Saturday, November 20, 2010

Bye, Bye, Size

Size has been removed from DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND.

The d20 ruleset introduced a quantified set of sizes, from Diminutive to Colossal (or is it Gargantuan? I can never remember), with a whole host of modifiers to go with them (of course). They work pretty well, and in a game like D&D, where you're fighting beasties of all sizes and types, and where you (and your compatriots) might be changing size with some regularity, it's a useful thing to have quantified.

But it kind of makes life difficult.

Especially so with DPoNI's use of two defensive values, Dodge and Parry. When I combined that with the Pathfinder notion of Maneuvers, I had a bit of a pickle in that there were now FOUR defensive numbers that attackers might need to hit:

Base Defense (used for when you're flat-footed)
Dodge (Base Defense + Dex (+ Size Mod))
Parry (Base Defense + Str (+ Size Mod))
Maneuver DC (Base Defense + Str (+ reverse Size Mod (like Grapple)))

Way too much to be worrying about.

So I thought, why not apply Maneuvers against PARRY, rather than Maneuver DC? They're the same thing... except for the size modifier...

Now I did think about just going with the reverse Size Mod for Parry (it kinda makes sense -- bigger creatures ought to be better at Parrying), but in virtually all DPoNI combats that I've run to date, the characters are fighting other humans, not big (or tiny) monsters. DPoNI games aren't about fighting monsters, they're about awesome swashbuckling awesomeness, which doesn't depend on monsters.

So it seemed like losing Size wouldn't be a big deal.

I'm running a PbP with this revised ruleset, so we'll see how it plays. I've also monkeyed with the Damage system -- removed the whole concept of Fatigue (so now Powers deal non-lethal damage on failed Resilience rolls), and made the Bruised/Hurt level more likely than later ones. My hope is that you get more carry-over conditions (where a more serious injury is due to using up all the lower slots rather than just rolling really bad once), and that the Warrior core ability to remove all Bruised and Hurt becomes a more commonly-used ability (to date, nobody has ever used it in any game I've run).

So some quick rule changes. One of the benefits of an online ruleset like DINO-PIRATES is that these sorts of changes can be made without having to release "a new version".

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Weather and climate

I haven't posted on this blog in quite some time, but since my own blog is hosting a few protracted "series" of posts right now, it seems that an unconnected thought about running games might be more appropriate here anyway.

Today I left work mid-morning to go to a routine doctor's appointment. Walking from my building to my car, I was struck by the thick mat of fallen leaves that covered the sidewalk and lawn near the parking lot. I was able to take Hines Park Drive, a wooded road that runs through a long park for several miles, and I observed the fall colors all the way there. This has been a weird season, with temperatures cool in September and a prolonged Indian summer through much of October, so our peak color season was short and early (and unusually warm.) Today we were past peak, of course. Few trees were still vibrantly yellow, orange and red (although isolated trees or stands still were) and many in fact were almost completely bereft of leaves; their branches were grim, gray claws pawing at the sky. A few still had a handful of exposed leaves high in their boughs, trembling as their time to die comes due.

Some trees were still green, although it was a dry, olive green. And many trees are various shades of brown; tan, rusty orange, deep russet. It was a windy day, so leaves filled the air, passing a hundred feet over my head like deformed birds, while many others raced and danced across the road, chittering and rattling as they went. To complete the picture, perhaps heavy clouds like a mat of steel wool should have covered the sky, but it was instead completely clear; the azure sky fading to nearly white at the horizons and harsh sunlight bathing the entire scene in bright light that caused me to squint most of the drive. I put on some suitably moody old music (Ultravox's Quartet) and enjoyed my drive to the doctor's.

Weather, climate and seasons are an integral part of our day to day lives. How often, however, is that true for our characters? How often do we even bother to describe conditions at all, and even if we do, how often do we make that something that matters? What's the impact of traveling during the rainy season? In a hot, tropical forest? Up on a subarctic island? High in the mountains?

Almost every time I'm outside, especially in areas of interesting or unusual scenery or weather, I think what an amazing scene this would make for a fiction writer. Or for a gamemaster looking to add a hint of verisimilitude to his otherwise sunny, pleasant campaigns. And yet, I don't always remember to bring that kind of climatic diversity to my games when I'm running them. It does, however, cause me to appreciate the day to day small things in a new and unusual way, so at least there's that.

This is an easy detail to overdo… it's meant to evoke imagery, and occasionally prompt a thought of preparing for the weather or dealing with the consequences of it, not over run your campaign with worrying about details… are my character's clothes warm enough? Am I prepared to deal with malaria, etc.? But a little goes a long way towards making your games much more interesting.

The picture, by the way. I didn't take it. But I did drive right by that building, and that picture was taken a few years ago at about this same time of year. Maybe a few weeks later.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Trapped By Honour: 13 Assassins

Japan has since at least the days of Akira Kurosawa's great run of motion pictures in the 50's and 60's specialized in gruesome, grueling combat, often performed by mud-covered, extremely weary-looking actors. From Inagaki's "Miyamoto Musashi pictures through Sword of Doom and on into more recent fare like Ryuhei Kitamura's Versus, Japanese action scenes have almost always been enacted by performers seemingly on the edge of panic and utter collapse.

Even Sonny Chiba looks pretty tired at the end of Karate Bearfighter, but (and I don't think this is too big a spoiler) he did just fight a BEAR.

Takashi Miike is hardly a typical anything, not even a typical Japanese film director (a notoriously iconoclastic breed). His films have ranged from completely insane to mostly insane, to pretty cool but with some completely insane parts. Sukiyaki Western Django was lots of fun but not very satisfying -- which is how I would characterize most of his work that I've seen. Fascinating stuff here and there, but at the end of the film I was kind of left feeling like it hadn't all come together as well as it could. Which, given that he makes four or five films A YEAR, is perhaps not very surprising. But still.

But when I first heard about 13 Assassins, his latest movie, something told me that this time, Miike was going to pull it all together.

I'm here to tell you: he did.

13 Assassins is magnificent. Bloody, gruesome, grueling, and wallowing in muck, the titular samurai take their declarations of honour with them into certain death and defeat. It's a hell of an achievement to have 13 main characters and keep them all distinct in your audience's mind, but Miike pulls it off. Each character serves a purpose in the story; each delivers a different beat, a different tenor to the impact of the film.

Maybe Miike needed to stop trying to be different -- this is as classically Japanese a film as can be imagined. In many ways, it's a remake of Seven Samurai (technically, it's a remake of an older film called 13 Assassins, but bear with me). There's the pulling together of the team, the preparation for the battle, and then the final overwhelming sequences of nightmarish brutality. But where Kurosawa's film takes great pains to situate the story and the characters in the larger world, Miike pushes all that aside. The villagers are represented in a mere cartoon of a headman, and have nothing to do with the story at all, and rather than outline for us very carefully the layout of the village where the final confrontation will take place, Miike hurls us headlong into a bewildering maze of narrow streets, collapsing buildings and transforming gates. The unfamiliar town traps all who enter it.

