Tuesday, March 6, 2012

From Gamist to Simulationist..

Role-Playing Game Theory
If you are new to Role-Playing Game Theory you might want to read over this great article I found on Exploring Believability first (though I do get into specific examples fairly quickly).

As a GM with intense Gamist roots (console RPGs and AD&D 2nd Ed.) I found out quickly that Simulationism was a dirty word in role-playing circles. On one hand it conjured images of unnecessarily complex rules systems, page after page of charts full of minutia, and on the other, LARPing. I was raised to believe, from reading AD&D manuals and talking to other GMs, that Simulationism is neither an achievable or desirable goal. And that fact was the reason that Gamist systems relied on abstractions.

On My Slow Exodus from Gamism
During an early AD&D game session, while describing the room that the PCs had entered I was asked for some additional description focused on a specific object which the game materials barely mentioned. I complied, feebly, as I had no experience running 'off-the-cuff'. Luckily, my players enjoyed my improvisational description and asked for them more and more often, and I got better at giving them.

The ability to do this seamlessly became very important to me because I didn't want my players avoiding role-playing by "gaming" me (asking about each possibly significant item in the room and waiting for my poker face to crack) to find clues.

This eventually led me to an off-the-cuff game running style. Before each session I prepared a simple overview of what (or, more often where) the PCs planned to adventure (a hastily scribbled map and some notes about the creatures there). Running AD&D this way, a game which required quite a bit of GM preparation, was difficult, but I managed it fairly well. I found that I could 'roll with the punches' my players handed out far better this way.

I'd say, at this point, that 'railroading' became a thing of the past, but it's not true. It never was 'a thing' because my players came from the same extremely Gamist position I did. They played the same linear console RPGs that I did, and never expected to be able to choose the direction their characters went, at least not in any broad sense.

Once my players got a taste of 'true adventure' there was no way I was getting the lid back on that ol' box of Pandora's. My players wanted this kind of open-world adventure everywhere, but with that came a desire for a type of cinematic moments that AD&D's game system had no way to approximate.

"You want chunks of wood flying from your shields, and your armor taking damage from deflected attacks?" Yeah, AD&D can do that with a little GM intervention. The game gets a little more Simulationist, but it's okay. A little house rule here, a little patch of the AC system, and done.

"You want graphic descriptions of wounds?" I think that can be done. I make a dozen critical hit tables and house rule the shit out of Hit Points. But, we try it out and it doesn't work. The tables look good, and there are a lot of interesting variations, but it still feels broken.

The Realization
AD&D kept telling us, each time we modded the game to make it more cinematic, that Simulationism was not achievable. No amount of house rules would turn AD&D into the cinematic high-fantasy game we wanted to play.

My players were sad, but I saw a greater truth. Every edition of every game has its own unique spirit created at the intersection of the rules system and the game setting. To turn AD&D into the cinematic game we wanted to play would have been tantamount to ripping out its soul. So, the problem wasn't AD&D, it was that we were trying to play a Simulationist game using Gamist rules.

But, we didn't even know if it was possible to make a Simulationist game. In fact, we didn't know any game systems aside from AD&D. So, we went to the opposite end of the spectrum. If AD&D wasn't the way to do it then maybe we didn't need dice, or rule-books, or character sheets.

This, of course, didn't work. We were back to Cowboys and Indians.

I played a bit of Vampire: the Masquerade and Shadowrun in high school under different Game Masters. Both experiences were negative and turned me off to systems other than AD&D (the GMs were strictly authoritarian Gamists trying to run what I later learned were Narrativist / Simulationist settings). For years we avoided them, but in our quest to find a Simulationist game system we ended up giving Star Wars d6, World of Darkness, and Shadowrun a shot (I won't mention the hundreds of other games we tried during our "experimental phase").

The Answer
The answer came to us when we realized that we had the wrong definition of Simulationism. It didn't mean 'to simulate reality using dice'. We weren't interested in simulating reality at all. Shadowrun made an excellent stepping stool to get away from Gamism, and World of Darkness allowed us to take a full, unhindered step into Simulationism.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Coming clean...

