Monday, June 22, 2015

The Appropriate Amount of Time

For the longest time, our little group of role players suffered from severe short attention spans.  Quickly distracted by shiny stuff, spending more time on YouTube than on the game, and setting ourselves up for failure every week.  We'd build characters, start a campaign - sometimes from module, sometimes off the cuff - and it would barely last a month before we were itching to give it up and try something else.  This was by no fault of the storytellers or the players, but rather this strange unspoken consent.  Nothing felt right.  It was very much like flipping through your Netflix queue and not being able to find anything to watch, trying a pilot episode of something new, and deciding "nah" and moving on before really giving it a fighting chance to prove itself to you.

So then along comes our current campaign - Star Wars: Dawn of Defiance.  It's big, it's Star Wars, and it's going to carry characters from level 1 to the cap at level 20 - which is a pretty bold statement considering we haven't leveled anything in any game for the past few years.  Lo and behold, it's a huge success.  I've not seen this kind of teamwork out of my players in a long while.  14 levels of advancement through waves of story and adventure means players can become emotionally invested with their characters, develop quirks with other player's characters, and grow from a mere mercenary-style annoyance to the Galactic Empire to becoming an honest-to-goodness powerful Rebellion Army.  We have paved our way through the galaxy, gaining renown and glory, making it through 7 out of 10 books in the campaign module, and we are rounding the corner towards the third and final chapter in this big, epic trilogy.  There's just one tiny, ever so problematic little thing wrong...

Yeah, I'm gettin' bout sick of this genre, buddy-boy!

We're over a year into this campaign, and I'm starting to reach this point where, even though there's more to do, and we're so near the end of the story, I kinda want to move on to something else.  Those D&D 5th Edition books are calling out to me, and Hoard of the Dragon Queen looks like it'll be amazing.  Not to mention switching from science fiction to high fantasy will be like a refreshing glass of Hell-Yeah Ice Water.  Let me put it like this: imagine if you were only allowed to watch one television show, ever, for years.  Just the one.  Even if you picked a really cool one - it's still just the one, in that one genre you picked, with that same batch of characters, in that same world, week after week, as other shows came and went.  I'm not saying I dislike the game - far from it.  But at what point do you stop, take a step back, and say "okay, television shows get to take a season off, and maybe it's for this very reason."  I think it's time for a break, but I have two fears with this.  Fear One: we'll switch games but fall back into old bad habits, which believe me no one wants.  It's the less likely of the two, but experience forces me to consider this as a possibility.  Fear Two: we'll stick with this game to finish it, but a lack of enthusiasm will make for rushed story and half-assed game sessions resulting in a less-than-spectacular ending.  Oh I think we all know what that feels like...

You should all be ashamed of yourselves.

I'll let you know what we decide.  So tell me how YOUR group handles campaigns that feel like they're starting to slow down or have maybe stretched on past their expiration dates.  How often does your group change games or genres?  And how does it feel to go back to complete a campaign after taking an extended break in a different game?  Comment - subscribe - all that...

Monday, June 1, 2015

The Critical Fail

Everyone gasp in horror.  Players, sigh in dread at the GM's delight.  For you have rolled a Natural-One - and something prolifically stupid is about to happen.  In the past, I've seen everything from player characters "accidentally" shooting or stabbing themselves and each other, to spells and bombs blowing up in our faces, and more than once has it resulted in the death of a character.  Also more than once has it resulted in arguments, frustration, dice flying in the air...

You're telling me my level 8 fighter, who's trained and experienced and has wielded a sword since he was a kid, somehow 'goofed up' and stabbed himself in his own leg?  How does one even do that?!  John McClane never accidentally shot himself.  Luke Skywalker probably should have run his lightsaber through a limb or two, but he managed to avoid self injury.  No one in Lord of the Rings ever swung a sword, missed, and chopped off their own heads.  So you're telling me the best we got when I roll a critical failure is I've stabbed myself and now I'm bleeding to death?

