Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Never Stop Exploring New Games

There are so many unexplored ideas in game design that it would be foolish to think you've seen or heard it all. However, given my many years of dedicated research & review, it can certainly seem like there's rarely something new out there to discover. But those few hidden gems, when found, make it all worthwhile.

I stalk Kickstarter, prowl game stores and garage sales, and consume all of the extra media bits I can. Podcasts, books, blogs, forums - they've all got a lot of people around them excited about all sorts of things RPG related. But the further I go, the further it all starts to blur together. D20s and D6s lose meaning. New books are more often becoming disappointments, as I come across mechanics I've seen, stories I've heard, and settings that remind me of that one other setting.

I'm nearing what I'm tempted to call the "bleeding edge" of RPG design and discussion. I'm right there, ready to devour new content as it comes, while still digging through the heaps of history we have for those hidden gems. At times, both activites can seem fruitless. But I recently finished reading a pile of books I bought a few months ago, and I am delighted to report that I encountered a number of surprises.

First, I read through Wyrd's Through the Breach. They had me at "dark fantasy steampunk", but add in excellent production quality and gorgeous art, and I had high hopes. Unfortunately, their promise of a unique system fell flat, as their card-based resolution system was more than a bit overly complex. That, and their unique take on leveling up each session was - well - not that unique, and once again basically overly complex for what it needed to be.

Second, I found a gem. A fine, rough-around-the-edges gem that honestly just needed a little bit more editing to make it great. Warbirds is a recent Kickstarter game that I found at GenCon. At its core, it's an extremely simple 1d6, three-stat system that has a few fancy tidbits that go with its fun Ace-Pilot setting. But what gets me excited is actually its streamlined rules for aerial combat. Since that's what the game is largely about, it certainly shines bright. I highly recommend you check it out.

Third, I got a cheesy 1920's pulp adventure game, another genre that I was super pumped for. Unfortunately, Pulp Fantastic turned out to be the definition of not special. Apparently the "vortex system" is just a mix of borrowed mechanics from nearly every game you've heard of, and includes a rusty form of character creation and progression.

Fourth, I sat down to dig my teeth into Castle & Crusades' introductory box, Tainted Lands. Turns out I didn't need to though, since it's some sort of bastardized D&D 3.x system. I found nothing new or exciting in here, which was terribly disappointing considering the box's pre-made adventures and character sheets, all ready to go on an old-school dungeon crawl. 

Lastly, I read Abyss, an older game I picked up at some random shop. It's not wonderful, certainly, and you can feel its age. However, it tickled me just in the right spots as it worked to simplify what clearly was an old war game system (not unlike D&D), boiled it down to an easy, probably pretty fun system. It uses a giant pool of d6s, with only 6s counting as a success. It has three varieties of health pools that were both used as initial armor and for fueling special abilities before actually hitting a character's essence (HP). They have a smooth initiative/action point system that, while I'll never use because it violates the Worst Game Mechanic principal, was interesting to think about and explore how it would play out. Overall, it had a more old-school feel than Tainted Lands, while still giving me new meat to chew on. Excellent!

On the newer(est?) side of things, just today, I backed this guy, with high hopes of something both amusing and different: Gobblin' . Not only does it use the best die, d12 (and they understand that it's the best die), it mixes the best fantasy creature with the best setting for that creature. Check it out, and let me know what you think!

Never stop exploring. There's always going to be something out there that surprises you - and when it does - it actually feels better and better the more rare it gets! Each new game brings us new fun, expanding our horizons so that we too can make new, awesome games.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

An Uneasy Feeling with Looser Rules

Quartas was a quiet but curious elf wizard. She loved the adventuring life, because she had a thirst for knowledge of the unknown. She survived six months of a slow, bi-weekly game that took her from level 1 to level 3. After her heroics in conquering the Sunless Citadel, she took two arrows to the chest at the entrance to the next dungeon adventure. Those arrows pierced her heart and ripped out her soul, resulting in Quartas's sheet being ripped up, never to be played again.

I was the DM in this situation. It felt wrong. Or at the very least, it felt different than what I've experienced before. I've had handfuls of characters die - not a lot - but not just a few. Quartas was a low-health wizard that was in the wrong place at the wrong time, with her allies being dumb and my dice rolling hot. So what gives? Why did I, after the game, drive home with this uneasy feeling in my heart that I had somehow wronged this player?

