Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Risky Nature of Character Points

For whatever reason, the Carrion Crown review took on a life of its own.  I’m assuming that I’ll be able to wrap up what I want to say about the Adventure Path with another two entries, but rather than run the ragged edge of burning myself out on the subject, I figured to deviate into something that had been picking at my mind the last couple of days.

While researching some other reviews of Torg, I ran into a couple of reviews that talked negatively about the way in which Possibilities were handled in the game.  I will admit that this surprised me, not because I think that Torg is perfect in its execution, but because the mechanic wasn’t specifically that unique.  In the broad context of the game, Possibilities are simply the local term for the concept of what I’ve generally called character points.  There’s a larger in-game reasoning behind why they’re called Possibilities, as well as some strange ‘bending of reality as it happens’ examples in the game’s fiction, but that’s just flavor.  For the sake of this discussion, I’ll call them character points, as that was the terminology used in Star Wars, where I first used them.  A lot of other games use the same concept, but  the terminology and the specific rules that are attached to them are tweaked for whichever system you’re dealing with at the moment.

Briefly put, a character point represents a chance to recover from a bad roll at a critical moment or to guarantee some basic success as necessary.  Most modern games have this concept embedded within their rules one way or another, as the tendency is to move a certain amount of control of the game away from just being in the hands of the game master.  Most Storyteller games allow a character to expend a Willpower to get a single automatic success.  Savage Worlds offers you a couple of starting ‘Bennies’ at the beginning of each session, with more as rewards.  CthulhuTech has a pool of ten (or more) that refresh at the beginning of each game session.  So on and suchwise.

What makes this mechanic different for Torg and Star Wars (and Deadlands, with its chips) is that these points also serve as your character’s experience points.  By guaranteeing your momentary success in a given encounter, you were limiting your character’s ability to advance their skills and abilities over the longer run.

A lot of this philosophy came as a result of being the first mechanic of its sort to give players more control over the game in general.  Given the unforgiving nature of the classic era – where games like AD&D and Call of Cthulhu were prone to high character mortality and letting the dice fall where they may – it only made sense to balance the ability to save your character’s ass with some sort of penalty.  If the choice comes down to whether advancement is slowed or stopped completely, it’s not a hard decision to make.

More modern games have done away with the risky nature of character points, preferring to simply give a limited amount of control to the players without trying to offer a drawback to offset this ability.  Somewhere along the way, it feels like a game designer sat up and said, ‘Losing my experience points to keep from getting killed sucks.  Let’s make it so I can save my character from a bad roll, and it doesn’t affect my ability to improve his stats.’  And so it was.

I can sympathize.  It did suck to have to weigh how lucky I was feeling with the dice against being able to buy up my character’s gun combat or dodge skills.  But it was part of the game.  If it came down to it, both games offered ways to get around this expenditure, in the form of Force Points in Star Wars or cards in Torg.  Neither of these were ideal, as they could usually be put to better use, but they were a little easier to refresh than your character’s advancement.

But the thing of it is, there isn’t a good method to replace the risk and reward aspects.

Any game that just gives you the character points for free, no strings attached, tends to cheapen the mechanic.  My most recent example is CthulhuTech, where the points are simply refreshed at the beginning of each new session.  For the early parts of the session, I’ve watched players treat the character points as they might in Star Wars.  They keep them and conserve them, weighing their usage against whatever is going on.  Is the situation bad enough to merit this expenditure, or can my character survive a little longer without having to burn these points.

Then in the last hour of the game session, the psychology breaks down and the simple economy of time kicks in.  My players see that things are winding up to a final confrontation and blow through the points nearly as quickly as they can spend them.  After all, they’re not being paid to take them home, so they might as well toss them at whatever seems likely to finish the session that much faster.

An argument could be made that this is the final dramatic moment, the climactic battle that matters.  Unless it isn’t.  I’ve seen sessions end at a midpoint in a given plot arc, with the players deciding that these points may as well be spent seducing a waitress at their favorite restaurant or trying to evade the police while driving home from the grocery store.  It doesn’t really matter, because the overall thought is that they might as well spend them rather than lose them.  If there are points left over, they don’t carry to the next session.

I’ve found that, over the years, I’ve tried to compensate my players’ usage of character points with enough of a boost to allow them continued advancement.  If it’s a harder than normal session, where they had to dip into the pool of points that were going towards an attribute boost, I’d see fit to make sure that the reward for that session made up for it.  It had the net effect of not slowing down the advancement by any significant amount, and the perception of  a larger bonus at the end made the sacrifice seem worthwhile.

Advertisements

Reviving Ravenloft – A look at the Carrion Crown Adventure Path (Part Three)

This is actually turning out to be a longer review than I had anticipated.  If only I were paid by the word.  Or paid at all, really.  Such is the way of things.

Broken Moon is a pretty good module, overall, but it feels a bit like it’s two adventures packed into one volume.  Most of the adventure deals with the exploration of the Shudderwood, Ustalav’s great dark forest of doom, with a segment at the end that deals with recent history of Ustalav in the form of an extended zombie encounter.  In the main part, the characters are reluctant guests at Ascanor Lodge, from whence they start doing their research and trying to pick up the trail of the recently departed cultists.  Outside the walls of the lodge, werewolves prowl the night, unsettled by the events of the previous week.  One of their leaders has been slain, and it has thrown the delicate balance of the tribes into turmoil.

Were I to run this module series again (entirely possible, given), I would probably stall the action at Ascanor Lodge for a while, building it into a deeper sort of plotline.  There’s a lot of fascinating potential in being within the grasp of the scenario’s villain, even while he tries to manipulate the characters to do his dirty work and get them killed off in the process. There’s plenty of interaction within the frame of the module for dealing with the various NPC’s that dwell at the lodge, but these characters could have deeper motivations and red herring subplots to expand their role in the larger adventure.

There’s also a lot of stuff that could be done with a closer exploration of the Shudderwood itself.  In context of the module, there’s essentially a couple of encounters on the way to the lodge, an encounter based on one of the main NPC’s of the lodge itself, and then a rush towards the confrontation at the abandoned temple in the woods.  Having run Kingmaker, I could easily see adapting the hex-by-hex wilderness campaign to the Shudderwood.  The opening encounters of the region hammer in the understanding that this place is dangerous, and a couple more mysterious ruins on the way to the temple would nicely underscore that.

The big set-piece dungeon of the module is the abandoned temple to Desna that now serves as the central meeting place for the werewolves.  It’s an interesting commentary, as Desna’s the goddess of the moon and stars to begin with, and some of the werewolves are Varisian (the pseudo-Gypsies of the setting who generally worship Desna), but there isn’t a lot that’s done with it otherwise.

It does raise a strange complaint that I have about the module series as a whole, however.

Each of Paizo’s Adventure Paths dedicate themselves (in the extra, non-module material) to illuminating specific regions, monsters and gods of Golarion.  In the absence of a sister magazine – as they’d had with Dungeon and Dragon – they have to use the available space to build their setting.  It had been a very helpful feature in Dragon, and it’s a great way to give the players and GM a little more material to work from, rather than waiting for the next hardcover world guide or having to reference a number of various softsplats (like the particular nation guide, deity guide, etc.) for flavor.

For Carrion Crown, the deity guide focuses on Pharasma.  In the setting, Pharasma is the goddess of morticians and midwives, death and rebirth, fate and prophecy.  Given the amount of undead in the setting, a god that abhors the undead is a logical choice.  When I was running the campaign, naturally, one player was playing a Varisian cleric of Pharasma to keep in setting.

