roleplaying games

All the Fantasy, ever

So now I’m running a D&D game, and it’s going pretty well. Four sessions in, level 3, the sandbox has been laid out before the players. All good stuff. Also a strange place to find myself, considering what my gaming history has looked like.

I started my first gaming group in high school running Third Edition D&D. The game went a healthy number of sessions, but eventually we switched to Cyberpunk 2020, which we played for the majority of the time the group was together. After playing in a 3.5 game in college, I began running GURPS and definitively turned my back on the fantasy genre altogether. It was much to the chagrin of at least one of my players, who wanted to play a magical character more than anything, but I was interested in building worlds that were grounded in “reality”.

I was eventually disabused of this notion, partially as my continuing forays into GURPS became more divorced from reality as my players learned how to game the system, partially as I started learning more of what I wanted from my games on a meta level, and partially as I reintegrated into a world of fantasy gaming through a game of Fourth Edition D&D. When Fifth Edition came out, I was ready to give D&D another shot.

Now, I’m running a 5e game which is designed to lean on the design elements of D&D which work and are cohesive: exploration, powerful monsters, dungeons, and a strongly integrated progression treadmill where increasing power is the de facto narrative direction of the game. It is a game which I felt completely trapped by when I first started learning D&D in high school, but when appreciated on its own merits it creates a compelling structure. When I’m done with this campaign, though, I’m going to put D&D away for a while and run something else. I own a fair number of fantasy games, and there’s more than several I want to put through their paces.

Zweihander: As I’ve written elsewhere, I wanted to run my current game in Zweihander, but relented because my players didn’t want random character generation. Of course, once I switched systems and gave my players all the control they wanted, several of them (including the most vocal critic of my Zweihander choice) couldn’t come up with what they wanted to play. I have a great group, but this made me want to strangle them. Next time I want to do a sandbox exploration game, I’m doing it in Zweihander. The dark flavor, dangerous magic and unforgiving mechanics will be perfect for the atmosphere I want.

Torchbearer: Torchbearer would be an amazing game to run, with immense danger and a lot of micromanagement. It deserves a full campaign, though I’d like to have the ability to play out until level 10 (not that any of the characters will necessarily survive that long).

Spellbound Kingdoms: Spellbound Kingdoms is an incredibly neat game that didn’t fit my dark/low fantasy ideas at all. However, it would make for a fascinating Renaissance intrigue game. My current idea is to build up a big 15th century city, and then use Spellbound Kingdoms for all the nonsense that would come out of it. In my ideal world it would be a Musketpunk free-for-all with duels to the death, deception, and derringdo.

GURPS: Even though it would take a ton of work, GURPS is perfectly suited for another one of my ideas where magic is lost to the world and the PCs find themselves trying to find it. With that core concept the actual setting could be a huge range of things, but the narrative arc of trying to find cosmic power is very compelling.


The problem I continually have with all these ideas is that, with one group to play them with, we’re talking years worth of gaming. Now, I’ve already decided my next game with my online group after D&D will be The Veil, and nothing’s going to change that. After that, though, I’d probably pick up another fantasy campaign. Out of these, I’d go either Spellbound Kingdoms or GURPS, since the Zweihander idea is more of a reskin of the campaign I’m already running, and Torchbearer would also be built on similar flavor. Spellbound Kingdoms would be something new, but GURPS is something very ambitious. I clearly have plenty of time with which to think and write, and for both Spellbound Kingdoms and Zweihander there are supplements on the horizon which may change the breadth of options within the game.

It’s refreshing to be interested in more options out in the gaming world, especially as fantasy makes up the bulk of the hobby thanks to D&D and Pathfinder. For now, though, more gaming ideas just mean that I have too many games and not enough time.

Advertisements
roleplaying games

Time Utilization

My girlfriend has proposed a game night this coming Saturday. Our house games (consisting of me, my girlfriend, our roommate, and 1-2 other people) have mostly flopped, but for this game I’m going to build it like a one-shot and provide myself with more contained prep and writing prompts than I’d use if I was trying to start a campaign.

From what I’ve been seeing, “one session at a time” is kind of difficult for me. In the past, this has resulted in some slower “bridge” sessions where I was trying to get a bunch of exposition out without having a strong driving force for the characters. It also did not result in better or more focused games; games like my last Interface Zero campaign struggled to gain their footing and I ended up feeling like the world was left unexplored, without a strong storyline to compensate.

