Saturday, May 31, 2014

Mini-reviews: Party Games

There is a bit of bias in the gaming community about party games. Many think that the are light, silly and frivolous time wasters. However, maybe this bias is just because gamers don't usually get invited to many parties, or, if we do get invited, we just stand socially awkwardly in the corner and try to muster up the courage to suggest a game of Werewolf like a thirteen year old trying to muster up the courage to as a girl to dance.

Well, for the record, I like party games. I went through a long phase of snobbishly turning my nose up to them and thinking that they were a waste of time. And, while it is true that most party games available at Toys R Us really are just shit, I've also come to realize that gaming isn't a "serious hobby all full of strategy and tactics", but it is also one that is fun.

I stopped playing to win a little while ago. That isn't to say that I don't try my hardest or that I am frivolous with my strategies. Rather, winning the game isn't what makes me enjoy the game anymore. It is whether or not I have fun. I still love my "serious gamer's games", but I can enjoy losing. And I'm also not afraid to suggest a party game to my group now and again, despite the occasional rolling of the eyes I get until we get the game started.

Though I would like to offer a note to companies that produce party games: Please, please consider the graphic design of the covers of your box so that adults do not feel ridiculous trying to sell playing the game to others. Party games are almost universal in their cringe-worthy cover design.



Time's Up
Time's Up is probably the best party game out there that works with all ranges from hardcore gamers to non-gamers. It is a team game, where players break into teams of two. If there are an odd number of players, there is a convoluted way to play that is a little tricky for scoring, but the game is still fun enough that I don't mind it.

There is a stack of cards that each have a name on it of a famous, historical or fictional character on it. One player on the team tries to give clues to the other player, avoiding saying any of the words in the name. The players has 30 seconds to get their partner to guess as many cards as possible. However, in the first round, there is no passing or skipping. So things get tricky if it is a person you've never heard of before. However, when your time is up, you pass the stack to the next team, keeping any cards that you got correct, and they will do the same. Because of this, you will eventually come across those cards that you didn't recognize and as the stack thins, and you'll see them and become familiar with them and eventually, the group will get the last cards.

The second and third round use the exact same cards that you should now be familiar with. However, each subsequent round places more and more limits on what you can do to give clues. In the second round, you can only say one word. In the third round, no words at all can be used. Humming, mime and gestures can be used. And players can pass. However, only one guess is allowed per card. If it is wrong, you have to move to the next card.

None of this sounds nearly as fun as it really is. Clues become meta, and you'll be using clues from the other team. I seriously have never laughed playing a game more than the times that I played Time's Up. This is a game that belongs in every gamer's collection.



Going, Going, Gone
Only playing up to six, some might argue that this isn't really a party game. Well, to them, I say bullshit. The game is quick and fun and funny, plus it is entertaining to watch. The game is an auction game where players are bidding on cards, trying to get sets to sell for more money to bid with. Each card has an item and a nationality associated with it. You sell matching sets of either items or nationalities. So even though I may be looking for comic books and you are not, someone else might be looking for the flag on it and we'll be competing over it.

The hook of the game, however, is that the auctions take place in real time. Players have cubes of their color that they have to drop into cups associated with the cards they want. Whoever gets the most of their cubes into a cup wins the card or cards and the others get their cubes back. Now, since this is a real-time game, whoever is the auctioneer puts a large paddle down over the cups, blocking them, once the time is up. They count down from ten--either as slow as they want or as fast as they want, as long as it is a steady pace. Once they finish their countdown, they quickly cover the cups to stop the bidding.

This is a fun, frantic game. It's very silly, but very fun. Sometimes having all of the hands reaching for the cups at the same time can be confusing and even frustrating, but it's not a game to take too seriously. A quick slam of the paddle can also knock over some of the cups if people's hands are not out of the way in time. But despite the chaos of those situations, it is a very fun game and one that is simple enough that anyone can play it. I've had fierce games with my regular gaming crowd as well as fierce games with my eight year old daughter.



Concept
Concept is the most esoteric of the games here, but also the one that is probably the most cerebral. Now, Concept isn't really a game. In fact, in the rules, they even allude to the fact in the rules. In playtesting they sort of realized that is kind of falls apart as a game, but thought it was a good enough experience to still move forward with it.

The base of the game is trying to get players to guess a character, item or phrase on by placing cubes on a number of pictures that represent conceptual ideas. Basically, you are breaking down items to get them to understand them. Players make guesses, but the person trying to express the concept cannot speak during this process.

For example, I might try to express the word "dinosaur" by placing a concept marker on Animal, then placing cubes on large, green and old. The thing is, each of the icons you can place the cubes on are abstract and can be used to mean many things. Also, the number and way you place your cubes can mean a lot. For example, you can put a bunch of cubes on something to really emphasize it. And you will also have to break some clues down into sub-concepts.