The problem was, until the end of Wake of the Watcher (the fourth module), it wouldn’t have mattered.  And as I was to find out, it would have made more sense for that character to have played a follower of Desna.  Admittedly, the larger part of this came from a confluence of events that took place uniquely for my particular playing group, but enough was set in motion by what happened in Broken Moon that it started seeming weird.

First off, one of the random encounters on the way into Shudderwood involved caravan of Varisian travelers (your basic in-setting Gypsies) who ended up robbing the party for some scattered valuables (including the cleric’s silver holy symbol).  At the time, it hadn’t meant anything, but I poked at the cleric about how she’d forsaken the Varisian faith.  Then there’ s a fortune telling that takes place at Ascanor Lodge, where the Varisian Madame (as in, brothel) is on hand to offer a Harrow Reading.  All right.  Nothing big there.  Just serves to reinforce the mood.

The big event took place at the Stairs of the Moon, the abandoned temple that has been claimed by the werewolves of Shudderwood.  If the characters manage to find the ritual and reconsecrate the temple to Desna, they’re granted an audience with Desna herself.  This takes the form of a prophecy of coming events (what to look forward to with the next three modules), a permanent stat boost, and having their eyes turn silver due to being in the presence of a goddess.  Even without the previous events, this sort of shook my cleric’s faith in Pharasma.  It didn’t help that the former midwife – not a lot of call for that while foiling the plans of an insidious cult – had spent weeks on the road, traveling from place to place.  (For those unfamiliar with the setting, this is the hallmark of a proper cleric of Desna.  A life on the open road with little more than the stars to guide her by.)

Finally in Illmarsh – near the beginning of the fourth module – another fairly unlikely happenstance cemented the Desna connection.  The cleric managed a critical hit on a fairly powerful monster, and since I was using the officially licensed Pathfinder Critical Hit Deck (mainly used for situations like this), it pulled the effect of shunting the monster and whatever it was holding into another dimension.  Unfortunately, it was holding the cleric at the time.  The cleric offered a joking suggestion about where she was likely to end up.  I shrugged and narrated the cleric’s arrival in the realm of Desna herself, whose servants handily dispatched the adversary in question and sat down to have a heart to heart with this rather confused cleric of Pharasma.

Knowing the need for a cleric of Pharasma to wield the minor artifact found in Wake of the Watcher, I allowed the cleric to be converted over to a new worship, while still holding many of the precepts that had carried her this far.  (In short, I allowed the player to model this through a sort of Pluralist Feat, where the cleric retained some vague connection to Pharasma while taking on the trappings of a follower of Desna.)  When I’d played in a Legacy of Fire game, the paladin had taken a 3.5 Prestige Class that essentially required this sort of set-up, blending Sarenrae and Iomedae in-setting to be able to satisfy the requirements.

In the long run, it made for a really interesting character, as the cleric wrestled with her faith and tried to make sense of the higher destinies in place.  It’s just frustrating when there’s really good flavor for one goddess, only to have another one show up in the same series.  The same thing happened in Legacy of Fire with a fantastic opening at a monastery to Sarenrae, with a set-piece in the same module that details a shrine to Nethys.  It seems to be a conscious choice on their part, but it is a bit weird.

Reviving Ravenloft – A look at the Carrion Crown Adventure Path (Part Two)

The first entry in my review of Paizo’s Ravenloft-inspired Adventure Path, Carrion Crown, dealt mainly with the first two modules of the series, The Haunting of Harrowstone and The Trial of the Beast.  In the interest of space, I cut the first review at that point, not wanting to spill into the 4~5,000 words range.  I probably could have dealt with all six modules in the adventure path, but there are some outlying issues that I wanted to touch on as I went along.

In the first entry, I touched briefly on the metaplot of the Adventure Path.  Being the larger, overarching plot of the module series, the metaplot is pretty important in the long run.  It gives the characters a reason to follow through on their investigations, and it does what it can to string the different events into a coherent whole.  Since each of the six individual modules are written by different authors (something that remains in force for all of Paizo’s AP offerings, extending back into the days of Dungeon Magazine), the metaplot is often the only way that any of the scattered narratives can be brought together.  It can’t be an easy thing.

The reason I say this is because there are some notable rough patches in some of the Adventure Path plots.  There are points in some of them where narratives are sort of tacked on, and other points where abrupt shifts in tone seem to take over.  I’m not laying blame on anyone with these, as it’s what is going to happen with this many thousand words and the strict deadlines that Paizo is working with.

To its credit, Carrion Crown avoids a lot of specific missteps in the way it comes together.  The worst sin that can be lain at its feet is the exuberance in which the path switches between monster genres.  And for the sake of covering the necessary ground, that can probably be forgiven.

The way that the modules follow the metaplot, in the mean time, can be called into question.  Starting early in the second module, the characters are presented with a strange, unsolvable mystery.  When the Beast of Lepidstadt is apprehended, it had aided in the theft of a mysterious statue.  From there, the modules progress forward, never giving any hint to the players about why this particular maguffin is important, until a footnote at the very end of the fourth module brings the statue back into the hands of the characters.

In the mean time, the characters are supposedly hot on the trail of a pair of ‘dark riders’ (sadly, not Ringwraiths) who always manage to be one step ahead of anything the characters do.  About the third time it happens, it starts to seem comical.  They get to the forest?  Just missed them.  They find the ancient shrine to Desna?  Oh, sorry.  They end up at the war torn dead fields of Feldgrau?  Whoops, you should have been here about 20 minutes ago.  And so on.  As with the statue stolen from Lepidstadt, there isn’t any closure brought to this until the end of module four.

There’s an interesting note in the final module of the series, where the editor, Wes, talks about integrating the main villain into the larger plot of the series.  His suggestion (based as it is in classic horror movie stylings) has Adivion Adrissant take an active role in taunting the player characters all along, leaving notes and clues for them with the various cultists that he knows they’re going to kill.  He laments that he hadn’t managed to include this at the outset of the path but suggests that it might be a good exercise for the GM who has time for a little prep and the entire modules series in front of him at the time.

And really, it’s a great idea.  Personally, I would go a step further and have the character of Adrissant show up here and there in disguise, making conversation with the characters at the bar or in passing on the street, but that’s just my own personal take on things.  It would go a long way to smoothing off the rough edges of having the cultists able to elude the characters for three full modules.  (Four, if you bring in the standalone Carrion Hill module between Broken Moon and Wake of the Watcher.)  It also gives the GM a better interplay than the taunting missives that Adrissant leaves for the heroes.

So, at the end of the second module, the characters are given a bit more information about where to go next and sent forward to stop the larger plots in play.  Where the first module only hinted at the conspiracy, the second module confirms it and makes it clear that the player characters are about the only people available to investigate.

The third module has them head into the wild, bucolic woods in search of cultists.  The main area is the hunting lodge for rich idiots, with various incursions into werewolf politics as the driving force of the first half of the module.  The characters have to deal with the plots of the human villain, as he covers up his involvement with the cult that serves as the AP’s primary villain and the characters have to defuse a strange tangle of werewolf politics.

This is another thing that seems weird about the Adventure Path, as a whole.  There are some specific points in the series where the heroes are expected to help the monsters, rather than hunt them down.  This becomes particularly evident in module five, where most of the interplay in the module takes place with vampires.  Given that a vampire hunter character archetype is pretty likely in the scope of the module series, this is probably going to end up being frustrating.  To their credit, the module takes this into consideration, with ways to complete the plot once all of the damned vampires have been staked, but really…  it diminishes the module and the way that it’s meant to be played.