Meanwhile, in my D&D game I’ve been doing (in my opinion, at least) much better. The worldbuilding comes naturally and I drop hints to my players whenever relevant, but they’re free to pursue plots as they come up. The fact that we spent a good 30 minutes looking at expository stuff in our last session while still getting “but we’re going to the crypt now” after all of it was a good sign that I can throw out a lot without necessarily throwing off my group’s focus.

Back to this weekend. If I focus on delivering one fun session and letting everyone explore their characters, it’s going to dramatically increase the probability we return. And whether we return or not, it’ll also dramatically increase the probability that the game will be fun. That is kind of important.

The title of this post speaks more to the end result of running these home games better, as opposed to how I’m going to run them better. I have the time and the people to run games all the time, even if it’s very difficult to run more than one regular group. My gaming time utilization improves if I work to make each session fun, rather than get stuck in a loop about the fact that I’m unable to run more long-form games. Looking forward to this Saturday, hopefully I’ll be able to land a home game better than I have in the past.

roleplaying games

In Spaaaaaaace

So my campaign is underway, and my other backburner project is on hold until the system I want to base it on is actually released. Rather than plan any of this, I stumbled into a completely new project: writing a space sandbox for GURPS.

Space games, specifically GURPS Space games, hold a wonderfully ignominious place in my heart. I had a proto-RPG world I made up with a childhood friend when we were between the ages of maybe 7 and 10, with aliens and giant starships and everything else you’d need for an eight-year old’s version of “Star Trek, but EVERYTHING’S COOLER”. When I got to college, I started writing down everything I remembered of these pretend games. It boiled down to this: there were three human factions and two alien races, and the story of the game involved a group of mercenaries splintering off and forming their own fourth faction. When condensed from the details, it was a solid campaign, and I did my best to extrapolate. Then, I turned to my gaming group and said “hey guys, I’ve run one campaign in GURPS by the seat of my pants that ended up going pretty well, so I want to try this other genre. Here’s a whole load of flexibility in creating your characters so you can help me flesh out the world!” Anyone who’s played GURPS before already knows this was a disaster. The ludicrous power-game aliens and robots my players created broke the game so decisively that the campaign folded after 3 or 4 sessions.

So I haven’t run a space game since. I have run a lot of Cyberpunk, and am broadly speaking a big fan of science fiction. The fact that I’d want to run another space opera is not surprising to me, though the fact that I keep on going back to GURPS is a slight surprise. Given my previous experience one would think I’d go with something a bit more constrained…that said, when looking at other space opera games, namely Traveller and Stars Without Number, neither of them give me what I’m looking for. With my previous space opera disaster, I’m pretty sure I know what I need to do to keep my campaign a little more on the rails.

The other main reason I’m going for GURPS is that it’s the anti-Star Wars in a lot of ways. After playing in three different Star Wars campaigns, I’m pretty done with that kind of pulp space adventure. However, GURPS can do games with a hard sci-fi flair very well, which would help me drag everything way down to Earth in comparison to what the Star Wars games were like. Fact is, I have a desire to run a number of genres in GURPS, even though I know I need to ease my players back into it. I’m putting the brakes on a wholesale return to GURPS GMing at least for now, as I’m running a D&D game that’s off to a very good start, and I still really want to run The Veil. After that, though, my setting experiments in GURPS are likely to accelerate.

Here’s my basic idea: centuries ago, eight generation ships departed Earth for a far-off cluster hundreds of light-years away. Based on Earth-bound telescopes, this cluster had hundreds of stars with planets, and should offer many possible landing sites for the future denizens of the generation ships. While underway, scientists on one of the ships discovered how to control quantum excitation, which would draw sympathetic particles towards each other at speeds faster than the speed of light. Somewhere around halfway through the journey, the designs for a quantum excitation drive leaked from one of the Command laboratories. These designs ended up in the hands of a separatist group, who covertly converted a number of the orbital craft in storage to FTL. On a day these rebels now celebrate as “Separation Day”, about 5000 people exited the ships in stolen craft and engaged the QE drives, zooming ahead of the colony ships. Separation Day caused a furor among the remaining colonists, many of whom did not know that the existence of this technology was being hidden from them.