As Miike's characters are trapped by honour. Kurosawa's samurai agree to their adventure with eager hearts, and their mission is ultimately a positive one: to protect a peaceful village (well, relatively peaceful). Miike's samurai have their backs to the wall. Some desire revenge, others are motivated by a need to stamp out evil, but none of them are going on an adventure, and none of them have any way out. Koji Yakusho's Shinzaemon, the leader of the band, only perks up at the promise of death. It is that promise that excites him, bored as he is with a life of peace. A valiant death in a lost cause is exactly what he seeks.

Takashi Shimura's Kanbei accepts the likelihood of death, but his embrace of the villagers cause is an honest one: he believes all the way through that victory is possible. Shinzaemon doesn't care -- he only wants to stand in battle and test himself.

And at the end of each film, the lesson is different: the survivors of Seven Samurai accept that they have done what was needed, and they must move on. They can take pride in their accomplishment, but they expect no reward. They will not change and they do not complain at their situation. Whereas the final conversation in 13 Assassins is a loud repudiation of courage and honour -- the catastrophe that has just taken place has drained our characters of moral strength.

Miike's films have always walked an uneasy path through morality, always flirting with nihilism but never quite giving up. It's the same here -- despite the rant against the difficult and thankless path of honour, it's not clear that the sacrifices made in this film are to be viewed as pointless. But at the same time, it's not clear that they are selfless: as I mentioned, Shinzaemon is actively seeking his own death -- his motive for all this is purely selfish, only cloaked under a mantle of honour. He wants a great death; and while there are a vast number of deaths in this film, I'm not sure any of them can be called great.

But they are certainly gruesome and grueling, in that manner that so many great Japanese action films have been. It just has to be said: nobody can flail around in the mud like a Japanese actor.

See 13 Assassins. It is masterful, loads of fun, and subtle, despite the tremendous amount of bloodshed.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Cheap and Quick, Never Good

There's a saying in a variety of industries when offering a client services:

"Cheap, Quick or Good: pick any two."

It seems unfair that in this world we can't have all three, and many have struggled against this eternal truth, but to no avail. If you want it cheap and good, it won't be quick, and if you want it quick and good, it won't be cheap.

But what if you just want it cheap and quick, and would be happy with BAD? What if in fact BAD was GOOD?

Well then, you'd have the DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND Villain Generator. With one click you can have your very own villain -- it doesn't come any cheaper or quicker than that.

The Villain Generator allows you to select from a half-dozen "types" of bad guys -- Artillery, Brutes, War Leaders or Lurkers -- that in themselves don't describe the bad guy, but rather give you a quick statblock designed to give your players a challenging encounter. You supply the description yourself, so a given type could apply to a wide range of potential bad guys.

Just decide the primary way your bad guy poses a challenge to the heroes. Does he deal damage while remaining safely out of range? Or does he have a passel of minions eager to die on his behalf? Or is he just straight-up scary to deal with face-to-face? Make your selection and the Villain Generator will produce a printable statblock chart you can use in game, with all the boxes for the damage and fatigue and whatnot. It takes seconds, and saves you ages.

Seriously, ages.

So here it is: The DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND VIllain Generator. Cheap. Quick. And very, very bad.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Not Really A Fan

FanExpo is completely insane. It's full of, well, of fans, I guess. Fans of Star Trek. Fans of assorted anime titles I've never heard of. Fans of Freddy Kreuger, Call of Duty, Spiderman -- in short, fans of anything that might be represented in a ridiculous (or awesome) costume.

I'm not particularly a fan.

Oh, I like Spiderman well enough. I've been known to watch assorted anime titles you've never heard of. I don't really care for Star Trek, to tell you the truth, but on the other hand, I really dig Steven Erikson. But I wouldn't call myself a fan.

I wouldn't dress up as Steven Erikson, that's for sure.

So it's not so much my thing but I did in fact have a blast at FanExpo. I ran a couple of sessions of DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND, of course, that went splendidly (the PIRATE KING face-planted both times). Sara McMillen and the other great folks at TAG kept that whole arrangement smooth and pleasant, but I had an ulterior motive in attending this insane event.

I was looking for artists. And artists I found.

First up, I met Neil Chenier, He's a local guy working on a book called "Gangrene" he and his writer partner have sold to Markosia. He had pages on display that looked fantastic -- sort of gore-porn noir, if you can picture that. Severed limbs and trenchcoats a-plenty!

I walked around a bit and had my eye caught by this striking image by Eric Vedder, whohas an entertaining webcomic called Aardehn. I picked up a copy of a print of this image for S, and Eric and I got to chatting. Eric has, as you can see, a great classic comic-book line married to the sort of exaggerated form and high detail I expect from manga illustration. Very cool stuff, and his sketchbook was a prized acquisition.

Day Two I ran into the very charming Mark Rehkopf, and his astounding dinosaur illustrations. He builds full-scale dinosaur models! Holy Moses! And covers for the Prehistoric Times! Obviously I could only just restrain myself from slobbering all over him and his lovely work. I think I loved his pencil dinosaur illos the best. I would totally buy a book full of those. So evocative and enthralling.

A few rows over from Mark, I was yanked from my prehistoric reverie by the startling character pieces of Sanya Anwar. A lot of people try to do the Art Deco thing, but it was her expressive line work and knack for telling character details that really caught my attention. She described for me the new version of 1,001 Nights that she's doing, using folk tales from all over the world, and it sounds amazing. I couldn't resist, and ordered a commision from her which she turned around and made into a beautiful anniversary gift for S. Fantastic.

I was pretty much done by this point, but anyone would have been distracted by a comic book called Kill Shakespeare -- I spent some very pleasant minutes chatting with Conor, one of the writers. It's a fantastic idea and the first two issues are very well done. I strongly recommend looking this book up -- you don't have to be a Shakespeare fan to love it!

I don't know much about art, but heck, I know what I like. Which is mostly dinosaurs and chicks with swords. FanExpo honestly could have used more of both. And less Star Trek.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

SLAVE QUEENS and PIRATE KINGS: DINO-PIRATES at FanExpo!

FanExpo, next week here in Toronto, is a massive event with celebrity guests from all sorts of genres and forms. I'm not the sort of guy who goes for autographs or paraphernalia, so it's not for the most part my scene, but they are holding a RPG component this year, so of course:

DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND will be representing, with two games running: the classic SLAVE QUEEN OF THE RUINED CITY adventure (available on YourGamesNow for the low low price of $6.00), and the much newer (debuted at GenCon) PIRATE KING'S DAY OF RECKONING.

Both games promise plenty of swashbuckling adventure, terrifying opponents and the sort of rollicking good time that players of DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND have come to expect.

Wrecked on the forbidding shore of the SLAVE QUEEN'S island, heroes much penetrate deep into the underground labyrinths of the RUINED CITY to foil her nefarious plans, battling as they must mindless minions, terrible torturers and GIANT MONKEYS.

Meanwhile, the self-proclaimed PIRATE KING has made too many enemies on too many sides, and in his desperation has unleashed an ancient weapon of horrifying power. Can our heroes track down the misnamed monarch and force him to put down that cauldron?