This is really interesting and really fun, however, it is not much of a game as presented in the box. We've found a good way of playing it, however. One player gives the clues and everyone guesses. If it is guessed before time runs out, the clue giver and the guesser each get a point. They each get an extra point for the difficult clues and two extra points for the challenging clues. Working it this way, it is a game that involves everyone with no downtime and still gives that bit of challenge and fervor, instead of just quickly giving up and moving on when it is presented in a non-game form.

It also has a non-embarrassing cover. So there's that too.



Telestrations
I held out on purchasing Telestrations for a long time. The game can easily be played with paper and pencils on its own, and we have played it in that fashion numerous times. However, I eventually buckled after seeing a friend's set and realizing how much more convenient having dry erase pads and markers really is.

Now if I complained about Concept lacking a game, then I definitely need to make the same point for Telestrations. In fact, there is no way to even work a good game into it. Telestrations is an activity, not a game. But it is still loads of fun.

Telestrations is simply Whisper Down the Lane, but with pictures. Players write a word or a phrase on their pad and then pass it to their neighbor. They then look at the phrase and draw a picture to represent it on the next page. It is passed again and then the next player looks at the picture and writes what they think it is. Once your pad has come back to you, you review the progression with the group and hilarity ensues.

Yeah, there isn't really a good way to score this, but I don't care. It's not a game.

Now, I will tell you two secrets to making this as enjoyable as possible. First, throw out the cards that come with the game. Don't use their cards with words on them. Instead, have your group come up with a phrase or idea and write that down. It is much more interesting when you have to draw "It was the best of times" instead of having to draw "wheelbarrow".

Second, and this is also a key tip for improvisational comedy, don't be dirty. I'm serious. You see, when you write "penis" or "big boobs", that's the joke. There's nothing to work with because once that was put out there, the joke was finished. Instead, let things just flow naturally. I've been with groups that try to be risqué, but ultimately it isn't nearly as fun, funny, or even as dirty as when you just play "straight" and let things go where they will.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Discussion: Roleplaying Perspective Part IV: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb


I'm starting up a Pathfinder campaign. While I am very excited for the game, it has spurred a lot of thoughts about roleplaying games and what the systems should do as opposed to what they actually do. This will be part of an ongoing series of discussions about roleplaying games and their nature and purpose as I come to grips with my game.

In the third part I talked about how D&D/Pathfinder invest you in your character, or at least it seems to, but the reality is that the systems to not invest you whatsoever. In this final part, I talk about how much all of this matters and will impact my game.

So, D&D/Pathfinder is a system with flaws and whose mechanisms are primarily for the purposes of tactical combat that has no systems in place for roleplaying or storytelling. The question then becomes, "How much of this will matter in my campaign and why am I playing Pathfinder?"

The immediate response to how much will it matter is: a lot. I am running a campaign where the characters are all the third or fourth born children of powerful noble houses in the kingdom. The characters are influential, but too far back in lineage to be in line to become heir. Essentially the campaign is designed to have a political tilt to it.

However, using the systems in Pathfinder, that means that we'll be making a lot of Diplomacy checks and that's it.

I don't want to avoid combat--this is a fantasy world and there are monsters and dangers around. However, I am dismayed that combat is the principle manner of advancement. First level characters can have, at most, 1 skill rank in Diplomacy. They cannot put another rank into Diplomacy until they reach second level. The literally cannot become more diplomatic until they kill fifteen goblins.

Combat in D&D and Pathfinder can be fun. I'm not opposed to them at all. However, too many combats become repetitive and slow down the story. Combats eventually tend to become stale and boring and I found that in my 3.0 and 3.5 campaigns that I would continually introduce new elements into the combats just to liven them up--slick surfaces, torrential downpours, more roleplaying of the monster's actions and movements instead of determining the best tactical position to move them in.

The reality of the game is that Diplomacy will rarely be rolled to determine most things. We will roleplay and act out what is being said and use dice when things are questionable or if I want to keep the reaction to their words a little more random.

As for why I am playing Pathfinder after bashing the flaws on the system, it is in large part familiarity. This isn't just meaning the rules, but also the history that we all have in D&D. Warts and all, we know the feel of the systems.

Each of us has amazing and awesome memories of characters and campaigns that we played in the past. As I pointed out, none of these memories are really supported by the system--they all came from things outside of the system--but we still associate those moments and memories with "playing D&D".

And I'm okay with that.

I love all of the indie roleplaying games that I talked about. I think each of them is far better at creating systems to tell stories and roleplay within. However, I will admit to the fact that I am conditioned to accept D&D/Pathfinder's character advancement methods as feeling "correct".

