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I collect a lot of RPG systems, often buying just to take a look. I’m fond of storytelling games, and although I have a hard time getting them on the table, I do think that reading a wide variety of types of systems helps a GM become more effective at telling a story and managing a table full of players. I’ve incorporated ideas from Luke Crane’s games (Burning Wheel, Mouse Guard, and Freemarket) into my Warhammer sessions, and I’ve found that they’ve positively impacted how the players at my table interact with each other and how they solve puzzles within the game world.

These days, many of the most intriguing new games start over at Kickstarter. If you’re a gaming junkie like we are, though, you can easily spend hours on Kickstarter looking up stuff in all of the categories of gaming you enjoy and miss some key projects. That’s why I was delighted to find the RPG Kickstarters feed over at Tumblr. Here, you’ll find a descriptions of all of the newest RPGs on Kickstarter and links to their funding pages. It’s a great resource for those of us who want to keep up with what’s happening in the Indie/Small Press scene. There’s also a great page of advice for writers considering Kickstarting their own games.

Go Kickstart some awesomeness!

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I have some very strong opinions about what Apple’s textbook announcement means for schools, but I won’t go into them here for fear of alienating my readership. (Short version: the tool is great, the public schools are irreparably broken.) We’ll use the iBooks Author tool at my workplace, though, and as one of the local Apple Fanatics, I knew I’d be asked right away for my opinion about the program, so I wasted no time in downloading it. (Translation: I wanted to play with it, and I justified spending the day messing with it by convincing myself it was “work-related.”) I spent some time considering all the professional things I could do with it, but at the same time, I kept thinking, “This would be great for presenting RPG scenarios!”

As with most Apple software, the iBooks Author program allows you to create content from templates that ensure your work will look professional and attractive. If you know Apple software well, the tools work roughly the same as those in Keynote or Pages, so you won’t have a huge learning curve. Best of all, though, the multimedia options in the new iBooks Author app make it easy to include the kind of sound and interactive images that make a GM’s job much easier. Literally all relevant information–including sound effects, background noises, notes, charts and tables, slide shows to present to the players, and maps with GM notes–can now easily fit into a single package to distribute to other GMs. I spent a little time this morning with my camera, GarageBand, and the iBooks Author tool to get a sense of the kinds of things this might do for RPGs. Here are some screenshots from both my iMac and my iPad that give you a sense of what it’s like to create and distribute content through this program.

The first thing that struck me was that the program allows you to make an image that has clickable call-outs. It occurred to me immediately that those would be a great way for a GM to see a map and notes; she can click when information’s necessary or just see the image if she needs to see the overall terrain. Making an image with a call-out is as easy as dragging an image into the box, clicking the + in the Inspector to create a new call-out, assigning a place for the text and the pointer, and then entering the text:

Want to add an image or sound so that you can show it or play it for the PCs? Again, you’ve got drag-and-drop functionality for most types of files, and you can turn the title/notes on or off for each piece of media you add. Comment if the GM needs the info, or leave it simple if not:

Editing and adding text to the map call-outs is a snap:

Here’s the authoring tool showing a page that features a map with call-outs,  a sound file, and a chart:

But how does it look on the iPad, you’ll ask? Great, of course!

In this image, the GM has clicked on the chest to get more information about what’s inside:

Want to add notes about things you’re likely to forget while running the scenario? iBook’s got you covered:

You can also view and search your notes all in one place for convenience. (For those of you who are actually students, the iPad will automatically turn your notes into flash cards to help you study!)

Overall, I think this tool will work wonderfully for schools and GMs alike. I’m considering writing a Skaven adventure soon-ish, and I may distribute it in this form just to see how it works. In the meantime, check out the iBooks Author tool for yourself, since it’s free!

I posted about the Pathfinder Minis the other day here. Since we preordered, we also got the promo dragon. It came in a separate mailing, which means it got to us…well, it got to us when it got to us. The mailroom in our building happens to be run by a disciple of Tzeentch, the Changer of Days. Of delivery.