Similarly, module two has the characters run ragged to keep Frankenstein’s Monster from being executed.  Weirdly, there’s quite a bit of sleep deprivation involved in that module, given that the characters have to ride out into the wilderness to investigate and then return to give their testimony the next morning.  This sequence is where the Lesser Restoration spell hilariously becomes the Pathfinder equivalent to Red Bull.

The final verdict, for whatever reason, is that the monsters are less monstrous and evil than the humans that walk amongst them.  Even the war torn fields of the dead in Feldgrau are largely the fault of the people in the setting.  Maybe this is why so many horror movie creatures feel like settling in Ustalav.  They’re not the ones to be feared in this dark and horrible land.

Oddly though, this concept does not touch the player characters themselves.

You see, in Ravenloft, much of the flavor of the setting was the constant temptation towards evil.  And if a character took any steps towards actually fulfilling the evil thoughts that swirled around them, they would be rewarded by the dark powers that governed Ravenloft.  At first, it would a be a minor thing, offset by a minor drawback, but the nature of the rewards would become progressively more powerful.  And the drawbacks would slowly become debilitating curses, an outward sign of the corruption that gnawed at the heart of the hero so tempted.

While I was running Carrion Crown, I felt that the characters had to make a conscious choice to fight back against the evil that surrounded them.  The problem with this was that there wasn’t any mechanical reason for the players to hold to this.  Granted, this was a single Adventure Path with very little spare room left over, but the Ustalav setting book could have dealt with it, as could have some other source.  I always felt the temptation of the dark powers was a necessary part of Ravenloft’s feel, so having it missing from the latter day homage felt weird.  Then again, my Star Wars games always had a heavy Dark Side presence, so it may just be me.

Reviving Ravenloft – A look at the Carrion Crown Adventure Path (Part One)

Ah, Ravenloft.  If there was one game supplement that I could blame for most of my evolution as a gamer, it would be the original boxed set campaign setting from 1990.  It opened my eyes to how subtly horror could be handled in a game system that expected heroes to be able to stand up to any obstacle.  In a lot of ways, the tips it offered were ways not to work creeping dread upon the characters, but on the players themselves.  Uncertainty, unease, and deliberate forms of misdirection all came together to put the players off balance and start second-guessing their actions.  These are all great techniques that have served me well over the years.

Carrion Crown was Paizo’s love letter to the greatest campaign setting ever wrought.  Even their product description on the Paizo website hints at their obvious homage, as it opens with speaking of ‘the mists’ of the dark land itself.

The action opens with a funeral on a rainy day, the characters having traveled to the dreary town of Ravengro to bury their collective mentor, Professor Lorrimor, who is likely a stand-in for Ravenloft’s Rudolph Van Richten.  Naturally, the good professor died under mysterious circumstances, and in the midst of coming to town to pay their respects, the characters are drawn into the plot.

As far as set-ups go, it’s a classic one.  A funeral in the rain, a weeping daughter, and a small, desolate town in the shadow of an infamous prison, its stone walls now lying in ruin.  The prison, naturally, is haunted, and the ghosts of the worst serial killers in the history of Ustalav lie in wait, their tortured souls seeking to escape the prison that held them in life.  (As a side note, being the worst murderers in the history of Ustalav is really saying something.  This place is a regular horrorshow to begin with, and these four ghosts somehow made it to the top of the list.)

As a standalone module, this is a pretty solid offering.  The characters are working against a ticking clock, as the ghosts, disturbed from their rest by the workings of the Adventure Path’s larger metaplot, are slowly worrying away at the bonds that hold them in the prison.  If they’re able to escape before the characters can put them down, the town stands to be destroyed completely.  There are plenty of spooky happenings in the town, as well as on the grounds of the prison, which offer a sense of foreboding to the proceedings.

What’s interesting about Harrowstone is that the module borders on impossible if the party doesn’t have a cleric on staff.  And if they do, many of the encounters become startlingly simple.  Being that the bulk of the module is made up of ghosts and haunts (the ghostly equivalent of traps; these are actually really neat ideas that deserve to be used a lot more from here on out), a simple Channel Positive Energy will take care of a lot of the encounters.  More than a few of the areas in Harrowstone involved the cleric of Pharasma stepping through the door, using a Channel, and the rest of the characters looking around for loot.  Without the cleric, the characters have to use a number of workarounds to deal with the absurd number of apparitions.

As far as the metaplot goes, there’s enough to connect it with the larger plots of the Adventure Path, but not enough that it becomes intrusive.  Essentially, the characters can discover the traces of cultish meddling that’s behind the unquiet dead, and they’re dutifully sent along to the next city on the cult’s list by the good professor’s daughter, carrying books to the professor’s friends in the next module as part of the will.

Each of the modules in the series deals with a different horror trope, which is an interesting mode to explore all of the different genres of horror.  The Haunting of Harrowstone, as the first module, deals with ghosts.  From there, we get to the setting’s version of Dr. Frankenstein and his creature in The Trial of the Beast, as well as the Golarion versions of Burke and Hare.  The third module, Broken Moon, throws together werewolves and zombies, where the fourth, The Wake of the Watcher, goes all Lovecraft-inspired.  Ashes at Dawn involves both vampires and hags, where the final module, Shadows of Gallowspire, fuses more haunted house motifs with a stock of liches and, oddly, what seems to be a throwaway reference to Hellraiser.

Paizo Adventure Paths have a tendency to be a bit … uneven … in tone, and Carrion Crown is no exception to that.  The decision to include every available horror genre was a brave on the editor’s part, but it had the effect of making Ustalav seem a whole lot weirder than it may have needed to be.  A lot of the strange inconsistency of the setting can be hand-waved away with requirements of the plot, but at least with Ravenloft, there was an in-game reason for all of the various horror tropes to be thrown in a pot with each other.  With Ustalav, it seems like they got some sort of special tax breaks for moving in.

To their credit, they tried to make the different adversaries in the different modules seem like they kept out of sight from normal people and hid in the shadows as necessary, but about the fourth or fifth time that happens, it seems like someone would notice all the damned vampires.  (Yeah, a Lost Boys reference.  Why not?)

The second module has a serious Call of Cthulhu vibe to it, as the characters are called on to investigate the weird happenings that have been pinned to the Beast of Lepidstadt, who is on trial for a series of murders.  And one rather incongruous theft.  The set pieces to the investigation are well done, as is the presentation of evidence at the trial.  The defense attorney is incompetent, to say the least, and it’s up to the players to do the heavy lifting.  There’s a couple of interesting subplots that can be built as they wander around a decent sized city, but once they’ve finished the main investigation, it’s off to the mad scientist’s sprawling castle for the final showdown, after which they’re on the road again.

The first module was fine in how it handled the metaplot.  From Trial of the Beast onward, it seems like the player characters are constantly one step behind the evil cultists.  This can work, depending on the gamemaster, but it can also become pretty frustrating, pretty quickly.  Especially when it is the main driving force behind the plot for about three or four modules.

Trial of the Beast is also where it starts to diverge pretty heavily from standard D&D expectations.  The characters are thrown in a module with Frankenstein’s Monster, and they have to do everything in their power to make sure that he doesn’t get thrown in the Wicker Man to burn.  (Yeah, they did that.)  And it’s only a weird bit at the end that gives them the chance to actually fight a flesh golem, almost as an afterthought.  In Broken Moon, there’s a heavy political vibe, where the characters are sort of nudged in the direction of navigating their way through the different factions of werewolves, and in Ashes at Dawn, the module really, really wants the characters to avoid killing all the vampires they run into.  (This is especially noted in the foreword of the book, where the editor laments the natural tendencies of all D&D characters ever.)