That is a little sad since I just went through a whole ordeal of pointing out how they are false investments. But they are familiar. Every MMO uses that model. Just about every video game RPG uses that model. I am excited to level up my Squirtle.

That doesn't stop me from wanting more, however.

I would be much more happy with all of the tactical combat rules bloat and the insane power escalations with the challenges escalating at the same insane power rate if at least the game also included systems for story and roleplaying.

I wouldn't mind the D&D advancements that much if they also allowed for systems of ties to other characters and NPCs. I would love to see that the heroes rescued the princess and now have five strings on her.

I would love it if there were systems wherein at the start of the session, the DM could ask the players what their character's goals were for the session. They could be as open ended or esoteric as befits the character. It could be as concrete as "Stopping the goblin raids" and "Sleeping with the shopkeeper's daughter", or as open as "Convincing people that I am not the coward they think I am" or "Trying to be a better person". Then, at the end of the session, have experience be rewarded by means of how well they progressed along their personal goals. Smaller goals reap less reward than larger ones.

Systems like this focus on the character and are meaningful and personal. I could gain a level without ever hitting a single goblin with a stick.

I could house rule that goal-based XP system if I wanted to, but it wouldn't work.

First of all, I stand by the fact that there are so many wonderful RPGs out there, that if I am so opposed to something that I have to make major house rules like that one, they why I am playing the system that I am playing?

But second, advancement makes you better at killing things. So it wouldn't make sense that I'm suddenly a better Fighter because I boinked the shopkeeper's daughter.

The other thing that turned me off to Pathfinder was when I happened to come across their FAQ. I understand where FAQs for systems are necessary for clarification and errors, but the long document is just a treatise of minutiae where there are new rulings superseding previous rulings. Not a single FAQ question was answered with: "Whatever works best for your campaign."

Again, this reinforces the lack of trust between the DM and the players.

But I want to reinforce and rely on trust. We are playing a campaign set in a kingdom where the characters have lived all of their life. I've given some principle characters in their pasts for them to interact and have relationships with, but in reality, they are young nobles who should have friends and know people.

I want to trust my players to add to the story. I am fine with my players entering a tavern and saying, "What do I see and who is here?" But I'm also completely fine with my players saying, "We go to the Branded Unicorn Pub to find Kells Jasper, a kid I grew up with who got involved with petty thievery." The Branded Unicorn Pub never existed before then and I've never heard the name Kells Jasper before.

I don't want to be DM to tell my story. I want to be DM to moderate our story.

I want my players to say, "I jump up and grab the chandelier to swing across the room to get past those guards and reach the fleeing thief," even if I never said that there was a chandelier in the room. I'm there to say, "This is a barn, there are no chandeliers." But I'm also there to say, "Great! The chandelier hangs low in the mansion's foyer. Give me an Acrobatics roll."

It isn't to say I want anarchy and players saying, "I pull a Vorpal Sword +5 from my backpack." But then again, I trust that my players wouldn't do that.

I've talked to my wife about the different indie RPGs that we've played and other ideas and systems. She says that she doesn't like the systems where she has to act as the DM or Storyteller.

But the thing about how I want to play is that the DM is there to be the bookkeeper and arbiter and to set story and challenges and introduce danger and threat. She wouldn't have to worry about being the DM. But she's been the Storyteller a lot without realizing it.

In the first campaign I played with her, her character Erineese flirted and became romantic with the NPC accountant Cromwell. This was the story she introduced. And that story impacted the party and everything else. The NPC accountant who was supposed to be in just one adventure was hired by the party and later, because of her character's actions, became a more dominant NPC in the stories and even had party storylines and adventures that were sparked because of him.

We let the players create stories that affect our world all of the time. In fact, we encourage them to do it.

So why not trust them with a little more power to make a chandelier hanging from the room or a well in the middle of town or to know a little dive of a bar that he used to frequent when he was younger where he met a couple of people who might be able to help him along?

So, in the end, I'm comfortable with the campaign using the Pathfinder system, even though it is a terrible system for everything that I want to do in a campaign.

And that's because there is a trust between me and my players. We'll have fun regardless of the system and we'll all tell some fun and entertaining stories together. But all of this is regardless of the system. I have hundreds of dollars of books consisting of thousands of pages of combat options that will ultimately be the slowest and least interesting part of the game and all of the most memorable parts will be from things not covered in the rules.

But it's familiar. And we're conditioned to the false investment it gives.

I've always said that with the right people, I could have fun roleplaying in any system. And that's true. But maybe one day there will be a fantasy based system that we will have fun roleplaying with it instead of having fun roleplaying despite it.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Discussion: Roleplaying Perspective Part III: False Investments

 I'm starting up a Pathfinder campaign. While I am very excited for the game, it has spurred a lot of thoughts about roleplaying games and what the systems should do as opposed to what they actually do. This will be part of an ongoing series of discussions about roleplaying games and their nature and purpose as I come to grips with my game.

