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My vampire’s hapless, disheveled, Bugles-eating professorial ghoul may die on Thursday at our game, and if not on this Thursday, some other future Thursday. Given that he’s involved in a turf war between clans in an increasingly unstable Domain, it’s really pretty likely.

Intellectually, I’m prepared for it, because it makes sense in narrative terms. Still, that doesn’t mean that I–as a player, not just as a character–am not going to be really upset when it happens. (My only consolation is that I suspect our ST is going to be upset, too, because he’s also rather fond of that particular NPC.)

Now, my ghoul isn’t a super valuable +12 sword of macguffin-slaying that ends up turning the tide of the game. In fact, the Doc has generally been more trouble for my character than he’s worth, as he has a tendency to be imbibe at all the wrong times and take books from the Tremere at all the other wrong times, leaving my character to answer drunken text messages and discuss lending library hours with a hostile clan when she ought to be running from something dangerous and toothy. Yet I like the NPC enough that I have put serious thought into retiring my PC just to move him out of the Domain to safety.

I’m just going to stop for a minute to let that sink in: I’m tempted to retire a PC I love to save a relatively minor NPC.

Part of me is really horrified to admit that. I’m fairly certain this puts me squarely into the “unquestionably insane” category. On the other hand, I think it indicates how much I’m enjoying this particular game.

Between the upcoming peril and an interesting conversation elsewhere on the internet, I got to thinking about the relationship between good RP and the extent to which any given group of players allows itself to be vulnerable around a table. By definition, all roleplaying requires a base amount of vulnerability, as you’re telling a group story. Yet some groups reveal things about themselves more comfortably than others, and some GMs/DMs/STs encourage that sharing better than others.

I have to say that my own tendencies in this area aren’t always great. When under pressure–in both RL and in game–I have a tendency to turn into a manic Oscar Wilde. This is why people like to sit next to me during meetings. If given free rein, I’ll do much the same in game. Even when I’m at my comedic best, though, those moments only go so far in furthering the storyline itself, and they invite other players to riff off of the comedy, not explore the atmosphere or the framework of the moment.

In many ways, my (and many of my friends’) impulse to be funny is a reaction against revealing too much at the gaming table. I’ve noticed that we often do it when things get rough, either when we aren’t sure how to tackle a particular difficult task or when we are being asked to respond to a story element that may get emotionally tricky. It’s an avoidance tactic, and many gamers feel they have the right to it, since we game to have fun. Yet I’d argue that many of us game to stretch ourselves intellectually and emotionally, too, and that’s where the comedy routine weakens the aims of gaming.

Let me back up for a minute. I was sitting in a meeting a few days ago next to our Vampire ST; as usual, I was being funny via text message with a handful of friends around the table. Then I was struck by the realization that I would never want to be sitting across the table on the other side of a negotiation from my ST, especially one in which we disagreed. It’s unlikely to happen, since we’re in different departments, but I suddenly realized that he knew more about my negotiation strategies, soft spots, stalling tactics, and overwhelming desire to collaborate (even when it’s an incredibly poor choice) than people who have known me for years. Ditto for the other players. It struck me suddenly that I played this particular game more honestly than I had played a game in a long time.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had a lot of outstanding gaming over the last few years. Yet still, I’m fairly certain our Vampire game is the most satisfying RPG I’ve played in a long time, partly because we have built a table around which we aren’t afraid to take some risks. Quite a bit of that comes from having a group whose gaming goals match so completely.

Let me give some examples of varying goals. My WFRP players were deeply invested in the bizarre storylines of that game; they weren’t minmaxers in the traditional sense, and they weren’t always all that interested in the mechanics of the game. They wanted to find out what was going on behind the scenes, and did a lot of snooping around to figure out why things were as they appeared. A handful of recurring NPCs elicited some strong feelings (the annoying orphan Waltrout was one and an actor-turned-kidnapper named Klaus was another,) and they loved lightheartedly bantering with one another, constantly egging the dilettante on to ask about getting her clothing cleaned in the Inns they visited or suggesting to the Priest of Sigmar that he indulge his desire to start fires. Overall, narrative motivated them, both the prewritten narrative of the adventures themselves and the evolving narratives they were creating on their own. The group had a lot of warm, positive interactions in character, but for the most part, they were light and without much long-term consequence. I will take quite a bit of responsibility for this as the GM, since the Warhammer world tends to fascinate me; I undoubtedly encouraged my players to look at the world and its narratives more carefully than, say, the NPCs or the combats.

