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So, this piece started off as a short narrative about a couple of GMs who run really great games, but it might have spiraled a teensy bit out of control and ended up as a long meditation on different modes of consuming RPGs.
The Games I Love to Play
While at PAX, we had the pleasure of playing in a game of Fortune’s Fool with Pantheon Press‘s Rob Trimarco and Jason Keeley. They had planned on running the introductory adventure that we had run several years ago the first time we met them, but when they realized we wanted to play, Rob suggested with glee that Jason “just make something up on the fly.” I had a little heart attack; as you all know, I’m a planner, so I would hate having to ad-lib in the middle of the chaos of a convention, but Jason seemed into the idea, and off we went.
I won’t spoiler the original fantastic demo adventure for FF, but just know that it involves saving Pinocchio from a very bad event on his seventh birthday. This follow up adventure returned the characters to his home on the evening of his eighth birthday, but Gepetto had gone missing, apparently kidnapped by a large man smelling of wood chips and death. I won’t spoiler this adventure, either, except to say that it involved a magic Ferris wheel, people being turned into donkeys, and a ghastly workshop.
What most struck me about our game session, though, was how much it differed from our weekly Vampire session, and how much both of those tended to differ from other games I’ve played.
Our Vampire ST knows the goals of every NPC during the span of the upcoming game, and if we cross paths with an NPC, he knows the backstory of each one inside and out so that it’s easy for him to explain what that character would do to us if push comes to shooting, as it so often does. He plans his NPCs carefully, and the rest of the story evolves logically from their needs and wants. In fact, if you catch him in a good mood and ask about one of the NPCs’ backgrounds, you can easily get a short story about what happened from the time that NPC was a child until now. His NPC backgrounds are always fresh and interesting, including lots of unexpected twists and turns. Things in our ST’s world always make sense, and if they appear not to make sense at a given point, it’s just because we don’t yet know the whole story. Our job usually involves uncovering it. We progress with caution because the world is dangerous and the plots are meant to hurt us, but it’s absolutely thrilling when we make a discovery about how pieces of the plot fit together. During play, our ST remains very calm, because we really can’t derail him; he simply works out the NPCs’ logical response to whatever madness we’ve decided to do. Of course, I also think he remains calm because it drives us insane when we know we face (im)mortal danger and he sits there placidly staring at the ceiling.
Keeley, on the other hand, personifies energy. He races from idea to idea with a lot of shouting and gesturing. Not everything in his games has a logical reason for existing; in fact, many things seem purposefully illogical, but it doesn’t matter because everything in his worlds floats in an atmosphere of childlike wonder that makes details symbolically and atmospherically sensible even if they don’t fit together logically. His games have a breathless, vertiginous feel to them that suits the whims of the Fortune’s Fool universe; the tide sweeps players from one event to the next out of the sheer delight of seeing what kind of wackiness will happen around the next corner. I haven’t talked to him at length about the depth of his NPC backgrounds, but they don’t seem to work in quite the same way as the NPCs in our Vampire game; NPCs stand in for familiar fairy tale types, so players ‘know’ them immediately upon meeting them, and the puzzle comes from uncovering the ways in which they deviate from expectations. (I said quite a bit about this in my review of the FF campaign, too. It’s a delightful use of the familiar.) I certainly don’t mean by any of this that his adventures are saccharine; on the contrary, they’re often just as creepy as our Vampire adventures partly because the game so skillfully juxtaposes the cute with the grotesque.
Despite their extreme differences in style, these two GMs run some of the best gaming I’ve every played, partly because both show a willingness to let their players engage fully with their worlds. Whatever we ask, we can try, and the mechanics assist rather than hinder us. Theoretically, most RPGs work this way, but in my experience, some games and some GMs just wind up making the players think more about mechanics than story. A great gamer can tell a nuanced story with almost any system, but I do believe that system matters; if you have a sheet full of powers and a bunch of monsters that only respond to certain powers, you’ll spend your brainpower working out the relationship between those things instead of asking questions about how the monsters got into the Royal Society meeting house in the first place.
