny of my character until it became worse than a railroad game, it became a biography of who my character was and what he could do and the players would watch his life and abilities unfold, as if they were supposed to be impressed or something. This was all about me, at the end of the day. I barely gave a thought to the players and concentrated on how cool it would be if this or that happened to my character. This was a direct result of my PC not getting the limelight in the game in which I played him in, and it was my chance to have his fate unfold as I wanted it to happen.

I wasn’t alone in this – a friend of mine also had a favourite PC he’d run as a GMPC, and we would frequently swap GMing duties. It became a battle between us, who could outdo the other in the Mary Sue department, right down to ‘my GMPC saves the day!’ events. We burned ourselves out doing this and after a climactic PC vs PC fight that ended in a kind of draw - his PC won by skill and my PC won with subterfuge – we kind of realised what it was we were doing and also realised that there was no fun in this, no sense of achievement or fulfillment at all. We were in our late teens when all this happened and so we managed to get it out of our system very early on and thank heavens we did. Our games improved because of it and we went on to run bigger and better campaigns.

Years later we took part in games where supposedly older and wiser gamers were doing the same thing. We looked at each other knowingly and sat back to watch the Ego Show, and enjoyed letting the GM indulge themselves. My friend even encouraged it, partly for the fun of it and partly because we’d get the same experience points regardless of whether the GMPC won the day for us or not. We got past this phase in our early gaming years but it appears that no matter how much experience a GM has they can still fall into the same habits and traps.

I see this kind of gaming as pure self-indulgence on the part of the GM. There’s nothing positive about it at all and only ever creates dissatisfaction and boredom within the player group. It’s an incredibly selfish way to game and although I still sometimes create a top-notch NPC who I’d like to see do well I have to realise that it’s the player’s characters who are the heroes of the game. To reduce them to trivial spectators or sidekicks makes their entire reason for turning up for the game utterly pointless.

If you’re new to this GMing lark, don’t think you’ll find satisfaction in playing like this. You honestly won’t, even though you’ll think you will, or are. All you’ll end up doing is losing players and looking back on the games with the realisation that running a GMPC as the focus of the game is possibly the most pointless thing you can be doing at that table, and that it’s a massive waste of the time that you could have been spending running a decent game that involved the players and revolved around their characters. You know – the reason why they turned up to play your game in the first place.

I cut my ties with that way of gaming by killing off my ego trip PC completely and it was a great moment as I was able to totally let go of my Mary Sue tendencies.

Originally posted April 2012

Wednesday 3 January 2018

Using RPGs as an emotional release

Theatre Masks by wasatI had a player once who took the game quite seriously. He took it incredibly seriously. In fact, he took it so seriously he actually scared me a little.

I’m into my roleplaying games, that much is obvious, enjoy getting under the skin of a PC, figuring out what makes them tick and using that knowledge to determine what the character would do. I’m playing as intended, I’m playing a role. I find it fun, rewarding and fulfilling, which is no doubt what the majority of players get out of it.

This particular player – I’ll call this guy Bill – was a nice bloke and a good friend. We spent a lot of time together and I knew he had certain emotional issues which he never really talked about but seemed to regard with a very ‘that’s all over and done with’ positive attitude. He joined the gaming group very early on and attended games regularly for a couple of years. We started to do some one-on-one gaming in several different genres and, slowly at first but with gaining momentum, his attitude towards the game started to change.

Bill enjoyed the game as a bit of fun and had a great laugh at the table when we were in a group, but when the one-on-one games began he began to change. The characters he started to play were becoming much more intense, much more defined and a lot more emotionally unstable. Out went his fun-loving carefree adventurers and in came some very dark, detailed PCs with incredibly twisted pasts. They all began to share the same trait; they had all had a traumatic incident in their younger years that involved the death of someone very close – I have no idea if anything like this had happened to Bill in real life - and this made the PC angry at the world and he would take gruesome, meticulous revenge on anyone who crossed them. The PCs, in many respects, were the exact opposite of what the game setting required. Be it Star Wars, Dungeons and Dragons, Warhammer or MERP they were always the same dark, brooding, emotionally disturbed characters. And when Vampire: The Masquerade was released… well, it was as if someone had written the game to satiate every one of Bill’s roleplaying requirements.

Now, let me make something clear here – Bill was only this way in the games. Outside the game he was the same old Bill, funny and friendly, but in the game he stopped being himself. I could have put this down to him playing the character he had designed but every character he created was the same. I felt he was using the game as some kind of emotional release and, as I simply didn’t understand what he was trying to get out of the game or why, he would get highly frustrated and angry when things didn’t go the way he wanted, probably because events hadn’t transpired the way he had pictured them in his head. He demanded total control and if things slipped away from him he would react quite badly. More often than not I found myself fudging the game to let him ‘win’ to avoid the barrage of anger and vitriol that sometimes came out should things work against him. I was constantly bombarded by detailed, five thousand word character backgrounds and illustrations, some of which were somewhat confusing and even disturbing, and in the game he would go off on long speeches about how haunted he was, how these events had affected him, how deeply scarred he was. These speeches usually preceded him being particularly brutal or vicious to particular NPCs he perceived as deserving his retribution.