Both adventures feature of course the five essentials of any DINO-PIRATES game:
  • Dinosaurs

  • Pirates

  • Ninjas

  • Monkeys

  • Robots

Come on out and enjoy some classic DINO-PIRATES action! And I guess you can meet famous people at the same time. Like me! Well, not so much famous, as, well, tall. Really quite tall.

Happy to sign autographs, too.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Principle

The most important truths in life are few, and yet so hard to set down in words. This is why literature endures, century after century. Each generation, each society, has to find new ways of expressing the same truths. There are many paths to learning these truths -- literature is one that has long held value to me. Likewise, swordsmanship. There are deep truths buried in the practice of Katori Shinto Ryu -- but expressing those truths is almost impossible.

We had another lovely visit with Sozen Sensei this past July. A gifted practitioner of Sugino-style Katori Shinto Ryu (he holds a fifth dan in the style), I know Sozen Sensei from Japan, where we practiced together for years at Sugino Dojo. This year, instead of working on one kata after another, Sozen Sensei spoke of the differences between "principle" and "technique", and we spent the weekend exploring the myriad techniques that arise from the principles of Katori Shinto Ryu.

For example, an early move that must be learned is a way by which uketachi (the partner who receives the attack) may receive an incoming cut from kirikomi (the partner who initiates the attack) in such a fashion as to not only deflect the blow, but place his own sword in position for a thrust, forcing kirikomi to retreat. The principle is simple enough -- bring your sword down in time with your opponent's, the tip directed at his center. Actually performing it is not quite so simple, of course.

And even when it is performed correctly, the purpose of such a move is not always obvious. "If both our swords come down together, " a beginning student may wonder, "why does kirikomi retreat and uketachi advance?"

Katori is a style in which what is seen is not always what is happening. The principle -- the action that is practiced over and over again until it becomes automatic -- is not in fact the technique. We practice the principle in the kata, because in the principle is the simplest truth that must be manifested in that moment. Match the timing, keep your tip in the center. You need not know what you are doing at this point, but if you simply practice it again and again, the techniques that are available in this principle will begin to reveal themselves.

Strike the enemy's sword down. Cut the wrist. Lean in and cut the throat. Slide back and thrust in deeply. These objectives, these desired results, are all techniques, and in any given manifestation of the principle, some techniques may be possible and others may not be. It is impossible to know ahead of time which technique ought to be used. But the principle is always valid.

When we practice the kata, at times these techniques may spontaneously arise, and this is fine. But we should never lose sight of the principles themselves, and we should always return ourselves to these simplest truths that Katori reminds us of. Maintain one's center. Understand the lines of engagement. Manage distance.

Katori is so rich, so full of meaning and depth, that I could never imagine mastering every possible technique. Sometimes I discover a new technique that opens doors throughout my mind. This happened in July, watching Sozen Sensei demonstrate some of the techniques hidden inside hakka no tachi. He pointed out the similarity between one movement and the basic cut of Katori Shinto Ryu, maki-uchi, and I had a sudden moment of revelation. I could only laugh as astonishment flooded me. Hidden inside this kata lay the most basic principle of Katori Shinto Ryu, and I now see it everywhere. What was once a matter of technique has become the flowering of a single principle.

It's impossible to share these insights. They cannot truly be transmitted through words, but that makes them more, not less, important. Our words are a technique. A novel is technique. A cut to the wrist is a technique. The wisdom that lies behind the cut, the novel, or the words -- that's principle.

Great instructors like Sozen Sensei are able to reveal the principles to their students, and share in the boundless techniques that arise from them. We are very fortunate to have such people join us in our practice.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Creating Characters

Creating a character is a necessary part of any role-playing game, but in a lot of games it's not exactly a fun-filled exercise -- unless your idea of "fun" involves filling out lengthy forms and conducting a lot of tedious arithmetic. I've discovered over the years that introducing someone to role-playing is a lot easier if you can jump them past the forms and arithmetic. For a lot of newbie games I've run, I've just provided pre-generated characters and folks of all sorts were able to dive in and start having fun right off the bat.

Whereas if someone's first experience with gaming is receiving a two-page form and a 300-page volume of rules they need to digest and make selections from, their enthusiasm may not be sufficient to carry them through.

So it might thought that the best route is to just do that whole pre-generated characters thing and skip all the arithmetic, selections and form-filling-out.

(I'll be honest, I kind of like filling out forms)

But a number of game designers of recent years have solved this problem in an entirely different way. Instead of skipping all the tedious character generation stuff, they've designed games in which the process of character generation is actually FUN. It's a pretty amazing concept, especially in this hobby where it often seems like "fun" is really only a side-effect of arithmetic and forms.

The Dread RPG has a fantastic questionnaire method of character generation that engages the player's imagination and helps to insure their character's personality and history relate directly to the progress of the game. The crazy Spirit of the Century game from Evil Hat has players describe their character's adventures as the breathless, florid blurb of a pulp adventure novel, and then combine each other's characters into each other's novels. Ad Astra Games' Minimus RPG (link downloads the PDF) links up each character into a web of relationships that are then used to drive the story.

Very cool stuff, all.

The current DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND character generation system uses a variant of the Spirit of the Century system -- players describe their character's first interactions with dinosaurs, pirates and ninjas, and other players hook their characters into the stories that come up. The idea is that you come up with some fun past events, and a party of heroes who are connected to each other by more than just the convention of the gaming table.

It works... kinda. Much like I've found with the Fate system, this practice requires some pretty good story-telling skills on the parts of the players. Players who aren't so adept at slapping quick plots together struggle with this. I've also found a tendency for players to create stories that, in a sense, lack openings for other characters to jump in. It's also somewhat awkward to just sit there and say, "Okay, someone tell a story... now someone add to that story..." -- folks are shy (especially a group of players who don't know each other very well) and so there tends to be some awkward silence and uncertainty about who ought to be doing what when.

So I've decided the DPoNI character generation system needs a little more structure. The Minimus system is very interesting in that regard, with its quick lists of events, people, and so on. I'm also thinking of enforcing the idea of character generation as a communal activity, so that players don't show up with their characters so thoroughly defined that there's no opportunity for other characters to enter their history. I'm thinking of something whereby, say the first player to the left of the DM describes how their character first encountered ninjas. The next player weaves their character into that episode, and then describes their character's first encounter with pirates, and so on around the table. That would help to keep things from being too thoroughly defined, I think.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Gift of Attention

This past May I was thrilled to be able to attend Sugino Sensei's seminar in Sherbrooke, along with a large number of other Katori Shinto Ryu practitioners from both Ontario and Quebec. For three days we practiced under Sugino Sensei's keen eye. The experience brought back to me thoughts I'd had years ago, about how precious the gift of attention can be.

And while of course receiving such a gift is something to be treasured, in recent days I've been thinking of how simple it can be for any of us to GIVE such a gift as well.

When I face my partner in omote-tachi, or even when practicing kamae (the stances that form the foundation of Katori Shinto Ryu), I am most useful to them when I gift them with my full attention and spirit.

