Fear of the Die

Are some games afraid of their own mechanics?

When you come from a d20 grounding, you get used to the sound of clattering plastic. It’s part of the game. If you’re in initiative mode then the dice hit the table every minute, at the very least. I appreciate that the frequency can knock the immersion out of the situation at times, but that’s the price you pay for granularity in the engine. 

Other games seem to come from a stand point of (and I’m putting words in many games text here) “here’s how the dice roll changes the outcome. It’s probably quite significant, and needs the table to buy into the interpretation” So fewer rolls, bigger impact. Sometimes these negotiations boot me out of my head space too, so neither end of this continuum is necessarily about immersion 

I’m reading the new edition of 7th Sea and seeing this latter way again and again. Making a roll in 7th Sea seems to be a big deal. I mean every game says only roll when it matters, but here, making the roll itself is what makes it matter (still with me?)

It’s a similar deal to Fate and PbtA games. Once the dice hit the table, the move is only just beginning, and the consequences are Fighting Fantasy-esque as you turn to a completely different numbered paragraph. No keeping your thumb in the page with the decision point. 

As I read these rules, I’m excited. Drama! Dilemmas! Narrative! Decisions! But when I actually run these games… I get story fatigue quite easily. A binary hit/miss roll takes little processing power. A villain/revenge/amour/reversal plot pile takes more. 

The answer is to take the advice as a hard rule. Only roll when it matters. Really matters. 

Which means, practically, games need to have more narrative punch, or need to use the rolls way less than they would in a dungeon-normal setting. Or, both. 

Interestingly, 7th Sea calls their rolls Risks. And that’s just the right word. The game changes when you take one. If your table is risk averse, then you’d be right to be afraid of the game. 

Which leads me to believe that modern designers and GMs would more likely be the instigators if they were playing. And they’ve brought that sensibility to the rules. But that’s not the only way to play. I’ve seen players bounce off these newer sensibilities, and I think it’s because of fear. Fear of having to become a GM for a minute. 

Which is reasonable. 

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Basic Complications

As part of my research into my own fantasy heartbreaker, and because why not? I brought the Moldvay basic book on hols. Me and my son Danny sat down and rolled up characters. Then he sketched out a quick dungeon and we stocked it as we went. 

It’s all harder than I remember. 

Rolling stats was cool, as was having your choices largely made for you. It did mean copying down text onto sheets with only a vague idea of what it meant at the time (well, I knew, but Danny is fresh to all this and it took some explaining). 

Picking equipment was ok, but took a while and as my fighter tooled badly for cash there were only a few options (would rations matter? Iron or regular?)

Having a magic user with a single magic missile and 3 Hp isn’t romantic. It sucks. Danny wasn’t expecting to be so fragile, or to be able to only do one cool thing the whole game. I remember thinking the same back in 1980 to be honest. 

We rolled room contents as we went and swiftly encountered some skeletons. As there were only two PCs I adjusted the numbers down to 2 skellies. Dan’s wizard but the dust in one round. 

We decided to play on. Met a trader. Had some interaction with ourselves. Got a Potion of ESP from him. Dan asked what happened if you just had a sip. Good question. Then an Orc. Rolled some treasure. 

At this point Dan was really interested in having his own ideas in the dungeon. Like a skeleton key, a secret door in a bookcase and an illusory treasure hoard. It beat the random rolls hands down. 

And that’s the point. The Basic system is all over the place. It makes it look like its full of little processes and flow charts that unroll the gaming session before you. But it’s all odd and clunky. It makes you want to think up cooler things on the fly. So you do. It really needs a DM (unsurprisingly) to plan out all the stuff and to mitigate the fragility and randomness of the game. 

Which is all fine. In the intervening years all those challenges have been solved in various ways. It’s just a matter of picking. What I want to keep is the idea of generating adventure by procedures. Basic offers the idea, if not the implementation. 

Danny had a good time in spite of all the potentially dull outcomes. That’s because we played with our imaginations. Which is the whole point. 

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My new fantasy RPG

I’m making my own RPG. Not the first I’ve done, but this one is specifically for me. The idea came from pulling together a few threads that I usually pull at one at a time with my hobby, but I want to weave them together to make a cool gaming 50′ rope. (And hopefully I’ll use better metaphors in my book too)

My current Blueprint looks like this:

Old school vibe

My all time fave book is the Moldvay red book for Basic D&D. It’s not exactly my favorite game, but the format and the clarity are hard to beat even thirty years on. Even adding in the Cook/Marsh Expert book only brings the entire game to 128 pages. Compare and contrast with my favorite iteration of new OSR, which is Dungeon Crawl Classics. Love that game, love that book, but it’s literally unwieldy. 