I know things didn't work out exactly how the players had planned, but they had counted on a relatively unknown NPC to be a key part of their plan - and I had rolled some not great things for that NPC. Beyond that, they spotted the potential ambush, and were literally just standing around arguing in front of a giant stronghold's door. I'm fairly certain I don't regret anything that happened, in terms of the fiction.

I've had a couple of days to mull it over, and I've come to realize that my DMing style has gotten way more loose, and way more creative, than it ever has been in the past. As I gain experience from running D&D, creating and running my own games, and running one-shots of other systems here and there, I am becoming more confident in just letting stories flow as they will, only consulting the dice when I really need inspiration or when I know a rule is being triggered.

I hand-wave complications, use Adv/Dis liberally, allow creative use of skills, abilities, and magic... and most importantly, I keep the numbers mostly in my head. I write down damage as it's being taken (for enemies of the players), and I read stat blocks for monsters before an adventure, but I'm taking an extremely liberal approach to how I do attacks, damage, saving throws, and basically everything on my side of the table.

There's no getting around it: D&D is a complicated game. I used to track enemies more closely, including spell slots, specific stats, and HP pools. Now I wing it. I follow the simple rule of fun, including what actions the enemies take, how long they survive, and how much punishment they deal out.

At this point, you can see my dilemma. How can I dictate that a character die, by the rules of the game, if I haven't been true to the game's rules in the first place? On one hand, this style has allowed me to move much more quickly, both in and out of combat. I've been able to balance encounters on the fly, keeping the drama interesting and the action intense. I pull upon my past experience and knowledge of D&D to keep things in the ballpark, but I don't fret about specifics, only that things keep happening in an interesting way.

For example, I know arrows deal a 1d8 in damage. That's just standard, and these were standard arrows. I also know that the type of monster firing has roughly a +3 or +4 in their stat, because this is what they do. But instead of just doing that, I left it up to fate, and added a d6 to the d8. The first arrow hit, and I dealt a grand total of 5 damage. Not great, but lucky for the elf. I rolled a 20 on the next one though, which meant double damage dice. The battle has just begun, so I don't feel the need to fudge anything just yet, thinking that the worst case is that Quartas goes down for a round while another party member casts a healing spell. I pick up the 2d8 + 2d6, roll it, and then whistle at the resulting numbers. "24 damage, coming at you Quartas."

"I'm dead." the player states, nose to her paper, double checking her math. "Wait what?" I lean over, not sure what to say as I look at her sheet. Sure enough, the poor elven wizard only has 14 HP at level 3. The 5 damage she took before, as low as that damage was, was actually a third of her health! Now this high critical hit of 24 damage has put her at -15, just enough to instantly kill her. Yikes!

It was a very random chance. The critical hit, the high numbered damage. But it all lead to this moment where game time stopped, and for a few moments even the players were silent. We broke out into a chuckle, and finished the encounter with as much style as we could muster, but it was the death of a 6 month character, and that's not nothing.

So I drive home, debating to myself if my loose, free-form way with the rules allowed this to happen unfairly. I think about that slight increase in chance for this to happen based on my use of a d6 damage might be to blame. Maybe I shouldn't have registered the crit. Maybe I should have just lowered the numbers an inch when I saw them too high. But I didn't, and the words left my mouth that she took 24 damage. That was it.

It's a weird feeling, but I'm not going to let it shake me. The rest of the games have been so much smoother with this style, and part of the whole fun of D&D is the constant threat of danger. Quartas: thank you for giving me a memorable experience - death with always hold your candle in it's hand when it comes for a character's soul.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

I'm working on a "Southwestern" PbtA game...

Moe's, Chipotle, and Qdoba, are all southwestern grills that have one thing in common: queso. These are my favorite lunch places, and I eat there a lot. Last weekend my wife said that if I were a wizard, I would be a Quesomancer. So of course I rushed home and immediately began to work. A couple days later, I present to you the first draft of

South of West

I have not gotten the chance to try it out, and I haven't yet made playbooks, but I would love feedback - so feel free to comment (on here or the document directly)! I hope you enjoy a good kick out of reading it, at the very least. I'm also open to suggestions for more food puns, so hit me with whatever you've got!