ANYWAY, since I picked up a tabletop photo studio today, I thought I’d try it out by taking a few shots of the promo mini. It’s really a lovely little dragon; as with the rest of the set, they’ve done a great job with the painting. The sculpt has a lot of detail, and there’s a nice feeling of movement evoked by the tail and the wings. My husband tells me that these aren’t terribly expensive on eBay just yet, so if you want one, you may want to grab one before the prices go up. Here are the pics!

NOTE: Recently, people have been asking how WFRP3e looks to people now that the game has been around for a couple of years. This is the second part of my response to that question. The first part can be found here.

Even though this post is about Warhammer, I’m going to start with FreeMarket. I finished reading the rules just before I went on vacation, and I have to say that I really liked the system quite a bit. Still, I can’t imagine running the game without seeing it in action first, nor can I much imagine my current gaming group playing it, even if I did know exactly how it should run. I suspect that they simply don’t like to push against the GM enough to make it much fun.

I often think of games in terms of how much they assume you ‘push against the GM.’ These games ask you not just to accept challenges designed for you to overcome, but to challenge the premises set forth by the GM or the gameworld. In games like these, questioning or undermining the plot hook isn’t bad playing–it’s precisely what the games mean to evoke. The extent to which rules allow you to push against the GM works on a spectrum; different games make more or fewer allowances for questioning in that manner. My group has enjoyed WFRP3e so thoroughly because it stands right in the middle of that spectrum.

I’d say something like Pathfinder Society Scenarios fall on the end of Not Welcome to Push. If I take a mission from the lodge to go investigate the Blackrose Museum, I’m supposed to take the cues given and go solve the puzzles as the GM presents them to me. I’m not, for instance, really welcome to go back to my homeland, suggest that the place is way too dangerous to continue to exist, and amass an army to raze it to the ground. That’s partly because PFS games are often designed to be convention scenarios, but it’s also woven into the fabric of many d20 games; listen to the story, follow the cues, solve the puzzles, get a satisfying climax scene. These games will always remain popular because they allow for intricate, long, overarching storylines; the give the same pleasure as reading a good book or watching an intricate movie. You can, of course, create sandbox games within these systems that allow the players some more options for reaching the final climax scene, but generally, those sandbox games give the players the chance to decide in which order they will encounter possible pre-scripted events.

On the other end of my spectrum (indie games offer even farther reaches, but I won’t talk about games I don’t know well here,) lie games like FreeMarket, or, to a lesser extent, Mouse Guard and Burning Wheel. You have to push in these games–that’s the point. Without players challenging the premises, not much happens, and in games like Mouse Guard, many of the scenarios are thin and simple because the spotlight turns on the players’ ideas. The GMs for these games are told to “say yes” to the players’ demands whenever possible, and the storyline takes its shape from the evolution of the characters’ psychologies as much as it does from the external world. The rules focus on having the players describe and shape as much of the game mechanics as possible. Burning Wheel and MG players narrate the outcome of their own dice rolls, while FM PCs play through rounds of a card game to negotiate the successes and failures of their goals. Players of all three games are seldom (if ever) reduced to a simple pass/fail (or even degree of success/failure) mechanic, because most ‘failures’ can be renegotiated in some way.

In all systems, the stories are more important than the individual outcomes; BW, MG, and FM all rely on players to come to the table with their own goals and use their background to shape game play. Sure, the GM might set a straightforward task (get the contents of the chest in the head Guard’s office,) but all three games reward straightforward and non-straightforward responses to that task equally; attacking the guard or sneaking past him works fine, but you might just as easily bore a hole through the wall or construct a thieving monkey robot which you give to the guard as a gift to retrieve it. Mechanics exist for large-scale tactics as well as small-scale tactics; MG’s negotiation rules, for instance, give examples of how to use them to amass and control an army of mice to do your mouse’s bidding. If you have a character with enough resources, creating an army isn’t mechanically much more difficult than finishing the task yourself, so your players needn’t skip it as a realistic solution to a conflict. These systems allow players to feel as though they have infinite paths to changing the world and those possibilities give them the chance to explore their characters extraordinarily carefully. The downside for players comes when they have an off night; they can’t rely on an intricate storyline or hook NPC to keep the story moving, and they can easily stall the game if they don’t have ideas. The downside for a GM, of course, is that a perfectly-planned dramatic moment may easily get sidestepped by your players. Still, if you have managed to put together the ideal set of players for one of these games, their narrative plans are probably every bit as dramatic and creative as yours were, anyway.