Rules wise I’m looking for rules that support dungeoneering, class and level, combat and exploration shenanigans. Quick to create, full of content. 

Modern game tech

But all this with up to date mechanics. It won’t be a finely balanced core system or anything so sterile, but it will smooth off some of the original splinters in the game. Stuff like alignment, encumbrance, Vancian Magic. 

Pick up and play

It hit me quite recently that although I have an extensive RPG library, I couldn’t run or play any (most) of it with just a couple of hours notice. I’d either need to do characters, or prep an adventure, or even just reread the rules.  I miss rolling up a character, and want to include rolling up an adventure into my game. It’s not so much about being Basic, it’s more about speed to play. 

Hack and Slash

I’m getting all this by judiciously cut and pasting from my favorite SRDs. Expect a chassis based on 13th Ages Archmage engine, a smear of DCC attitude and extras, and a gloss of Labyrinth Lord on top. D&D 5e will be providing consultation. There won’t be loads of innovation to be honest, just my versions of other people’s rules that I’ve hammered into a personalized shape over the years. 
Name? Too early to say. Working title? BazRPG. Sounds cool when you say it out loud. 

I’ll post up my design diary stuff here as I go. 

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FAE example of play

I’ve spend the last few days up to my neck in D&D style games but with a Fate Accelerated session looming on the horizon. One thing I like to do to familiarise myself with the rules is to knock up a couple of characters and then put them through a combat. So here’s a FAE take on a D&D scrap. 
I fancy a Paladin first. I’m going with basic blunt aspects that won’t win any prizes, but will get the job done. Here is what I think of when I think Paladin. 
High concept: Elven Paladin of Justice

Trouble: Oathbound by Lawful Good code

Aspect: full shiny plate and shield
The others will be blank for now. On a proper character I imagine they’d tie into the world or relationships and that might not matter too much in a one off fight. 

Careful 2

Clever 2

Flashy 1

Forceful 3

Quick 1

Sneaky 0

Because I can Lay on Hands I get +2 when I carefully overcome treating wounds

Because I can Smite Evil I get +2 when I forcefully attack evil things in melee

Because I’m highly regarded once per session I can obtain a favor for free from anyone in power
Nice! Next up, a Rogue
High concept: human city guild thief

Trouble: wanted in six city states

Aspect: slippery as a greased weasel

Careful 1

Clever 2

Flashy 1

Forceful 0

Quick 3

Sneaky 2

Because I can sneak attack, I get +2 when I sneakily attack from out of sight

Because I’ve got trap sense I get +2 when I carefully overcome triggers

Because I’m incredibly agile once per session I can automatically succeed when I defend against an attack
That will do for now. Everything could be tightened up or fleshed out post play if necessary. For now, I just need a simple situation for our pair of adventurers to find themselves in. The two of them are escaping a dungeon complex. The Paladin is supporting a wounded Fighter who has been badly hurt in a previous encounter. The Rogue lugs a sack full of gold and objets d’art behind her. They are being pursued by a pack of were rats, angry at their sewer temple being defiled by surface dwellers. 
Were rats

Aspects: sewer born; lycanthropes

Skilled (+2) at; swarming and chittering, swimming, climbing

Bad (-2) at; being brave, personal hygiene

Stress: OOO (6 rats, I’m going with the mob rules here)
Rules then. This looks like a chase, which FAE handles with its Contest rules. First to three successes is the victor. Everyone gets to make an Overcome check. So how does this work with groups? Is there one check for the rats and one for the PCs? There are no specific group checks so let’s play rules as written. I’ll set the target number at 0. 
Paladin, rolling forceful as he drags the fighter. Gets -3, making the result a 0

Rogue, rolling quick (as GM I say the sack of loot will make that harder, the player doesn’t mind, what with being imaginary) She rolls a -1 getting a result of a 2, but I’m taking off another 1 for the sack, so that’s actually a final total of 1

Rats, rolling with a +2 for swarming. They get -2, for a total of 0
(My son Danny is in charge of rolling. He isn’t having much luck yet!)
As it stands, Rogue gets one success, and the Paladin and Rats tie, meaning no success for them, and a twist in the tale. Let’s say the Pally loses his grip on the Fighter who slumps to the floor behind him. As the rats close in behind, he says something noble like “go on without me! I’ll hold them off as long as I can!”. Pally isn’t having any of that and scoops him up, which we will call a self compel against the whole lawful good trouble aspect. Have a fate point. 
Rogue sighs, and ushers them all on. 
Next exchange, we stick with the same approaches, just because. I narrate some twisting and turning corridors and hurried map checking. 
Paladin, 4