There had to be a better way - a solution that was less likely to cause players to want to cheat, felt more in-game and less like a punishment.  While watching Star Wars Episode III (don't judge...), during the dramatic lightsaber duel at the end when the bridge collapsed and the tower fell, I thought, "Huh.  Someone rolled a 1." - and that's when it hit me.  A new concept that would later become a house rule and forever change our gaming group's view of the Natural-One / Critical Failure.  No longer would anyone dread the failure, fearing their character was about to act completely out-of-character and do something monumentally stupid.  I give you THE ENVIRONMENT CHANGE.

Maybe we should get down first?  No?  Yeah, let's just keep going.

The house rule is simple, and I encourage you to try it yourself at your next campaign.  When someone rolls a natural-one on the D20 (or whatever the equivalent of a critical failure is in the system you're playing), something dramatically changes in the environment to make things more difficult.  It effects everyone, and increases the challenge just a little bit, but that's usually enough to make the players pause and re-think their strategy.  Maybe your arrow triggered a rock slide, and now some people are stuck while the area is "difficult terrain".  Maybe your wild shot ruptured the water tank, and now everything is flooding.  Maybe the bridge is crumbling and about to fall.  Maybe your sword shattered a lantern and started a fire, and it's quickly spreading.  Make it dramatic, make it feel like that cinematic moment when the heroes go from the frying pan into the fire, get creative.  It makes victory feel so much more rewarding. 

Just don't go overboard.

I welcome your comments below.  If you try this technique, let me know how it goes and what your players thought of it.  If you have your own methods for dealing with the critical failure, let me know that too.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Guest GM

Over the past year or so, my little Friday Night Gaming Group has been locked in ferocious combat against the overwhelming forces of the evil Empire in "Star Wars: Saga Edition - Dawn of Defiance".  For those who don't know, Dawn of Defiance is one of only a handful of adventures released for the Saga Edition game set before WotC sold the rights off to the folks at Fantasy Flight Games.  Since I didn't have those books at the time, but I did have the full library of Saga Edition games, I went with that.  Really there was no other reason.  And I know Saga Edition gets a bad rep for poor mechanics, unbalanced combat, and ridiculously overpowered d20 characters - we still manage to make it work.  It's all in the storytelling, and Dawn of Defiance does not disappoint in that regard.  Every element you love of Star Wars exists in this lengthy 10-book-long campaign designed to carry your players from level 1 all the way to level 20!  Space battles, lightsaber duels, infiltrating a Hutt palace, visiting a Jedi temple, it's all in there.  They wanted to build something that encompassed as much of the Star Wars experience as possible, and I have to say they succeeded like none other, and none since.

This moment totally happened in our game, too!

We're not done.  Like the movies, Dawn of Defiance is broken up into 3 main parts, and we're just about to embark on the third and final chapter in our saga.  But before we moved on, an interesting concept was brought to my attention while watching the Star Wars cartoon - because yes, I do still watch cartoons, that really shouldn't surprise you by now.  Anyway, I noticed that while the entire season might have a specific goal or overall story, they made room for episodes that allowed everyone to really get familiar with the backgrounds and motivations of a single character.  What a neat idea!  We could do that.  Have a series of short mini-adventures, that may only last a day or two, that allowed us to get to know everyone else's characters a bit more.  Rather than put that burden on me, as my attention was focused on the bigger picture, I thought - who knows the player's characters better than the players?

Hell, I can't even remember your character's name half the time...

Getting the players involved at this level, letting them create their own mini-adventure to really play out their backgrounds, letting us get to know their motivations and quirks, has been a great experience.  Several players got an opportunity to be the Game Master for the first time ever.  Others used it as a chance to inject a little of their own unique imaginations into the world.  It made the universe bigger, and it allowed for a level of character growth I don't often get to see in a campaign.  I know it's not easy for a GM to give up his throne, let alone his world, to the destructive and often malicious minds of the players.  But I for one recommend it, especially if you're into the whole "character development" thing.  Players just be sure to run your entire mini-adventure story past your GM first, so there's no conflict between what you want to do and the bigger campaign storyline.