Different ships had different reactions to the sudden knowledge of QE tech. The game will start on the El Dorado (the ships are all named for fictional cities). The way the El Dorado handled the grumbling about QE was to release the drive designs to those in charge of the materials processing units, with a promise that the drives would be made available to anyone who wanted them as soon as the ship arrived. It was an imperfect compromise, with the remaining separatists unhappy about waiting 30-50 years, and the manufactories unhappy about having to figure out how to build and distribute the craft without losses. By the time El Dorado started its deceleration burn to enter its new home system, the solution which they happened upon involved financing.

After the El Dorado settled into a stable orbit, it shifted into seed station mode, and the commanders aboard began going through the process of shifting from a military-style command polity to a democracy. Along with that, they and the manufactory staff began establishing and releasing a currency and economic scaffold. Part of this, in order to get people colonizing and spreading throughout the cluster, was making loans for spacecraft. This was part of the plan before, but the existence of QE drives complicated things. As the new Orbital Bank discovered, it’s impossible to repossess a spacecraft light-years away. Well, almost impossible.

The PCs will be the first generation of interstellar repo-men, unable to afford a spacecraft unless locked into a contract with the Orbital Bank. Their mission will be to explore nearby systems, place Quantum Communicator beacons, and find, disable, and repossess spacecraft belonging to loan defaulters. Of course, the PCs’ familiarity with the kill-switches and tracking sensors the repo-men use also put them in the best position to themselves run from their loan. And complicating things, the systems are already interspersed with humans calling themselves the Remnant, the surviving offspring of those separatists who fled the ships some 50-60 years ago.

The feel of the game will be on the side of hard sci-fi. Though the QE drives are clearly made up, the design of the cluster and some of the colonization tech will hew slightly closer to the laws of physics. PCs will encounter hazardous planetary environments, power constraints, and the need to establish supply lines. Their stint as interstellar repo-men will be well supplied, but striking out on their own will take planning and supplies. And finally, I’ve come up with some basic ship design ideas that deal with the reality of zero-g as well as atmospheric flight.

What I’ve been doing with this so far is writing out the cluster. From the looks of it, there’s going to be a lot of uninhabitable systems out there, but so long as the planetoids orbiting them have valuable resources, it’s still worthwhile. It also means that jumping to an unexplored system comes with risk, in terms of scarce fuel and food. Once I have an idea of how many systems in each sector (sectors are based on an x,y,z coordinate plane, so there are eight of them) contain inhabitable (or marginally inhabitable) planets, I can then think about what’s in those systems. Another thing to think about is the notion of natural resources, and how to build out a system for mining and trading in this world.

It’s clearly not done, but through the exercises I have done for this new setting, I’m seeing a lot of potential. Even if it turns out I’m still suffering from space fatigue when everything comes around, I’m still learning a lot about GURPS worldbuilding and how it meshes with everything I’ve learned since last running GURPS. This will end up being one of a trio of new ideas I’m going to write out in the future: this, a near-future/Cyberpunk/post-apoc idea, and a fantasy idea centering around lost magic. None are on the actual GMing docket in the near term, but I’m looking forward to getting back into this toolkit and really fleshing out some future games.

roleplaying games, Writing

A project with a fork in the road

I’ve talked about my idea for “Burning Cyberpunk” before. Taking principles and rules systems from Burning Wheel, setting flavor and mechanics from Cyberpunk games, and building a game that would incorporate the character-driven drama of Burning Wheel games with the heavily thematic storylines of literary and aesthetic Cyberpunk, all while making the crunch fun and easier. I started to outline an attempt at this system in Genesys, as I thought there were some interesting ways to port Burning Wheel Advancement into the Narrative Dice System. Then, today, my project slammed on the brakes.

The backer surveys for Cortex Prime went out.

It was a couple steps, actually. The backer surveys went out and I went “huh, maybe I could write Neon Dice (the working title for the project) in Cortex”. Then, I found my notes for porting Burning Wheel to Cortex Prime as I was cleaning out my Google Drive. Then I went “oh shit”. Cortex Prime is likely a better platform for this project for a few reasons: first, the meta-currency rules mean that porting Artha (the part of Burning Wheel that was most vexing me) is much easier. Second, because advancement in Cortex Prime need not hinge on earning traits in-game (Genesys absolutely does, the mere existence of trait trees in Star Wars implies that), porting Traits and Trait voting into Cortex is way easier. Third, all the things that are unique and interesting about Genesys are things I can port myself, save maybe the dice system.