I don't mean that we must put on a fierce face and pretend to be locked in mortal combat, or try to intimidate or startle them. But we can give our attention to them completely, letting nothing distract us from their action. Not only with our eyes, but with our entire being as we perform the kata alertly, attentively, and with a fully present spirit.

It is so rare in our lives that anyone truly pays attention to us. Most people spend every moment consumed with self-reflection, condemning themselves or praising themselves -- usually without nearly as much cause as they imagine -- that they have little energy left over to consider others. Our own lives and worries are so important to us that we ignore the people all around us. This behaviour keeps us from learning, but just as important, it makes it hard for those around us to learn as well. When they do not receive our attention, they do not receive useful feedback that they can use in their efforts to learn and transform.

The practice of Katori offers us an opportunity to put our self-centered concerns aside and engage with others openly, presently. When we perform the katas, if we remain trapped in a selfish inward struggle, we fail to give our partner what they most need at this moment: our attention. This is one of the qualities that makes a teacher like Sugino Sensei so effective -- he sheds himself and focuses entirely on what the student is doing. It is a lesson to myself that regardless of how poor my technique may be, or how tired I am, I can still be of tremendous value to my partner simply by paying careful attention to them.

Photo courtesy of Michel Martin. Sugino Sensei is seated at center. Weins Sensei is seated at right and Mr. Reid (me) is seated at left.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

It's All About Philosophy

DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND is about more than savage beasts, cruel enemies and wild adventure! It's also about PHILOSOPHY!

The parent system of DPoNI, True20, was designed to allow GMs to tailor their campaign's mechanics to their own tastes, so that nearly any genre or subject could be modelled. I've always loved these kinds of systems, going back to Fantasy Hero way back in the 1980's. I knew the style of story I wanted to be part of, and endlessly tweaked rules and especially magic systems to conjure forth exactly the feel I wanted.

So True20 provides the raw material, unformed, for us to build on. It also gives us organizing principles -- philosophies -- with which we can distinguish one type of magic from another. So we can have terrifying Imperial Sorcery, powered by secret incantations and sheer will, or we can have island shaman who speak to the spirits of nature to call fury down upon their enemies. A philosophy is pretty easy to define in True20: it has "canonical" powers, "barred" powers, some drawbacks and prerequisites. Here's a quick run-through of the philosophies provided in DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND.

Imperial Sorcery


As we say: "Imperial sorcery is the fearsome power used by the eunuch sorcerers, formerly at the behest of the Emperor but now for their own foul desires. Ordinarily, this sorcery is only taught within the Empire itself, and then only to trusted servants of the eunuch lords."

Imperial Sorcery is the only philosophy that provides much in the way of direct offensive power -- Elemental Blast, Pain and Drain Vitality all make these sorcerers effective in combat -- but it is riskier, with a higher Fatigue save and an obvious display associated with the power's use. Imperial Sorcerers are never subtle foes, but they need backup if they're going to survive. Most such sorcerers surround themselves with minions who will never hesitate to leap in front of onrushing heroes (remember that in DPoNI, minions can automatically interpose themselves. Handy, that).

Inspiration: This magic is based on a lot of the bad-guy sorcery seen in Hong Kong films like Dragon Inn and Swordsman II. Whenever Brigitte Lin starts waving her arms around and looking fierce, somebody's about to have a boatload of Imperial Sorcery dropped on them.

Heavenly Medicine


"Originating in the Empire, but now found throughout the islands, this set of powers revolves around restoring balances in essential energies, or taking advantage of imbalances. Exorcising ghosts, curing diseases and repelling evil spirits are just some of the heroic practices of this art."

More supportive and less offensive than Imperial Sorcery, Heavenly Medicine allows practitioners to restore health and even life, to keep evil at bay and to speak with spirits, but it requires a certain amount of paraphernalia and mumbo-jumbo to pull off properly. Practitioners are not at their best in rough-and-tumble action, but when they have time to assemble their materials and direct their energies. They can provide their allies with potent benefits.

Inspiration: Go rent Close Encounters of the Spooky Kind. Watch it several times. Also check out Mr. Vampire. This stuff is awesome.

Ninja Mentalism


"Amongst the ninja, many clans develop the mental powers of their adepts, allowing them to cloud the minds of others, or to focus their own concentration so sharply that they can achieve supernatural states of alertness or ability."

It's true; ninja can disappear at will, walk through walls, and lead their enemies into traps. They do this with the power of concentration -- their minds rigorously focused and their thoughts resolutely trained. These powers allow for the development of ninja characters who can perform feats of superhuman athleticism, or those who draw a veil across the minds of their enemies. Illusion, trickery and strength of will are the tools of the ninja.

Inspiration: Mostly Frank Miller's Elektra: Assassin, actually. Possibly the greatest comic book of all time, you know. Also a zillion ninja movies.

Shamanism


"Common on many of the islands, this form of magic depends on a close relationship with natural forces and spirits, as well as a fierce will to order external powers. Many tribes honour and revere their shamans, but it is also common for those with strange powers to be hounded from their communities and persecuted."

Control animals and the forces of nature (or "communing with" if you prefer the hippy version), shamans are capable of awesome feats. Especially in their preferred setting -- for the primary drawback of shamanism is the dependence on a particular location or type of terrain. Shaman characters must take the Power Focus feat, and limit their ability thereby. But with powers like Beast Link and Weather Shaping, they can definitely have an impact anywhere.

Inspiration: Storm from the X-Men, Beastmaster, heck, even Doctor Dolittle I guess. Those three would make a pretty fun dinner party, I think.


So there's a quick run-down of the philosophies available in DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND. Of course if a player has a concept that doesn't fit any of these, feel free to make up more -- or just let the player select powers and build a character without any philosophy at all.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Hot-Rodding the Hot-Rods

So quite some time ago I talked about adapting my Hot Pursuit chase rules for DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND. Figured now was as good a time as any to talk about how that went, and the hot-rod approach I ultimately ended up with.

The original Hot Pursuit was reasonably thorough piece of work, including as it did a couple of dozen "maneuvers" chase participants could select from during the action. One of the problems I found with this approach was that my players were not conversant with those maneuvers, and so I had to do a great deal of hand-holding to get their actions sorted out.

Most times I would get them to describe to me what they WANTED to accomplish, and then I'd apply the appropriate maneuver to resolve the attempt.

Which is fine, and worked great. But it wasn't quite right for DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND. I needed something more stripped down. More hot-rodded.

DPoNI is already a pretty hot-rodded sort of game, with a lot of the fancy, comfort-ride-inducing features sawn off, and a number of scary-if-you-don't-know-what-you're-doing sort of attentuations and optimizations added on. It's not necessarily a "starter" game. A DM who doesn't know how to control a game could get kind of overwhelmed by things like the Stunt rules, or Conviction, if they aren't careful. Sort of like stomping on the gas on a customized Camaro -- SOMETHING's going to happen, but not everyone is going to enjoy the experience.

So how to build exciting chases into a game like this?