When I play games with the GMs I most enjoy, I feel as though I’m going head-to-head with another first-class mind in a strategic game of investigation and question. Can I figure out what’s at stake? Will I have the resources to outwit the limitations on my character sheet and find a workaround that can happen regardless? In games I like less, I feel as though I’m pitting my wits against the game itself: can I figure out how to use these skills most effectively to anticipate and react to what someone has set up? I think of a Pathfinder con game in which we were supposed to know from lore to use a particular kind of spell on a particular kind of creature; the ‘challenge’ of the encounter was in having purchased enough product to anticipate the correct answer and to match a specific skill to a specific encounter.
The Games I Love to Run
It’s a strange thing to say, but I’m not really sure I would have liked playing in my own Warhammer campaign all that much. In spite of its significant problems, I still love the unwieldy WFRP3e and loved running it. The crazily rich Warhammer universe (and all of its passionate fandom) provided plenty of interesting, quirky, engaging background to use when planning my games, and the design of the rules made it easy to create and run many different types of encounters effectively. Note, though, that I say “run encounters” rather than “tell a story”; even as much as I wanted my players to immerse themselves in the Warhammer universe and love it as I did, I ended up thinking of our games primarily as a series of individual puzzles that the players could solve using different skill sets.
I think my GMing suffered from our emphasis on gamist play. I inadvertently encouraged that play in a few different ways, I think: miniatures and terrain tended to make my players focus on the tactics of winning rather than on narrative, and my choice of a rules-heavy system like WFRP3e probably didn’t help, either, as my players and I constantly had to shuffle the bits that reminded them to think about mechanics during our sessions. In some ways, focusing on rules so much made running the game easier, as I could always refer back to the game designer’s decisions. By the end of our campaign, I found myself increasingly dissatisfied with the types of interactions my players had with the setting. I wonder if I could run WFRP3e differently now, or whether the limitations I experienced were intrinsic to the system itself or to my own way of thinking about gaming.
Mouse Guard, as much as I love it, can suffer from some of the same problems. You can’t design a MG game around encounters, but the system encourages you to create sessions rather mechanically, focusing on things like the time of year and the assigned task, leading you to think more about what the players will do than about a fictional world spinning on its own axis. The system attempts to ‘assist’ RP via mechanics, which meant at our table that RP occasionally happened because of mechanics rather than because of narrative logic.
I suspect my love of running mechanical games comes from the fact that I’m a bit of a control freak. If your rules strongly suggest particular solutions, you can cut down on the possible outcomes you must anticipate. While I love not knowing what to expect as a player, I didn’t always love it as a GM. Now, my players didn’t seem to mind my style too much; in fact, they were more eager to railroad themselves than I was to railroad them, often asking after the session, “So, what were we supposed to do? Did we miss anything?” They enjoyed guessing the anticipated answer. As a player, though, I find the feeling that I’m playing through an interactive book irritating. I want a hand in dictating the storyline, not just a chance to react to it.
The Games I Love to Read
When browsing a store bookshelf, I tend to find myself drawn to quirky, rules-heavy systems, partly because I like the notion that an unusual ruleset can push players past their usual narrative strategies. The less I understand the logic behind the rules of a given RPG on the first read-through, the more likely I am to love it. Trying to work out why the rules to a game like Freemarket or A Thousand and One Nights seem so unintuitive to me at first glance forces me to rethink my own preconceived notions about narrative. Reading these games has made me a better GM, and I know they make me a better writer of fiction.
What Does All This Mean? (Or the tl;dr Section)
First, that I’m crazy.
Second, that my bookshelf is filled with RPGs that we will never play.
Third, not all of the groups I love to play with are likely to love my GMing style.
I wonder, though, how many of us realize that we have slightly different preferences when playing, running, and reading games. Although we like to think of these as equivalent areas of competency, they aren’t quite the same, nor do all of us scratch the same creative itch by GMing, playing in, or reading RPGs. I never feel that I’ve wasted money if I’ve bought a system that I’ll never play if that system makes me think differently about gaming; I never feel as though a particular GMing style simply ‘doesn’t work,’ although it might not mesh well with a specific system or group of players. Yet acknowledging that we can have different modes of consuming RPGs can make us better at choosing the products and groups that will fit us best, and that makes everyone at the table happier.