Rogue, 4

Rats, 2
Ok, so the good guys tied with each other, but I can’t see how that makes for a twist, so let’s ignore that. Everyone succeeds, so that’s a second success for the Rogue, everyone else on 1. Interestingly, there hasn’t been a need to invoke any aspects yet.
Next exchange, and let’s keep going with the usual approaches. I consider turning and facing down the rats, or offering a choice of routes, or obstacles, but they are generated by ties, so let’s stay RAW. I think about how to encourage the Rogue to drop the loot, but there’s no obvious compel or invoke for that (I could maybe compel the Paladin to berate the greedy Rogue?)
Paladin, 3

Rogue, 2

Rats, 2
Ok! Paladin catches up to Rogue (second success) but so do the rats. I narrate a were rat grabbing hold of the sack of loot by its teeth and ripping and tearing at it, pulling it away from the Rogue. This will also take that Rat out of the chase, after all, they failed too. Seems I found a way to deal with the loot after all.
Now the good guys are only one success away from escape, but I’m offering a fate point as I compel the thief to fight back for the dropped loot, and the paladin to never leave a woman behind (that Trouble aspect is turning into a fate point cash cow)
So we leave the Contest rules behind and move into Conflict. Setting the scene with a bit of description; a dark and shadowy chamber, with bones carelessly scattered across the rough hewn floor. Iron braziers give off a little heat from strangely smoking coals. Tapestries hang from the walls displaying demon worshipping frenzied beasts.
Situational aspects: dark shadows; scattered bones; hot smoking coals; heavy tapestries
This is all contained in one zone I think, with maybe further zones down the passageway they came in from, and down the abandoned escape route.
Turn order based on Quick, goes Rogue, Rats, Paladin (potentially the wounded fighter. I’ll use him to shout encouragement at the end of a round.
Rogue darts to the shadows to attempt to get out of sight. Create advantage based on the dark shadows aspect. Target number 0 off the top of my head. The word ‘darts’ implies a quick approach, but I’m insisting on sneaky. Gets a 3, which is success with style, so I note two free invokes on the sticky note with ‘dark shadows’ noted on it. I foresee the rogues next action already. 
The rats surge forward toward the Paladin. They roll to attack, total 0. Paladin defends carefully (standing over prone body of Fighter), getting 4. Boom. That’s a boost for Pally. I’m tempted to simply pass over a +2 token for boosts to be honest, but if we had to scribble out a temporary aspect it would be… “Flurry of parries”
Paladin attacks back, with the boost, going with care again, for a total of 3. The rats defend comes up -2. Eek! Consider trying to invoke the shadows against the Paladin, but he’s already rolled so that seems churlish. That is a shift of 5, which blows through their stress in one sweep of a shiny long sword. 
Ok. Wasn’t really expecting that! Invoke own GM fiat to avoid anti climactic scene by having massive Were Rat Mutant stagger into the chamber roaring a challenge
Were Mutant

Massive muscles; filth carrier

Good (+2); rending, intimidating

Bad (-2); independent thought

Stress: OOO

Mild consequence slot (-2)
The Rogue takes her chance leaping from hiding with her short sword. She gets the two free invokes on dark shadows, and attacks sneakily with another +2 from her stunt. With the dice she comes up with a 7. The mutant defends with a poxy 0. There’s no comeback from that and the were rats lay defeated. 
Thoughts? I guess mooks should go down like nine pins, but even so for the goodies to not have a claw laid on them is unexpected! I’d like to have seen consequences come up, but wasn’t to be on this occasion. I’m sure everyone would have their own take on tactics and aspect use, but I tried to keep it simple and plausible. Pleased with the way the story played out, but as yet not seeing a huge difference in the fiction between Fate and other systems. 

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Blowing Hot with a Cold

Stuff has been swirling around quite nicely in recent weeks. Loads of ideas for stuff which I’ve been carefully jotting onto Google Docs before one day getting it redrafted and laid out properly. A few ideas about house rules, a scenario or two, some gaming satire, a table or two. All this for a proper old school fanzine I’m knocking up. I even have a name for it now… Deadtreehouse. It’s miles off yet, but it’s filling out.