I don't care for D&D and its derivative game systems. I don't like abstract stats like Hit Points, old-school Saving Throws, and Level. These stats cannot be well defined, and never are, not even in their core rulebooks. I don't like using flat probability dice as a core mechanic in a game (d20 or d%). And, I prefer my players to have a lot of choice when making a character, and Class-based systems don't cut the mustard there.

AD&D 3.5 looked like it was getting dangerously close to fixing a lot of these problems by adding an array of new skills and the feats system, but once my group started making characters we noticed that there remains in place a relatively obvious progression for each class. If you spend your skill points on anything other than those which are completely necessary for your class you will be a failure at your class, and very likely laughed out of your group. Every time your character levels up and gets a bonus feat you have a pretty good idea which feats you are 'supposed' to take, and if you take a different one to give your character a bit of diversity you will regret it later. Don't get me started on multi-classing, which only serves a player when creating an uber-character with a prestige class, min-maxing your character into exactly the same mold as everyone else taking that class.

All that said, I still love fantasy. Lord of the Rings (from the one-on-one fights to the party vs. party melees, and even the epic wars) gets me excited to play a high-fantasy RPG. So many other books and movies give me that same feeling.

When I get that urge I always go back to AD&D because it's the most robust high-fantasy game out there (and, let's face it, I still have all the books [at least from 2nd Ed. to 3.5]).

That is, until I found Warrior, Rogue & Mage by +Michael Wolf of Stargazer Games. The system is robust, easy to learn, highly customizable, and boasts nearly infinite character variations. It fixes just about everything I dislike about d20 systems in a free 41 page, beautifully illustrated pdf download.

Wow, that sounded like a commercial. I promise that it wasn't. It was a way to show role-players that it can be done. AD&D isn't your only option for fantasy.


I'll leave you with the story of how I realized AD&D wasn't the system for me:

I was watching Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. The mini-series was nearly complete, and one of the heroes took a villain hostage putting a crossbow up to her throat. This villain was known across the world as one of the greatest warriors and treasure hunters to have ever lived, and the hero was in no state to fight her. She verbally resisted him and said, "You struck me as a hard man to kill." He inclined his head, and bowed slightly, but his eyes did not move, and his hand remained steady. "And you strike me that way too, dear lady. But a crossbow bolt to the throat, and a fall of several thousand feet may prove me wrong, eh?"

I audibly gasped.

I know that, like me, when many people (especially Game Masters) start getting into role-playing they begin to look at the real world through the lens of the fantasy game system that they know so well. I was subconsciously doing that with Neverwhere. I translated the crossbow bolt into a likely damage score, assuming a critical hit, then translated the fall damage into AD&D terms, 20d6 (terminal velocity).

I was aghast at the idea that she would survive that. Heck, if she's over level 16 she's just about guaranteed to survive it no matter how badly that damage is rolled. Oh, System Shock, the old stand-by rule to kill characters that obviously should have died from massive damage. I think she'd still have a 75% chance to pass that roll at her relatively high level.

So, that was it, I put away my 2nd edition books and luckily, very soon after, picked up the World of Darkness games.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Info for Prospective Players - Live Gaming

This post covers what new players to a live game need to know, and will act as an introduction to role-playing games for new players.


The following section in is for players who are new to role-playing entirely:
A role-playing game (RPG) is a game in which you make and play a character who resides in another world. The game is a social activity for two to six players and one Game Master (like a referee).
In a RPG there are no pre-defined goals (at least no winning conditions), only unique goals that you give to your character. Each player's character works together with the rest of the group to overcome conflicts that you face as a team.
When making a character it is important to take into account how much experience you've had acting improvisationally. If you have had very little experience you may feel more comfortable making a character that shares a lot of traits in common with you. More experienced players often make characters that are very different from themselves for an additional challenge.
The differences between the game world of "Werewolf: The Apocalypse" and our world include a gothic aesthetic and the presence of supernatural creatures. Most 'normal' humans in this game world (known as the World of Darkness or WoD) are not aware that such creatures exist.
Dice are used to determine the success or failure of a character's actions. Specifically, Werewolf requires roughly ten pentagonal trapezohedrons (ten-sided dice).
If you would like, you can sit in on a game session or two before you decide whether you'd like to make a character and join the game.
Our "Werewolf: The Apocalypse" game is set in modern-day New York City and the surrounding areas. The game runs on Friday evenings near Five Points in Columbia, SC from 7pm until 11:00pm (4 hours).

