Monday, August 31, 2015

World Building

I just finished a run through with Diablo 3. Much like with I Admire Its Purity,  I will comment on what Diablo 3 ("D3") might bring to the tabletop game.

I played the original Diablo years ago. I fondly remember going down in some hole, slaying lots of critters, and gathering up a bunch of loot. There may have been a plot, but other than something opened up a rift and demons were attacking, I do not recall much. But that was not the point of the game anyway.

My first impression of D3 upon firing it up in the Xbox is that it looked a bit dated to me visually and mechanically. I really wanted to change the view and "see" the world. It looked interesting, but outside of seeing the world from the fixed camera it was a limited visual experience. But I quickly fell into the fun of hack and slash. Much like Shadow of Mordor, the game knows what it wants to be and focuses on being very good at it.

What surprised me is that there was a decent amount of
  1. Plot
  2. World building, and
  3. Development of the personalities of the NPCs. 
I did not play D2 and I have heard some complaints that D3 is a rehash and repetitive, but since I did not play D2 I cannot comment on that. While the worldbuilding was basic, it was elegant and made sense. The main backstory is that angels and demons have fought a war since time began. Some got fed up with the War, stole a Worldstone and made the world Sanctuary. But eventually offspring and humans came into existence, and that brought unwanted attention from heaven and hell. All the lore comes out small bits as you play. And the best part is that the lore does not get in the way of the hack and slash - you find a piece of lore it is voiced to you while you continue hackin' and slashin'.

Over the course of the game you get to know the stories of three companions, 2 artisans, and a few other NPCs. This is all given out in bits and pieces while you are "on break" selling stuff and upgrading gear.

It got me thinking about just how does a GM get more detail of their world in the hands of the players? My group is a bunch of older gamers that you really only have their attention on game night. In my 50 Fathoms game it was petty easy to get that lore out there. Some of it was names people knew from history. The other is that the map was not "full" - you had a set number of islands that people would go to. Another was sourcing - if there were monsters, they tended to fall into a couple of buckets as to their source (the Red Men and their summoning, "natural" creatures, and abominations from the Hags). There was also narrow set of cultures - the Spanish, the English, the Kierian empire, and the rest was "Caribbean" in feel. So a nice portion of the "world" was a port over from our own.

My real concern is when I eventually run Hellfrost from Triple Ace Games. Lots of lore and detail. One of the hardest things to do is to get your players interested and knowledgeable about the gameworld. Lets face it, players are lazy and unappreciative of our work as GMs, so what can we do?

Now, I wrote what follows a few years ago for myself just to capture the ideas. That was pre-Hellfrost (for me) and likely pre-Savage Worlds. So my references are Eberron, which was my "go to" setting at the time and still a favorite for me today.

Pondering on this, here is my suggestion to eventually attain the "immersed player" (I define this as the players being able to push the plot forward based on their knowledge of the world instead of the plot pushing them forward). I am basing this on my experience of trying to bring Eberron to life.

  1.  Pick a campaign world (homebrew or published) as your long-term world. This will contain the majority of your campaigns (ignoring one-offs as a change of pace). For me, that is Eberron.
  2. Pick an area that will be the home base of most of your campaigns. For cities, you might want to pick a couple of iconic neighborhoods (in Ptolus, the Delver's area comes to mind). In Eberron, Sharn is the likely home base of many of the campaigns. This will allow the players to have something familiar to them in most campaigns.
  3. The first campaign or two highlights the world. Tell the players up front that it may have a rail-road feel to it. The goal is for the *players* to learn the world through play (given that you can never get them to read up on your perfect world outside the game - useless players :) ). If you look at the initial modules for Eberron, they are very rail-roady in nature, but they expose the players to the cool parts of the world - the city of Sharn, elemental vessels, flying ships, lightning rail, the Mournland, and the politics of the Houses. The adventure structure introduces the world but it does not require the player to have extensive knowledge of the world to make the adventure fun or for the players to feel like they can make decisions.
  4. After you have run a campaign or two (depending on length), then build the more complex adventures. In the first campaign(s), you show. In the following campaigns, you let them drive.

Lets use an examples from Star Wars - specifically Tatooine (we shall go in order of the release):

Eps IV: we are introduced to the planet as the home of Luke. We learn it is a desert, has Jawas (scavengers), Sandpeople (nasty), and a spaceport full of scum and villany. The rerelease does show us Jabba as well. This was all shown to us - no knowledge of the world is needed before for us viewers to "get" what is going on.