So, I said I would talk about FFG’s new Star Wars Beginner Game awhile back. I’ve been out of the loop in the blogosphere for a few months, and I suspect this has already been done to death, but I wanted to give a bit of commentary on it from a player’s point of view.
I played through the Box Set adventure twice, once by myself and once with our old WFRP group. Since I’ve most recently been playing Vampire, my tactics were a bit different when by myself than when with the group; I ended up exploring quite a bit more and doing more RP than fighting. Still, the two experiences had some key similarities that reveal quite a bit about the system itself. I didn’t GM this, nor did I look extensively through the books. Star Wars is my husband’s specialty, and I’d never want to GM it for him because he’s the sort who knows that “they don’t have that kind of electronic lock on Tattooine” and so on. So fair warning: this isn’t a review from a GM’s point of view.
Like all FFG products, Star Wars has outstanding production value. Included are full-color premade character folios with a couple of levels of stats, a picture of the character, and the character’s history on the back. Lavish full-color maps of the city and starport also add quite a bit to the game, although the scale doesn’t accommodate minis well, if that’s the direction you want to head. I only gave a cursory flip-through to the books, but they seem just as lovely as everything else FFG creates, with lots of full-color images on every page. The colored, custom dice are high quality, as is the dice app, which we had to use because you can’t yet buy dice separately and we needed more than two sets to make a four-player game run smoothly. (To be fair, we’re quite a dice-greedy group; normal humans could probably just share.) The dice app includes some “fun” SW sound effects that are way too distracting for the gaming table, but it’s easy enough to turn down the sound on your phone.
The included adventure cleverly introduces new players to the game. Each new encounter teaches you a bit more of the rules. By the end, you’ve mastered not only social and combat tactics, but you’ve also had a chance to try out space combat. Each section includes complete descriptions of the logic behind the rules so that the GM can explain to the players not only their options, but also how the game works from the GM’s side of the screen. It’s a neat idea that other games with unusual mechanics might consider.
Players have a clear goal with several obstacles that can be solved either through violence or wit, and there’s a section where the players can wander around the town and get into trouble they create if they wish. If you’ve spent your entire life under a rock and don’t know much about Star Wars, I fear for your sanity, but you’d get a pretty good introduction to the feel of the series from the adventure. The one thing that didn’t thrill me was the fact that the “wander about” section feels forced and mechanical since you’re supposedly running from a powerful enemy. Why would I take time to go window shopping with a crazy pursuer on my heels? Further, since there’s not a lot of ‘there’ to this adventure, so you’re unlikely to get into deep RP, but again, since this is an intro, that might not bother you.
What can I say? It’s watered-down WFRP, but not necessarily in a bad way. FFG has removed the stance trackers, party sheet, cards, and the million fiddly tokens, which, in many ways, is a relief. (I know, I know. I defended those bits vehemently elsewhere on this blog and on the internet, but they annoyed even me after awhile.) You build dice pools in much the same way as in WFRP, adding ability dice and proficiency dice to represent your character’s core capabilities in an area, boost dice to show effects in the general area that would aid in his/her action, and difficulty, setback, and challenge dice to represent the NPCs and environmental factors that would oppose your action. Rolls then indicate successes and allow players and GMs to spend additional rolled points on other effects. As with WFRP, the system works well if you have a group that wants to narrate its own outcomes, because the dice give both players and GMs the flexibility to have a bit of wiggle room in their interpretation of events. The premade character sheets show you clearly what types of dice will make up your pool, so players can easily get everything ready before their GM adds difficulty/setback/challenge dice.
The Destiny Point tokens provide a nice mechanic for bonuses. Tokens begin either on the Light Side or Dark Side; players can use the tokens to give their abilities a boost when tokens are turned to the Light Side, but each time they use a boost, they must flip the token to the Dark Side; then the GM has the ability to use the same boost for one of his rolls.