To begin, each player makes a werewolf character (Fianna and Children of Gaia are preferred in this campaign, but no Werewolf tribe is completely off limits) or a human character. Each character should in some way compliment the rest of the characters, and have motivations that draw them into the group. Experienced players will have significant leeway generating their characters as long as they can be easily incorporated into the group.

Our house rules are simple, be respectful of each other and don't interrupt another player or the GM. Feel free to bring snacks for yourself or others, they will be greatly appreciated. We have a large play area that can fit about eight players comfortably.

Our group can descend into geekiness pretty easily, but we're all at least averagely socially adept and play well with newbies. Since we play a Storytelling game (as opposed to a tactical RPG with a lot of specific rules) there isn't a lot to learn as far as "how to play", most of it can be picked up in a single session. You don't need to bring anything in particular to watch the game, and if you want to join we can provide you a character sheet, pencil, and dice.

Email me, add me on Facebook or Google+, or comment below if you are interested in the game or have any questions. Remember, the only dumb question is one left unasked.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Game Running Styles

I have thought, for a few years at least, that there are two broad types of role-playing Game Masters, the tactical or encounter-based GM and the storytelling or world-based GM.

The tactical GM crafts many combat encounters, arranges miniatures on a battle mat, and tells short-burst stories that they weave into an arcing storyline with character progression. They also often follow the early D&D trope that as characters become more powerful the game morphs into a tactical army game rather than tactical game involving player characters.

The storytelling GM crafts a game world, arranging civilizations poised at the precipice of conflict. They craft intrigue and mystery, and spend a lot of time worrying about character motivations rather than a character's combat ability. The encounters come as they come, some combat will inevitably occur as the game proceeds toward final (often global) conflict and resolution.

These are generalizations and there is a lot of cross over, and I'm certainly not saying one is better than the other.

Both types of GMs (the best of them anyway) let the players make all of the decisions about where to go and how to handle any encounter that they stumble into. Both try to craft adventures that are challenging (potentially involving intrigue, mysteries, tactical combat, puzzles, riddles, etc..) and are fun for the GM as well as the players.


I met a third type of GM recently, and he nearly shattered my two styles theory and certainly changed the way I see role-playing games. He told me:
"The only thing that matters is what [the player chooses] to do... The story isn't something that play is focused on developing. When the unconnected events are related later they [might] take the form of one... [but that's not the GM's concern]." 
He also implied that by making decisions about the game world I'm making advanced rulings on what can and cannot happen in the game, taking those choices away from the player. In his mind, a GM's job is only to adjudicate the player's choices, not to create or run a story (either in the form of encounters or on a grander scale).

This GM has himself taken a tumble down the "making decisions about the game world that limit the players' choices" slippery slope by deciding what monsters will populate his dungeon, what traps he'll install there, and what treasure resides there.

How is the GM who creates kingdoms with rich governmental structures, trade routes, and deep interpersonal relationships between NPCs any different from the GM who populates a dungeon? How is a GM that designs the crises that befall a character who tries to interject him or herself into those interpersonal relationships any different from the GM who decides what kind of trap to put on a chest? The scope or setting changes slightly, but nothing else.

Most of all, what is wrong with telling a story if that's what your players want? Why is telling a story through the medium of a game setting a faux pas? They are, after-all, called role-playing games.

Let me break that down.

Game: A form of play, played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck.

Playing: Engaged in activity for enjoyment and recreation.

Role: A character assumed for a play, movie, or (in this case) game.

A game in which you are playing a role. But, he was telling me that all that matters are the decisions that the player makes (not even the player as a character, or the character as a member of a group. The player alone, no role necessary).