Then I got a nasty cold. It came with it’s very own set of vicious headaches that made my brain utterly unable to do anything creative for a week. Just when I was getting a head of steam built up too. Seems you have to get this stuff down while you can.

So today, the first day in ages I haven’t been groaning into a packet of pain killers, I thought about:

  • A messenger riding a tiny t-rex
  • A meeting of heroes on a moonlit roof
  • A quest given from one PC to the others
  • An idea about being severely indebted
  • An upside down temple
  • Seeking entry to a notoriously intimidating adventurer bar
  • A monster prison in a lawful land
  • Dilemmas

Tomorrow I might have some more.

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What I played this week and what I enjoyed about it*

Been up to my ears in actual honest to goodness role playing gaming this last week. Three different sessions that lined up thusly:

D&D 5e with my usual weekly group. We wrapped up the first scenario at level 3 and the guys have voted for more. 

Savage Worlds in Glorantha GMed by Gaz, our very occasional exploration of the setting with a slightly rotating cast of pcs. 

Into the Odd with six players, from scratch, to explore the game for the Smart Party podcast.

Now, I enjoyed them all, and for different reasons. One of the things I liked most was watching the dynamics of the players as each session unfolded, seeing what decisions were taken, and why. Basically, the point of role playing games, you never quite know how it’s going to turn out. One of my faults as a GM is to try to second guess the players a bit too much, and to add explanations to their actions. I’m trying to improve them in my mind, but of course it can come across as smothering other people’s ideas. I can watch myself more readily these days, and playing in someone else’s less game always helps.

In each of the three games, options were offered to the players. Sometimes it was a matter of left or right, sometimes it was ‘what do you do?’ and sometimes it was a pause after an NPC had stopped talking which prompted a response. What I find fascinating is the differences in reaction from the three games. Yes, there were different players and systems, but actually I think the setting prompted different reactions and turned each game into something a little unique.

In our D&D game we are playing in a setting I made up, which is simply a sub-tropical, slightly piratical, Wild West smash up. It has all the basic D&Disms and the party contains a Druid, a rogue and a paladin. We all know the generic D&D world really well, and it means we can act within it with confidence. When presented with a big black dragon, in a dungeon, we knew what the world expected from us. When we had a bunch of deviant lizard folk chanting in a debased temple, again, we played with assurance. The setting reacted as we expected. 

In Glorantha, all the players are new to the setting. Gaz is our guide, and we’ve explicitly signed up for a grand tour. For me, that makes us travelers and explorers first and foremost. When the setting interacts with us, I’m less sure of my responses. Does my cult get on with their cult? What do either of us think about the Lunars? Are troll kin suffered to live? Basically, when is violence considered appropriate and what are the consequences?  I’m learning as we go, without having to do homework, and things are clicking now. 

Lastly, Into the Odd, a game that looks like fantasy from the outside but with exotica like ether and gunpowder. The players and I explored the setting through a ‘dungeon’ scenario and explored the characters at the same time. There is simply no right or wrong to actions taken, and that became quite clear quite early. In this game, you can kinda do what you like, and precedent doesn’t count for much given the custom nature of the expeditions. I found it fascinating to see how quickly it came to guns, and how readily it came to looting. Not a problem in the slightest, just interesting to see what the default adventurer behavior is.

All these games are essentially exploration games, which are my favorite. And I think my favorite way of playing these, is with a basic understanding of boundaries, but with lots of possibilities within them. Basically, murder hobo as lifestyle choice works well. Or a nicer term, adventurer. I like games that allow you to be an adventurer, and give you adventures to go on. That sounds like every game out there right? But I don’t think it is. And I might bang on about that another time. 
*a long running thread title on UKRoleplayers.com that has gone untouched for a while unfortunately. 

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Android : Netrunner RPGs – The Future Perfect

The Smart Party

Episode 29 – Android : Netrunner RPGs
(a.k.a. The Future Perfect)

Special guest time! UK Netrunner National Champion (and avid roleplayer) Alex White joins Baz and Gaz to talk about the Android : Netrunner universe and how or why you’d play there. It’s not all dark dystopia or combat chapters, new ideas via old science fiction and bright ideas emerge – join the gang on a trip through an engaging setting and discover what you could do with it.

If you want to help the lads with their endeavour to bring you the future in RPGs and give up their Day Job, maybe encourage them to write up the A:NR rpg, you can become a Patreon and support their podcasting efforts!. Or simply drop them a line with your questions, comments or things you’d like to talk about and they’ll see what they can do.

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