And rather than overload the general attention span of any current or future readers, I might as well split this review into sections.  I’ll post more on Carrion Crown tomorrow.

Of storms and cards and largely forgotten games

Y’know, for a guy with a library, almost none of this blog has dealt with the contents of this mythical collection.  I’ve covered most of the other topics from my Kilroy post, but the one bit that I thought I would spend the most time on has been the one that has gotten short shrift in the process.  It’s a cross between being an embarrassment of riches – when you have dozens of different game lines, which one do you pick to start with? – and debating if I should write about something that will drive page views, rather than drive people away.  On one end of the spectrum, I have posts concerning various Star Wars RPG’s, and on the other end, I’m going to be talking about games like Phoenix Command and Millenium’s End.

At the end of it all, it’s probably best to strike somewhere in the middle, pulling out a game that people of a certain age in the hobby have heard of but isn’t on too many people’s shelves either.

And the game of the moment is Torg.

Torg came out in 1990, at the start of the weird gaming explosion that would mark the decade.  The 1980’s were an era of experimentation with the early models of the games of the 1970’s, where the different companies tried to get away from the examples set by TSR, even though they knew that was the center of the industry.  Towards the end of the decade, WEG’s D6 system had come into being, and Ars Magica was experimenting with troupe style play (something that never went very far) and the dicing system that would become the Storyteller System.

The first thing that Torg did that set it apart was its marketing.  At GenCon in 1989, they gave away mottled chunks of plastic at their booth, promising that it was the next great thing and telling the gamers to come back next year.  Over the intervening months, they started advertising in the gaming magazines with minimalist ads.  On a background of dark storm clouds, there would be a cryptic quote from a person talking about how they had no idea that the world was coming to an end.  And the teasers would talk about how the storm was coming and your character had less than a year to prepare.  Towards the end of the campaign, right before the reveal, the teasers noted that ‘The Storm has a name.  It calls itself Torg.”

The game itself worked on a principle of ‘The Near Now.’  “Later today, early tomorrow, sometime next week … the world began to end.”  It was all supposed to be present day, present time, with your character being someone that was jarred out of their everyday existence by a fantastical war that threatened not just their way of life but their very grasp on reality.  I’m a huge fan of using the real world as a backdrop, if only for the idea that the players have a better base to visualize their characters and setting.

There was a lot of really, really heavy stuff going on in Torg.  The fact that the rolling system hinged on the GM being able to understand a logarithmic scale for difficulty was something that turned a lot of people off from the deeper complexities of the game, but the philosophy of the setting was epistemologically and teleologically difficult at a quick glance.  A character’s grasp of their own personal reality and its philosophical underpinnings was an actual score on their character sheet.  And they could attempt to overlay that belief onto events and creatures whose very existence was anathema to these beliefs.

As an example, it notes that very few people in the Core Earth setting actually understand the physics behind how a firearm works.  You pull the trigger, and it kills things.  But if you were to confront a character from a high magic setting with a gun, they would not have the same belief that the gun would work to kill them, let alone accepting that the physics required for the gun to function have any bearing on the argument.  Inversely, they operate on a system of magic that they have studied and understand, so they hold onto that belief which allows them to case a fireball.  And if their belief that your gun does not work is backed up by their environment, then your gun doesn’t work.  You would have to forcibly activate your sense of reality to get it to work properly.

As to the rolling system, you could get by without having a deep understanding of the logarithmic scale that formed the core mechanics of the system, but the dice themselves were fairly non-intuitive.  The game relied entirely on D20 rolls, which were then compared to a chart on the bottom of the character sheet.  The rolls open-ended on 10’s and 20’s, allowing a largely unlimited scale to roll from.  This number was then added to the particular attribute plus skill number that formed your skill base and compared to a difficulty.  Not exactly complicated, but like I say, it was fairly non-intuitive.  You knew that anything above an 11 on the chart was a bonus, and the higher the roll, the better the bonus, but you needed the chart to get more specific than that.

There were two things that truly set Torg apart from other games of the time.

First were the cards.  Every boxed set of Torg came with a deck of about 150 Drama Cards.  These cards were used both to determine initiative and to offer players some control over the scene they were in.  For initiative, the GM flipped over the top card of the Drama Deck, which noted whether villains or heroes went first and what sort of conditions they were subject to.  (This had an odd effect of making any sort of inner party conflict really hard to adjudicate.  This was probably purposeful, but when Masterbook offered cards to screw with other members of the party, it didn’t help.)  The conditions were things like free bonus dice, health restoration, or extra actions for either side – or negatives like equipment breaking or card removal.  They also offered bonus cards for doing specific things in the heat of combat, such as successfully ridiculing your opponent or dramatically staring them down.

The cards could also be used to influence the course of play, allowing a character to avoid being wounded, gaining a slight advantage on one or their rolls, or entirely negating an opponent’s successful attack.  They also allowed the player characters to directly influence the plot of the scene through Subplot Cards.  These were a fascinating little mechanic that offered the GM new direction for the plot.  The most commonly used card was the Romance Subplot, where an applicable NPC was romantically inclined towards one of the characters.  This came up regularly, where a girl would fall to the character’s charms and agree to help them, despite their better interests.  There were also cards like Mistaken Identity, Personal Stake, and True Identity, where one of the characters had a deeper connection to whatever plot was going on than they originally let on.  (Or in the case of Mistaken Identity, one of the NPC’s has decided that they’re connected to the plot, even when they actually weren’t.)

The second notable innovation for Torg was the ability to build non-combat characters.  These days, this seems like a bit of a given, even in the most historically grognard games like D&D where Bards are a viable concept.  But in 1990, it was a strange and wondrous thing.

The way it worked was this:  Attributes essentially hinged on three separate axes.  There were the physical stats, which came into play in Combat.  There were the mental stats, which worked for Magic.  And there were the Spiritual stats, which worked for Social and Miraculous.  It was pretty simple to max out a character in the physical stats, so they could never be hit or take serious damage.  But when you came up against a Cyberdemon using a Pain Weapon, which tested against your Spirit, you were pretty much fucked.  And Cyberdemons themselves were vulnerable to mental attacks, such as Taunts, which could cause them to lapse into a bout of cyberpsychosis.  (This was due to the extreme amount of cyberware they were sporting, as the more machine they were, the crazier they got.)

And since the cards regularly rewarded players for doing something in combat other than simply shooting at their adversary, actually Taunting an enemy was pretty advantageous.

The actual world set of Torg was fairly fascinating, as well.  Since the Earth was being invaded by other realities (and their specific genres), it was possible to play a pulp noir character alongside a high elf from a world of fantasy, both of whom are catching a ride from Joe-Bob the trucker, who just wants to get his freight to Pittsburgh.  There were ninjas in the corporate reality of Japan, dinosaurs invading New York, Cyberdemons overtaking Los Angeles, and dragons over London.  North Africa was home to mystery men and pulp villains, a la The Shadow and Indiana Jones, where France had been overtaken by a cybernetic version of the Spanish Inquisition.  And most of Indonesia had fallen to gothic horror and weird Victorian invaders.

And since characters could ostensibly learn skills from all of these various realities to better fight the invaders, it became fascinatingly diverse very quickly.