The first thing I did was strip things down. The big list of maneuvers that never got looked at except by the DM? That had to go. In its place, I included the already-tested Stunts concept. The original Hot Pursuit rules were designed so that a wide array of skills could be useful during a chase. With the Stunt rules in DPoNI, skills were already useful at any time, so that took care of that.

Unexpected obstacles are a big part of any chase, so I kept the Obstacle Check system, but instead of detailing each possible type of obstacle (which in Hot Pursuit determines the kinds of maneuvers that will be effective), DPoNI leaves the nature of the obstacle entirely up to the DM.

Finally, I threw out all the opposed checks that Hot Pursuit operated on. Opposed checks have had a tough ride of late, but at least in chases, I knew a static DC was a better choice. Making it an ability check (Strength, by default) made sure that even at high levels, chases remain exciting.

Overall, the DPoNI chase rules retain the fluid excitement of Hot Pursuit, but by stripping out the power steering and comfortable shock absorbers, they transmit the power of the narrative directly to the DM and the players.

"Hot-Rod" rules demand more from the people using them -- more imagination and more judgement. I guess that's why I like them.

Photo: Joe Zlomeck.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Settings: for fiction or gaming?

It's been a truism of my experience that many of the settings that I love from fiction aren't particularly well-suited for roleplaying, and settings that are great for roleplaying aren't necessarily well suited for fiction.

I don't know if this is a true truism, or just an artifact of my experience, though. Certainly plenty of folks have loved roleplaying in settings such as Middle-earth, Star Wars and others, and both TSR and later Wizards of the Coast have popular and profitable novel lines set in their most popular roleplaying settings such as Dragonlance, the Forgotten Realms and Eberron.

I do think that there are some characteristics of a good roleplaying setting and a good fiction setting that set them at odds with each other, though… perhaps making a great setting for one venue poorly suited for the other, at least without a fair bit of work to shoehorn elements in that may not have been there originally.

The most obvious element is that a good roleplaying setting demands a certain level of stasis. It's difficult to find a great roleplaying game in the Star Wars setting in the midst of the Galactic Civil War, which is technically the setting of the original trilogy of movies. Why? Because the best, most crucial, most transformative stuff is being handled by a bunch of NPCs. Luke and Han and Leia and all those guys; they're the ones leading the fight to bring down the Empire and usher in an era of freedom. In the face of that, any game characters played by your group are stuck playing second fiddle.

There are workarounds, but none of them are easy. You can run an alternate history game. You can say that Luke and Han and Leia never happened, or never amounted to much. Leia was never rescued by Luke, because the droids were shot down out of their escape pod after all. Luke went on living a peaceful yet unsatisfying life as a moisture farmer. Han kept smuggling for Jabba until he either sorted out his differences, or bit off more than he could chew and ended up on the butt-end of some bounty-hunter's blaster. Meanwhile, the stolen Death Star schematics somehow came into the hands of the PCs… who now have to be the leaders of the Resistance themselves. Is Star Wars just as compelling a story if it has different characters; different actors?

Or, you could separate them from the movies in time or space. The Knights of the Old Republic roleplaying games for the Xbox and PC did this by going back in time some 3,000 odd years, and essentially rebuilding the Star Wars setting from scratch. This is a satisfying exercise if you enjoy tinkering with settings and putting your own stamp on them (I do) but it's a lot of work, and goes a long way towards defeating the purpose of using an established setting in the first place. To be better suited as a roleplaying setting, the setting needs to be more static; waiting for the PCs to put their stamp on it.

Oddly enough, I don't think a lot of people who use static RPG settings really take advantage of letting the PCs put their stamp on stuff. I think a good setting also needs to be vibrant. If there's an implied threat; one nation is wanting to invade another, it's kinda lame that that threat just sits there statically while the PCs are off doing something else entirely. All too often, the PC's actions are nothing more than maintaining the status quo in the face of bad guys who want to change it. I tend to rather like big plots in my games. Invasions, death and succession, game-changing events of various stripes; that's the stuff a lot of folks like in their fantasy novels, why not in their games too? Of course, this means published, static settings are going to be less useful, as you're going along making all kinds of changes to them.

Of course, I almost never use published static settings. For this very reason.

That said, I think there's also an undervaluation of the "small" campaign, both in fiction and in roleplaying games. Why do we have to always "save the world?" Why do we have to do anything big at all? Why is that a feature of the fantasy genre, both in gaming and in fiction?

I honestly am not 100% sure. Another genre I like to read is mainstream thriller stuff. Y'know, Robert Ludlum, John Le Carre, guys like that. Although sometimes they do huge, game-changing type of events, mostly they don't. The success or failure of their protagonists are just one more statistic in the tapestry of the real-world setting. Sometimes, yeah, there's resurgent Nazis, the threat of nuclear destruction, or other things like that, but mostly the changes that happen in this genre are small. That doesn't make the stories they tell any less exciting, dramatic or moving, though.

Anyway, I feel like I'm reaching the stage of my post where I'm starting to ramble, so I'll leave off and leave the question open-ended for the peanut gallery. What makes a setting good for roleplaying? What makes a setting good for fiction? Can the same setting serve both purposes equally well?

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Creating "That Feel"

A mountain fastness by Claudio...In one of my earliest campaigns (Hi Glenn!) my co-DM and I decided to send our party to an "alternate universe".

Hey, it seemed like a pretty cool idea in 1985.

Anyway, we'd run a few sessions in this new world when Glenn came to me and said, "This isn't working."

"What?" I said, "It's going great. They're all after the paintings, and we've got this whole dungeon worked out..."

"No, no. That stuff's all fine. It's the universe. It's no good."

I was mystified.

"It's not DIFFERENT. They're in ANOTHER UNIVERSE, but it just feels like the same old same old. Same monsters. Same weapons. Same everything. We have to make it different."

We did a bunch of stuff: we changed the technology so that the primary weapon types were different, we drew a new map with new place names and we changed a bit of the window-dressing around magic. We threw out all the existing monsters -- and Glenn figured out we could use the same statistics for a critter but completely change its description, so the players would have no idea what they were fighting.

But the best thing we did was we changed the names.

It was not entirely successful, since we hadn't put much thought into the names of the "original" universe, so it was the usual fantasy mish-mash of Latin-sounding, Anglo-Saxon stuff with lots of vowels for the elves. And lots of "K"s for the dwarves.

But for this world, we made up naming conventions for the different places. Inspired by a Dragon article, I came up with phoneme collections for the various locales, so that Osgipur names would be mostly generated from "ur"s, and "gip"s and whatnot, while Maeloch names had "och"s and so on. It sounds goofy, but at the time it really helped us deliver the idea that this place was all new to our heroes.

Creating a world is one of the things I find most exciting and rewarding about being a DM. You want to instill a sense of wonder in your players, but it's so easy to get caught up in grinding hit points, positioning and buffs and all that tactical stuff, that the "window-dressing" can get given pretty short shrift. Which in small doses isn't such a bad thing; you don't want to interrupt every action in combat with a discussion of how unusual the architecture is around here. But if too many sessions go by without that sort of ambience or flavour, your game starts to lose the unique spark that got your players excited in the first place.

