Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Driving Force

Let me run an idea by you. A rag-tag group of misfits goes on a journey trying to bring to light a massive government cover-up while being pursued by a deadly covert-op assassin. The characters spend much of this time throwing witty banter and one-liners at one another even while dodging bullets and marauders or otherwise making fools of themselves and those that stand against them. Sound like your gaming group? Sound like a good campaign? How about a good movie? 

What I just described was, at bare-bones, Serenity, a 2005 movie written and directed by Joss Whedon. I'm going to say right now, I'm not the biggest fan of his work, but this movie is a good example of what I'm going to discuss today: Driving Force. (Incidentally, an RPG based on the franchise does exist, but I have yet to try it.) 

When I say driving force, I'm referring to a principle of storytelling describing the impetus of the story as a whole. This basically breaks down into two categories: Character driven and Plot (Narrative) driven. In a character driven story, the mind tends to ponder the question "What are the characters going to do next?". Conversely, in a plot driven story we wonder "What's going to happen next?". The core difference is which drives which: the plot driving the characters or the characters driving the plot?

The next question is: What does this have to do with RPGs and why is this movie a good example? Bear with me, I think this may be a long post. And for those who haven't seen the movie, there may be spoilers. You've been warned.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Know Your Role

... because knowing is half the battle.

In my last post, I made mention of 'roles' at the table. In most groups, every person will usually have that one job or niche that they fill and do well. In the original edition of D&D, there were 3 classes: Fighter, Mage and Cleric. A hard to kill warrior-type, a high-damage cannon, and a mender of wounds. People who play MMOs will be familiar with the idea put into terms like tank, dps and heals. The 'Holy Trinity' as it is sometimes called. This is an age-old paradigm that has been retained, retrained, and remained since...  well.. D&D first started. Teamwork. Teamwork necessitated and facilitated by the core mechanics of the game itself. 

Over the years, as more classes have been added and other genres tapped, methods of teamwork evolved. Cross-role classes emerged. Wild new roles appeared. Some systems didn't have class-defined roles, and were super-effective. In the end though, group based activities work best with a cohesive team-dynamic. Once more I state the obvious, so let's explore ideas surrounding this thing.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Class or No Class

One of the earliest questions asked when a group is planning their next campaign is occasionally "which system?". Usually this is asked right after someone utters the line of "Well, I guess I could run something next." and draws the attention of every gamer within earshot. When pitching an idea, this can be a make-or-break moment with a group of people with strong preferences. For instance, I know some gamers who are strongly against anything d20 based. Some visibly cringe at the mention of the words White Wolf. Some of us are averse to any system where character creation requires a tax expert. Today, however, I'm gonna babble on about point-buy and class-based systems.

It's All About the Idea

Character concept. The vast bulk of gamers, by nature or nurture, are creative individuals. Crafting a character is the first place this ability asserts itself. Some of us are comfortable rolling up some random stats and running with it, while others have a need to have every facet of a character meticulously planned out. Wherever you sit on this topic, choice of system can either help or hinder your concept.

Let's start with class-based systems. Every class you see in D&D or some other system is usually based off of some archetype which provides a firm base to work off of. Tons of options provide lots of parts to kludge together for a mechanical skeleton and all you need to do is provide context and personality and you're ready to go. This works for some, but not all. In D&D 4e, I can make a character in less than 5 mins out of what's available. If I want something that's not part of the designer's idea kit, though, I'm kinda boned.

Looking into Pathfinder, some of the class options actually take away other options I might have actually wanted also. I do have to wonder what the mentality was when, for example, when it was decided a ranger can take feats for dual wielding or improving his archery, but not both? What if I want to spread myself a bit thinner in exchange for wider options in a fight?

On the other hand, Fantasy Craft is probably the most concept-friendly level-based system I've seen, so far. Very few options actually restrict other options and any path you choose feels like a viable rout to go. I'll probably dig into this system sometime in the future for a full review.

Now onto Point-buy. Conceptualization is a bit more free in these types of systems. It's easier to build actual people rather than caricatures. In fact, some GMs remove point caps altogether and let players build their concepts to the letter. This takes a good bit of trust to do, but it's been known to happen. But, yeah, if you want to have a fighter who can pickpocket like a pro or a hacker who moonlights as a mage, point-buy systems can probably accommodate a bit easier. In fact, you can even un-specialize. Put points into everything a little at a time and it's easy to be a jack of all trades. On the downside, this can even lead to homogenization, which leads me to my next point.

Five Man Band

Some systems, by virtue of mechanical or narrative design, require characters to fulfill certain roles within the team dynamic. I like this in the narrative sense, as in Shadowrun needing mercs of differing skills to pull off a 'job', or in a more practical, tactical sense, when people just work together organically. When the game demands this because of base mechanical reasons I feel it's just bad design. Case in point, most MMORPGs.  But whatever the reason, everyone has a spot to fill. (I'll dig into this more next week.)

In class-based systems, this is usually already instilled in the class' design. Fighters fight, mages cast magic, thieves sneak, courtiers use diplomacy. Every class has a strength and something to do via their very nature. But what about classless systems? It's very possible, and I've seen it happen, where everyone makes a concept that's only marginally different than the one next to him. There may also be instances where you've unspecialized enough that there isn't much you are good at. Except maybe beerpong. Yes, some systems allow you to put points into custom skills, so beerpong is a valid use of points. Silly but possible. Not saying these things will happen, but  it's come up more than once. How exciting is it when your players can build anything but they choose instead to make a bunch of nearly identical goons who hit things with sticks? Or the skill-monkey who has ranks in everything, but only one or two and couldn't make a skill roll if the plot depended on it? Some sort of external character discussion or niche-protection policy is almost necessary to avoid this.