In the second part I talked about what different roleplaying systems do well. D&D/Pathfinder don't really do roleplaying or storytelling well. However, the systems that do those well are often very pigeon-holed into a very specific theme or motif in order to give structured storytelling systems. In this part I talk about another thing that D&D/Pathfinder does well, at least on the surface, which is investing players in their characters.

Beyond the tactical combat, if there is one thing that D&D/Pathfinder does really well, it is investing the players in their characters.

There is something about all those numbers on your sheet. It is by far nowhere near my favorite method of creating characters, but even with my disdain of it, I have to admit that there is a very alluring draw to seeing those numbers and watching them grow.

When I gain a level and suddenly I'm adding all of those +1's to all of the sections of my sheet, it is thrilling. I'm a little better at hitting things now. I have a little more skill in some other things now. My saving throws are a little bit better now.

 It is a carrot on a stick as you are constantly chasing more and more numbers to put onto that sheet of yours. But it works. It is engaging to see those numbers on your sheet grow. It is a tangible goal that you can strive toward.

One Thousand and One Nights has a really interesting character creation system. You create your character by describing them with each of the five senses. So I could smell of oranges and sweat, but I always see the best in the people around me despite the fact that I carry the bitter taste of defeat in my mouth. This is further expanded by your character having something that you envy about another player's character.

While this is a fantastic system to create a character who would be wonderful at being a part of an engaging story, it doesn't have the same draw as those damned numbers. Character advancement is a driving goal, a carrot on a stick. And the problem with character systems like this is that you are compelled to advance the story, which is wonderful. However, advancing the character is missing.

Those damn numbers end up feeling comfortable and happy. I know that I have gotten better because +4 to hit is obviously better than +3 to hit. My god, I remember when I only had a +1 to hit. I was such an amateur back then.

But the thing about this is those numbers aren't what makes a character interesting or even compelling. I don't know why we are drawn to them in the game, but we are.

Like I said previously, they aren't even what draws us to our memorable moments. The stories that I will tell about my characters aren't about my 19 Dexterity or my +8 to hit. They will instead be about the accomplishments and deeds that I accomplished. I will tell you about how I snuck past the guards or how I saved the princess or about how I was able to recover the powerful MacGuffin Artifact of Doom.

That's where those numbers become important. Because they make you better at performing the feats that tell the stories.

But they don't. Not really. Because there are systems in place to scale the difficulty. At first level, I rescue the princess from three goblins. At twentieth level, I rescue the princess from a Demon Lord and his pet dragon.

If I send a great wyrm red dragon at a party of first level characters, they will die. So I would really be a shit DM if I were to attack the party with it. So instead, I'll attack the party with a couple goblins. Similarly, if the party were all well geared 12th level characters, I wouldn't attack them with three goblins. We would be wasting everyone's time in resolving the fight.

So why do those increasing numbers mean so much to us when all it means is that the challenges are going to increase at a well-scripted and defined pace to be equal with the current numbers?

It's purely psychological. +4 is obviously better than +1 even though that means I'll be fighting monsters that also have a +4 instead of just a +1. And advancement continues on as it becomes more and more unwieldy.

Games deteriorate after fifth level as players become more and more powerful and combats are forced to become bigger and bigger with nastier and nastier monsters with more and more effects and abilities and resistances. After a campaign ends, people look back at it and think back about how much fun those early low level adventures were.

But, at the same time, no player ever really adds his +1's when they level and sigh and say, I'm too powerful now. We are conditioned to think those advancement goals are good and we want them.

But those advancement goals, however meaningless they are when threats scale to your current level, are important for investment. You want to feel like your character is getting better and improving. Since D&D/Pathfinder has no systems for roleplaying and story, the only way that you can reflect that you are getting better and improving in any tangible way is to add +1 to the numbers on your character sheet.

But I really feel like that is a false investment. Let's say that you are playing Gustov, an 8th level fighter character and you have saved the town numerous times and are regarded as a hero and liked by the local population. You have established a rivalry with a noble house and you believe that they are secretly trying to hinder your goals. You have won the eye of the princess, but you are not royal and as such you're relationship with her is complicated.

Then Gustov dies. You get eaten and swallowed up by a dragon turtle.

You roll up a new character to reenter the game. You get the exact same ability rolls and you make him the exact same race and class. You start your new character at 8th level and you have every single bonus and ability and piece of armor and items that your old character has.

But it's not the same character. Those numbers are exactly the same as the numbers that were on the other sheet. Hell, you even named yourself Gustov Jr.