And that brings us to point four, a somewhat self-serving and premature point. I want to make games so people can play them. The Cortex Creator Studio would offer me a good way to distribute this port if I ever finish it, maybe make a little pocket money. Even though I’m adopting a lot of rules ideas from Burning Wheel, I’m not copying anything from the system wholesale, and I’m not going to use trademark-able terms like “artha” in the text. However, if I were to use Genesys, for which FFG has no creator support, the game could never be salable. Use of the dice system would be the basis for a lawsuit, since the dice are either trademarked or protected under a design patent.

I’m eagerly awaiting the final version of Cortex Prime to be in my hands, but I already have the SRD. The one section I’ve done a lot of work with (Contacts) could likely be 80% salvaged; though it uses some concepts from one of the FFG games it doesn’t depend on the dice and could be easily slotted into a Cortex rules schema. The rest of the stuff I’ve done has been more about pulling Burning Wheel Concepts out that I want to use, which is necessary pre-work no matter what system I end up writing this in.

Genesys is a neat system, and wins over Cortex Prime from a subsystem and mechanical depth perspective given the larger amount of detail given to weapons, vehicles, and other equipment. However, writing for it is currently a dead-end. There is a subset of the RPG fandom willing to write conversions, hacks, and other material and release them for free on the internet. There are way more people that, even if they are not writing for compensation per se, are going to be more enthusiastic about distributing new material if they get some recognition and access to an audience. The Genesys ecosystem is going to flounder until they have something akin to the Cortex Creator Studio…something developed for a game that hasn’t even been released yet. And beyond that, I simply don’t feel like putting effort into a project that could get me sued, and many people feel the same way.

I am eagerly looking forward to Cortex Prime. Not only is it a highly modular system (the SRD makes that clear), but it has a publisher that understands the importance of fan support.

roleplaying games

To Build a World

I’m preparing for my D&D campaign which is going to kick off on January 7th. A lot of what I’ve done recently to prepare has been connecting the dots around some of my initial mechanical ideas and a lot of the random rolls I made when building out my hexcrawl map. I’m really happy with what I’ve come up with, but ultimately it is a D&D world through and through, albeit one with some ethnography shake-ups and old-school inspiration.

For multiple reasons, I’ve been thinking about other worlds I want to create as I continue running games into the future, and I keep on returning to a very different mode of both world creation and gameplay as I look forward. In an ironic twist, the amount of time we’ve spent playing Star Wars (and mildly related, the degree to which I need a break from it) has made me look at another angle on space opera…or hard science fiction, at least.

I want to create a game which, like my D&D game, is heavy on exploration, involves a new world map with very little filled in, and emphasizes both danger and building this world in the image of the PCs. Unlike my D&D game, I want this to take place in a science fiction setting, pulling in elements from cyberpunk and post-apocalyptic fiction to create a hard sci-fi playground. I’d run this in GURPS…or at least I think I’d run it in GURPS.

Where the line is has to do with the sort of world I’m creating. The problem with exploration games broadly is that when the primary mechanic is exploration, you have a limited palette of external sources of tension. Monsters and encounters do the trick nicely, but monsters aren’t really the primary thrust of a hard sci-fi game. Resource scarcity is an important driver too, but can get both boring and frustrating, especially if you aren’t willing to let things get shaken up.

This is why pulling Cyberpunk elements into the mix allows things to be more interesting…or at least more dynamic. You need some mix of exploration and existing human inhabitation, or you aren’t going to have a lot of conflict. Aliens could serve this purpose, but as I started to get to in an earlier post, that brings along a whole different set of baggage that I don’t think I’d want in this particular campaign.

At the end of the day, this game is a long ways off. It’s entirely possible that the D&D game I am getting ready to run in less than two weeks will do very well at scratching my exploration itch, and I’ll tone down those sorts of themes in future games. I’m also still pondering the degree to which I want to run GURPS and make it pretty gritty, versus the degree to which I want to return to PbtA, either Apocalypse World or The Veil. Hard sci-fi is a GURPS sell I think I could make, but it’s not the only one I’ve been thinking about. Hell, technothriller could be a lot of fun in GURPS, and then I could pull ideas from the Grand Theft Auto games among other places. Not exploration, but a good shot to employ the granularity of the system to good effect.

I haven’t decided anything yet, and that’s a good thing. I have a sprawling fantasy world to construct first, and some first-level characters to terrify.