It was obvious that Bill was using the game to either express his darker side or he was trying to excise personal demons or feelings through his PCs. The deeper he got into the game the darker it got and I found myself disliking the sessions and then I blatantly stopped running them. It was getting too much and I was becoming scared about how he was living out certain parts of his emotional state in the game. Once I cut down and then finally stopped running these games for him I saw less of him. I didn’t know if he was still playing, I do know he had approached another group in a neighbouring city, but he moved away soon after and we lost contact completely. I’ve not spoken to him in more than twenty years, now. I hope he found what he was looking for.

Using roleplaying games to vent emotional problems, or any problems at all, is never a good idea. It’s not fair on you (as you’ll just taint the game for yourself), the GM (he can’t mindread and therefore can’t cater for what it is you want from the game) or the other players at the table (they’re attending to have fun, not take part in a psycho-analysing session). The nature of roleplaying games is that they are not real, and you are living in a fictitious world through the eyes of a fictitious character so any emotional experience is not grounded in reality. In my experience – I am guilty of taking out some of my stress and darker feelings in the game, I’m sure a lot of players are – any emotional payoff is short lived and never addresses the real reason why you channeled those feelings in the first place. The very fact that the game and what occurs in it isn’t real means that any experiences you have in the game are also just as false. You’ll never take away any sense of closure the way you would should you address the problem directly and outside the game.

I think this was Bill’s problem. He kept looking for that moment of closure but never truly found it and the harder he looked the worse it got. He was a great roleplayer, that much is sure, and I can say with certainty that if he hadn’t been so emotionally invested the games would have been up there with some of my best memories and experiences of the hobby. What I should have done is realised the problem, realised why it was he playing the game in such a way, and stopped the games straight away, or at least changed the focus. Maybe Bill would be in my group today and he’d be the happy Bill, the fun game-loving Bill he was when he first started roleplaying.

Originally posted February 2012

Tuesday 2 January 2018

Stars Without Number - Revised Edition

Image result for Stars Without Number: Revised EditionWay back when I played a game from Sine Nomine Publishing called 'Stars Without Number', an OSR-influenced science fiction roleplaying game that really shone. Now Kevin Crawford has Kickstarted a revised edition; he was originally looking for $10,000, and the campaign ended at $192,036. Yeah.

There is a full-colour free edition you can download, which is excellent. I've had a read through it and I'm really excited about what I've read, and I'm all geared up to purchase the full physical edition.

In the free edition alone you get:

- Backwards compatibility, as the Revised Edition is built to work cleanly with existing Stars Without Number supplements and materials. The new systems slot in smoothly, and you can take or leave them individually as your group prefers.

- Expanded character creation, with PCs now customized by special talents and character foci, new options for psychic characters, and new ways to make your hero mechanically distinct. Yet the process is still smooth and quick, with a special quick generator spread to create a hero from nothing more than a half-dozen die rolls.

- Refined psionics, with more options to distinguish your psychic hero's powers and more flexible choices for their abilities. Tailor your psychic to your concept, whether as a cynical gunslinging brainguard or an ascetic psychic healer from a world of austere psionic scholars.

- Improved starship combat, with decisive roles for every member of the party. Build your own starships with the included system and employ new hardware and new starship mods to make your ungainly crate the fastest contraband runner this side of the Veil Nebula.

- New systems to support additional types of play, including rules for hacking, remote drones, and expert technical modification of gear and starships.

- Upgraded tools for sandbox sector creation, with forty new world tags to help define a GM's stellar creations, guides for adding additional system points of interest, and material to help a GM define the interesting traits of the worlds they create. These tools aren't just a clump of random tables, they're a framework to boost your own creativity and help you make fast, good, playable material for your game.

- Augmented adventure creation guidelines. Aside from a hundred piping-hot adventure seeds that mesh smoothly with the world creation tools, Stars Without Number: Revised Edition also includes content to help you turn your vague ideas into a playable evening's adventure. Guidelines on challenges, rewards, and complications in play are all aimed toward the working GM, the man or woman who's not just theorizing their adventures, but actually responsible for making something fun for the whole group.

- Tools for creating aliens, Virtual Intelligences, and hostile human foes, with guidelines for handling potentially-hostile encounters and creating the kind of fearsome xenobeasts that can challenge the doughtiest explorer. Or perhaps you want to be an alien or robot? You'll find the tools for that in Stars Without Number: Revised Edition.

- Faction rules, for handling the background warring and intrigues of hostile groups. Need to add life and motion to your stellar sectors? Sprinkle in a few factions to make news for the PCs to respond to, or use these rules to handle the colonies, spy agencies, mercenary companies, or other enterprises your heroes establish.

Isn't that fantastic? If you go for the paid-for version, you then get this:

- Transhuman tech, with rules for bodyswapping, digital identities, post-scarcity economics, and just as importantly, GM guidelines on making exciting adventures when all the old pillars of familiarity have fallen away.

- True AIs, the vast and terrible intellects that can bring forth wonders and ruin in equal measure. Playing a synthetic VI or aspiring organic godmind? Learn how your PC can accumulate the tech they need to ascend to this new plane of being.

- Mechs, for those GMs who relish the thunder of steel titans on their far-future battlefields.

- Heroic PCs, for groups that want to trade the gritty, lethal tone of a standard campaign for classic space opera, with larger-than-life heroes and superhuman skills.

- Society creation, customizing a world or a hab with its own culture and history, pre-designed with fault lines and conflicts to engage your heroes. You'll get more than a dry recounting of details; you'll get the information you need to build adventures that fit with this world's smouldering tensions.

Kevin has done an amazing job with this and he deserves all kinds of congratulations. Me, I can't wait to get a dedicated group on the go and explore the stars without number.