Sunday, October 2, 2011

Adventure by Email

As most of you know, my job prevents me from being able to game every weekend. For two weeks out of every six, we have to take a break. I have discussed the difficulty of this before, but this break we have found a way to keep excitement up while we are not playing.

During this break, I am allowing a number of weeks to pass in game time. To let the party know what is going during this break, I have been sending out emails through our group Yahoo site. This has allowed the players to respond to the changing events and keep them interested and focused on the game, even though we have not been able to play for two weeks. I am not running any combats during this time, as the break is primarily a time for the PCs to get some things done in town, and prep for their next adventures, but it is allowing them to have some very interesting roleplaying opportunities that they would not have had otherwise.

Running things like this through email also allows me a rare treat, the ability to give information to certain players without everyone hearing about it. Now, most of my players are very good about not metagaming, but when everyone is sitting around and hearing the information out of character, it does take some of the punch out of it when it is shared in character. By sending the email to only the player who uncovers the information, you get to avoid that. Now it does take one thing away from secrets kept at the table: the paranoia. There is nothing that can make a player more nervous than writing something on a slip of paper and handing it to one of the players. It is an old evil DM's trick, but one that still works amazingly well.

Another thing that it allows me to do, is to have more time to think about the player characters actions before responding. Being able to see what the PCs say in an email before I react to it, gives me an amount of time that I am unaccustomed to. This can be both a benefit and a curse, as it can lead to over thinking things before reacting. Such over thinking can lead to contrived and unrealistic responses, if the DM is not careful.

All in all, the Internet is a fantastic tool to aid your games, when used in moderation. Purely Play be Email games, lose a great deal of the face to face interactions that make tabletop RPGs the unique form of entertainment that they are, but when used as support that tabletop experience, email can aid in providing a richer and fuller experience to both DMs and PCs.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

RPGs in the Secondary Market.

I have been spending a lot of time on Ebay in the last week, both as a buyer and as a Seller. It should come as no surprise to anyone what most of what I am buying and selling are RPG books, primarily 1st and 2nd edition AD&D books. There are a few things that I would like to point out to the general populace about AD&D books in the secondary market.

1) Not Every book is "Rare!". It makes me laugh every time I see this denotation on a book like the 2nd edition players handbook, particularly when there are at least ten other auctions for the exact same book. There are truly some rare AD&D books out there, but you should really do some research about which ones are, before you begin throwing that particular descriptor around.

2) Gamers, in general, have an amazing amount of discretionary income. You will have your auction sniped, and see books that you want go for many times what you think they are worth. If you are hunting for one specific book, you are most likely going to have to be patient, or be willing to throw the kind of money down that the other fanboys are, which can be a very expensive process depending on the kind of books you are hunting.

3) The best auctions are done by people who are not gamers. Often people will be selling a book collection they found in someone's attic or as part of some sort of estate sale. These people will usually know nothing of what they are actually selling, and will typically sell things in a big lot. You may have to purchase things that you already own to get that one special book that is in the lot, but you can always sell the ones you don't want yourself and make some of the money back.

4) The best time to purchase items, is when an edition change is made. I can remember when 3.0 came out, I was able to buy some peoples entire 2nd edition collections from them for less than $100. People tend to gravitate to the next new thing, and generally make decisions about getting rid of their old stuff in a very impulsive manner. I recommend taking advantage of those impulses and shear the sheep for whatever they let you. :)

The sad thing about continuing to play old school games, is knowing that the days of being able to walk into a book or game store and simply purchase your gaming books is long past. We have no real choice than to depend on sites like ebay and amazon to help build our collections and to replace books that have been ravaged by time. It is heartening to me, however, to see that auctions for these games is still active. This may be the biggest sign of the life of the old school games.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

For every action...

In a roleplaying game, the DM has the responsibility to have the world react to the actions of the characters. Good games have rules for a certain amount this this reaction, typically when in combat or involving skills. It is important for a DM to utilize these rules to help make those reactions fair and fun, but what happens when the action/reaction is something that is completely outside of the mechanics of the game.

In a recent game session, one of my characters sought out a teacher to learn mastery of the Bastard Sword. Now in the game world, the bastard sword is a brutal weapon created by a barbaric human race called the Orla. (Think viking) So after consulting a sage, this character was directed to a powerful Orlan Barbarian by the name of Dolf. [Keep in mind that this character is Chaotic Good alignment.] Dolf was described as the Butcher of a certain naval fleet, and generally a not nice person. However this character decided to seek Dolf out and train with him anyway.

The Orlan warrior code holds that one must either learn to kill or learn to die, and so this is what Dolf sought to teach him. Dolf forced the character to fight and kill wave after wave of men, had him chased through the island by wild beasts, each time forcing him to rely solely on his ability to kill to keep him alive. At the end, Dolf had one final test. The character was taken to a peaceful village who worshipped the goddess of Fertility. He was told that he must enter the town, and retrieve the temples Icon, without speaking to anyone, if he did not Dolf would loose his barbarians on the island. The character did as Dolf asked, and after killing two guards, who were no match for him at all, he arrived at the temple. There he saw a young priestess clutching the icon, and praying. He attempted to take the icon from the girl, but she would not let go. So he punched her in the head, killing her, and spilling her blood on the sacred icon of the temple.