Personally, I see WFRP3e as a hybrid of these two types of games. Since the Warhammer universe is so rich with history and its RPGs have so many entrenched traditions, it’s not a good fit for a “say yes,” push against the GM-style of rules. The players would just have the chance to miss way too much good lore. Further, “say yes” games often allow the PCs far more autonomy and power than would really fit the “grim and gritty” feel of Warhammer; while an experienced GM could keep them on track, beginners might have a much more difficult time. So FFG’s official story material for 3e has a kind of d20 determinism to it, much to the chagrin of some players of first and second edition. On the other hand, that has allowed FFG to script some fantastically funny and dramatic moments in the official material–stuff that had my players hooked immediately and had them asking after each game, “What did we miss? What else was there in that chapter?”

On the other hand, many of the mechanics offer momentary negotiations and “say yes” moments to the players on a smaller scale. The dice, for instance, allow PCs to describe the whole a combat action outcomes without having to know any of the monster’s stats. Fortune points allow them to shift the game in their favor or direction; they’re essentially chits that invite players to negotiate with the GM. The party tension meter, while flawed in some ways, encourages players to focus on the evolving psychology of their group. Finally, mechanics like corruptions allow PCs to move outside a GM’s or a party’s morality comfort zone without breaking the system, letting each player develop his character’s psychology without allowing him to run rampant over the game world.

I find that my players negotiate with me on a more regular basis while playing WFRP3e than I’ve seen with most d20 systems, where the focus lies on solving the puzzles in the most efficient, least deadly manner possible. They feel supported enough by the game world and the rules to try creative or bizarre approaches to the problems in front of them. (For our group, these approaches often involve fire.) They will take risks, although they aren’t reckless, either, because they want to live to see what’s around the next corner.

WFRP3e isn’t the perfect system, by any means. Many of the complaints arise because the system doesn’t commit fully to a single traditional style of play, irritating players who come from both d20 and “say yes” types of games. Still, I think the rules and the pregen material do two things exceedingly well: they tell an interesting story and allow for PCs to develop their own interesting stories at the same time. Most systems err on the side of emphasizing one set of goals or the other; if WFRP3e has proven anything to me and my group in the past year and a half or so, it’s that it allows for nice a balance of both world story and player goals.

It’s always nice to get a surprise gift from your spouse. I have read on the Internet that some women like flowers or chocolate, but I prefer gaming stuff. (Big surprise.) Last week, I got surprised with a Fantasy Flight Supply Dice Bag. I’d had my eye on these on the website, but couldn’t really justify buying one because I don’t have many un-bagged dice lying about. But, hey, a present! You can’t say no to a present.

The bag is quite nice; it’s made of soft nylon with a suede-like exterior. Mine has the sword detail, printed in a sparkly silver metallic color. At 6.25×9″, the roomy bag easily holds far more than a full set of d20 or WFRP dice; you could probably sneak in a small pad and a little pencil, too, for travel gaming.

Mine’s currently holding the graphic Mouse Guard dice from the Boxed Set. Although I feel a bit guilty about putting non-FFG dice in an FFG bag because I’m crazy like that, the sword seems thematically appropriate for the little mice fighting for what they believe. Neither sword-wielding mouse nor FFG employee has come to my door yet to complain. Now that I think about it, though, it would be pretty cool if an armed mouse showed up at my house. If that happens, I’ll be sure to take pictures and post them.

Sometimes, PCs get stuck in an inn for an extended period of time. They might be waiting for an NPC to arrive or for something specific to happen, or they might all be breaking up to do different tasks of their own while they’re in the city. You might also have a metagame reason for stalling, if you only have so much time left in your gaming session and want to keep the PCs from starting a new major storyline. As a GM, any of these can leave you with some odd narrative time to fill.