Eps VI: really introduces Jabba the Hutt and expands on the rough 'n' tumble world. Still pretty much 'a show', but we do not have the be told that the place is pretty rough. We just learn how rough and who is in charges (Hutts)

Eps I: So, did anyone need explanation of who the Hutts were and what they looked like? They are hardly mentioned (Qi Gon (sp) has an offhand comment of who rules the system) and they show them attending the pod race. But, we all know who and what they are and how they fit into the society. Also, it does not surprise us that Sandpeople are shooting at the pods.

Eps II: Lets take this from a player's point of view. If you were Anakin and you were out to free your mother, would you as a player know what to do given that previous "adventures" of Eps listed above have been experienced by said player? It would play pretty darn close to the movie.

Likely steps taken by players
  1. Go to your old slavemaster to find Mom. Find out Mom is not there anymore. Then kill old slavemaster after you get the information because its time to start turning Dark Side.
  2. Go to the new owner of your mother after asking directions. Find out mother kidnapped by the Sandpoeple, who live in the desert.
  3. Look for tracks (single file), then slaughter tribe when you find your mother. 
Much like D3 giving out bits and pieces of lore over time, taking a similar approach to campaigns gives the player enough experience to make a logical plan of attack and can feel like they are driving the story. Lets compare given out a player driven quest in Eps IV of Star Wars. The GM would have to feed player a lot of information - who is Old Ben vs. Obi Wan Kenobi, what are Sandpeople, where do they live, why is/was my mother a slave, etc.

For "smaller" worlds (say 50 Fathoms) or even just in regions of a world, this can be done as phases in the campaign. Make sure the that players get to revisit certain areas so they can refresh their memory, pick up new information, and then have more actionable options.

So aside from just handing the players a book, what techniques do you use to get information to your players during your gaming sessions?

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Why Savage Worlds is Awesome

 A bullet list of why Savage Worlds Rocks:
  • I’ll put it this way – there is $1000 of lovin’ in a $10 package.
  • The core book is $10, AND there is a free Test Drive document (now two of them! One is Lankhmar!!). Now, I am not cheap when it comes to the gaming habit. But its nice to say “hey, give this a try, at most your out $10.” And the $10 is a complete toolkit. Everything else is just extra spend because you like to spend money on gaming.
  • The system plays in a tighter power range. Some will hate this, but for many people the old “Level 3 to Level 10” game is what they played in D&D anyway. This allows the system to play well across genres.
  • If someone has range weapon, get your butt to Cover! This game grew out of a western setting. So you are not just going to stroll across an open field, shrugging off piddly 1d6 damage arrows.
  • The combo of Bennies (used to roll or soak damage) and Hindrances are fantastic. Roleplaying your hindrances can get you more Bennies. I love telling a player who is low on Bennies “you better start roleplaying better!”
  • Although I love combat, you do not have to be a combat monster to be useful in combat. Tricks and Test of Wills are build into the game. You can play an old, forgetful scientist or a plucky young kid and not feel useless when a fight breaks out
  • Its opened up new genres to me. I am a system mastery guy. In reality, that held me back from running/playing in other genres. Yes, d20 claimed to be able to do it, but each required heavy rewrite to make it work. Players can switched between genres with little learning curve in SW.
  • Magic rocks. Trappings makes your spellcasters unique, and good players will extend them to skills and attributes. For example, my psionist does not just Notice (Perception) what is going on, he senses it through picking up on surface emotions and thoughts.
  • Prep time is nothing. Once you are comfortable, you can almost convert on the fly. So adventures from other systems are still useful to you.
  • Bang for the Buck. When I buy any SW book, I get ideas, and tons of them. I am not buying the latest player options, I am getting Day After Ragnarok, Space 1889, Deadlands, and Weird War II. Even if I got sick of SW and did something else, those books would still have value to me due to the ideas. All my Complete X books from 3rd edition are useless to me (but Eberron and FR still have value).
  • The system is easy to adjudicate. I still value my 3rd edition GMing experience as that experience combined with SW system makes rulings a breeze.
  • No tracking HPs! The Wound/Shaken system is very smooth and allows me to spend my time working the table, not being a screen jockey tracking HPs. This is huge, in my opinion. Having more time with your eyes up allows you to read the table, get reactions, and modify your pace as needed.
  • Acing/Exploding dice are fun. Yes, the game has more “swing” than many are used to, but the Bennies help the players stave off the worst of it most of the time. There is a shared excitement when you see a player continue to roll the dice and know that something really cool is about to happen.
  • I can tell just about any story with the system. Its sweet spot is Pulp, but settings like Realms of Cthulu show you how with minor adjustments you can change the tone of the game without having a stack of rule changes.
  • A wide number of playstyles is supported. As an example, I personally like 4e, but it did not fit with a couple of groups I hang with so I do not play it. I have seen players that have been perplexed by 3.x and 4e take to SW very quickly. I have also seen system mastery guys (like me) squeeze a ton out of the game. Roleplayers have both a great hooks (hindrances) and mechanics to support them (Test of Wills, Tricks, plus some additional tools in the new Expanded edition). The occassional dice tosser to the hard core gamer can get a lot out of this system.
  • Chase scenes and mass combat open all kinds of stories (chase rules work much like skill challenges and can be adapted to cover many of the same types of scenarios).
  • The Explorer’s Edition is a fun read. The writting style is layed back and it made me want to play it. I’m not looking to be mean or bashing anyone, but I got the 4e PHB about the same time as I got SW. One was fun, the other was exciting as sandpaper.
  • You get to call yourself a Savage. That’s worth the $10 right there.
  • Easy to learn – Just played with a buddy of mine that has played at most 5 times in the last year (and not for 6 months). He is a long lapsed gamer. With little guidance, he had the mechanics down and could focus on what we wanted his character to do (and roleplay)
  • Scalable, both player numbers and combat scale
    • For players – you can run with only one or two players. Just give the players Extras. The beauty is that Extras are so easy to manage that the players WANT to run them vs. them being a burden to the group or the GM. Again, my buddy, a n00b to the game, had no problem running his character and 4 extras
    • For combat – you can run from individual PCs, to a squad (PC with a few extras), to decent sized skirmish (where unit size fig is still 1:1), to Mass Combat (note that Mass Combat is abstract and NOT a wargame).
  • As a player, I do try to map out a good number of the advances to flesh out the character concept over time. What I have found by doing that is Savage Worlds has so many character build options. There is always another Edge/Attribute/Skill advance that will enhance your character concept. You will be well into Legendary before you even think of running out of options. And you can change direction without losing pace on your build. For example, I ran/built a pure psionist up to 100xp. I then mapped out the next couple hundred xp. Up to 200xp was shoring up some of his weaknesses. Up to 300xp was focusing on using Telekinsis as a true fighting style. There is just so much you can do that the options are almost limitless.