I've always found names to be far and away the most useful way to establish the sort of atmosphere I want. Like Robert E. Howard, I make use of existing cultural associations to evoke particular ideas in my players. My scheming manipulators had Italian-sounding names while the imperialistic worshippers of a god-king sounded Egyptian. And I mix it up; my nomadic horse tribes used Aztec names. When running a campaign, one of my most trusted tools is a few pages of names for all my cultures, so that if I have to come up with an NPC on the fly, they'll have a name consistent with their origin.

You can go too far with this sort of thing, of course, and see your setting descend into mere cartoonishness, but I've always found that distinctive naming conventions the single best way to make my campaigns stand out. Probably why I still have this soft spot for Exalted, even after some very painful efforts to actually play it. Some cool-ass names in Exalted.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Now Twice the Katori

We are happy to announce that Toronto Kenjutsu will be offering classes twice a week starting in April.

Classes will now be held every Monday and every Wednesday at Kokoro Dojo, both nights at 8:30 pm.

We are thrilled that our classes have been popular enough to warrant such a step. This group started in 2008 with very modest objectives -- only to provide a space for interested folks to practice Katori Shinto Ryu in the center of Toronto. With the support of senior instructors like Tong Sensei and Wiens Sensei of Tokumeikan, Toronto Kenjutsu has been able to grow and flourish, providing a chance for students of Japanese swordsmanship to practice this legendary art here in Toronto.

Katori Shinto Ryu is best practiced in small groups -- only through direct communication can this subtle and demanding style be properly learned and understood. Each practitioner must have time to listen and absorb what they are learning. Opening a second evening of practice allows us to maintain our small class size and still accommodate more students.

We are very grateful to the tremendous folks who share our practice with us and have made this possible, and of course to Tong Sensei and Wiens Sensei whose support has made Toronto Kenjutsu possible in the first place. Thank you all, and we look forward to seeing you twice as often!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

In the "Wish I'd Thought Of It" Category...

It's just such a good idea. DMs are a persnickety lot, picking and choosing from the entire history of fantasy, sci-fi, and, uh, history. No DM just runs a campaign the way it's "supposed" to be run, and all the exceptions, additions, house-rules, hand-waves and addendum could never be anticipated or tracked by anyone.

But I never knew a DM who couldn't use a little help staying organized.

Which is where the very clever folks over at Obsidian Portal have staked their turf. Over at the "OP" (as those of us in the know like to call it (actually, I just made that up)), you can sign up, create your own campaign site, and BOOM -- you've got a site complete with adventure log, forums, a place to keep maps and all that good stuff. It's seriously really cool.

Looks like a great place to run a PbP campaign, but even for face-to-face games this is gonna be really useful. I mean, basically it's just a wiki with a few bells and whistles, but the bells are well-thought-out and the whistles carefully placed.

And, by the way, they also support DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND as a game system.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Too Slow! But I Don't Care

The Mad Pulp Bastard beat me to it, but the second I saw these I thought, "I would so read every issue and wait in the bookstore for next month's to arrive."

I mean, damn. I can remember spending hours lying on my stomach with a pad of paper and some coloured pencils, drawing scene after scene of cool planes blowing stuff up. This is what is best in life. Damn.

What a great imaginative boost these images are. I gotta fire up that WWII d20 Modern game I was thinking about. You know, the one where they parachute into Italy, and have to make the rendezvous with the sexy Resistance agent who leads them to the bridge that they MUST secure or the entire Allied advance is going to come to a crashing halt? Yeah, that one...

In other news, I'm off to Gryphcon in a couple of weeks to run a new DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND game -- only a couple of slots left so if you're gonna be in Guelph, sign up! I'll also be running a few games at Anime North in May. Shaping up for a busy spring!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Everybody Loves Orcs (Except Me)

They do.

Orcs are so handy. I mean, as a concept. One of the more offensive aspects of D&D-style fantasy is how races all get assigned particular personalities and natures. It really just sort of supports the whole notion of ethnic profiling, only this is even worse -- whole species getting branded with a single character.

But virtually every fantasy RPG has "orcs" of some fashion or other, mainly in order to provide bad guys that nobody needs to feel bad about killing a lot. D&D of course has a dozen or so variations on the "orc" theme, all twisted and evil in different ways, but all needing killing. A lot. Hobogblins, gnolls, mongrelmen, whatever you call them, they're just human beings who have no right to live, and so delivering them to death is what good guys do.

Personally, I find it boring. Why would any sentient race NOT develop the breadth of personalities and philosophies that human beings do? Most of these races are described in such a pathetically narrow way that it's really impossible to imagine. Hobgoblins like order and discipline. Goblins are impish and savage. And so on. There cannot be thoughtful gnolls, orcs are never swayed by appeals to compassion or long-term interest. These races are thin, amateurish cartoons of human beings -- which can work in some games, to be sure (Kobolds Ate My Baby, for one (by the way, Kobolds Ate My Baby is, like, the greatest game EVER, if you don't know)).

I like what Joshua has done with his last few campaigns -- the "monstrous" humanoids are just other races and everyone more or less kinda sorta gets along. Works best without elves, of course, but then so much does. Let's not discuss elves.

Anyway, the monstrous races are almost always used as this cheap way to have thrills without cost. Like the demons in Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- technically, right, they're demons, so Buffster can just murder them right left and center and never feel a twinge of guilt, but... A lot of the demons that start turning up seem awfully... not so terrible. Just kind of plain folks, really, who have a line or three and then get Buffercized. And then there seem to be some demons that don't ever get killed, and just hang out with everyone else. I don't get it, but more to the point, I don't LIKE it (I guess that's coming clear), since it sucks all the actual human drama out of the situation. All the killing ceases to matter, ceases to be exciting on anything other than the most trivial of levels.

Which, again, is fine in a cartoon where kobolds are running around stealing babies. But for a game I'm going to invest the time to run a campaign in, insufficient.

Which is why DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND doesn't have any races other than people. People are good. You have people, you have everything.

All that aside, Claudio did a pretty awesome job on this half-orc picture. That guy looks MEAN.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

DINO-PIRATES at GryphCon!

DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND games are popping up all over the place. In a few weeks, we'll be running yet another edition of MONKEY WARRIORS OF THE WALKING SWORD at this year's GryphCon event up in Guelph.

You can sign up for the event online. Our kick-off time is 7:00pm, Saturday, March 27.

We had a great session at last month's SpellStorm convention, and are really looking forward to hanging out with the good folks in Guelph for a weekend of gaming fun.

Hope to see you there! Tell your friends!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Haru Matsuri 2010: A New Year


Toronto Kenjutsu was pleased to take part in this spring's Haru Matsuri festival at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre on March 6, 2010. We performed there under the supervision of the senior Canadian instructors of Katori Shinto Ryu, including Wiens Sensei of Tokumeikan, who is Sugino Sensei's senior student in Canada. Also present was Tong Sensei who teaches at Dragon Fencing Academy in Richmond Hill.