At times, I like to use games within the game to fill that narrative time. There are a number of reasons for having your PCs sit and play out a card game instead of just rolling for its outcome:

  • It can be a fun change of pace.
  • If most of the party has personal business in a city but one or two PCs don’t, a quick game can give them something to do and give them a chance to shine.
  • Games can let you distribute treasure or information as a reward for winning, and games can give your PCs a chance to get to know some NPCs who might not otherwise be available to them.
  • Games can give NPCs a good reason to pick a fight with PCs who otherwise might not warrant it.

When I’m choosing a game to play within my game, I look for a few things. The game should be:

  • Easy to learn and easy to explain. Having to spend twenty minutes of your RPG session explaining another game isn’t a good use of session time.
  • Thematically possible. Your favorite game may be a joy to play, but if it’s got a twenty-first century spy/tech theme, the players will find the mismatch jarring.
  • Relatively quick. Again, you want this to be a quick distraction from the storyline, not the main activity for the day. If your players don’t like the game-within-a-game thing, at least a short game will be over quickly. If they do like it, they can opt to play again or ask you to do it in another session.
  • Something you know well. Often, you’ll have players opt out of the game, and you may want to be running a scene about what’s happening elsewhere in the inn while you’re playing the game. At the very least, you’ll want to be playing the NPCs also participating in the game in ways that drop hints about who they are and what they want convincingly. You’ll be most effective at that if you know the game well.

With that in mind, here’s a short list of quick and easy games that you could insert into your campaign–with you controlling one or more NPC players, of course. At the moment, I’ve only included card games, since they require less setup than board games and make the most sense in a tavern setting. None of these games will amaze the serious board gamers or card players in your group, but all are fun and would work for a quick interlude. I’ll talk in a later post about how to reshape an existing game to allow for betting and/or to allow an NPC to cheat or use magic to manipulate a game.

Slugfest Games’ En Garde! simulates a fencing match between 2-6 people. It takes 20-45 minutes, depending on how many players are participating. Players play cards to attack their opponent, but must manage to keep “poised” while doing so; attack cards reduce your opponent’s poise, but heavy attacks may reduce yours as well. Luckily, adjusting your clothing or wiping your brow may help you get some of your poise back! With only a handful of rules and all of the important information on the cards, your players can easily pick up En Garde! and play a quick round.

Looney Labs lets you play dominoes with cards in Seven Dragons. In it, 2-5 players try to make a set of seven dragons of the same color touching one another; a player wins if she can finish a set that matches the color on her Goal card. Unfortunately, other players can force her to trade Goal cards, so that string of dragons she’s been building may get rendered useless at any point! This game takes between 10 and 40 minutes depending on number of participants and luck of the draw.

In Fantasy Flight’s Letter of Marque, 3-6 players use their cards and little plastic ships to steal and secure treasure. Players must decide how heavily to defend their own shipments of cargo, and they must guess whether their opponents’ ships are guarded or unguarded when they attack. This game often takes over half an hour, but it tends to move fairly quickly, so it’s a good choice if everyone at the table wants to play. It’s also easy to determine first, second and third places if you want to give out prizes to your PCs.

Z-Man’s Grimoire is undoubtedly the most challenging of the games on this list. In it, each player gets a tiny spellbook and secretly chooses one spell each turn to help him get gold, items, or companions. Players may also attack other players by keeping them from using certain types of spells each round. Each round, the number of spells from which you can choose gets longer, so later turns have more strategy. Again, though, all relevant info is clearly marked on the cards and in the spellbooks, so new players can easily participate without feeling left behind.

I have to include FFG’s Dragonheart, even though it’s just two players, because…I love it. (If you know me, you already knew this was going to make the list. Sorry.) It’s an embarrassingly simple game for a regular gamer to love, but I can’t help it. Of course, nobody else I know is as crazy about this game as I am, so you may want to disregard this suggestion altogether. In Dragonheart, players place cards on a game board, creating sets; when a set is complete or a card is played that has “dominance” over another set, (white dragons capture treasure cards, for instance,) the player who played the last card takes the set and scores it. All of the sets are laid out on the board so that you can easily see which cards take which other cards. Once you’ve played it, this game’s quick–maybe 15-20 minutes.