Overall, game play is pretty straightforward and streamlined. As I say, I think the system intends for players to narrate their successes and GMs to push back a little by narrative negatives, adding a dimension of gameplay around the negotiation of outcomes itself, although that’s not really how our group has played in the past, so it’s not how we played Star Wars.
Play went relatively smoothly for us, but then again, it should have gone relatively smoothly for us, since we were already familiar with WFRP. Our group playthrough skewed towards the silly, with one of our players deciding to change the medical droid’s background so that he had once been a sex droid. The Wookiee PC character invites all kinds of hilarious language barrier problems, so if you’re not up for that kind of hilarity, you might want to take that character off of the table. On the other hand, the SW universe invites that kind of silliness to a certain extent, so that tendency isn’t as game-breaking as it might be in another genre.
Missing From the Box:
There are no chargen rules in the Box, and the Bestiary only includes a handful of enemies. Having adapted a bunch of 2e WFRP before to FFG’s system, I suspect that NPC creation isn’t too hard; you can take material from other systems and pretty easily scale it for this edition, which my husband did when he added in a handful of encounters to the middle of the adventure. Not having the bestiary isn’t a big deal, then, especially if you have the old d20 Star Wars books and can crib from them. Chargen is a bit more of a problem. You could easily work out characters similar to those in the Box, but obviously there’d be no way to branch out to new skills.
FFG’s SW seems like a solid system with many of WFRP’s strengths and fewer of its bits. FFG has already released a longer adventure arc for the premade PCs that a GM could follow until the complete set comes out in April, so if your group eagerly wants to keep this rolling, it certainly can. The opening adventure felt a bit canned, but then again, all opening adventures feel a bit canned, and FFG’s main goal was to teach the system, not come up with a stellar storytelling experience. I haven’t taken a look at the rest of the existing story arc to see how it plays out. Having worked with the premade material for WFRP, I do know that FFG has a tendency to release uneven adventure content; GMs will find a few moments of utterly brilliant writing mired under a whole bunch of junk meant to justify new mechanics. On the other hand, perhaps Star Wars will remain free of some of that nonsense since FFG doesn’t seem to want to follow its earlier “buy lots of bits” strategy and therefore won’t have to use adventures to justify a million new mechanics.
I can certainly say that I’d be up for playing this system again, although I must admit that after playing Vampire, it felt really mechanics-focused. On the other hand, it’s hard to tell if that’s because of the system itself or because the designers wrote the first adventure to highlight the mechanics…or because practically anything might feel really mechanics-focused to me at this point.
Those sponsoring the Warhammer FRP 3e Scenario Contest (see my entry on it here and the thread on the FFG forums here) have announced a submission date of October 15. I’m hoping that we’ll see some new writers and some fresh ideas. (I even hope for some clever new uses of the standard rules!) As for me, that’s a week before I’m running a half marathon, so if I’m going to get an entry written, it’ll have to be sooner rather than later.
If you’re on the fence, do try to hammer something out. Emirikol has offered to help new writers with editing and formatting their material, so there’s little to lose!
So, FFG now offers a POD Dreadfleet-themed NPC expansion for WFRP 3e, Legends of the Warhammer High Seas. As usual in the Warhammer FRP fandom, some people immediately experienced searing chest pains because this is a “shameless corporate tie-in” and, you know, Warhammer is the Bible and Jesus action figures are sacrilegious. Or something.
I’m being snarky, but I do get the criticism. Is this a rather gimmicky marketing attempt to get some crossover love between minis gamers and WFRP fans? Sure. Is it a necessary or even particularly useful item for most GMs? Not at all. Will it be awkward to stick these NPCs in the middle of most WFRP campaigns? Of course, especially since the Captains skew towards higher-fantasy content than a lot of the rest of the WFRP canon. Will the product make ridiculous completist fangirls like me rush out and buy it in a frenzy of “gotta catch ‘em all” in a way that makes 1e/2e players cringe? Yep, although to tell the truth, I’m a bit behind on my WFRP-purchasing fanaticism at the moment.
