Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Gains and Losses

I am very surprised my last post received so few comments. I thought is was a subject universal to gamers, and gaming of the RPG variety. Perhaps not.

Contemplating death (In a manner of speaking), got me to thinking about the lives of player characters, and what, short of death, would strike them as a significant blow, or loss.

While thinking along these lines it occurred to me that PC death, extremely rare in my games as I've noted, is considered a thing to avoid by both player and GM alike, because you lose much more than your character. In the campaigns that I run, you lose all the plots, subplots, relationships with NPCs, and everything you've developed over however long you've been playing that character. It is that which my players fear. It is that which tends to make them cautious, paranoid, and wary of the reaper.

The subject of loss over death, and loss of what a PC has gained, oddly came up today with my one difficult player. OK, all my Players can be pains in the keister, but in that lovable, entertaining way your friends who you game with can always be pains in the keister. No, this is the one guy in the group I've mentioned before as the only guy I periodically think of kicking out.

In a discussion we were having (yet again) about his Traveller character going off and doing his own thing, against the grain of the plot and the rest of the group, he had the gall to say that of all the characters in the campaign, his had the most to lose.

Ignoring the sheer ego of the statement, I asked him why he thought that to be the case. What made him say so? He could not clearly answer. He simply said he didn't want his character to die.

Granted, that is true of nearly every character, belonging to nearly every player, everywhere, in every game, ever. Other than that...?

It got me thinking ever more deeply about what this PC had gained. What had this player and his PC really accomplished over the course of our 21 game sessions of Traveller so far?

The answer is...nothing.

Unlike the rest of the group, this fellow maintains the classic 'murder-hobo' mentality. He seeks to make money, and most of his attempts to do so involve discovering/stealing something of value before someone else gets to it. He also tries to wheel and deal with NPCs, looking to set up some cockamamie scheme or other to get rich quick.

He has made the least money of any character so far. He has also, comparative to how much he has, spends the most.

He has been arrested once, legally freed thanks to another PC's legal expertise, and nearly killed at least three times.

If this PC were to die in the next game, what would he leave behind? Who would miss him? What great event would fail to unfold?

You got me.

He has an NPC sister, but in classic Old School fashion, she is viewed as an NPC who can help him when he needs it. That's it. Like an Henchman or Hireling that he doesn't need to pay because she's family. Recently she was kidnapped, and he decided to go on a different mission that would benefit him, while another PC went to save the first guy's sister.

(Of course, she's kind of bad ass, and the rest of the group likes the character).

Now let's look at what the other PCs in the campaign have accomplished in 21 sessions.

1) Two have gone into business together, and through the efforts of the two of them and another PC, gained a contract with the security department of a major megacorporation.
2) In conjunction with the above, two of the aforementioned PCs have made deep connections and allies among Imperial Naval Intelligence and SolSec (Solomani Security).
3) Early efforts by several of the PCs developed a unique way of hiding a ship in the asteroid belt of a star system that they patented and sold to the Imperial Navy. The Navy has decided to purchase all rights to the idea for over one million credits.
4) On a more personal note, one PC has reconnected with his (NPC) son, and his estranged father (NPC), though the father is now missing in action. She also negotiated a contract with an Aslan clan that impressed the Aslan so much, they began to speak socially. Soon, the Aslan Clan Leader's younger sister and the PC's son were hitting it off, and they decided to negotiate, well, arrange a marriage. 

This is just the tip of the iceberg. If any one of the other PC's died, there would be people grief stricken, unemployed, enemies ready to pounce, Aslan ready to pounce back, investigations, conflict, madness! If these PCs were in danger of losing a NPC loved one (which actually has, and is happening in the story), they would move Heaven and Earth to try and prevent it, or take revenge on those who harmed their own.

I love this campaign. I love what it's about, where it's been, and where it's going. There have been rocky parts for sure, but overall, I can't wait to run the next session.