The problem I have with this type of GM is precisely that this style of play necessarily prizes player skill over role-playing. He insists on calling his hobby role-playing, but despises the very process. I'm not asking him to stop what he's doing (and ostensibly enjoying), but I'd love to see a different name applied to it.

I would call him an "old-school gamer". Not as a slur, just an observation of a genre of gaming that is currently making a resurgence. These old-school games often contain only trace amounts of role-playing (i.e. If your character is an elf  then your 'role' is simply to make use of your character's Infravision and can Detect Secret Doors abilities). "Now, grab your ten foot pole and your mirror, roll up some hirelings, and let's clear out this dungeon."


Please remember that when you are at your gaming table and I'm at mine we should feel free to do what we and our players enjoy. Whether we're telling a story or not let's avoid telling people they are "doing it wrong" just because they enjoy rolling more or fewer dice than you do, prefer intrigue over combat, or prize player skill over role-playing ability.

However, this GM managed to offend me mightily by implying that I'm a bad GM for telling a story while running a game, and I ask for your forgiveness for the following micro-rant that breaks my own rules about friendliness and tolerance.
"You can keep your no story-telling allowed, no role-playing desired old-school game. I want to part of it. I ran those kind of games when I was 16, and my players and I outgrew them."
As a GM I happen to enjoy telling an interesting story and challenging my players' skills (both tactically and their role-playing ability), and as a player I want to take on new and exciting roles to help me learn what I can from experiencing the game world in their skin.

Monday, February 27, 2012

FLAILSNAILS oD&D 2/20/12 Session 1

FLAILSNAILS oD&D 2/20/12 Session 1 - Run by +David Brawley

Cast: Alzbeta (me), Lemmkainen the Elf (+Michael Curtis), Unik - Hired Spearman, Kaldue - Swordsman (RIP), Alfirth - Hired fist, Kroenen - Hired fist.

Alzbeta retreats from her room at the Inn after hanging her recently acquired tapestry. She skulks, head down, through the town gates and into the darkened woods nearby where she finds a fetid pool. She kneels, and dips the tips of her fingers into the inky blackness, meditating silently for a few moments.

Alzbeta confesses the day's events to the mangled trees and foul smelling earth.

"All that I have done in your name is according to your wishes, my lord. I convinced some of the old dead to rebuke their masters and obey only you."

The rest she is less proud of, but she feels the urge to tell all when her God is present with her.

She quietly continues, "To bring glory to you I descended into The Ruins of Seteh Zandana with able companions and hired men, searching the ruins and slaying all who disrespectfully reside there. Many had come before us, but we managed to find a few untouched chambers."

"The greatest of these was an ornately painted room with four pillars carved to look like trees reaching up to the domed ceiling. We were led there by some sort of playful fairy and told of 'shiny things' that could be found there. I'm afraid my greed got ahead of my sense. I turned my eyes away from the threat of danger to the lure of treasure."

She scratches her head before continuing, "Before I could blink a green heap dropped onto me from the ceiling. Its mass crept into my cloak-hood and I could feel my flesh starting to sting and burn. Lemmkainen sprang into action, commanding Alfirth to set the beast alight with our only lit torch. A few seconds of Alfirth's useless scrambling scorched me more than the ghastly mold. I managed, luckily, to entangle the mold within the folds of my cloak and cast it to the floor."

"We returned to the town with a mortally wounded hired-hand in tow. Should he die, I will endeavor to raise him for you as my ally."

"I've never seen as much gold as spilled out of the secret compartment of the pillar in that room. After the treasure was divided up, Lemmkainen and I headed to a gambling house with precious gems the size of my fist. We traded them for tokens and spent the evening cavorting among the dreary townsfolk."

"All was well until a farm-boy with a few copper pieces to his name mistook me for a woman of ill repute. He snatched the hood of my newly purchased cloak away and cursed me for what he found there. That accursed mold managed to extirpate every follicle of my well-coiffed black mane."

"I followed him to his room after he found a suitable playmate, a redheaded wench with a half dozen teeth and barely an ounce of grey matter. I waited a moment and burst in on them howling like a banshee. I perhaps knocked a low-burning lamp to the floor."