As should be fairly evident, Torg is one of my all time favorite games, from its depth and scope.  Sadly, I’ve only rarely been able to run the game in its full setting, as my usual attempts (like the previously referenced Torg SWAT game) tend to focus on the run up to the war, rather than the war itself.  There’s much more to talk about with Torg as a game, but for the time being, I’ll keep this entry to a manageable length.

There are no reasons

In my Kilroy Post, I noted that one of the things I wanted to do with this blog was to throw out occasional discarded game ideas.  As I’ve noted, I keep a multitude of notebooks on hand, the fragments and theories of half-baked game ideas scattering across their pages.  Most of these ideas never make it much farther than the planning phase, either due to time and interest or to the suitability of the campaign to my available players.  There have been a lot of these ideas that have been stillborn on the page, never to see the light of day anywhere else.

That’s why I wanted to set aside time to talk about them here.

But in light of my previous post about preparation, I wanted to talk about how my ideas tend to adapt according to the needs of the game, as well as some of the methods I employ to generate ideas.  So rather than talking about a campaign idea that I know I’ll never get around to, I want to talk about one that I actually ran for one of my groups.

First, a little background.

My experience of espionage and tactical modern games has been spoiled by the weird experiences I’ve had over the years.  One of my friends dearly loved running real world spy games.  The problem was that while TSR had done a fine job in creating Top Secret/TS-SI, he didn’t feel that it fit his mode of realism.  Especially when it came to dealing with gun combat.  As such, he substituted in the ballistics-based combat system from Phoenix Command.

And right there?  That was me losing what little audience I had.

You see, Phoenix Command was a game from Leading Edge Games, a small company from the mid-80’s that focused on two things:  Games built from licensed properties and games built on the real physics of weaponry.  The latter was what drew my GM to use it for his spy games, and this was also the reason that no other gamer bothered with Phoenix Command as a game.  Muzzle velocity and bullet weight were necessary parts of the damage calculations, in an era when abstracted weapon damage was becoming more appealing.

What this taught me was that the system of the game had less to do with the enjoyment of the game than the GM’s own personal investment did.  Phoenix Command is a woefully esoteric and complex system, but it allowed my friend to be able to describe the gun battles the way he wanted to.  If he’d kept to Top Secret, where the skills and spycraft are given more focus, he wouldn’t have had as much fun running the game as he did.  And it would have suffered.

With this in mind, I’ve tended to use Masterbook and Torg as my default game systems for modern games with a lot of guns.  I’ve tried to wrap my head around Phoenix Command, but there’s a lot more game there than I can deal with.  Msaterbook has a certain amount of hidden complexity, based as it is on a logarithmic scale for its calculations, but it’s one that I’ve gotten rather proficient with over the years.  And it has other elements to it that I enjoy, particularly in the the form of the card play mechanics that alter the plot of the game as you go along.  (Naturally, I’ll be touching on this mechanic in another post.)

The campaign in question was a modern day police game.  I’d been watching a lot of Burn Notice and Dexter, so the natural inclination was to set the game in Florida.  There’s a lot of flavor to Miami, and it’s something that most of my players would be able to easily visualize.  One thing I try to do in most of my games is give the players a setting that they can grab hold of.  Part of this owes to my background as a horror GM, because it’s a lot easier to portray things going steadily wrong if the players know how things should be.  (Or as one of my cohort succinctly put it, ‘You have to know what color the rug is, so you can see it being pulled out from under you.’)

Depending on the longevity of the game, I could have taken the game towards an actual setting-compliant Torg game, with the Maelstrom Bridges dropping and things falling into war and martial law.  For the opening of the game, I was just looking to give the players the chance to have guns and use them cinematically.  To reflect this, I made them part of the Dade County SWAT Team.  And away we went.

As a post-mortem, the game actually ran really well.  It just didn’t run as long as I would have liked, due to a strange amount of player attrition and being distracted by other games, but it was well liked for the sessions it had.  Which is enough, by most people’s standards.

One of the last sessions that I ran of the game was taken from my own particular muse, namely that of evocative song lyrics.  I have a history of adapting music into my games, either as soundtracks for the sessions or as sources of ideas for the adventures themselves.  In addition to my library of RPG books, I also maintain a library of several thousand CD’s to draw from.  (Had I lived like a monk and invested every penny that went to music, books, and Magic cards, I would likely have a very nice house and sports car.  Alas.)

The song in question was ‘I don’t like Mondays,’ by the Boomtown Rats.  In general, it’s a great song, and it has the weird bonus of being based on real events.

The silicon chip inside her head
Gets switched to overload

The thing is, I’m less interested in the history of the song than what it actually says to me.  The opening line has a lot of potential in it, especially if we’re throwing weird science and unlikely cybertech into the mix.  So, working with that idea, we’ve got a mass shooting due to an actual silicon chip in a girl’s head.  Sounds good so far.  Where do we go from this point, and how does it affect our SWAT team characters?  There’s the possibility of using a school, much like the song does, but that’s a little obvious.  And frankly, there’s been enough real world school shootings to make this seem a bit ghoulish if pushed in that direction.

On the other hand, a mall seems like fair game.  (Naturally, this took place before the mall shooting in Kenya, so there wasn’t any stigma in that regard.)  Malls have plenty of open lines of fire for an adversary, it’s a logical place to find a teenaged girl, and there are a multitude of places to hide.  So, what I’ve got is a nascent plot and setting, all I need is to be able to tie it back to the characters and give it some sort of creepy foreshadowing.

The Telex machine is kept so clean
And it types to a waiting world

This is where I lucked out.  One of the player characters had been established as collecting older bits of tech.  He was the team computer expert, so this was how he gave the guy some flavor.  To bring it back to the source lyrics (as well as give it a proper air of surreality), I had the character in question get a very strange phone call from his mother.  He shows up at his parents’ condo to find that the Telex machine that he was keeping in storage there had spontaneously started printing something off.  Naturally, it was unplugged, making it that much more improbable.  The sheet that he retrieved from the machine offered some cryptic clues about the girl, none of which made sense at the time.

So the basic scenario runs as such:

The girl is part of a choir group that is set to travel to a competition elsewhere in Florida.  Knowing this, a mysterious group kidnapped her and several of her fellow choristers and implanted the lot with cybernetic combat skill chips to use them as unwitting soldiers.  (There was a metaplot reason for this, as the characters would eventually discover that there were multiple warring factions working behind the scenes.  Or they would have, had the game continued.)  The morning of the incident, she accidentally gave herself a shock from a poorly wired light switch at the mall, and the chip that was supposed to trigger later went off.

Now that the combat chip was directing her, she started shooting up the mall, using a security guard’s gun.  And since she was wired with advanced instincts, she’s managed to keep anyone from realizing who was doing the shooting.  It’s about this time that the cops show up to lock down the area.  She starts playing cat and mouse with the SWAT team, dividing them, confusing them, and playing possum when it suits her.  Since they’re expecting some sort of assault force, they’re pretty well blindsided by a 16-year old Latina girl in decidedly non-tactical clothing.

It plays out with the tech character being the only one who suspects the girl to be responsible, and he’s faced with the moral quandary of what to do.  In the end, he manages to take her down non-lethally, as the sheet of paper suggested that he do, and a medical examination shows the existence of a chip.

All in all, it was a properly tense session that played to a lot of character’s strengths, and the mystery that went with it merely heightened the tension.  And all I really did for preparation was look up some mall layouts and listen to some classic rock music.