Then, there is just this one guy who, if he didn't show, or his character died, only he would care.

Never be that guy.

Barking Alien

Some Notes:

Today, July 23rd, is officially Batman Day! Happy 75th Birthday to the Caped Crusader!

July 20th commemorated the 45th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, and Neil Armstrong becoming the first Human being to walk on the moon. A big day for him, a giant day for mankind, and a major fascination and inspiration for me.

I may not be on much for a bit. The blog will be powered down for a week or so while we refit the Warp Core, and run a level 3 diagnostic on the Communications and Sensor arrays. You may see a post now and then, you may not. Hopefully we'll be ship shape and out of Spacedock by mid-August.

Take care all!

Monday, July 21, 2014

Removing The Kid Gloves

This is a very special installment of my popular (relative to this blog) series, 'What Other GMs Do Wrong'. For this entry, I take a look, not at other GMs, but at my self. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, and semi-amphibious, unisex, budding polyp entities from the Pinwheel Galaxy (You thought I forgot about you, didn't you? Never. We should do brunch. It's been ages), this time I want to address...

What This GM Does Wrong: Lethality and Player Character Mortality

EDITED and UPDATED, Monday, July 21st, 2014.

Comment, critique, and enjoy.


We just completed the 21st session of our monthly (more or less), classic Traveller campaign, TRAVELLER: Operation Paladin.

It was a great session. Not to mention a rough one.

Although perhaps not rough enough. Not tough enough maybe. Maybe I was not tough enough to back up my intentions. Please read on.

It was rough in that I have decided it's long past time I took off the training wheels for my group and ditched the kid gloves.

The kid gloves are off.

In the process of running this campaign, it has become very clear to me that I am way too easy on my players. The truth is, I have been for several years.

I don't think it started with my current group, but rather some previous incarnation of it. On the whole, my group/groups over the past few years have consisted of some variation of the same guys, with some people leaving, and others coming in, on a semi-annual basis.

In contrast to previous NJ and NY groups of my Junior High, High School and College years (and for sometime before and after as well), the group dynamic I've encountered from 2010-2014 is one with fewer experienced players, who are not only less familiar with RPGs, but also not as familiar with each other, or with me (Nor I with them).

After suffering for a time with no regular group, I initially took on a few people who hadn't played in a long while. To beef up the groups numbers, I added some really cool guys I met who were much newer to the hobby than the rest of the band, and certainly myself.

That was when I made a miscalculated judgment that will slowly, and subtly, create a major problem for me in the long wrong. I decided to go easy on my players.

For a good stretch of time, I made a concentrated effort to make the challenges challenging, but not too difficult. Enemies were dangerous, and could hurt you, but they weren't too deadly. I wanted this group of people to get into it and still around. I didn't want to frustrate them, or scare them off. The problem is, once you do this, once you establish this approach, and it works, it's very hard to undo it.

Before long, you've grown soft.

My friend Dave noticed, and he would often make me aware of it in conversations we'd have on the subject. He felt, and rightly so, that without the threat of PC mortality, RPGs lose a good deal of their appeal for many (Toon, TFOS and other comedy games not withstanding). Without the threat of ultimate loss, there is no sense of ultimate victory. If I can not die, why work so hard at living?

 My games were (and are) still fun of course. The stories, characters and challenges remained entertaining. So crazy fun apparently, that my players not only keep coming back, we expanded the number of times a month we meet to game, and they keep asking if their friends can join in. "I told my pal So-and-so all about our campaign, and he's really jazzed to play in it. Got room for one more?"

Problem is, I sat in front of my computer one day last week, and thought to myself, 'Of course people want to join in. Adam's giving away free candy.'

Now that's an exaggeration. I do not make it anywhere near that easy. At the same time, the sentiment is valid. I needed to get more serious, tougher, less worried about whether or not they were going to bail on the campaign, or the group, if their characters died.

So this past session I let them know. No more Mister Nice Guy. No more hand holding.