The Pathfinder group I played in years ago and still play with intermittently during summers solved puzzles. Where could we best orient ourselves to kill the monster in this particular room? How might we negotiate the best deal for this doodad we need to finish the adventure or steal it if nobody had a decent negotiation skill? Was there a skill or item that negated the problematic spell just cast by the NPC, and if many of us had it, who should best spend the charges to use it? Again, we had a lot of fun tabletop banter, but a good two-thirds of it was out of character; we talked about the game much as you’d talk about a board game and dipped into character when we had to do a negotiation or somesuch.

Our current game has slightly different stakes: can we outwit and out-negotiate these NPCs, most of whom elicit pretty strong feelings? Can we keep doing it week after week, despite the drastically changing fortunes of our Domain? Can we find out what those NPCs don’t want to tell us openly? With which PCs and NPCs will each of us build relationships, and will those turn out to be short-term alliances or long-term friendships? Certainly we go “do stuff,” but the majority of things that we do in game have the reward of increasing our characters’ reputations and opening new doors to build relationships.

When pressed, most of us would say that most RPGs can encourage all of these types of play, and most games do have a smattering of each these elements from time to time. Generally speaking, though, any given player will likely have more strength in one area than in another. A given system will likely encourage one kind of behavior over another. Most of us play in groups with a split talent pool: you’ll have one player who wants to build relationships, a couple who want to solve puzzles, and one who wants to discover narrative. These players often get stuck negotiating the added complexity of the ST/GM/DM’s own vision of ideal play and the extent to which the chosen system allows that play. Once in awhile, though, you luck into a group where all the players have the same main goal and execute it equally well; once every Brigadoonish number of years, you’ll luck into a group with a unified play style that has chosen a system wisely and that has an ST who manages that play style well. At those moments, then, players can take risks at the table without worrying that their play detracts from another player’s game or from the ST’s vision of the game as a whole. For me as a player, that’s when the real magic happens, as everyone around the table seamlessly supports each other in the goal of good gameplay. That’s also when a player decisions feel truly meaningful because the scope of play has narrowed enough that events can have a genuine impact on a dynamic game world–like when it feels reasonable to retire a PC to save a hapless little ghoul.

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I’m an overpreparer, so I don’t generally use things like random dungeon rooms. In fact, I tend to run games without dungeons. Still, I’ve played in enough games that had delightful dungeon crawls that lasted for session upon session, run by a GM with a bunch of random monster generation tables and an endless thirst for blood and death to know that such things can be fun.

…for the GM.

Anyway, I did recently see a neat set of last year’s Kickstarted Dungeonmorph Dice. Each face of these dice shows the picture of a different dungeon room, and when rolled and put end to end on a table, they produce endless strange maps of dungeoneering goodness. You can even get the images on the die faces as a font for Mac/Windows/Linux so that you can produce your own maps in any word processor. A quick check of the map symbol key shows that the dungeons include plenty of landmarks and points of interest that could encourage roleplay beyond hack n’ slash, and a GM could easily write a series of encounters based on the symbol key before rolling (or letting a player roll.)

If you like the idea of random dungeon generation that can be done on the fly and that allows your players to interact with the “tables,” this product might hit the spot. Or mark the X. Or something. Wait…is that the symbol for big owlbear which kicks my ass?

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!

Since we have a lot of stuff, we tend to take a lot of stuff with us when we attend conventions. And when we go on vacation. And when we go away for the weekend. Actually, we end up hauling board games or RPGs pretty much everywhere we go. It’s not like that’s necessarily easy; board games are heavy, especially since we like Fantasy Flight games with tons of bits. RPGs can be as easy as a dice bag and a few books, but as you can tell from the blog, that’s not really how we roll; we go in for box sets and lots of props. That being said, we’ve perfected the art of carrying game stuff with us over the past few years. Here are some protips:

  • Useful Bag #1: the LL Bean XL Boat and Tote bag. I got one of these from my work a few years back, and it’s a lifesaver. The thick canvas ensures that it won’t break under the weight of your heaviest games, and the sides stay upright and sturdy to keep your boxes from sliding around in transit. These have a kind of uncool middle-aged mom-vibe which I don’t love, but if you can get your games to fit in them, they’re probably the safest way to go. Tuck a rain jacket in on top to make sure that nothing gets wet on the way into the building.
  • Useful Bag #2: the IKEA bag. Those big-box FFG games won’t fit in an LL Bean tote, but they’ll fit in one of those huge, tarp-material IKEA bags. (I learned while writing this post that they’re called FRAKTA bags. I will now insist on calling them “the FRAKTAS” in an annoying voice from here on out.) Since they’re designed to fold up after use, the IKEA bags have flimsy sides and won’t keep your stuff from sliding around in the car, so make sure you Tetris anything you put in these bags into the back of your car carefully so your stuff doesn’t go flying when you take a left turn.
  • Useful Tip #1: Keep your dice separate from everything else in a handy dice bag. I like the FFG bags, although many people I know swear by DragonChow bags. Little dice bags can get lost in the mess of everything else you’re carrying, so stash them in a smaller bag that you mean to take with you. Lots of games use standard sets of dice, so having a set handy means you’ll have your own handy.
  • Box it: Staples carries Really Useful Boxes, which are my favorite way of carrying little bits and organizing them at the table, but any crafting store will have an assortment of plastic boxes ideal for carrying bits in their beading section. If you store your things in crafting boxes when you put your games away, you’ll have a handy way to keep them tidy on the table, too.
  • Take the right equipment: I’m fond of my cardstock buildings, but they don’t travel well. Pulling out Paizo or D&D map tiles allow for a variety of quick scenery changes without taking up a ton of space.

I stumbled across the link to iheartprintandplay tonight while surfing Twitter. Its owner, Derek Weller, creates charming printable standees in the style of the Order of the Stick for your D&D games. He’s got a whole host of mini beasties and PCs for D&D, and he’s also got plans for printable origami dice! He’s also created adorable character condition cards, too. Definitely worth a quick trip over, especially if you run a light-hearted game that doesn’t take itself too seriously. I may just print these little guys out to put on my desk at work because they’re so awesome.

There’s also a great section of the blog dedicated to other free print and play games. There are only a couple of games listed now, but if you’ve got one of your own, you might want to contact Weller and tell him about it!

I know many of you have been out at GenCon, playing your fill of games and seeing more stuff to buy than you could possibly purchase in a lifetime. I just thought I’d mention a neat Kickstarter project that has some really great potential: Brass Monkey’s Dragons Gameboard.

This nifty little package would let you display a battle map on a TV or large computer monitor for your players to see during tabletop gaming. Each of them could, in turn, manipulate their own tokens on the map via smartphones or tablets.

I absolutely, positively LOVE this idea. Using individual handheld devices at the table would keep my players engaged (and would keep their phones on something game-centered instead of on Twitter or Facebook.) A system like this cuts down on prep time, too; I wouldn’t have to set up a table full of cardstock buildings and minis, spend the morning keeping the kitten off the table, and then switch out a million tiles and buildings mid-session when the PCs moved to a new area. On the other hand, I personally dislike the art style here–I’d like to see something that looks more like an actual hand-drawn map, something less griddy/pixelly. The games I tend to favor don’t focus on strategic battles, so I use maps flavor more than for tactical clarity, and a bunch of colored blocks don’t really add much flavor to a game. The project promises to remain open source, though, so DMs would have the opportunity to implement their own tilesets and could undoubtedly figure out how to make use of the system for other sorts of RPGs.

This project is definitely one to keep your eye on; Brass Monkey has a solid idea, and for those with limited table space, it might mean the difference between making your home a viable place to play and always having to tote your minis and chips to someone else’s house.

I was in a not-so-local but still friendly gaming store the other day where they had a table dedicated to Wyrd Miniatures/Worldworks Games Terraclips for Malifaux. These sets feature lovely, full-color building pieces in modular sheets on hefty punchboard (1.7mm thick, to be exact.) You can clip the sections of wall, flooring, and roof together with the little terraclips made of transparent plastic so that they don’t mar the overall look of the terrain. I only got a quick look, but they seem high-quality and versatile enough to fit multiple scenarios. Best of all, a disassembled and boxed set takes up about the same space as a couple of RPG rulebooks. The Malifaux set would work well for any dark-ish city setting, (general WFRP and Mordheim both leap to mind,) and Worldworks has several dungeon sets coming soon that includes lava pits, rooms full of gold, and sarcophagi. These strike me as a nice compromise between easy-to-damage cardstock buildings and difficult-to-store plastic or resin models. I hope they plan to keep expanding the line! In fact, if this product line keeps growing and the space in my apartment keeps shrinking, I might end up replacing my own shelves of cardstock scenery with these.