    So there it is!

50 Fathoms

"Ahoy, Maties! Its time for plunder!"

50 Fathoms [50F] is widely acknowledged as the best Plot Point Campaign Pinnacle has produced. As one who has run a 50F campaign, I want to endorse that sentiment. So while you will find a good number of reviews out there 50F, I will attempt to delve into what makes this one the best.

The biggest driver is that 50F is a Sandbox campaign world set up in the same manner as Elder Scrolls and the Fallout games. There is an overarching metaplot, but you are encouraged and given the freedom to explore the world before you tackle that metaplot. Yes, the world is going to end if the PCs do nothing, but its not going end right away. There is enough material there to run a couple of campaigns before you ever tackled the big plot. For example, you could:

  • Run the Golden Triangle Plot Point (a classic uncover the pirate treasure scenario)
  • Deal with trade war that results from Baltimus smashing Brigandy Bay and the possible conflicts between Kiera and New Madrid
  • Exploration of Torath Ka ala Lost World type explorations
  • Build up and run a mercantile/pirate/privateer/whaler operation
  • String together a number of Savage Tales for a unique story
  • Run your own game.
What allows all this to work is the freedom of sailing on the open seas. In the opening Plot Point the PCs secure a sloop to kick off the game. This allows the PCs to explore the world in the terms of being a pirate, privateer, merchant or even try their hand at whaling. And the setting does not lock them into any of these approaches - they can change course just as the wind changes...although there are always consequences.

The locations are all richly different. Baltimus is where money buys status, where as Kiera you are born into it. Brigandy Bay is a hive of scum and villainy that only respects your accomplishments. And the PCs will visit all of these places and more as the main Plot Point takes your group across the world.

Another key is the evocative writing. I had no problem taking what was there and making it mine. If something caught the fancy of my imagination or of the players it was easy to expand into longer adventures. If something was less so, it was easy to condense to a session or two.

I also found the earth crossover of key pirates to be inspiring. Blackbeard is a favorite of mine and should prove to be the toughest adversary in the campaign - even more than Hags. The reason for this is the Hags have specific MacGuffins to deal with them, but Blackbeard does not (yes, he has a weakness but the PCs may have a hard time forcing it).

If there is a weakness to the setting, it might be the finale of the campaign. There are many ways the PCs might attack that final encounter with the Hags and the book really does not give much advice around the options. I do recommend as the players build to the end the GM really think about the final scene. I was lucky in that I could bring to a head a number of other threads to converge in the finale to make it really memorable, but not all campaigns may be that lucky.