What do you think happened?

One fellow got very close to dead at least twice. The first time, he bitched and moaned, searched through every bit of equipment he had, and any loophole in the rules for combat to avoid death. One of the other players said, "I'm confused, why is this taking so long?" (My combats usually move very smoothly and quickly).

"Because his character could die. This is one of the reasons I've been easy on you guys. I was afraid that, if I wasn't, I'd get this."

In the end, he did find that one of his hi-tech items reduced the damage of the attack considerably. Thinking quickly, he managed to paralyze his opponent with a hardening foam grenade. He then ran like heck, and received assistance from one of the other players whose PC had hacked into the computer system controlling the maintenance tunnels the first PC was in. Thanks to the PC hacker, the first guy avoided the second potentially life threatening situation (explosive decompression).

I have to wonder, did I still go easy on the bitching and moaning guy. At least one of my players thinks so. In an email to me after reading this blog entry he said,

"When one of the assailants tried to shoot [the PC] in the arm, and afterward the other assailant attempted to throw a bomb into the room, both times [The Player in question] got out of his chair, and started loudly complaining until he made you [Me-Adam] retcon a battle situation you'd already established.  It felt like he pulled a fast one."

In retrospect, that is essentially what happened. I can not deny it. He further when on to say,

"You created a lot of stuff great in that session, but I think the retcons undermined the stakes you wanted to raise. More than ever it feels to me like [That Player and his PC] cannot lose."

Bottom line is this; Just as going easy on them for a long while made it hard not to do that after a while, it will take some time before we (my players and I) get used to my return to a more lethal style.

However, I need to keep up my end of the bargain. I have to walk the walk, and not just talk the talk.

My old groups were OK with it because they were accustomed to it. However, when I met them, nearly all of the players in all of those groups, were raised on games far more dangerous.

The Old School games didn't assume you were creating a deep, in-depth story, and so they didn't figure the death of your character would be a big deal. Since I tend to run games in genres where the death of the lead characters is fairly uncommon (Star Trek, Star Wars, Superheroes, etc.), the players knew to enjoy the heck out of their time, and be very smart about their actions since, although they weren't supposed to die, they knew they could.

By going easy on my more recent groups, I fear I have created a situation where they needn't be too attentive or too clever. After all, Adam's going to give us a way out of this mess. Simultaneously, none were too bold either, a strange dynamic I've noticed with my current group that I can't yet fathom. My older groups knew they could die, but rushed bravely into danger. This group is less afraid of meeting their makers, but less likely to enter a potentially life threatening situation.

Curious. Annoying, but curious.

In the end I have to do what's best for the group and the campaign we're all trying to enjoy together. That can mean making tough decisions. Decisions I've rarely, if ever, had to make in previous games over the last 37 years. It may mean kicking a player out, or myself in the arse, or both.

Well, that's that. I have not been tough enough, and now I will be.

Suck it up you pansies.

But your still my buds, so I say that with love. Yes. Suck it up with love.


Barking Alien

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

False Alarm

"Mayday, mayday! All hands to battle stations! This is a distress call. I am distressed!"

"Umm...Barkley. What are you doing?"

"Oh Adam! Thank goodness you're OK. It's terrible. Just horrible. Red Alert! Red Alert!"

"Barkley, calm down. Just calm down. What the heck are you going on about?"

"The blog, Barking Alien, it's been boarded! We're being invaded. Red Alert isn't working. Brown. Brown Alert! Brown...Puce! Puce Alert!"

"Puce Alert?"

"One of these colors has to do something!"

"Barkley, your hysterical. Calm down, focus, and tell me what's going on."

"OK, alright...(deep breaths)...there are OSR people on the blog. They're talking about D&D related gaming. I'm serious! They've commented on the previous post. Do you know what that means?! They're right behind us."

"Oh for crying out loud..."