But the character is different because you lost the stories associated with the original character.

That is the true investment in a character. We get caught up in those numbers and they have an amazing psychological effect. We all want to add the +1's and we are all happy when we can. But that isn't really what the character is.

Many of the independent systems that I wrote about in the last part are really only meant to be played as a single session or over the course of 2-3 nights. They are designed to tell a singular story, but then they are over once the story is over. So there is no real advancement or investment in the characters needed other than to advance that singular story.

But my issue with D&D/Pathfinder is that when you do have that advancement and investment, the only systems in place advance your combat abilities which the challenges are designed to always match. Nothing on that sheet reflects what you gained in story or how your relationships with other NPCs or even the other PCs has changed or increased.

Monster Hearts is a roleplaying game about playing the messy lives of teenage monsters. You could be a witch, or a vampire, or a werewolf, or a ghost, or an infernal, or just a mortal. But you are a teenager who is secretly a monster. And being a monster is really almost just an additional allegory to how difficult being a teenager is.

The game is about loss of control and sex. These are two themes that overlap strongly with both monster stories and being a teenager. But one of the fascinating things that it does is that it comes up with a system to represent this urges when it comes to other players.

Whenever you turn someone on, shut someone down, or lash out physically at someone you gain a String on them. Strings are tangible markers of influence over another person. There are systems in place for using your powers to do many of these, such as turning people on. Now, if I turn you on, that doesn't mean that you will suddenly sleep with me. But perhaps I made you blush and I saw it. I now know that I have that over you. I have a String on you that I can spend later to manipulate die rolls with you, or to manipulate them and ask them to do whatever you want (they can refuse, but if they accept, they gain and experience point), or you can use to it place Conditions on them.

But this is a tangible Story investment I have on my character. If I have three Strings on Mr. Bradley, the high school science teacher, it says something and it is a tangible story reward. If I have two strings on your character, then I have a tangible sense of reward on my sheet, but also something that tells a story.

Characters also have sex moves. Essentially, things that occur when they have sex with another character or NPC. If a Fae lies naked with another, they can ask them for a promise. If they refuse, the Fae gains 2 strings on them. When a Vampire denies someone sexually, they gain a string on them. However, if a Vampire has sex with someone, they lose all strings on that person.

Monster Hearts is amazing at making emotion tangible rewards. Sex and sexuality are dangerous though, because you are teenagers. I may be a straight male, but your male character turned me on. My body betrayed me like teenage bodies often do. As a result you have something over me. As my peer you can use what you know about me now to manipulate me. That is what being a teenager is about.

Now, Monster Hearts focuses on a very specific thing--teenage angst and sexuality. But it shows that systems for character development, relationships and story can have deep and interesting systems to them.

Looking back at Gustov and Gustov Jr. Their character sheets are identical, except for the Jr. added to the second one's name. But the characters are wildly different because of the experiences and stories and relationships that one had. But none of that is reflected in the sheet or in any of your stats.

The things that makes a character a real character are not represented in D&D/Pathfinder with any systems at all. Instead we get more +1's to add.

What if, instead of those +1's, you could spend your experience on things like Relationships or Influences or buying off Rivals? What if your character sheet actually reflected the deeds that you did and the relationships you forged and the consequences that resulted from them?

Instead we invest ourselves in those damn numbers and getting those +1's to sprinkle around on our sheet. That isn't your character. If it were, Gustov Jr. would feel exactly the same as Gustov. But he doesn't.

And my problem is that D&D/Pathfinder invests the players in false rewards. Your encounters will scale accordingly. Those things don't mean anything. But the enter system fails to present any meaningful system for roleplaying and what really makes a character unique and memorable to play.


But I guess the question turns into, how much does any of this matter?


In the Final Part I talk about what this means for my Pathfinder campaign and how much it will affect it, as well as my desires for more.

Discussion: Roleplaying Perspective Part II: What Does a System Do Well?

 I'm starting up a Pathfinder campaign. While I am very excited for the game, it has spurred a lot of thoughts about roleplaying games and what the systems should do as opposed to what they actually do. This will be part of an ongoing series of discussions about roleplaying games and their nature and purpose as I come to grips with my game.

In the first part I pointed out what it was that I didn't like about the D&D/Pathfinder systems and wondered if they really could give me the experience that I want in a game. In this part I look at the different systems that I've played and how they structure themselves to give systems to roleplaying and story.


So the question becomes, if D&D/Pathfinder doesn't give any structure of systems for roleplaying, what does it do well? And what are the other options? What do the other systems do that D&D/Pathfinder does not?