"I met up with Lemmkainen outside a few minutes later and brought him up to the roof of the Inn in which I reside. We sung drunken bar songs and watched the gambling house burn from our perch."

Hi, my name is Gavin and I'm a Storyteller...

I started role-playing at the age of five without firm rules, any way to determine the success or failure of our stated actions, and little framework for a story. We called it Cowboys and Indians, and while it wasn't the most rewarding role-playing experience I've ever had, it did have a significant impact on me.

At the age of fourteen I discovered console-based RPGs. I loved the hell out of Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy I, and played them for hundreds of hours teasing out every last spell, treasure, and secret. But, eventually my friends and I ran out of console RPGs (little did we know that computer RPGs were at the height of their popularity).

My best friend and I decided to draft a story for a blockbuster console RPG. We set to work at it at once, and spent months brainstorming story events, creating monsters, magical items, plot hooks, and fully fleshed-out three-dimensional playable characters and NPCs.

All of that out of the way we realized that we didn't have the other skills needed to make a console RPG (art, programming, or money). We languished for months trying to figure out how to make use of literally hundreds of pages of dialogue, monsters, and character stats before finally realizing that we could play out the scripted dialogue and combats without the use of a computer.

I programmed a TI-84 with attack and defense macros and we dusted off an old chess board to use as a battlefield. We enlisted the help of a third friend and started reading lines of dialogue and diving into the slow, mechanical combat of a table-top console RPG.

Soon we became aware of what was missing, spells lacked important attributes like range or area of effect (which were unnecessary in a console game) and we had to scramble to revise them. We noticed that our characters were stationary on one side of the board "attacking" monsters on the other side of the board so we added movement rules and restrictions. Later, we added collateral damage rules when we realized we were repeatedly blasting certain areas with fireballs. Our table-top console RPG was turning into something very different from what we envisioned.

We finished the main story and made new peripheral characters, but soon the game went stale.

In the summer of the year I turned sixteen I was walking through Toys-R-Us when I found a D&D board game. I carried it around the store reading the box, back and front, over and over for more than an hour before I decided to buy it. I took it home and hunkered down over the manuals for a few days.

I had a hard time with combat rules like THAC0, got confused about saving throws (I thought you needed to roll low to pass them), and nothing enraged me more than the idea of hitting a monster then rolling a one for damage. Regardless, I asked my closest friends to play. We agreed that it would probably suck, but gave it a shot anyway.

After the first combat we realized how similar it was to what we were doing a few months earlier.

I ran them through the first dungeon giving them far too much treasure and so many magical items that the old +1s and +2 daggers were barely worth using as toothpicks. My players and I learned quickly from our mistakes, though it still took several years for me to go from being the kind of DM that runs a series of dungeons to the kind of Storyteller that runs a game world (no thanks to the D&D manual which stated unequivocally, "The world outside of dungeons is unimportant aside from the towns which the characters use to resupply for their next dungeon adventure.").

Later that year we met a group of AD&D Second Edition players. They seemed to be breaking every rule in the book, but it was so much more interesting that way. They introduced me to Shadowrun, a high fantasy, post apocalyptic, dark future game, which helped me break away from the D&D mindset (please hold the flames, I have come to respect D&D for what it is).

After running Shadowrun myself I became ravenous. I looked in every darkened corner of any gaming shop within driving distance for the oldest and most obscure games imaginable. I read (and sometimes ran) Star Wars d6, Star Trek, Battlelords of the 23rd Century, GURPS, Rifts, Toon, Call of Cthulhu, Paranoia, and a hundred others.

After I graduated from high school I was introduced to Vampire: The Masquerade. This was another massive sea change for my running style. My players had far more cinematic control over the game, and even carried some of the responsibility for creating the story themselves (especially once we got ahold of Mage).

During these twenty years of game design, playing hundreds of sessions, and running thousands I've learned out a trick or two that have made my games more enjoyable for me and my players. I plan on sharing many of them here, and I hope you'll share some of yours with me as well.