Final Rating: Must Buy!

I admire its purity

"I admire its purity. ... Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility...its purity."
~ Ash, Alien

Although I said I would focus more on tabletop games, I am going start off with a post about video games. I sunk a good number of hours into Dragon Age: Inquisition (DAI) [XBOX360 version]. I have been a solid fan of the DA series. I played Origins, much of the downloadable content, and DA2. I have the three Dragon Age box sets by Green Ronin. There are some great moments in DAI but as I played I continued to have to force myself to keep progressing. I would easily get distracted - I kept loading up Civilizations: Revolutions. I would make excuses to go do something else (like - gasp - read!). Finally, I gave up after about 47 hours. I need a complete break from it. I have honestly never played a game that tried so hard to take something interesting and make it boring.

But my post is not about DAI. I just wanted to give you where I was coming from before talking about what I am now playing - Shadow of Mordor (SoM). I am about 16 hours into the game. It has me hooked. Although there are many repetitive elements and I see from reviews that I might be in store for a letdown, I have to say I do admire its purity. Right off the bat you are vested in the game - a servant of Sauron sacrifices your family and you in some dark ritual -- but you are denied death by an elf spirit with a similar fate in its past. Now, its time to kill every orc in and around the Black Gate to slaughter your way to the Black Hand of Sauron.

The game has a focus, a purity, that I just have to admire after playing the random mess that is DAI. You get up in the morning and ask Sir Elf-A-Lot what we are going to do today. "Kill orcs" is the answer. And you kill them in as many ways as you can conceived. There is an old saying that you should always be yourself...unless you can be Batman. Then you should always be Batman. This game takes that to heart. You are the Batman of Mordor - and woe be it to all the spawn of the Dark Lord.

Everything in the game drives to your goal of vengeance. Side quests upgrade your weapons. Slaughtering orc Captains upgrades your abilities. And main quest missions unlock other special powers. The repetitiveness of the orc genocide  at repeated locations (a BIG complaint of DA2) is not an issue to me. Each Captain has different weaknesses and your approach to taking them out causes you to engage in the environment in a different manner. One time might be as a sniper. Another mission might be as a stealth ninja. Another might have you riding in on a Caragor. In DA2, you just went to the same location and fought the same fight with slightly different enemies.

The ability to truly interact in the environment in a Batman/Assassin's Creed like way makes this a unique fantasy game. I cannot tell you how pissed I would get at DAI trying to get some shard jumping around like a mountain goat. I mean, Iron Bull can you give me a little boost for Andraste's sake? Going forward, if a fantasy game does not allow you to interact with your environment like SoM I am not sure I want to play it.

I also really enjoy the Nemesis system and it brings a unique mechanic to your character's death. Although I have to say finding out the weaknesses is not always the best thing for the game. At times it does make it too easy of a fight. I really enjoyed one fight near the arena that was all stealth until a Captain and I got into an epic sword fight on the roof over a building overlooking the arena. It had an epic feel that you just want to have in every fantasy fight that is hard to capture naturally. The fight felt great because it was earned the hard way.

Bringing this Back to Tabletop
Overall, I do not plan to do any formal reviews of video games. There are plenty of people that you can get that information from. But I do like to think what can I bring from the the above musings to the tabletop game. In this case, I think the lesson is Less is More.

There is great advice in the Savage Worlds core book about trimming the fat and converting the essence of a setting. Its easy to create a pile of new edges and powers when you make your own setting or even large adventure. We should strive to be like Shadow of Mordor -  you should understand what you want to do and make sure everything aligns to the theme of the setting. Adding stuff just to have it weakens your theme and makes the setting less than it could be.

Why I may or may not want to do this

For some reason, I have had the urge to try a blog. I presume I am very late to the game and the blogging is on the outs for whatever is the new thing this days. But I really do not care all that much. This is more for me, and if you get something out of it consider yourself blessed :).

Overall, I am a gamer - mostly table top (Savage Worlds) and video games (Xbox 360 - yes, I know its now last generation, some iPad, etc). I will focus on table top gaming. I will throw a few things out for video games, but that that will have much less emphasis. I may touch on gaming with the family, but I have not decided how much I will focus on that. This is public, and I am not much for sharing private things.

The name of the blog is a catchphrase for my group. We are Buckeyes (National Champs in like 4 or 5 sports in 2014/2015) and we have been Savages for about 4-6 years now. In another posting I'll talk about the awesomeness of Savage Worlds.

I think that is enough to get started.

Also - do not drink and blog.