As I said in the last part, D&D/Pathfinder does tactical combat. It does it well. In fact, 90% of all of the many, many books are dedicated to giving more and more options and rules to manage that tactical combat piece. There are tactical combat systems, however, that are a lot cleaner and streamlined than D&D/Pathfinder. So if you are really into tactical combat, then there are other options out there that are better. However, D&D/Pathfinder does do one other thing really well. I'll get into that a little later.

But what about other systems then? If D&D/Pathfinder is designed to resolve tactical combat on a grid, what do other systems offer as an alternative?

That is what I've been doing since I last played my D&D 3.5 campaign. I've been exploring other systems. It started with some of the more mainstream systems, but I eventually started to explore smaller independent games. It was the indie games that really opened up my eyes to the potential that a system could have. There were games that included systems for roleplaying. There were systems that were fantastic as certain things.

Beyond all the iterations of D&D and Pathfinder, the system I've played the most are White Wolf's World of Darkness games: Vampire, Werewolf, Mage, Wraith and Changeling. I've run campaigns for each of them. I like a lot about the systems and the character building.

What do the World of Darkness games do well? The systems are designed to present a rounded character very well. You spend points on your background, giving you systems for how wealthy you are, how many contacts you are. You buy merits and flaws to give you more distinction. Your social abilities are not just bunched into a single Charisma trait, but rather spread between three attributes: Charisma, Manipulation and Appearance. Further, when you create your character, it is not random. You don't end up with someone rolling nothing higher than a 10, while the person next to them doesn't roll anything lower than a 15. The character choices in the World of Darkness games are also very thematic, helping to bring out more of a direction of what your character might be like.

The problem with the systems of the World of Darkness games, however, is that they are still all combat games. Not tactical combat, but rather narrative combat. Now, you could have Vampire players argue that they've never been in a fight in their game, that the game system isn't about combat.

But it is. It is still about rolling tons of dice to exert your will against someone else. To illustrate the point, let's take the previous example of a man with a key that you want. You could use combat to get the key, of course.

But if you decide to talk to him, you have a lot more options in the World of Darkness games. If I just want to convince him to give me the key, I roll Charisma + Persuasion. Maybe I want to trick him into giving me the key. Then roll Manipulation + Subterfuge. Maybe I want to seduce him. In that case, roll Appearance + Expression.

So the World of Darkness games run into the same trap. Sure, I have more than just Diplomacy to roll and there are systems for different options. But they are still dice rolls. If we instead decide to just "roleplay" and act it out, then we are ignoring these systems. And, like D&D/Pathfinder, why use these systems if we are ignoring them?

But to the point about combat. World of Darkness games are still very much about combat. Instead of attacking you with a gun, I am attacking you with words. It is the same thing. It is combat and that is the core concept of the game systems. I roll to attack you with my argument and you roll your Wits to defend against it. So, that Vampire campaign that you snottily said didn't have combat in it is full of it.

I will touch on one more aspect of the World of Darkness systems briefly to point out that Mage: the Ascension does one other thing well: It has the best magic system in any game I have ever played. While the system itself has the same combat bias as the other games, I would still eagerly play Mage to explore the depths of the magic system any day.

The other mainstream game that I've played a lot of is Call of Cthulhu. What Call of Cthulhu does well is instilling a sense of knowing loss into the players by adding the attribute of Sanity. Health recovers, but Sanity is very slow to ever get back. Players realize this by their third or fourth session as their 65 Sanity is now 48 and they cannot just use a Sanity first aid kit.

However, the rest of the systems are shit. The game's theme is investigation. Players are called investigators. You have skills like Library Use. However, for an investigation based game, it never resolves this core concept well. As the Storyteller, I have an important handout that the players need to find and read to figure out where to go next. The characters failed their Library Use rolls to uncover the document. They literally cannot deduce things any further until they get this clue. So now I need to come up with some other way for them to come across it. Maybe I can have someone mention it in passing, prompting them to go back to the library and roll again to find it.

The problem with this is that you have terrible systems to propel the clues and therefore the story forward. If they fail their roll, I have to find ways of making them roll for it again. So, logically, it makes sense that if they need this clue to forward the story, why don't I just hand it to them when they research in the library without making them roll? But then, if I am not using the systems of game, why I am playing this game?

That isn't to say that I haven't have tons of fun experiences in either the World of Darkness games or Call of Cthulhu. But those memories aren't from anything that the systems produced. They are from the characters and from the story. And that is where most mainstream roleplaying games fail. They don't give you any systems for roleplaying or storytelling, just die rolling for conflict resolution.

Fantasy Flight's Star Wars: Edge of Empire roleplaying system is a mainstream system where everything is still resolved through dice like all of the others and there aren't any real systems for roleplaying. However, it takes an interesting innovation in making conflict resolution add to the story.