Now this is where the DM must come up with a reaction. No where in the rules is there any mechanics dealing with angering a god, unless you are a cleric of that god. But it is obvious to me, in a world where the Gods are acting forces, that such a blasphemy could not go unanswered. My answer was to have the Goddess curse the character, so that his healing ability has begun to slow, and unless he acts to atone he will eventually sicken and die. I chose to have this curse manifest mechanically, in not allowing him any bonuses to magical healing, and after a month he will take increasing levels of permanent damage each week until he either atones or dies.

Now, this illustrates what I consider a very important balancing act when determining these sorts of reactions. Firstly, the DM wants to have the consequences of the action be something that will grab the characters attention. Secondly, it is important that the reaction be appropriate and logical, at least within the logic of the game world. Lastly, the reaction should be something that gives the Character a chance to continue playing, even if they risk the characters death. In this case, threatening the fighters health is appropriate as he is being cursed by the Goddess connected with life and growth, it is something that is important to him and therefore something that will get his attention; and the time table in which is acts gives him a chance to reverse his fortunes.

The best part of setting up a reaction like this, is that it provides room for the campaign and the character in question to grow. Depending on how he chooses to engage this new challenge, this curse can be something that can provide a spring board to a whole new facet of the campaign. That is ultimately what the DMs responsibility is in these matters. We should aim to have each action open a new set of possibilities, rather than simply punishing the players for their actions, and having that be the sole effect of their choices.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Slowly the World Unfolds.

One of the more interesting things about starting a new campaign world is seeing how the world is revealed by the player character's actions. Gorbaldin, being a very new world, has very little that I wrote up about it before the current campaign started. I had a few pages on the Gods, a single map, about a paragraph on each country and a page or two for each of the major races. Not a lot, particularly compared to my older world, Meaghana, which has hundreds of pages written about it, and its own Wiki.

Shortly before the campaign started, I also wrote some information about Danelaw, the town the first adventure would take place in. This consisted of little more than a list of names and locations. However since the players have made this town their defacto headquarters, the people and places of it have been fleshed out, in a way that I would not have without their actions.

Everywhere the players go adds more detail to the world. With each interaction that occurs in the campaign the world becomes a little more real. And this is, ideally, how it should be. In a good campaign, there should be a sense of discovery. This holds true for both the players and the Dm. This is the weakness that I feel that my older world has. I have been running on Meaghana for about 12 years now, and there are times when I feel that there is nothing new to discover there. While this is not entirely true, it is true that to maintain that level of discovery in an older world you do have to dig deeper and expend more energy to do so; energy that is in short supply with my current work and family obligations.

With Gorbaldin being a newer world, that sense of discovery is in full force, particularly regarding the characters and what they will make of themselves. On Meaghana, the first group of player characters went on to become a new generation of Gods, and as such had a major impact throughout the world. The Champions of Light (the current party that I am running on Gorbaldin) seem to have aspirations, and have been successful in making a small impact as the game goes, but it will be interesting to see where the game takes them, and in turn where they take the game.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Irrational Hatred of Thaco

I spend quite a bit of time on old school gaming Forums, and have come to see something that is driving me crazy. The interchange usually goes something like this:

1st edition player: "2nd edition AD&D sucks!"
2nd edition player : "Why do you say that?"
1st editon player: "Because it had Thaco, and Thaco is lame."

Ignoring for a second that Thaco was actually present in 1st edition, this may be the single dumbest argument against any edition of Dungeons & Dragons that I have ever heard of. It is basically the equivilent of arguing that π is dumb, just because you can type 3.1415926...

Thaco is simply a shorthand way of notating the same basic combat tables that existed in 1st edition. Now if you dislike the changes that were made to certain classes, or the nearly innumerable splatbooks that came out for the system, that is one thing. But if the best thing you can come up with to hate on a system is that the shorthand notation for combat numbers is lame, then you really don't have much of a leg to stand on, in my opinion.

Somewhat tangentially, it amazes me that there is such a rabid disdain between players of 1st and 2nd edition. The games are very similar, so much so, that it is easy to use 1st edition books and adventures in 2nd edition, and vis versa. When you compare that to the differences between 2nd and 3rd, or even 3rd and 4th, the differences are hardly noticable, and definately not enough to cause the kind of split within the community that seems present on most of the old school forums.

Now I don't have problems with people discussing the different editions and their weaknesses (I'm looking at you 3.5), but when a little light edition bashing turns into personal attacks, it makes the entire community look like argumentative, petty, douchbags. I wish everyone would try to remember that at the end of the day, as gamers there is far more that unites us than divides us, regardless of which edition you play.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

24 hours in a day, and still no time...