 

roleplaying games

Today’s a very special day

Today’s the one year anniversary of me starting on a new project with a friend and writing at Cannibal Halfling. Cannibal Halfling was not the first gaming blog I have worked on; I was a contributing writer to Troll in the Corner for a hot second before grad school. I was unable to keep up a schedule on that site once grad school began, and the administrator had found contributors both more prolific and closer to the hobby than I, so it all worked out in the end. I did continue writing on my own, but with the longest period of underemployment in my life (May 2009 to December 2009) coming to an end, I was unable to commit to a solid writing schedule for another seven years.

But now I have. Though I count the somewhat BS “Level One Wonk Holiday Special” (a feature I will reprise this year, albeit with way more content), I wrote an article every single week. I was up every Wednesday, except for one week where I posted early to grab more viewers. Some of the articles have been good, some have been rushed, some have been popular and many have not, but in all cases I’m getting a much wider audience for my writing than I could have imagined otherwise.

And more importantly than audience, I’m having fun and I’m being pushed. 1500 words a week is not a terribly ambitious goal, but to do it week-in week-out, and continue to come up with new content each time, that does take work. I’m stretching my brain and thinking about how I’m engaging with the hobby as a whole. I’m looking at my own reading, seeing what doesn’t yet exist, and trying to create it. And best of all, continuously writing no matter what has helped motivate me to undertake other, more ambitious writing projects, even if they are often hampered by time and motivation.

Engaging in the gaming community through the platform I now have has been amazing, and it has continued to motivate me. I truly believe that role-playing games are a mentally enriching hobby; from the simple creative exercise of telling a story to the mindfulness of truly trying to come to grips with a person’s true motivations (even if that person is a fictional character you created) to simply learning how to conduct small group meetings, RPGs do teach you things. Beyond that, I really, honestly think that collaborative story making of the kind that RPGs enable should be a much more widespread hobby than it is right now. Storytelling is one of the most ancient of human endeavors, and role-playing games are a uniquely modern way to democratize it.

In short, thank you all for reading our stuff and playing games, whether we’re recommending them or not. I hope to keep doing this next year and for years to come after that. And if somehow, you read my personal blog and have managed to not stumble onto Cannibal Halfling yet, just go read.

roleplaying games

Blade Runner, Cyberpunk, and The Veil

This week my Cannibal Halfling post was early, so my personal post will be early as well! Early logistically if not in spirit, at least. I saw Blade Runner a few weeks ago (the new one), and absolutely loved it. The aesthetic was perfect, and it extended the themes of the original very well. It also got me thinking, unsurprisingly, about what I’d be aiming for in a Cyberpunk game the next time I run one.

The Veil is a similarly aesthetic approach to Cyberpunk as Blade Runner, of course in a different medium. This was one of the reasons I was quite tentative to run it with my group as a campaign, though that hesitation has softened. In the end, I had a clearer mechanical vision of my fantasy game, and at the moment I still do…though at the moment I damn well better, because that game is starting within a month.

Still, watching Blade Runner reminded me that I do still want to run The Veil. That movie brought up some of the weirdness involved in “Lifting The Veil” in a way that I understood better than seeing it in text, which made it much more clear that I have the capacity to attack the material. It also of course gave me some ideas, altogether too many ideas. The good thing about this is that when the genre is giving me candy store grade enthusiasm for its wide range of themes and milieus, it becomes much easier to do what The Veil requires you to do, which is give the players a hand in creating your setting with you. Wanting your players’ input instead of being nervous about it is a huge deal given the unique social contract of a PbtA game.

The timing of running The Veil will work out, because I don’t want to run the game without the supplement Cascade. Since that’s still being worked on, it helps cement my choice to run the fantasy apocalypse campaign as the right one for right now. I’m also getting more comfortable with the idea that even if this D&D game runs its course, it may not be a 1-to-20 long runner in the way I’ve fantasized about. I’m OK with that…I don’t need to get to the end of the progression curve to tell the stories I want to tell. It’s an important mental milestone to reach as the pre-game prep starts to give way to the during-game prep. Like any campaign I’m about to submit this one to the will of my players…but given the sandbox structure I may be doing so much more acutely than usual.

As I’m getting ready to GM again, I finally feel like my campaign brain has settled into something sustainable: give over most of my brainspace to my upcoming/current games, with just enough thoughts about the next one some time in the ill-defined future. I know there’s more I will want to do, but for now this is good.