Character Knowledge, Player Knowledge & the Differences Therein

We’ve all heard it.  Keep your understanding of the scenario as a player separate from what your character is going to act upon.  Metagaming is one of the weirder sins of role-playing, since it works on such a strange depth of immersion.  You have to drop into the mask of your character to such an extent that you make a conscious effort to forget that you’re sitting around a table, contemplating a sheet of paper and a handful of dice, and narrating a fictional persona.  You have to become the fictional persona on some level, following the established motivations without overthinking the rational consequence.

It’s hard to do.  And it’s a great moment when you have a group with such synergy that everyone at the table can get to that point collectively, narrating this fictional world and undertaking fictional conversations with the same ease that we navigate the real world outside of our gaming tables.

But that’s not what I’m talking about here.

What I’m talking about is the inverse.  To be sure, there is more than enough to talk about with metaknowledge and all that entails, of how there’s no way that your character would know things that you picked up from long years of playing the game and perusing its rulebooks.  But what happens when your character is confronted with something that they would be generally used to as a matter of inhabiting their world, yet it’s something that you have utterly no connection to?

Consider:  I’m playing a young priestess of Desna in the Rise of the Runelords game we’ve been slowly working our way through over the past couple of years.  She’s a 17 year old girl from a small town on the outskirts of the greater world.  She’s fought goblins and undead and demons.  She’s even died once.  All in all, a pretty basic character for a D&D game.  Other than rules revisions, she could be anyone’s character from the past 40 years.

I have literally no way to make sense of the things that this character has gone through.  I can imagine it, sure.  That is the basis of my role-playing for her.  But if I, personally, were confronted with even a single encounter that she’s been through, I’d probably die on the spot.  If I had to fight wave after wave of zombies, it would be a horror movie rather than a lighthearted fantasy scenario.  For her, that’s not even enough to break a sweat or be concerned about.  It’s a mundane part of her daily routine.

So, when I’m stuck in a situation with no immediately logical way out, my first instinct is to see if my character has a better handle on it than I do.  I will admit to being stumped by the way things happen in games from time to time.  It could be that it’s an off day for me, there’s some sort of miscommunication between the GM and me as a player, or it could be any of a myriad of other things going on.  These are the points when I want the GM to throw me a bone and tell me something that my character would know about the scenario that I, as a player, would not.

Because there have been plenty of situations where not knowing something that my character would innately be aware of would have gotten my character killed.  This can come in the form of having the character blunder into a situation that the GM expects the player to recognize, or it can come through an imperfect understanding of the rules, which works to the player’s disadvantage.

I’ve played and read through enough of the classic adventures to understand just how brutal they were inclined to be.  You only need to be confronted with a couple of ‘Save or Die’ scenarios to get a feel of the way things were in the early days of the hobby.  This is why games like D6 Star Wars were so groundbreaking at the time.  Cinematic games allowed your character to have a death that actually meant something, where AD&D and Call of Cthulhu enshrined the meaningless and unmourned death by random happenstance.  Characters didn’t have to die from a simple bad throw of the dice.  Part of this came from the advent of ‘character points’ and the like from games like D6 Star Wars, but part of it also came as part of the understood conventions of the genre.

Lately, there’s been a movement that’s been trying to romanticize the ‘Save or Die’ era of gaming in the OSR axis of the hobby.  One guide I skimmed talked about the purity and flexibility of these rules and the mindset that went with them, contorting itself through justification after justification.  The best example of the idiocy of this particular writer was the description of a room within a scenario, where the players had to describe every action that their characters were going to take to search the place.  And if it didn’t occur to a player to move the moose head in just the right manner, the treasure of the scenario was never going to be found.  It was a case of trying to replicate the old ‘hunt the pixel’ video games in a pen and paper setting.

Narratively, it makes far more sense for a player to simply roll the dice and have the GM describe what happens in the case of a success or failure.  As a player, I’m not exactly well-versed in larceny (although, if I were, my collection would likely be that much greater), and I’m not able to read the GM’s mind to decipher what exactly is expected.  As such, I can only fumble about the room haphazardly.  My character, on the other hand, is a lot more used to doing shit like this, especially if the skill ranks reflect that amount of practice.

This is not to mention that having a group of players rub every square inch of the room is a lot less interesting than things like role-playing or combat.  Personally, I’d much rather get a description of the area, investigate the parts that seem to be important, and move on.  If I need to throw some dice to get that done, here’s hoping I don’t end up critically failing in the effort.

It also brings to mind an example that I remember from an old Star Frontiers module.  (Whuf.  There’s a game that no one has any interest in reviving.  We’ve had seven editions of Gamma World, but Star Frontiers?  Let it stay dead, it seems.)  At one point in the adventure, the characters get trapped in a hallway full of junk and the air quality starts to degrade rapidly.  I can’t remember if the air was being rapidly sucked out, or if it was a case of simply running out of breathable oxygen over the course of a day or so.  (And I’m far too lazy to dig the module out to reference the event in question.)  Anyway, the text of the module explains that there are a couple of solutions for the characters to live through the encounter, including using a battery to split the water into hydrogen and oxygen.

This was a module that I was reading some time in middle school.  At the time, none of the implied solutions would have been terribly obvious to me, so it looked like some sort of awful, awful death trap that killed the module on the spot, full stop.  And thinking about it now, my character would have been able to come up with one of the escapes with a couple of minutes of consideration and investigation.  But the way the module was designed, it didn’t matter that my character would have been able puzzle it out; he was going to get punished for what I, as a player in middle school, didn’t know to do.

Obviously, there has to be some give and take when applying this sort of logic.  The one end of the spectrum, where the OSR dipshits want to dwell, the character is only able to know things that the player himself knows or undertake the actions that the player specifically outlines.  The extreme other end of the spectrum has the player refusing to narrate any of his actions, assuming that a simple roll of the dice removes him from having to actually think about things in the game or play his character.

But at the end of the day, gaming has grown past the ‘Save or Die’ mentality of 1970’s D&D.  It should also be able to leave the ‘I lovingly caress the moosehead both clockwise and counterclockwise’ sort of actions with it.

A notebook full of scattered thoughts

Everywhere I live, there comes a point where I have to set aside a box in some out-of-the-way closet to deposit old, battered notebooks filled with half-baked thoughts sketched out over hours of captive tedium.  I’ve carried a notebook with me since middle school, and whenever I have time to myself – either during a class, downtime at work, or a stretch of boredom on public transit – I sketch out whatever interesting game idea has come to me in the meantime.  Normal and successful people work on business plans and ways to become cripplingly wealthy; I’m about one step above who I was in middle school, working out ideas for the latest iteration of The Dungeon of Dread.  This is why I set aside a blog category for Discarded Game Ideas.

Talking about the ease of preparation between systems like D20 and D6 set me to thinking about these myriad notes I’ve made over the years.

In the past, I would sketch out broad swathes of plot, hammering out details on the villain’s motivations and the weird happenstance that would ensnare the characters into the main, important events of whatever was going on.  I loved the slow reveal of something well beyond the characters’ ability to deal with, the hints of which had been lain down over the course of half a dozen to a dozen sessions of the game.  I loved foreshadowing and intricacy and that golden moment when one of the players looked up from their notes with a vague look of horror on their face as they finally put together some previously established plot detail.

One note to the audience:  I suck at one-shot games.