"It's too late. There's only one chance now. We need to get to the escape pods. Yes! We can get away in the escape pods, and then remotely detonate the blog once we're at a safe distance."

"Detonate The Blog?!"

"It's the only way to be sure. Now, I think the escape pods are right this way, past the..."

"Barkley, my mangy, emerald friend. Just chill. I got this. We're not going anywhere."

"What?! Why not?"

"They're just sniffing around, looking to do what D&D gamers do."

"Overcomplicate Initiative?"

"No. They..."

"Make rules that don't fit the fluff of the genre or setting?"

"What? No...well maybe...but that's not..."

"Then what?! I'm setting my Ultimate Nullifier to Stun just in case."

"First, you can't set an Ultimate Nullifier to Stun. That's kind of why it's called an 'Ultimate Nullifier'. Second, how and why do you HAVE an Ultimate Nullifier? Third, and this is the big one, the D&D people are looking to talk to others who like D&D."

"So why are they here? You hate D&D."

"Exactly. Once we do a post about Superheroes, or Star Trek, or suggest some crazy approach to running some hippie-trippy game concept, they'll be outta here so fast they'll go to plaid."

"OK. Promise?"

"Promise. I know they scare you. Feel better?"

"Yeah. Better. Cancel Puce Alert."

Barking Alien

My Orcs Are Not Different

This is a post I thought I'd never do, but it's been a long time coming.

The catalyst for this entry is (not surprisingly I suppose) the many posts on the internet by innumerable Gamemasters touting how utterly unique their particular snowflake Orcs are.

Then I got to thinking about this one post of mine. Also question and answer number 46 on this one. There are other posts as well. (If you are interested, use the Search function in the upper left hand corner with the key word 'Orc')

What spurred me on further was this recent post, which was inspired by this one, which in turn originated with this one I believe. None of which I really care about (Nothing wrong with them. As valid a discussing as any other in the gaming blogsphere I suppose) as they get into too much book-keeping minutiae for my tastes.

They did get me to thinking about Orcs though...and how much I thoroughly despise them.

Let me get this off my chest, right from the start.

I hate Orcs. Hate'em.

Not creature-I-love-to-hate kinda hate. I just vehemently dislike them.

For me, the Orc* symbolizes a lot of what I don't like about Dungeons & Dragons type fantasy.

They are not creatures of myth or folklore, no matter how hard the Wikipedia entry tries to relate them to something from a pre-Tolkien source. They originated in the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, and have since gone on to infest and permeate so many fantasy related stories and games that, for me, black mold and hay fever are more welcome.

They are uninteresting to me in the extreme. Mechanically, they do nothing exciting. No special or challenging abilities, no unusual traits, nada. Why use them instead of a Goblin, a Hobgoblin or simply a Human brigand? Ah yes, because that are the ones in the rule book with the correct set of hit points and such. No Goblin could have that many hit points! No Troll would be that weak! Logic I say!

Visually, they are usually fairly boring in design. What is special about the Orcish face, the Orcish visage? Anything? Fifty percent of the time they are muscular, bulky, and green. The other half of the time, they are pale, ugly, and built like normal people, though sometimes smaller.

Oh how I long for those rare occasions when they look like gray, frog-beast people, or green lizard-pigs. Ah, those were the days.

All in all, I just don't care for them. This feeling is made all the more intense by all the GMs who take them, and 'do something different with them'. Spare me. Doing something different with them would be not using them. Better yet, it would be creating your own, original monstrous humanoid.

Tolkien made these guys up. Go make up your own. Lazy bastards.

Your Orcs are not different. Neither are mine.

So, in the interest of equal ridicule, here are my Orcs:

On the rare occasions when I run D&D (usually my homebrewed D&D AD system, aka, 'D&D-But-Not'), you will practically never run into an Orc. It is extremely rare to even see an Orc in games set on my world of Aerth.

According to my world's myths and historical records, Orcs (a Kind** of Goblin) were quite numerous and widespread at one time.