"So my character's background is like this..."    No.  Just, no.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Returning To The Pen

I feel I owe you all an apology for being gone for so long.  Life happened.  That's all the excuse I can offer that doesn't make me sound like I'd abandoned my writing like a neglectful parent abandoning his kid in a car seat... for years...  But now that I'm back at the keyboard, my fingers shuffling along at a moderate yet familiar pace, I'm hoping muscle memory will return my creativity to its former glory, newly expanded by life's experiences.


I know getting back on the cliched bicycle won't be easy, but if it were easy we'd all be best sellers.  My new writing schedule begins this week, and has me diligently working on new literary pieces of fiction that will hopefully allow me to regain some trust with my fans - because there's not many of you and I love you all please don't leave me - along with new blog entries every Monday to let you know how my game is going.  That's right, we still game.  Every week.

"Vin Diesel still plays D&D, your argument is invalid."

What exactly am I working on?  You mean aside from a certain fiery redhead that people have been asking for?  Oh it's way too early for me to say.  I just wanted to let you all know that I'm back, in earnest, with my heart set on sharing my stories and a mug of coffee at the ready.

A huge thank you to everyone who picked up a copy of my book.  Your responses were overwhelming and continue to surprise me and humble me.  70+ reviews on Amazon (as of today) for an unknown first-time self-published author?  That's unheard of!  You're all awesome, and you've inspired me to get back to the keyboard and finish what I started.  I look forward to sharing my next adventure with you!

Friday, January 25, 2013

A Pulp Adventure in the 1930's

Thought I'd take a moment to let you all know what we're currently playing, and how it's going so far.  Because yes, we are still playing.

I started this new campaign letting everyone know I'd already created their characters.  This caused a bit of unrest as I normally let the players make their own characters or at least be a part of the creation process, but this time I made them all in advance.  "This will be a pulp adventure," I said.  "It takes place in the early 1930's.  No, your characters don't have super powers, but this is certainly a fantasy adventure.  And don't worry - you may not have been involved in making these characters, but you already know who they are."

Players were then handed their characters.

Indiana Jones, Rick O'Connell, Evelyn Carnahan, Jonathan Carnahan, and Sallah vs evil Nazi soldiers and supernatural mysteries in search of an ancient relic before it falls into the wrong hands.  The early Indiana Jones movies and the Mummy movies exist in pretty much the same time, and coincide perfectly with each other.  D20 Modern rules made character creation easy.  And, being the action movie icons that they are, I made everyone Level 10.  In order to make the adventure more exciting in game terms, I bumped up the supernatural closer to "The Mummy" levels rather than the much more subdued "Indiana Jones", but I made sure to pack it full of classic Indiana elements, from overwhelming numbers of Nazi soldiers who couldn't shoot the broad side of a barn, to that one big guy who has to be taken down with fists, even traveling by map.

Of course in my world, Indiana Jones + The Mummy movie is directed by Michael Bay.
Everything blows up!  

It's actually pretty amazing how well these two groups of characters complement each other.  Eat your heart out Avengers - here's a movie mash-up I wouldn't mind seeing.  This adventure was intended to be a one-shot, single-night campaign.  That was weeks ago.  We're still playing.  Mystery, intrigue, classic pulp action/adventure, guns, explosions, supernatural powers, no cell phones, and a bull whip.  ...and not a single Shia LaBeouf to be seen.  What's not to love?

Monday, January 14, 2013

Book Prices

I get it.  I do.  It costs "X" amount of dollars to print the book, plus "X" amount for all the stuff like distribution, royalties, rights management, yadda-yadda.  I totally get that.  But $50 for a role playing book seems a bit much, don't you think?  And it's often only half of what you need to actually play the game.  Sure it's hard cover, got glossy full color pages throughout, and so full of artwork that I have to hunt to find the equipment list.  But come 'on.  $50 for half a game?

"It's cool -- I'm a righty.  I'll save up for the other half later..."