Conflicts are resolved with rolling dice in dice pools. The dice have symbols with successes and failures on them and each failure rolls cancels a success rolled. However, the dice also give results for advantage, triumph, despair and threat. This means that you could fail a die roll, but still have rolled advantages for something good to come from it. It also means that I could succeed, but bad things happen from it. And if rolls are really difficult, the GM could also assign setback dice to your pool, which have a much more likely chance of rolling failures, despair and threat.

So I could try to hack into a computer terminal and succeed, but I rolled enough threat that the GM decides that just as I downloaded the files, a Stormtrooper came through the door and fired his blaster at me and missed, hitting the computer instead and destroying it so nothing more can be obtained from it. Plus, now there is a Stormtrooper to fight.

Alternatively, I could fail at the attempt to hack the computer for the files, but rolled enough advantage that maybe I couldn't get to the files, but I found the security systems and I was able to turn off all of the alarm systems near the detention center.

Now the problem that I foresee with this is that, while it makes rolling the dice exciting and fun, it also slows down the pace as you have to stop and read them like tea leaves to figure out what happened.

The system also has points that the players can use to change the story. They can be used in minor ways, such as suddenly having a piece of equipment you needed. But they can be used in other ways to further alter aspects of the story.

And while the system is still based in combat and doesn't have the framework for roleplaying as part of its systems, the game is at least looking at adding story to every roll of the die. Focus on story is one thing and it is an amazing step, but systems for roleplaying are still absent.

Story and roleplaying systems are where the independent roleplaying games have really shined. This isn't to say that they are without their flaws. However, I learned a lot from their merits, especially in player trust.

Most independent roleplaying games are really great at telling one kind of story and nothing else, however. Most also are meant for smaller stories and not extended campaigns.

Fiasco is amazing at telling a story of something gone horribly wrong. There is no GM. Characters are not defined by any stats, but rather their relationships to the players on their right and left. That is the only thing defined by your character: your relationship to your neighbors at the table. Everyone has equal chance to propel a scene forward, becoming the director of the movie for a moment. There is no die-rolling for resolution. Everything is resolved in the narrative. If I suddenly pull a gun from my pants, I do it because it propels the story forward. It isn't written on a character sheet. And if I fire it at your character, you die if it makes story sense.

You see, the players all have the same goal: to tell an interesting story. It isn't about getting the most XP or loot. Because of this, you learn to trust the other players at the table. They have equal power in this story as you do. In fact, the direction I thought I and my character would go in often ended up radically different because of how other players involved me in the game.

However, Fiasco cannot tell anything other than a story gone horribly wrong. It is utterly fantastic at recreating a Fargo-like story, but it utterly fails at everything else.

Dread tells a horror/suspense story and it manufactures tension like no other game I've played. Characters  are not defined by attributes and stats, but instead are created by answering a series of questions given by the storyteller. Questions may be leading, such as, "You have always been the strongest of any of your peers. What happened in your past that makes you hold back your strength?" So, you end up defining your character by creating his background. This helps to personalize the suspense.

Dread's core mechanism is a Jenga tower. Whenever you need to succeed at something you cannot automatically succeed at, you pull a Jenga block and put it on the top. Over the course of the game, the tower gets more and more unstable. If the tower falls when you try to make a pull, your character is removed from the story, most likely in a grisly, horrible death. So, when you hear noises outside of your tent at night, you may hesitate to investigate as you see the wobbling, unstable tower before you.

However, Dread's systems fail to tell any other kind of story than those in the horror/suspense genre.

Shooting the Moon tells a story about a romance and two suitors courting the same person. It is absolutely amazing that there is a game that systems romance and Shooting the Moon does it so very well. Characters are created with pairs of contrary adjectives or descriptors, for example, if I take Strong, then you have to take the opposite. It could be Puny, Small, Weak-willed, or Vulnerable. But then these descriptors get exceptions added by the players. You took Strong, but I could add "...but cowardly." I took Small, but I could add "...but scrappy".

The actual mechanisms of the romance are primarily narrative and acted out. However, if you are narrating your scene with the person of our affection, I can interject with "As luck would have it..." and then barge into your story and have some kind of bad or mood-breaking event change the course of your romantic setting. Dice are used to resolve the situation and the current suitor wins, he narrates how he turns the bad event around and still continues on with their evening. If the rival wins, he gets to narrate how the date was ruined or how that special moment was lost.

Shooting the Moon is fantastic in idea and design, but it cannot tell anything other than a romance story.

Lady Blackbird tells a single story. There are five pregenerated characters, each with their backgrounds and abilities set in stone. Every game starts the same way, with the party's ship captured and the party in the brig of the Imperial ship. Even though every single story of Lady Blackbird starts with the exact same characters in the exact same situation things will unfold differently. Each game is played on its own, but collectively, when you look back at the games being played and see how things branched out differently, it turns into something more akin to Groundhog Day or Run, Lola, Run.