Come to think about it, if my gm made excellent use of someone's beerpong skills, I'd be quite impressed.


The eternal quest for the golden duckets: XP! Advancement is the biggest area that determines if I'm willing to run a system for more than a one-shot. If the advancement sucks, I'm gonna bypass it anyway I can, usually by only running a single session, or not advancing at all if it's only a few sessions.

An awful lot of Point-buy systems I've encountered average 2 to 3 xp per session. This happens no matter what you accomplished. Kill an army: 3xp. Research a megacorp: 3 xp. Eat a bag of chips: 3xp. If you do something rather strenuous, they recommend giving a little extra, but it's not much. The good thing is that you spend points as you get them, so you get a steady stream of increased ability. It's like a never ending stream of cupcakes. They're small, but you get them no matter what, and they're always delicious. On the downside, I have to wonder if this encourages people to show up but nothing else. When you level up just as much from pulling an exciting heist as you would from picking up hookers at the local dive, why bother? I thought the point of xp was encouragement to go DO STUFF.

Class-based systems tend to keep advancement slower, and usually have a level cap. The recommended amount of xp is regulated in such a way as to cause a level-up to happen in regular intervals. D&D 4e sets it about every 10 encounters or so, while Fantasy Craft goes about 1000 xp per adventure with levels arriving
over increasingly longer intervals. Once level-up has been achieved, though, it's like Christmas! Stats go up, abilities are acquired, and skills get better all in one go. You get an awful lot and won't have to worry about it  again until you level up next time.

If Point-buy gives you cupcakes every day, Class-based gives you a whole cake but only on your birthday. Everyone is gonna have their own preference, but for me the steady but small advance seems to lose some of it's majesty while the occasional 'Ding' feels a bit more earned even if it is only once in a while.


Personal preference is always going to reign supreme, and there really is no one 'best' way of doing things, overall. However, there is always the right tool for the right job. While some people like to stick to a single system and master it, I like having options. These are only a few points that might be considered when making such a choice. And what about you? Have you ever had a character idea that just couldn't be done using the tools available in your favorite system? How loud do you cheer when you reach the next level? And when is the last time you made a character that was an ace with a ping pong ball and some booze?

See ya next time, and stay classy!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

In the Before Time...

Howdy again! 

If you're looking at this blog at all, I feel it safe to assume that you know what a tabletop RPG is, who Gary Gygax was, and have at the very least heard of Dungeons and Dragons. If not, here's the short version. Dungeons and Dragons is a tabletop roleplaying game penned by Gary Gygax a good long time before I was born. The premise is simple: Players take on the role of adventurers delving their way through a dungeon or castle or sub terrestrial operational theater or some variant thereof. The intended goal is usually, but not entirely limited to, killing things and taking their stuff. One may even encounter and try to kill (usually unsuccessfully) a dragon.

At this point, I'm sure you're saying to yourself that this seems fairly obvious. Self-evident even. Here's the catch: While this seems to be the original intention, things have evolved massively over the years. While this game and many others that came afterward assume this to be the main method of play, it's only a small fraction of what people do in their own homes. Again for veterans, there is a point I'm building to, I think. After four years of playing, I've finally had the chance to actually have a character trudge through a dungeon. Strangely enough, not in D&D.  Now if only I could find me a dragon to off.

So what does all this mean? What's the point? What is this lunatic getting on about? Simple. Over the years, the mentalities of those embroiled in this hobby have evolved. The questions now would be how, why, and what does this  mean for other rookies like me? After talking to those who've been there, I've taken some time to speculate.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

It Begins...

Alrighty, ladies and gentlemen, I finally did it. I started a blog.

For those interested, I'll be using this thing to ramble and rant about my current obsession- tabletop gaming. I know, I know, there's a ton of these out there already, but unlike most of these, I don't have decades of experience to back me up. In fact I've only been a part of the hobby for about 4 years as of this post. That may sound like a lot, but some of the people I game with have been doing this for decades.

That puts me in an odd position: the perspective of one just getting into the game surrounded by others with more years of gaming experience than I have years of existence. To that end, I've been able to reflect on the differences between those with old school sensibilities versus newer, more modern design ideals. Lucky for me, I fell in with a crowd with vastly different ideas on what makes a great game. Some of whom have actual work experience in the field, behind the scenes so-to-speak.

With this blog, I intend to mostly wax philosophical about my observations as I build my gaming 'career' and maybe churn up some ideas that may be useful to other gamers in some respects. I imagine a good number of things I bring up may be treading old ground for those more experienced than I, but that's all part and partial to the whole 'experience' thing. 


So, who am I? Mostly a nobody. My name is Matt Steen, age 29, small nerd at large. I like movies, video games, and as per my topic of choice for this blog, tabletop rpgs. I also like drawing, music and nearly any other type of storytelling medium. Especially cartoons. I'm not a college professor. I'm not a journalist. I'm not a game designer. I'm just some dude who thinks too much.

The Setup

I think some ground rules and expectations should be apropos. 

* Food for Thought- This is mainly going to be stream of thought here. Opinion is probably going to be flavor of the day, so take what is said here with a grain of salt.
* No Soapboxing- If I go into religion or politics, it's going to be in fictional universes. There's enough of that type of thing elsewhere, if you're looking for the real stuff.
* No Hate- Even if I use the word or the emotion seems implied, if I get critical about a topic it's that I want to improve something, not just nerdrage on it.
* But Wait, There's More!- I will occasionally branch out topically, but I don't intend to stray too far, and will mostly loop it back into the topic at hand. Like I said previously, I like storytelling.

That should be good for now. Until next time, stay classy!