Finally, The King Commands lets players try to take over the kingdom (and gain sacks of gold) by battling other knights with sets of sword cards or defend themselves with sets of shield cards. Different sets are more or less powerful, and cards like Excalibur (which you could rename for your own game) and the crystal ball make for simple rules-breakers. This game holds up to 6 and takes a little under a half an hour. Helpful cheat sheet cards let players look at the different hands as they play.

I haven’t listed Slugfest’s Red Dragon Inn trilogy here, even though it was created for use with RPGs. When my players and I tried it, we found the rules to take a bit too long to explain and the gameplay a bit too meta to fit neatly into our campaign. (Did the wacky things that went on in the game happen to our PCs or to PCs our PCs were playing? Was this the time to create dramatic irony by having the Warhammer PCs comment on D&D PCs?) I know others love it, though, so take our findings for what they’re worth.

And I can’t help but mention, too, that if you’re running a Steampunk game, Mad Zeppelin would make an excellent choice.

I once rolled a 20 on a Gather Information check and discovered that workmen create buildings with nails, wood, screws, washers, and stone. Who knew? I sort of figured an ancient civilization built everything around us with magic and we won it in an elegant auction, having pulled just the right tiles from the velvety bag. But it turns out I was misinformed.

The whole “workmen creating things with small fasteners” narrative explains why you can find things like this in Home Depot:

The presence of these containers at Home Depot instead of our FLGS has always puzzled me, because these objects are so obviously created for storing gaming stuff, like

Dice + A Critical Hit Deck

or
Campaign Coins + Plastic Gems

or
Plastic Miniatures (Classic Flavor)

or
Plastic Miniatures (Star Wars Flavor)

Just make sure you watch the minis, though. Sometimes they plan their escape when you’re not looking:

Once they escape, they end up in odd places in the house; ours usually make their way to our kitchen, where they engage in misguided quests to protect various foodstuffs:

Look how happy the salad dressing makes him! He’s grinning from former ear to former ear! Why? No idea. I only rolled a 3 when I asked about it.

(That last picture wasn’t staged. I do actually find miniatures in our kitchen on a regular basis. No, I don’t know how they get there.)

I’m in that weird post-vacation thing where there’s so much to do and so much I want to do that I can’t manage to do any of it.

My Seemingly Insurmountable Trivial Task of the Day is rearranging my RPG shelves to accommodate the signed copy of Burning Wheel Gold that I just received. We have two sets of RPG shelves here. One holds my husband’s d20 (Pathfinder, DnD 3.5) stuff, and the other holds my space-eating collection of WFRP boxes–I can’t bear to throw them out, even though I don’t really need to keep them–plus all my other wacky non-d20 systems. I suspect a trip to the furniture store for a bigger shelf is in order, but that will require a negotiation about whether or not the new bookshelf should cover the living room window that I’m just not prepared to handle at this juncture.

(Hmm…now that I look at the shelf, I realize there’s a borrowed book in there.)

In the meantime, check out this comic that one of my players sent my way yesterday. Pretty much sums it up, yep.

Lego Minis

In a related recent exchange:

Me: I made a whole bunch of buildings and furniture and props and stuff for this weekend’s game. There’s now a whole army of tiny chairs and tables!
Player: …are we playing Warhammer or dolls?

Some of your are on your way to GenCon. I’m not. It’s a bit of a touchy subject, especially since your chipper Facebook statuses are slowly eroding my sanity. Not being at GenCon isn’t going to stop me from gaming, though!

We are traveling this week, too. Although we seldom ditch our dice if we know we’re going to be playing RPGs, we often leave them behind if we’re anticipating more board gaming than tabletopping, or if–heaven forbid!–we are going somewhere there’s likely to be no gaming at all. Still, we always bring our iPads, and since we have the books for most of our favorite RPGs in PDF form, a couple of dice roller apps ensure that we can play at the drop of a hat if a game pops up.