This is why I have the love that I do for Paizo’s Adventure Paths.  They’re generally pretty well crafted, they unfold over the course of a longer timeline, and there’s a lot of stuff that the players can dive into.  In short, they write the sort of adventures that I like to run.  And I don’t have to scribe copious amounts of notes beforehand.

That said, my note taking has decreased sharply over the years.  Part of this owes to different amounts of free time (since I moved, I haven’t had the regular stints on public transit; parallel to this, my MP3 players have started to gather dust), but part of it also owes to being able to shorthand a lot of my plots.  Much like writing, the crafting of RPG plots becomes a lot easier, the more practice you have at it.

It also helps to know the group you’re running for.  When I was living abroad, with limited access to gaming groups, a lot of my note-taking and preparation was in a vacuum.  I’d work up plots that I wanted to eventually run, once I was in a place where I could have a group to run different games for.  (The strange truth is that, when you’re in a foreign country, the default game of choice tends to be Dungeons & Dragons.  It’s just what happens.)  I would plan out extremely detailed plots and settings, not knowing what sort of modifications I might have to make once I got around to running the games in question.

These days, I’ve got an established group whose likes and dislikes are readily known.  I know they’re unlikely to get into specific sorts of plots, so I don’t have to trouble myself to write those.  And I’ve got a good idea of the sorts of adventure hooks that I need to throw out to pique their interests, leaving me less time needed to prep the intros.  I can focus on crafting scenes and conflicts, now that the picky details have been taken care of.

In a lot of ways, this can be a godsend.  Being able to distill the game down to the memorable scenes – rather than trying to pay attention to the larger metaplot – allows me to sharpen things up, make specific moments a lot more cinematic, and generally tailor the adventure to the tastes of my playing group.

It can also make a person extremely lazy.

On the surface, this seems like a bad thing.  Laziness in running a game can lead to a lot of dropped plots and missed opportunity, but it all falls into degrees.  The far end of the spectrum has the GM unable to engage the characters and falling back on misdirection or unnecessary combat to fill the void.  On the other end of the scale, laziness can take the form of simply letting the players take a greater degree of control over the plot.  There have been a lot of games I’ve run in the last few years that I consider to be relatively lazy efforts on my part, since all I had to do during some sessions was show up and referee the proceedings.

As a side note:  I’ve always been fascinated by the terms that games use to designate the person creating the adventure and arbitrating the action.  ‘Dungeon Master’ and ‘Game Master’ are pretty obvious ones, but I’ve seen ‘Referee’ quite a bit as well.  And C of C’s ‘Keeper’ always amused me, as did Deadlands’ ‘Marshal.’

The thing is, those sessions where I did mostly nothing but let the players direct the action?  My players loved them.  I’d set enough things in motion beforehand that all I had to do was let them interact with each other to move the plot forward.  One example that comes to mind was when they created an impromptu trial for another player character, based on what he’d done the previous session.  For the most part, I let them role-play it out, offering up occasional input from relevant NPC’s.  Otherwise, it was their show.

But there’s something that needs to be stressed about scenarios like this.  The game didn’t start out like this.  I’d been running it for a couple of months at this point, and around the time they decided to hold the trial, they were already hip deep in larger, more complicated plots.  I’d done the requisite preparation already, and the game was sort of going on autopilot when they started taking things in new directions.  Had they not taken another PC to task for all that was going on, I’d have pushed them down another avenue of plot.

In the end, preparation is key to making your games worth a damn, but it goes hand in hand with knowing what your playing group will respond to.  Even when you’re running a canned module, like one of Paizo’s Adventure Paths, you would do well to read it over carefully beforehand and emphasize the bits that your players will be most interested in.  If they’re a group of social combat characters who love talking to NPC’s and working that angle of an adventure, the room-by-room dungeon crawl is going to annoy the shit out of them in short order.  And vice versa.

The Whys and Wherefores of Adventure Paths

Depending on which corner of the internet you haunt, the overall opinion of Paizo is wildly divergent.  Naturally, on the Paizo forums, there are the expected fanboys who hang on every word uttered by the editorial staff, waiting in line at the cons each time something new is released. They play in the Organized Play sessions at their hobby shops, buy every new hardcover when it comes out, and get all fluttery whenever they meet one of their heroes in person.  That’s one end of the spectrum.

On the other end of things, you have their opposite number.  The hardline grognards have invented all manner of (what they think are) clever nicknames like ‘Paizil’ and ‘Pathfailure’ to discuss their overwhelming hatred of the game in their own personal echo chambers.  They rant on and on about how no one in their right mind would buy physical copies of the books when there’s a perfectly serviceable SRD to reference and how the company never fixed any of the problems that existed from the days of 3.5 D&D.  And naturally, they talk of better days in the past, when the sacred scrolls were brought down from Mount Gygax, sealed in white or blue or red boxes, and delivered unto the believers to be enshrined forevermore.  And since that point, all innovation has been desecration.

There are perfectly reasonable points to be found in their mounds of bullshit, but half the time, it takes the dedication (and personal predilection) of an otyugh to find something worthwhile.  Yeah, Pathfinder is little more than a streamlined version of the 3.5 D&D rules.  That’s what it needed to be, in order to keep their audience and continue publishing their products.  If they’d tried to jump to 4e D&D, they’d have lost their public, and that would have sunk them as a company.

In amongst all of the other nonsense about the ‘perfect’ version of Dungeons & Dragons, there’s a fascinating point that tends to be obscured.  Sure, Pathfinder has been crowned as a worthy successor to 3.5 D&D, and their rules have well outsold the best efforts of 4e D&D; but that’s not why they did it.  And it’s why their company is at the top of the heap for profits.  (Yeah, Wizards pulls in more revenue, but they can be easily disqualified for one of two reasons.  For one thing, they make Magic, which still commands a stupid amount of profit in the gaming marketplace, despite my personal disinterest for right now.  And for another thing, they’re owned by a damned toy company, whose overall revenues run about 1,000x what an RPG company pulls in.  Either way, Wizards is pretty much just a pretty shell that has autonomy so long as they keep bringing in dollars.  Paizo, in the mean time, exists solely on their own publishing.  And they do damned well with it.)

So, digression aside, what point was I trying to get at?  Simple.  Paizo exists to publish adventure modules.  That’s what got them their name, and it’s what keeps them at the top of the heap consistently.  Pathfinder sells a lot of hardcover rule books, but Paizo is careful to make sure that these rules are integrated into their Adventure Paths, to ensure that people keep buying them.  Were the hardcover rule books divorced from their main money makers, I’d lay easy money on the death of that given hardcover.

It makes sense, really.  As a company, Paizo started their run by acquiring the rights to publish Dragon and Dungeon Magazines from Wizards of the Coast, both of which were holdovers from the early days of TSR.  It was during their run of the magazines, from 2002 to 2007, that they began experimenting with series of modules in Dungeon, calling them Adventure Paths.  Up to this point, most of the material in Dungeon was scattershot and random, depending mainly on submissions and often bearing little continuity.  It was in the process of creating these first Adventure Paths (Shackled City, Age of Worms, and Savage Tide) that they started laying the initial groundwork for what would later become Golarion, the official Pathfinder Campaign Setting.  (It was fascinating to sit down to run Savage Tide, only to realize that a lot of it was familiar.  The central mainstay organization in Golarion, the Pathfinder Society, was already present in Sasserine under a different name.)

Having watched the slow advancement of the Adventure Paths, I will admit I had some measure of misgivings.  When they were first announced, they were set to be released on a monthly basis, just like Dungeon and Dragon Magazines, but they were set with a price tag of $20, which was about four or five times as expensive as its predecessors.  And the first Adventure Path, Rise of the Runelords, was a little weird.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  We’ll talk about Runelords soon enough.  Just not right now.