This was a great honour for our group and we were very excited to be able to bring the practice of Katori Shinto Ryu swordsmanship to the public in this fashion. The Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre has long been a supporter of our art, and we greatly appreciated this opportunity. We have participated in this event for several years now, and it is always a fantastic event. This year was no exception.

Katori Shinto groups from around Toronto came together to practice and to demonstrate traditional Japanese swordsmanship to the many folks attending Haru Matsuri. These events are always a great chance to practice with folks we don't usually practice with, and to learn new techniques and share our observations on this ancient art.

Working with new people means paying very close attention to each detail. When you always practice with the same folks, you get used to each other's styles and can unconsciously start to anticipate each other's moves. If I start anticipating my partner's moves, then I'm not using my senses to understand what I'm seeing and respond -- I'm interfering in that process with my expectations and my ego. One of the gifts of practicing with new people is that I am stripped of my expectations and am forced to observe, and react solely to what is there, rather than what I expect.

Of course I hope I can act this way even with people I am familiar with, but it's useful to have these chances to put that to the test.

Thanks again to the great people at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre and Tokumeikan for allowing us to take part in this event.



Photos by Owen Jacobson.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

You Just Can't Explain Some Things

This is via Electronic Cerebectomy:



I've discussed my love for the Muppets elsewhere. This is just such a great expression of the incredible miracle that happens whenever we let ourselves embrace a story. Allowing oneself to be moved by something one KNOWS to be a lie is at the core of what it means to be human.

I miss you, Jim. Thanks.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

More silliness

barsoomcore has blogged here in the past about the concept of silliness bringing people together. In that vein, here's some guy named Matt, dancing all over the world.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Keeping it Small

So I only recently came across this concept, but it's just so awesome:


The One-Page Dungeon



So amazingly awesome. Apparently it originated with this character David Bowman ("Dave? What are you doing, Dave?"), and this year's version of the contest is being run by a gentleman name of Alex Schroeder.

It's such a fantastic idea. I love everything about this. Constraints are essential to creativity, but so often, the only constraint on a GM is time. You've got a game on Saturday, you gotta get things ready, so there's your constraint. But something more formal, even if it's as ad-hoc as "you have to fit everything on one page", really strikes a chord with me. I find it so much harder to be creative if I don't put some constraints on my thinking. Inspiration so often comes out of limitations.

Now, you can take the whole idea a little further than I would, but it's still a brilliantly useful tool.

So brilliant, that we're pleased to announce that Scratch Factory Productions will be donating a copy of SLAVE QUEEN OF THE RUINED CITY as a prize for the contest winners. So break out the pencils, or the Photoshop, or whatever, and put down a page. On the left I've done up one of my own -- Flintwater's Lair, a secret grotto where the dread pirate Flintwater keeps his sloop of war, his hearty crew, and his booty. Yar. I've added Flintwater's lair to the burgeoning DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND setting wiki, which hasn't been announced yet but is gonna be soon, 'cause it's awesome.

What other creative constraints strike you as useful for DMs looking for inspiration?

Friday, February 12, 2010

DINO-PIRATES in T.O.!

DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND will be one of the games taking place at next weekend's SpellStorm convention here in Toronto. I'll be running MONKEY WARRIORS OF THE WALKING SWORD for up to seven fortunate souls on Saturday, Feb 20. This will be the first time running this adventure in Toronto, so this is a great chance to come see what DINO-PIRATES is all about.

You can sign up online: it's only $5 to register for the game.

About SpellStorm: SpellStorm is back for its second year! Once again at Oakham House, Ryerson University, Spellstorm is the only Toronto area convention that puts gaming first. Come join us February 19-20 for 5 slots of tabletop gaming fun.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Why Games Make Crappy Stories

So I was reading a "Story Hour" (the accepted term for stories that are in some way or other the output or creation of a game), and it wasn't great.

I mean, the game was probably lots of fun, and the writer was reasonably talented, so it was acceptable as far as all that goes. But it was rock-solid dull. No amount of wit or adventure could save it from its own inherent dullness.

I struggled with why that might be, and realised that in the story, our hero had no interesting relationships with other characters. The story was really just a recounting of one person's accomplishments or failures, whatever those may be, but with no sense of who mattered to this person. There was no sense that and of this person's relationships had the potential to transform the character.

And great stories are exactly about that: about transformative relationships.


So then, why so many crappy stories?


Relationships are really really really hard to model in a game -- especially a game where the modelling focuses much more on either physics or narrative structure (narrative being the darling of the current crop of game invention). But relationships are first of all, much more complicated than either phsyics or narrative. People are complicated, and nowhere more so than in how they relate to other people. Our feelings for others are so often a tangled ball of emotions and experiences and expectations that even the simplest, most mundane relationships can explode unexpectedly.

Second, and perhaps more important, playing relationships at the game table can be pretty awkward. Especially if you want to get to the kinds of emotions that drive fantastic stories. Imagining trying to play out Hamlet vs Gertrude with your buddy. How could you possibly play all the conflicting and horrifying emotions that are rocking those two people in that scene? Just even describing such things is going to be hard and weird.

And yet, stories that don't push the characters' relationship to the edge are stories that don't much grasp hold of the reader.

At the same time, most games reward individual success more than group success -- whether through the acquisition of experience points or wealth, and the then game-significant impact of those rewards. In most games, the best policy is to play a heartless psychopath who unthinkingly betrays his colleagues. You're more likely to end up with a powerful character if you take that approach, at least, so having your character possess strong connections to other characters is disincentivized.

So, there's no hope? Games can only produce crappy stories?


Not entirely. I've been in some games that have included potent relationships -- mostly between characters who are friends, and then an opportunity for one to let the other down emerges, and tension ensues.

This is one of reasons I like character generation systems that encourage connection between characters prior to the game beginning. A group of characters who are all old friends, or at least part of a larger group of friends or relations, makes for more immediate drama right off the bat.

Take for example Joshua's latest Freeport game: the characters include Ricardo the suave womanizer and his long-time partner in crime, Lash the greedy hobgoblin. These two have stuck together through thick and thin, and just having that decision made ahead of the game helps to defuse the Heartless Psychopath type of characterization. Another pair of characters in the game likewise started out with a past, and unsurprisingly, the party is partly split into these two groups. So it's an interesting dynamic from the get-go, and there's opportunities for further interesting things to happen.

This was my favourite thing about Spirit of the Century -- the idea of having the characters all assembled via a series of pulp novel blurbs is sheer genius. So of course I stole it for DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND.

Are there other mechanics that can successfully model the sorts of intense relationships that characterize great stories?

Monday, January 11, 2010

RPG Theory: Episodic vs. serial format

Here's three models of how to run a campaign. Terminology borrowed, again, from other media. This is based on some of the discussion that came out of the game-runner's chat, again (shout out to Kirin for organizing it… you demanding attention whore, you.) This isn't exactly rocket science, but it helps to have this stuff spelled out and written down, as a take-off point to deeper discussion, hopefully.

Episodic: This is like a classic TV show. Each episode is a self-contained story arc, and events in one episode have little to no impact on what comes in subsequent episodes. Like The A-Team or Knight Rider (to use some examples from my childhood) if you missed an episode or two (or more) it didn't really matter, as long as you knew who the characters were, what the basic premise of the show was, and a few other key things like that.