I have a love-hate relationship with RPG maps. I love the beautiful, professionally-created ones that FFG makes, and I hate my own when they fall short. During campaign prep, I often regret not having a degree in graphic design (a field in which I have absolutely no interest other than this.) On the other hand, I find in my own group, maps tend to decrease the bickering about what’s going on and increase the suspense. My party tends to think that if something’s in the picture, it needs explorin’, which can lead to some hilarious moments when they sidle up cautiously to an innocuous (but mysteriously on-the-map) table.

I generally use Campaign Cartographer in spite of its steep learning curve–which I have to learn again each time I use it because I use it so seldom. I had high hopes for Ortelius, but as I said here, it doesn’t yet seem to fit the bill, so I find myself returning to CC over and over again. Yet I do hesitate to pull out CC when I only need a quick little image; it can take me an incredibly long time to remember how to use it, and I hate having to move from my Mac to my PC to work.

I was excited, then, when the link to Pyromancers’ online mapping software floated across my Facebook feed the other day. (Thanks, Rob!) This free, web-based mapping program doesn’t have the extensive graphics library of CC, but it does have quite enough to make a very nice sketch of a generic dungeon, tavern, or ruin, and you can import your own existing graphics if you’re feeling up to a bit of clicking around. I easily figured out the commands in about two minutes. You can save the maps you’ve made onto your hard drive; export them as PNGs, JPGs, or PDFs; or share them via an online gallery. The program supports both hex and grid maps, and will mark coordinates for you for ease of tactical use.

Here’s the simple tavern map I made start-to-export in about three minutes:

The website offers a way to include a map in a forum post and have players manipulate tokens on the map directly from the forum itself. I’m not playing in any forum-based games, but for those wanting to do online play, this solution might be just the ticket.

Overall, Pyromancers offers a great set of tools on their website. It strikes me that contributors to fan supplements and e-zines might make great use of this tool, and it’s certainly useful for any GM looking for uniquemaps. Do check it out!

After mouthing off about how the Dreadfleet Captains POD expansion wasn’t stupid or useless back here, I passionately put off buying it for several more months. We recently passed through our favorite gaming store on the way home from vacation, though, and that gaming store has a Seductive Wall of Fantasy Flight Things with FFGTV. Seduced by the Wall, I threw a whole bunch of FFG stuff into our basket that I didn’t need, and the Dreadfleet Captains expansion made its way in. Having now made time to take a look, I thought I’d say a few words about it.

First of all, to its critics: yep. You’re not going to use this one often, so there’s no need to pick it up unless you have a specific idea about how to work it into your campaign or you’re a completist like me. In the box are ten quirky NPCs from the Dreadfleet ships, ten new sailing/pirate-related actions such as “Conjure Wind Spirit” or “Fysh Bite,” six location cards for places on and around a ship, and ten standee cards.

I’m impressed by how much info about the game mechanics FFG crammed onto the playing-sized cards; you have everything you need to run the NPC in a fight right at your fingertips, plus a small portrait. Turn the card over to reveal a slightly larger picture that you can share with your players. Each of the Captains has a couple of special abilities to make him a more challenging combat opponent. The action and location cards are standard stuff, although I’m very fond of the Overboard card with its jaunty octopus tentacles reaching up menacingly from the sea. I am also rather amused by the standee cards. Although I use miniatures, FFG has gone out of its way to ensure that players have a (relatively) inexpensive alternative with the cardboard standups generously provided with each set. Flattening those and providing them in card form cleverly continues this trend.

What’s sorely missing in this set, of course, is the fluff. Who are these guys? What’s their story? What are they like? With the sheer strangeness of the captains and so much existing lore, it’s a shame that you have to go elsewhere to find out, but there’s no lack of material out there. You can pick up the Dreadfleet battle game or read the Black Library Dreadfleet novel. (It’s available on iBooks!) Games Workshop will be delighted to sell you more stuff, have no fear.

Overall, FFG’s Dreadfleet Captains is a vaguely interesting but quirky expansion that nobody needs to play WFRP. If you’ve got some decent reason to feature the captains or would like fifteen location and action cards that have to do with ships and pirates, though, you might find it a good use of your $10.

Emirikol, one of the most active members of the FFG Warhammer community, recently started a thread to gauge interest in a 3rd edition scenario contest. He’s going to sponsor the prizes himself, and the submissions will likely start a new little library of convention scenario content on the Liber Fanatica site. Although there’s currently some discussion about what the final submission requirements will be, Emirikol’s hoping to give us GMs a choice of convention scenarios that we run at local cons to widen the fanbase–something we’re currently sorely lacking.