And now here we are, nearly seven years on.  The Adventure Paths have pretty well solidified themselves within the marketplace, and Paizo has continued to improve their standing by cautiously expanding the scope of Pathfinder.  Despite their price, I’ve largely managed to keep on top of the monthly Adventure Paths, which totals out to be about $1,500, all told.

Part of my dedication to Paizo’s Adventure Path line up owes to my completionist nature.  I made the mistake of buying Runelords when it came out, so inertia compelled me to continue collecting the damned things.  But part of it owes to the production values and the generally interesting nature of the paths themselves.  And the final part goes to the idea that, in a lot of ways, Paizo’s the only game in town for what they do.  No one else really cares to publish adventure modules these days, so my money goes to the people that do.  (Of course, if they were awful, I’m pretty sure I’d have given up a while ago, so there’s that.)

Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time behind the screen.  Sadly, it’s the greater majority of the time I’ve spent as a gamer, but it’s sort of what has to happen.  And having adventure modules to run or crib from makes that job a lot easier, depending.  I enjoy creating my own campaigns wholecloth, but every now and then it’s nice to let someone else do the heavy lifting for you.

The Merits of Skill-Based Games

I have an odd perspective on things.  It is a known quantity for most people that have encountered me, either online or in real life.  Perhaps it stems from weird brain chemistry, perhaps it’s a result of my upbringing, or maybe there’s a bit of mercury poisoning along the way.  Short of dissection, I doubt there’s much way for any of this to be answered.  And while I’d love to know why I think the way I do, I’ll hold off on the vivisection for the time being.

So when Dave comments about how different it is to create NPC’s for a level-based game like Saga Edition Star Wars, compared to WEG’s D6 edition, it’s something I’ve honestly not considered.  I’ve spent so long working with various, unrelated systems that it doesn’t occur to me that one is harder or easier to deal with.  It’s just a different procedure to get from point A to point B.  I’ve played both sorts of games so much that most of the rules nonsense is internalized, and the creation of NPC’s is just another step.  This is my experience, and as any social theories class will tell you, my experience is not universal.

A lot of what makes WEG’s D6 Star Wars so quick and simple for NPC generation (and really, that’s key to the whole discussion; creating adventures is the easy part) is that, at the end of it all, you only need to detail a couple of basic stats for an adversary, and everything else can sort of be glossed over.  Sure, that Stormtrooper might have a rather advanced understanding of sociolinguistics or botany, but at the end of the day, it only really matters if he can hit your heroes or if he can avoid being hit himself.  Those extra dice in ancillary skills are interesting, but they’re only going to come up in extremely rare occasions.

At different points, I’ve been accused of abusing skills-based games out of laziness.  I’ll go out of my way to prep the details of an adventure down to the careful details, but more often than not, I’ll half-ass my way through the stats of an adversary.  Most often this show up in the encounters when an opponent goes to attack one of the PC’s, and I thoughtfully pick up a couple of dice for their attribute, a couple of dice for the skill in question, and give them a brief moment of consideration before rolling.  In the case of D6 Star Wars, it’s an internal discussion of how high the base attribute is (on a scale of two to four, where does this guy rate?) and where his skill rating goes from there (on a scale of one to five, where is this guy’s level of training?).  If I’m running a White Wolf game instead, it’s the same sort of internal monologue, with only the numbers shifting a little bit.

Level based games, like the bulk of D20 products, don’t offer the same leeway.  There are a whole host of different calculations and factors to keep in mind, especially for D&D and Pathfinder.  First off, there’s ECL, which is factored against and encounter’s intended CR.  Then you have to build out the NPC’s, taking into account level adjustment from the monster type, especially if the monster has been advanced through class levels or monster levels.  Once this is taken care of, there needs to be skill and feat selection, hit point adjustment, factoring of magic items based on general CR, and so on.  Logically, a game with a heavy base of magic gets pretty arcane in its rules.  If you needed an NPC that had 12 Ranks in Diplomacy, you had to justify how he got those points.  If you needed a character in a game like D6 Star Wars that had an equivalent amount of skill, you just gave them that skill and moved on.

A lot of it comes down to the basic history of role-playing games.  D20 comes from AD&D, which in turn comes from the older Chainmail miniatures rules.  (And so on, back to H. G. Wells.)  D&D broke ground on the industry, giving us rules for the baseline of RPG’s, and we’ve grown accustomed to that level of rules arcana.  Since it is such a mainstay in the industry, everyone has played it here or there, and for a lot of the older players, it’s the standard.

That’s not to say that skills-based rules are anything new or surprising.  Off the top of my head, the first example of a skills-based RPG that went anywhere is Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu, which debuted in 1981.  It used a lot of the same mechanics that D&D had codified (namely hit points, base attributes, and a scale of weapon damage), but all of the relevant mechanics centered on a percentile system for task resolution.  (And yeah, RuneQuest pre-dated C of C by three years, but I’d argue that it never managed to get much beyond niche status.  Love Glorantha as I do, it’s not a game that casual gamers are terribly familiar with.)

Chaosium gave us a template to work from.  The character generation rules were still pretty heavy, requiring you to factor your pool of skills from your Intelligence and Education.  From there, you’d apply them to basic assumptions of skill levels, with certain guidelines, etc.  Yeah, it was a huge step forward, but just like D&D, it thrived on its deep rules minutiae.  It wasn’t until the late 80’s or early 90’s that game systems started to simplify.

Oddly, the two games that carried the industry forward, Ars Magica and Star Wars, were published around the same year, 1987.  And oddly, they’re both games that refuse to die.  Star Wars has gone through three separate publishers, with West End Games, Wizards of the Coast, and now Fantasy Flight.  And Ars Magica started life out with Lion Rampant, which became White Wolf, got sold to Wizards of the Coast, and eventually ended up with Atlas Games (who had been instrumental in its early years).  The difference being that while Star Wars has gone through three (arguably four) different sets of rules over the years, Ars Magica is still largely the same.

Both of these games shifted the industry forward by working with a dice pool (it can be argued that Ghostbusters, published shortly before Star Wars and using very similar rules, was what did it, but given the almost footnote status of the game, it only really exists in very comprehensive collections these days) that was based on the individual character’s skill ratings.  In their own way, they set the stage for the way games would develop throughout the next ten years.  The Ars Magica system would become the Storyteller System, which formed the basis of White Wolf’s World of Darkness games.  It would later be modified for New World of Darkness, Exalted, Aeon/Trinity and Scion, all of which use very similar mechanics.

Star Wars, in the mean time, directly influenced such games ass WEG’s Torg/Masterbook system (which, despite being a far heavier maths-based system, still uses a similar scale of difficulty) and Pinnacle’s classic Deadlands system, which took the dice pool mechanic and broke it out of being a single type of dice.  It’s no coincidence that Shane Hensley, the designer of Deadlands, was a WEG alumnus.

These days, skill-based RPG’s are a lot more common than their level-based predecessors, even though 4e D&D and Pathfinder are still industry mainstays.  They’re a lot easier to use for the more casual gamer, they don’t require the same suspension of disbelief that level-based RPG’s necessitate (characters improve incrementally, rather than just suddenly learning something new), and they’re friendlier to GM’s who have to prep for their weekly sessions.  (Of course, with enough practice in a system, prep becomes second nature, even with extremely complex systems.)