Using this model for roleplaying games is a nice one, especially if 1) you're using published modules that don't necessarily have any linkages between them, and/or 2) characters (and possibly players) have a tendency to come and go, and the same cast of characters can't be counted on to be integral to each episode. I.e., if you've got someone who's attendance is spotty because of a difficult work schedule, working his character in on the nights that he's available is easy if you follow this model, as is assuming that said character simply isn't available on nights when the player can't make it.

Serial: This model, on the other hand, assumes that the campaign is one, giant narrative arc. Much more "real life" in feel, it's not broken up into discrete episodes, and stuff from the very beginning, or anywhere else throughout the campaign can be relevent throughout. This model isn't really well represented by other media, although shows like Lost or Alias probably come closest, since the "episodes" are discrete broadcasting chunks, but not necessarily episodes in the classic sense, with a discrete beginning, middle and end. This campaign model is best suited for very regular play with very regular players who really enjoy the unfolding narrative over time. As with non-episodic TV shows, if you miss an episode, you could be in trouble and quickly fall behind, becoming confused by the narrative flow that's gone on without you.

These two models are really the endpoints on a spectrum, though. I'm going to suggest a hybrid model that leans somewhat towards episodic campaign play, as the ideal model for most groups to adopt. While I'm at it, I'll add a few tips on how to mix and match a few of the good points of each opposite end of the spectrum to improve the experience a bit. Feel free to chime in on what you like and why; i.e., what strong and weak points does each model have, and how they can be improved.

Hybrid (episodic): This type of campaign is characterized by a strongly episodic nature, yet it does have some elements that tie the episodes together more tightly than merely repeating the same characters over and over again. Some examples from recent fantasy literature include Harry Potter and the Dresden Files; each book is self-contained, and includes its own major conflict, climax and denoument, but at the same time there is a thread of "metaplot" that goes through each episode; it's not recommended that you miss one or pick them up out of order, for instance, although if you did you could stumble through it OK.

This is a good model for, again, the group that doesn't always have the best attendence. For most adult gamers these days, that probably means you; real life and outside obligations tend to make the regularity of gaming sometimes spotty for folks, especially as they pick up careers, families, etc. The secret to making this work well, I believe, is to allow the episodic nature to take the forefront, but make a few recurring villains or conspiracies pop up from time to time. Don't be subtle with these references, as time and occasional missed sessions by some players may not make subtle ties evident. Have an end-game in mind for some point down the line, although that doesn't mean you need to be in a hurry to get there. As you approach this endgame, you can have threads start to come together and wrap up; in the meantime, feel free to let them dangle until you figure out what to do with them. Despite that, the "main" action of each episode needs to be under better control; I prefer to give these episodes a kind of narrative structure, with defined acts that are characterized by their place within classic story structure; i.e., a beginning, a period of rising action/tension, a climatic resolution to the main conflict of that episode, and a small denoument that closes out the episode, ties up loose threads that aren't meant to carry forward, and points a bit towards whatever action might be next on the horizon.

Adventure Paths, as published by Paizo, could be a good example of this. Each adventure is an "episode" but you're not really expected to play them by themselves; they fit into a greater framework made up of the entire adventure path together.

In theory, you could also do a hybrid (serial) which leans more towards the serial model, and which might be more appropriate for a game in which attendance is not a problem, and you play often and frequently. However, I think you still do things basically the same way in that regard, with just a decreased emphasis on "closing out" episodes. In fact, I think most of the campaigns I've run probably approximate this model more closely than hybrid (episodic), but my group has frequently been dogged by attendence issues; we don't always have exactly the same crowd every time we play, and it's not infrequent that the time between sessions stretches beyond two weeks. I think this has made running that kind of game more difficult for me, so I'm leaning more towards "closing out" each session (or two together, tops) as a kind of episode that still feeds into a greater, bigger plot, but which has a greater degree of closure at more intervals than what I'm running now.

So any tips from the peanut gallery on how to maintain that great X-files esque conspiracy model with a greater story emerging from play over time, yet with more discrete episodes, I'm interested in hearing it.

Friday, January 8, 2010

RPG Theory: Techniques from other media

Last night I participated in a chat/panel discussion on gamemastering with some other great DMs. One thing that I think happens frequently is that we understand something intuitively, but we don't really understand it intellectually. That kinda happened to me last night a little bit, and some concepts that I understood (and have even used) intuitively were spelled out for me intellectually in a way that I could better replicate them and understand how and why they work, I think.

One of those is the concept of the Fourth Wall in gaming. Part of the discussion turned to subtlety and transparency of things going on in the game. One very skilled and notable GM mentioned that he likes to keep things pretty opaque, because the "A-HA!" moments are a real thrill for all involved. However, a few people expressed that they'd had great success with making things more transparent and trusting that the players will maintain a Fourth Wall, i.e., keep their player knowledge separate from their character knowledge and play their characters "correctly" based on the knowledge that they would really know.

If you are going to do this, you miss out on some opportunities for surprise, tension, and whatnot, but at the same time, you gain different opportunities. One of the most notable techniques for any author of a book or screenplay who wants to develop tension is to create a gap between what the character knows and what the viewer (or reader) knows. Because the viewer or reader knows that something terrible is coming, when the character stumbles into it, blissfully ignorant, it creates a strong sense of tension. John Carpenter was famous for doing this in the first Halloween movie, for example... allowing the camera to pan over to where you could see Michael Myers standing there with a knife, while the unfortunate soon to be victim wanders about doing nothing to prevent it.

In spite of the fact that I hadn't really intellectually grasped that simple concept, I clearly had intuitively done so, because I'd done something similar in a crude way. Many TV shows with a horror vibe, like X-Files or Supernatural tend to start each episode off with a character who gets killed prior to the opening credits. I actually did this once in a campaign; the players had all made their characters, but rather than start playing with them right away, I gave them some temporary pregens. They I proceeded to kill them with a supernatural evil NPC that had very distinctive physical features. What the actual player characters later met this NPC, it worked wonders on the players themselves.

But those kinds of techniques only work with players who are willing to maintain the fiction of the Fourth Wall. As players, they're an interactive audience, but they certainly are not the characters themselves on the stage, and they need to keep their player and character knowledge discrete. Luckily, I've got players like that, both in my online games, and in my games at home when I run (we're starting another D&D campaign right now, where I'll be a player. That'll run at least for several months. Maybe I'll put a bid in to run again after that.)

Which brings me to my next thought. I meant this as a throwaway line, and I wasn't even sure how completely serious I was about it, but someone in the chat seemed to think that it sounded at least a little bit significant, and preserved it for posterity. I'm not necessarily interested in developing more breadth as a gamemaster; rather I'd like to continue to play with other folks who are already compatible with my preferred playstyle and develop more depth to that style. Make it the best iteration of that playstyle that I can. Do what I already do well even better, and not worry about what I'm not doing. Not only can one person not do it all, but there shouldn't be any reason why we feel the need to.