The legend goes that after all the pantheons of gods divvied up the world, each taking a region for their people, they chuckled, and said to the first great Goblin King, "You can have all the rest.".

Overjoyed, the Goblin King looked at the Map of the World that the gods had laid out to survey his domains. All that was left for him and the Goblin race were swamps, bogs, dark corners of drafty caves and canyons, burnt out forests, and farmland where nothing would grow.

The Goblin King face fell, but his eldest son began to laugh, a bitter, cold sound like icicles cracking in a deep cave. "You seek to rob us of the world's riches, but have handed us the keys to take them. We will flourish in the rotten and unhappy places. We will breed in the swamps and play in the marsh. We will hunt on the sallow farmland, and grow Goblin fruit in the desiccated woods. We will live in the caves. We will strike from the darkness."

During the Great Goblin War, when the then current Goblin King united all the Kinds** of the Goblin race together, it was Orcs, said to have descended from the first king's eldest son, who served as the first strikers and the front lines of nearly every battle. At the wars end, with the alliance of Man, Dwarf, Elf and Wilder victorious, Orcs needed a way to rebuild. Knowing little beyond fighting, most adult male Orcs took jobs as mercenaries, guards and other soldiers of fortune. Many tribes of Orcs took to living in the ruins of old castles and dungeons, or the wrecks of ships that had crashed on rocks, or run aground.

Time is not kind to that way of life, and the victors of the war were in no hurry to aid the defeated. Many Human warriors hunted and killed Orcs as revenge for that latters wartime 'atrocities'. Others were killed purely out of fear and hate. If something as menacing as an Orc lived near by, that surely threatened the safety of a Human settlement. Better to get them first before they get us. 

Now, many years later, Orcs are largely extinct. The vast majority have been killed off, not just by Humans, but Elves, Dwarves, Wilders and their allies. Barely 500 Orcs remain on the world of Aerth. The vast majority of them dwell on an island off the Southern Coast on the Old World continent. They were moved there by members of the Order, who explained they were trying to protect the Orcs. While this was true, they were also trying to calm the locals. "Don't worry, the Orcs are not out to steal your land. No, Orcs aren't coming for your children in the night. They all live on an island far away. Don't worry, we'll be watching them."

Sometimes, when players ask why there are so few Orcs, I answer, "Because PCs killed them all and took their stuff."

The typical Aerth Orc is virtually identical to a Hobgoblin to the uneducated eye. They stand around 6 feet on the average, but can easily be as tall as 6 foot 6 inches, or as short as 5 feet. They resemble prehistoric Humans, but have large, slightly pointed ears, bestial noses, pronounced canines and an underbite. Their coloration varies widely, though it is usually a pale green-grey, blue-grey or blue-tan. Their eyes and brows resemble those of apes.

The Hobgoblin can be identified by a redder, often ruddier complexion, a paler face, and a black, or blue-black nose. Hobgoblins have longer ears that end in a more definitive point. Orcs stoop forward slightly, especially when they run, whereas the stance of Hobgoblins is the same as Humans.

Hobgoblins are the more intelligent of the two, those Orcs can be quite clever, cunning and have a much better sense of their environment and the world around them. The senses of an Orc are somewhat more acute than a Hobgoblin's.

Mechanically (crunch time!), Orcs possess two abilities unique to their natures.

First, they have Adaption. This ability eliminates any penalties for movement or general actions in the environment their tribe comes from. A Orc of the Northern Forests moves at his normal speed through the snow and undergrowth of his homeland. Orcs of the South Eastern swamps are not hindered fighting, or running through bogs.

Their second ability is called Feral. This gives them a bonus on any perspective check involving their heightened senses of hearing and smell. They can get a visual bonus, but only at night or in the dark.


So those are my Orcs.

Are they different? Meh. Not really. Are they interesting? I hope so.

Now my Dragons...