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If you play d20, WoD, or other similar systems, you’ll find everything you need in the Dicenomicon At its most basic level, the Dicenomicon lets you assemble a dice pool, roll it, then see the tally at the top of the screen. With customizable aesthetics like dice color, background textures/images, and sounds, you can make your dice set look and act just as you like. You can also have a whiteboard function as your background, allowing you to keep notes and tallies right at your fingertips. If you’re an advanced user, you can program and save formulas for commonly used dice rolls, then put sets of formulas and dice types in separate “rooms” to keep your Pathfinder and your Vampire dice separate from one another. The Dicenomicon thus allows GMs to speed up complex encounters, especially those with nonstandard mechanics, if they’re willing to put in a bit of programming time up front. A few extras like a simple tally board make this a great investment. One caveat: the documentation for this product isn’t great, so you may find yourself struggling to use all of its features as fully as you might.

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Of course, some of us madmen and women play WFRP3e, and we need our special dice. The simple WFRP Toolkit serves us well. Its grandiose name might lead you to think it’s going to be more than a dice roller; it isn’t. You can assemble your dice pool, roll it, and the app will tally your boons, banes, successes, and failures. Further, you can see a record of your previous rolls and the statistics of how often you get a particular outcome. Some have complained that the Toolkit doesn’t allow you to save a commonly used dice pool, but since building the dice pool and negotiating with your GM what to put in it is such an integral part of the game, not allowing saved dice pools seems very much a part of the spirit of the game.

It’s so satisfying to roll physical dice that I’m loathe to vote in favor of electronic dice rollers most of the time. Yet if you’re GMing a complex encounter, a programmable dice roller like the Dicenomicon can make the task easier. And if your table is cramped with all of FFG’s Warhammer 3e stuff or you don’t have enough dice for everyone to have his own set, the WFRP Toolkit can come in handy.

Happy gaming during this big gaming week, no matter where you are!

I downloaded iGM to check out the content delivery format more than I did to check out the actual product; I’m not particularly wild about d20 systems other than Pathfinder, and while any adventure might be adapted to the WFRP3e ruleset, most generic adventures are a bit too “I’m a hero! Watch me kill monsters with magic and look cool!” to be Warhammery. (Not enough rain. Not enough misery. Not enough chaos. Not enough Waltrout.) So I won’t have much to say about the quality of this adventure except for the fact that, on a cursory glance, it looks like it would be as fun as anything else that’s not Warhammer.

The iGM product line aims to deliver adventures that a GM could run at the spur of the moment with little to no preparation. To that end, the story is divided up into an overview describing the whole adventure, a detailed but manageable chunk of background including faction information, and scenes including relevant stats and special rules. You can access the scenes from a master scene list, where each scene gets a brief paragraph of description and a hyperlink to the expanded information.

Expanded scenes include bullet-pointed synopses, narration for the GM to read, hints about how to play major NPCs, description of key items the PCs will see, NPC stats, and special rules, such as stat checks for seasickness. The description promises that “content is organized based on the flow of action,” and they seem to have delivered on that promise; the organization would allow a GM to run a scene as he read it.

What I like best about this app, though, is the map of the town. You can zoom in on individual buildings and click on them to get detailed information, including visual descriptions, key NPCs, and historical info. Supposedly future versions will have the ability to share these maps wirelessly with your players, which is an excellent idea; I love the idea of having several copies of the map all around the table without having to photocopy or print.

There are few reasons I’d run a game without reading it carefully first. Yet if I had to, I’m convinced I could do it if it were handed to me in this format–even within a d20 system, which I don’t much love, and that’s saying something!

I very much wish FFG would pick up a content delivery system like this one; I could see great potential for delivering premium electronic versions of their scenarios in this format. I also see a bigger company like FFG expanding the offerings of an app like this. What if each scene came with images of key places you could share wirelessly? With background sounds and music the GM could share? With details about miniatures or standups to use and how to set them up?

Incidentally, the company that makes this app is looking for publishers interested in getting their modules distributed via the app. Check out this web page for more info.

One last thing: while the developers are still working on the final build, iGM is free, so take a look at it for the platform even if the adventure itself doesn’t particularly interest you.

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