All I'm saying is that I remember back when you could buy a good role playing game for about $15.  It was soft cover with cheesy black-and-white Manga-style cartoon artwork, and the corners crinkled in the first few minutes of owning it - but it worked, and it had everything you needed to play the game.  Then there were all of the various supplement books that ranged in price depending on how thick the book was or how very cool the content was.  In the end you could easily end up paying just as much, but you did so at your own pace and were still fully capable of playing the game with just that first core book.  It gave you a chance to try out all sorts of games.  If you didn't like it, no big deal.  Now I feel obligated, like I HAVE to like this game because I paid $100 bucks for it.

"Mmmm... 4th Edition.  It's (blurp) awesome."

At what point was it assumed that gamers had money?  It's a game played on sheets of paper - yes, it's for poor people who still rely on imagination to have a good time.  If I had money, I'd have bought a super computer and a subscription to an MMO...

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Fall of the Vampires

You ever notice how modern pop culture influences the way we run and play our RPG campaigns?  Think about how different your Dungeons and Dragons campaign turned out the day after you saw Lord of the Rings for the first time.  Let me tell you, it was a good day for wizards and rangers who now had Ian McKellen and Viggo Mortensen to model their characters after.  And this is just one example.  Think of how Firefly altered your perception of space opera games, or how the recent string of superhero movies gave new life to your comic book superhero games.  I made my own version of Spiderman in a Mutants and Mastermind game shortly after the second movie came out that was both unoriginal and completely awesome fun to play -- I have no regrets.  The more well done the movie, video game, book or comic franchise, the more influences we've had to create bigger worlds, better characters, and eager players.  Movies and TV shows in particular seem to have the strongest influences over me and my band of players.

"I saw this show and had a great idea for our characters... wait, you haven't heard my idea yet."

But it hasn't all been joy rides and Michael Bay explosions.  There's one genre in particular that's taken a sour turn for the toilet bowl -- and I'm talking of course of the once very popular series "Vampire: The Masquerade".  Okay, maybe I'm being harsh and it's still doing super with its loyal if creepy fan base.  Hard to say.  I just know that ever since Twilight came out and showed us a sparkly and somewhat emo/goth homoerotic version of what we once dubbed lethal blood-sucking killing machines, my group of friends has been hesitant to play anymore.  They don't even want to hunt them, much less be them.  They'd rather vampires simply didn't show up at all.

"Vampires show up?  Well, for my first action I'd like to..."

I'll admit it's a bit of a bummer.  Vampires made great bad guys.  In RIFTS they're crazy-hard to kill, will regenerate damage at a cartoonishly unstoppable rate, have an equally cartoonish-style weakness, and can wipe out a party of adventures in a few short rounds.  In D&D they're a challenging undead creature for the party to face off against because they can think, plan, and ambush your party (though they are far from the strongest undead creature you can unleash on them).  Let's face it, they rank right up there with Stormtroopers, Nazis, and robots.  And as far as playing one in the Vampire RPG, well I've had several great characters in a number of campaigns throughout the years.  It can be fun being the antihero for a little while and exploring the darker side of human nature.  Although I have noticed Vampire campaigns are usually short.  I think it's because we're not a group of black-candle-lightin', patchouli-oil-and-eyeliner-wearin', black clothes long haired over one eye purple lovin' emo goths... and would rather be the heroes of an adventure.

 "What did you do to us?!"

But then, Twilight happened.  Now my players and fellow Gamemasters won't go anywhere near the subject, and I can't say I blame them.  So I guess until they decide to reboot BLADE or make some other form of bad-ass vampire movie that a group of guys can all admit to having seen in a theater together, the vamps will be sitting on the shelf collecting dust.  Or maybe that won't be enough.  Maybe all we'll ever see is Twilight-Sparkles-Pony every time we think Vampire.  In which case, my apologies to the hard working folks at White Wolf, but we're going to have to pass. 

So how about you?  Was there a particular genre or campaign you once played that you won't go back to now because some piece of pop culture ruined it for you?