All that being said, though, I think a good GM could use these cards for some excellent crossover gaming if his group plays both RPGs and board games. I’d arrange the sessions something like this:
Let your players pick boats via a lottery system or somesuch; I’d probably let a player who had contributed a lot of intangibles or gotten a lot of kudos for RP in my main campaign pick first. Give everyone a week to read the background for his captain and the rules of the game. Play the “one player per boat” variation of the Dreadfleet game. Document what happens to each boat over the course of the session.
Now go back and pick a boat that played a particularly dramatic role in the battle. A GM might choose the winning ship, or he might choose the ship that got destroyed near a rock, leaving its passengers adrift in the ocean. Did the crew make it to that rock, or did they get devoured by sea creatures? With your play-by-play of the “big picture” from the Dreadfleet session, set up a one-off or a couple of one-off sessions in which your players roleplay through what happened on one or two of the ships. What was it like for that captain and his crew during the sea battle? What occurred before the ship sailed? If the ship and crew survived, what happened afterwards? Perhaps they experienced something even more horrifying than the ferocious sea battle itself!
Now, here’s the thing: your players will already know the outcome of this particular scenario, since they ‘lived’ it the session before. If you have a group that loves to enact character drama, the chance to act out what happened behind-the-scenes might make for enough fun to keep them busy. If you’ve got a more tactical or puzzle-oriented group, give them a secondary objective. Sure, they “know” (on a meta-game level) that their ship will eventually sink, but they’ve got to save MacGuffin X before it does. Alternately, you might have the chosen captain experience the Dreadfleet session as a dream, and the players must work hard to keep the tide of battle moving in the right direction. Players react differently when they think they know the outcome of a story, and a skilful GM can use that to his advantage as he plans the session. Surprise excites players even more when they don’t expect it. You’ll also get to delight some players by allowing them to play high-level NPCs as PCs; in fact, I would envision breaking up the retelling of the story into short “chapters,” letting a different player take the role of the captain in each chapter so that everyone gets a chance to play a badass.
Either way, I see this expansion as a way for players to experience a different aspect of the WFRP universe in their storytelling. It won’t present quite the same level of oppressive misery as the majority of traditional WFRP scenarios in which PCs have to slog through knee-deep manure in the freezing rain while being chased by orcs and carrying a small child who might turn into a chaos beast at any moment, but let’s face it…any Warhammer GM worth his salt can find a way to make the PCs miserable on a boat.
GM hall of fame, by the way, goes to anyone who can work a Chaos-tainted nautical-themed pashmina afghan into his scenario.
I’m really not sure how this hasn’t been done to death yet, but I’ve decided that it’s high time for me to do it–the hilarity factor of juxtaposing such differing worldviews is just way too high for me to give it a miss:
It’s going to be the second in my “Monsterz” series of one-off games in which my Warhammer players RP as various monster races. (The unclever name of the ‘series’ just comes from the title of the folder on my Mac where I’m keeping all of the files. I’m not sure what I was thinking when I added that jaunty z, because now it just seems rather stupid.) I did the monster PC thing back with the Orcs, and the players had a good time, although I had some difficulty balancing out my interest in fleshing out their premade PCs (which I did) with developing the adventure (which I didn’t nearly enough.) I plan to remedy that this go around.
So far, it’s been a blast coming up with skills and wises for Skaven. Frankly, I think the original game needs “Warpstone-wise,” don’t you?
Most of all, though, because I’m me, I’ve had a great time photoshopping (or Pixelmating) the existing Mouse Guard character sheets and writing character histories. Of course, I don’t have any Skaven minis lying around, which necessitates the most dangerous thing of all in our house…painting minis. God help us all.
With the way work has been going, we can expect this little iteration to be finished sometime around November 2043. Or in a couple of weeks, if I stay this interested.
In the meantime, just remember:
It’s not what you fight for, it’s how many of those other mangy curs you can claw to bits on your way down!