Before I get started today, I want to explain why this post is later than my usual Monday post time. This weekend I went to the hospital with heart trouble. After spending the weekend in the hospital, I discovered that I am in for a medicine regimen followed by one of two procedures designed to restart the electric pulses in my heart. Needless to say, this kind of news does not leave one a whole lot of time to think about gaming matters.

Which leads me to my topic for today: Time and Gaming. When I was younger, I ran several games a week, played in at least one, and had sessions that averaged 10 hours per game. Today, I have a job, a baby and other responsibilities that only allow me to play 4 weeks out of six, for an average of 5 hours a session. (Not counting the time during the session that the baby needs attention)

I am finding it somewhat difficult to get used to this reduced time. I had gotten spoiled by the ability to keep playing until the adventure was done. Now, I am left with two choices: plan shorter adventures, or be willing to end the session in the middle of an adventure. Mostly I have tried the former, but there is something unsatisfying about forcing your adventures into a pre-set time limit. (Unless you are running games at a convention, as those can be quite fun). So I find myself wanting to attempt the other tactic more.

The main difficulty in breaking a session in the middle of an adventure, is that everyone (players and GM) can have trouble remembering where you left off. I am not only talking about what room of the dungeon the party is in, but things like pieces of puzzles or clues can become much less important over a week long break. I am considering combating this problem with a group email sent out the day before the session reminding everyone of the important bullet points of the last session. While this could prove effective, it is another drain on my time.

The benefit of this method is that I will have more control over the pacing of the adventure. If I do not have to focus on finishing an adventure at a certain time, I can feel more comfortable in allowing each encounter or RP scene to unfold itself. This is the way that I have always liked to run my games, and much of the reason for the older sessions having 10+ hour run times, and it will be nice to be able to have that feeling again.

The other thing to consider when drawing out your adventures over multiple sessions, is when and how to award Experience. I have always been a big believer in awarding XP at the end of each session. With a multi-session adventure there are things to think about. For example: what happens when a PC levels up at the end of a session, will if break suspension of disbelief for a character to develop new abilities from one room to the next? The other thing to consider is that the XP totals for each session will be lower, seeing as the party is only getting story XP and quest XP every few sessions. It is important to be clear with your players about this, as the impression of slow advancement may lead them to losing interest.

Pacing is a difficult skill for any DM to master, and one that I am finding that I need to relearn as more of my time is eaten up by life. My hope is that by re-examining both the way I run my games, and the way that I plan for them, that I can maximize my time and continue providing an entertaining gaming experience for all.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Tweaking your Setting

As I have discussed before, I run games primarily in one of two home brewed campaign settings: Meaghana and Gorbaldin. I have spent some time before talking about my different approaches to creating and running these settings, and today I would like to continue that topic by looking at how I have allowed for these campaigns to grow and change.

On Meaghana, I have, for the most part, allowed any large change to come as the result of player action. By that I mean that I created the world and the only major changes that I have made in it have been due to the characters accomplishing (or sometimes failing to accomplish) things that they have set out to do. Example: On Meaghana, there was originally a pantheon of 9 gods, one for each of the alignments in 2e D&D. Through the two campaigns, the actions of the player characters elevated a number of them to Godhood, leading to a major change in the pantheon, with some of the original Gods being killed and being replaced by the Characters.

Secondly on Meaghana, I have made all these changes additive. Meaning that when a change is made that it is added on to, or changes what already exists. The benefit of this approach is that it aids in the world seeming real. There is a history of the world that is well known and can be discovered by the characters. It also allows for the players to feel like they are important parts of the world and that their actions have meaning. Both of these I think are important facets of a campaign world, but there is also a downside to them. With this amount of history, it can be difficult for new players to enter into the campaign world.

With Gorbaldin, being a newer campaign world, I am tempted to make some modifications in a different manner. Some of the changes that I want to make, particularly to the pantheon, would not be possible to do in the same manner that changes come to Meaghana. As such, I am contemplating simply altering a few things about the game world, and saying that it has always been like that, a move known in the comic world as a Retcon (Retroactive Continuity). Now, when making this kind of change there are some things that you must be aware of. First of all, you should not attempt to Retcon any part of your world that the players have already engaged. Example: If you were to retcon the existence of the God that the party's cleric follows, you are likely going to annoy that player, who then has to choose a new deity for his character to follow, and try to make it make sense with how they have played their characters thus far.

Secondly, Retcons must be used wisely and sparingly. If you begin to retcon something new every few weeks, you will get to the point where your players stop caring about the world. If they see that anything can be changed simply by your whim, they will eventually stop trying to make any sort of meaningful additions to the game world. This will result in your campaign world becoming stale, something to be avoided.

It is one of the most difficult jobs of a DM to create a world that remains engaging to the players while at the same time creating one that they are happy with. Sometimes to maintain that balance, the DM needs to make changes to the campaign world, both large and small. It is important however to remember that the players are also your audience, and to make whatever changes are needed in a manner that will not disappoint them, or distract from their enjoyment of the campaign world.