I’ll probably enter if the competition goes official. If you’re at all interested, see the proposed details below, then throw your hat in the ring by responding to the thread here.

Proposal: 3rd Edition Convention-Playable Scenario Contest:

PROPOSED Deadline: November 1st, 2012

Assumptions: It is assumed that GMs running the scenario have access to the Core set, Winds of Magic, Signs of Faith and Adventurer’s Toolkit (i.e. everything included in the Player’s Guide and GM’s Guide). References beyond those should be summarized in a sidebar where possible.

Minimum Scenario Content: Scenario must be all-new/original.  Not including pre-generated characters, the length should be from 10-40 pages or between 5000-13,000 words and be playable in 3.5-4 hours. Part-II should be added as a separate entry if scenario is expected to go over this time with additional expected play-time listed (shoot for an additional 4 hours). Adaptations to previous editions may be included in a separate appendix.

Submission Formatting Recommendations: 11 or 12 point readable fonts 2-column except for appendix, maps or handouts, and 1 inch margins maximum.

Pre-Gen Character Formatting: If pre-generated characters are included the following format is recommended: Section 1 – Character sheet, Section 2- summary of cards needed, Section 3 – Attitudes towards other PCs. It is ok to instead reference specific Liber Fanatica 7 pre-gens rather than including new ones, but you may wish to include attitudes towards other PCs section.

Formatting layout: Page 1 – Title Page with Blurb, Author(s), and legal disclaimer.  Other minimum formatting requirements: rank/career minimum expected to play, course of expected play (scenario synopsis), background, content (by Act and Encounter). It does not have to be a railroad, but it does require a “most common course of expected play.”

Stat Block: It is assumed that all GMs have the Core Boxed Set, but not the Creature Guide or Creature Vault. Monsters found in the Core Set may simply be referenced, otherwise more complete information or summary side-bar. NEED STAT BLOCK FORMAT

Judging: Liber Fanatica and anyone who wants to help, including writers who submit (can’t vote for your own).

1e, 2e adaptations: Appendices with 1e, 2e, or Zweihander adaptation stat blocks, etc. do not count towards word count.

Prizes : Each author that meets at least minimum content standards get a copy of DLSS (official print copy, max 1) and hosted on Liber Fanatica website. Runner up gets the printed J2BFP.  Winner gets: Journey to Blackfire Pass (with cardstock pregen’s- official copy) and some gift certificates or dice or something (TBD).

My Gaming Tweets

  • @digitaldraco Welcome to the club! I only recently discovered I had massive anxiety. Getting medication and startin… twitter.com/i/web/status/9… 10 hours ago
  • @sagaston Ooh, I feel you. I have a dreadful time sleeping when I have a new piercing. 19 hours ago
  • @digitaldraco Whew! Good luck. Your job is a tall order on a usual day; much harder in these conditions. Take care!! 19 hours ago
  • @courTOONey I'm not a cartoonist, but I would be willing to help!! 1 day ago
  • @tinstargames Depends on how much work it would be to fix and where you want to focus your own energy right now. 1 day ago
  • @McNarnia That was a totally underappreciated game!! 1 day ago
  • @digitaldraco I need some time to think about how to phrase this for public consumption. LOL 1 day ago
  • After Baby Driver: I'm super shocked it doesn't go perfectly with the girl you have known for a total sum of roughly four hours. 1 day ago
  • End of Baby Driver: I just sort of want the girl to be killed because she's so boring and dumb and has zero motivation. 1 day ago
  • I'm legit having a hard time caring about the female lead because she's dumb and has zero backstory. 1 day ago
  • Baby Driver middle: is this what it's like when stupid people flirt? 1 day ago
  • My husband keeps telling "You'll hurt your eyes sitting that close!" at the kitten. instagram.com/p/BaSApz3ARWf/ 2 days ago
  • Baby Driver opening scene: I can suspend disbelief that thus guy can drive this well, but not that a Subaru is a good getaway vehicle. 2 days ago
  • I'm increasingly worried about how often the left argues in bad faith. The ideological premises are sound, but the discourse sucks. 2 days ago
  • RT @McKelvie: When I doubt myself, I remember Leonardo Dicaprio has reached the peak of his profession despite never learning how to wear a… 2 days ago