Barking Alien

*Orc - On Aerth, their are numerous types of Goblins. The people of different regions have given the Goblin 'Kinds' (see below) different names based on their different appearances, locations, the language of the people of the area, etc.

The Orc is really another name for the Hobgoblin, although they do differ as noted above. Hobgoblin tend to be better organized and actually build huts, small houses and will even take up residence in an abandoned Human house and maintain it to some degree. Orcs tend to live in or near woods, and will only live in the ruins of a building, dungeon, or similar construction. They do not build their own homes and can not fix, or maintain anything too complex.

**Kind - On Aerth, the term 'Kind' is sometimes used to describe subspecies on the same species, or species of genus. For example, Orcs, Hobgoblins, Bugbears, Bugaboos, Boggles, Buggle Nahs and Norkies are all 'Kinds' of Goblins.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Inspired By Mediocrity

I am in one of my moods.

You know the one I'm talking about. I'm sure you get into it yourself. It's the one where ideas are coming at you like a Japanese Bullet Train. Dozens of them pulling into the same station at the same time, threatening to crash into those already there at any moment.

Seriously, they look like freakin' starships.

Right now my brain is a madhouse! A MADHOUSE!

Funny enough, this has been the case every since I ran Dungeons & Dragons 5E on July 4th. Funnier still is that none of the ideas I'm having have anything to do with D&D 5E.

I found the game serviceable, and if I had to play a D&D game, I would prefer 5E over any of the others based on what I've seen so far. As one of my friends and players said today, "That's high praise from Adam."

Yes, tell the people that Barking Alien approves of this game. It makes him vomit least of all the versions. That's marketing, that is.

The only negative thing I have to say about it, so far as my experience with it goes, is that it is a tad bland. Not exactly dry, as it's probably a bit unnecessarily flowering in its prose, but just not exciting.

It doesn't stir me, or make me want to work up a campaign of it. Perhaps it would if I were predisposed to Dungeons and Dragons style gaming, but I'm not, so it left me with an uncontrollable urge to make something really interesting to compensate.

It would be like having a really boring lunch, and afterwards all you can think of is stirring up something really exotic and spicy for dinner to make up for it.


So What's On My Mind?

Attack The Block, The Role Playing Game
Awesome concept. Not letting this one go. Still developing some ideas for it on the side. No idea when I'll be able to run this, but if I can work out a holiday one-shot some time in the not-too-distant future I'd be really happy.

Fringeworthy/The Long Earth
I am currently reading the third novel in the Long Earth series by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, The Long Mars. The idea of parallel Earths, and the undertaking of reaching and exploring them, has long been a fascination of mine. Strangely underwhelmed by the various Stargate series, I have always wanted to run a game in an original, or at least more original, version of what you saw in the first of those programs (Stargate SG-1).

Fringeworthy, the first alternate world and alternate history RPG ever published, is a precursor to Stargate in many ways. I am pretty much convinced that Stargate was someone's Fringeworthy campaign. There are just too many similarities.

So basically my idea is a bit of Stargate-by-way-of-Fringeworthy, a bit of The Long Earth series. I'm still working it out in my head.

Working title for my revamped, Sci-Fi, comedy game about blue collar flying saucer jockeys. Inspired by Attack The Block, I want to make it a little more creepy-weird, in that way documentaries on UFOs and other unexplained phenomena often are. I don't want to lose the comedic aspect, but I feel it needs to generate the same feeling you'd get if you actually saw odd lights in the night sky, and wondered, "What the *^%# is that?", immediately followed by, "That's pretty awesome!"

It is my hope to publish this game some day. Once I can really lock in on what it is.

Unfinished Business
Yeah, I'm back to thinking about my supernatural, ghost story game. Another game I want to publish in the not too distant future. I just can't seem to get past the awesome, initial idea to actually making it work as a game.


So these are some of the ideas rolling around in my mind. I have others. Many, many others.

What crazy things are you thinking of doing this summer?

Barking Alien