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!