The GM is supposed to come into this game with nothing planned. Instead, the GM listens to the players and both the players and the GM are encouraged to ask questions. Players are rewarded by taking the opportunity to ask questions when the action die down. Asking Lady Blackbird (played by another player) what it is about the man she loves that drove her to flee her home refreshes the player's pool. The GM also plays the NPCs and introduces conflict, but the game will unfold differently every time.

Obviously Lady Blackbird tells the story of Lady Blackbird amazingly well, but it cannot tell anything else at all.

There are literally hundreds of independent roleplaying games out there that do this kind of thing and give you systems for actual roleplaying. They are fantastic and what they have done for me is to reinforce that these storytelling games should be a collaboration between the players and to trust them more and more.

The problem with D&D/Pathfinder and most mainstream RPGs is that they are built with a lack of trust. There are concrete rules and systems in place to make certain that the players cannot cheat and that they DM cannot unfairly interpret situations and rules.

But this focuses you on the rules. You will have players who will try to manipulate every rule and most D&D/Pathfinder games will have those moments where the play suddenly stops because either the DM or players need to look up some rule, or an argument and debate breaks out over determining if someone in a certain square technically threatens another square. All of this intrudes and breaks the narrative.

The thing is, in almost every indie RPG I've played, we've never had those moments where things stop suddenly because of this. And that is because the focus is on the story and not on the rules and using the mechanisms and systems to your best advantage.

When I sit down at the table, I'm there for the story, not the tactical combat. That's why when a character said he jumped down a well that I never said was there, there was suddenly a well. It was a great escape moment and wild and fun.

But the more modern iterations of D&D/Pathfinder have moved into the realm of systems before story. In fact, there are no systems for story at all.

So, why is our group still attracted to playing Pathfinder when there are so very, very many other systems out there that tell stories so very, very much better?

And that is because of the other thing that D&D/Pathfinder does incredibly well: Investing the players in their characters and in their world.


In Part III I talk about how Pathfinder invests players in their character, bringing up the many false investments that are also there.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Discussion: Roleplaying Perspective Part I: Ditching D&D and Pathfinder

 
 I'm starting up a Pathfinder campaign. While I am very excited for the game, it has spurred a lot of thoughts about roleplaying games and what the systems should do as opposed to what they actually do. This will be part of an ongoing series of discussions about roleplaying games and their nature and purpose as I come to grips with my game.



My return to D&D has felt strange. It isn't because the 3.5 that I last played years ago was now 3.75 and called Pathfinder. But it is because of where I've been in the meantime.

I am going to bash the hell out of D&D and Pathfinder. This isn't because I hate the systems or that the people who play them are terrible and those games are "beneath me" now. No. I'm getting ready to run a Pathfinder game now and I'm going to enjoy the shit out of it. However, I am not so blind as to not recognize the flaws of the system.

My primary complaint with D&D/Pathfinder is what the system is designed to do. Here is the copy of the front of a character sheet. Highlighted in red are all of the things that are related to combat or have rules about how they can be used in combat:



Here is the same character sheet. Highlighted in blue are all of the things that are designated for roleplaying. This isn't including things that aren't systems, such as picking your hair color or your eye color.



In other words, there really aren't any mechanisms for roleplaying in the game. There are no systems for it in the core design. In reality, the books are just massive tomes of rules for tactical combat.

The problem can be further illustrated by this example:

A man is standing in front of you, holding a key that you want. You have two options on how to obtain that key.

OPTION #1: You can try to take it by force. In which case, everything highlighted in red on the front of the character sheet is potentially in play.

OPTION #2: You can try to talk to the man and ask him to give it to you. In that case you can use what is highlighted in the blue. You can make a Diplomacy check. If you succeed, he gives you the key. If you fail, he doesn't. That's the end of your options.

Now, there are some that would argue that just rolling a Diplomacy check to see if he gives you the key isn't what you should be doing. Instead, you should "roleplay" the scene out and have the player act out what he is saying to convince the man. This is what my groups would tend to do. However, the problem with this is that you are no longer using the systems of the game to resolve something. In fact, if you are ignoring the game systems for all of the roleplay bits, then why are you using that system? For the tactical combat?

And that's what it comes down to. D&D and Pathfinder are not roleplaying systems. They are tactical combat systems.

This was not always the case, however. Older systems of D&D were not as bad as later systems. They still weren't great for roleplaying, but they at least were more narrative systems. D&D 3.0 killed that and every iteration since then keeps hammering more nails into that coffin.

Examining it further, you see that previous versions of D&D didn't use grids and big maps for everyone to lay their miniatures on. There were no hard and fast rules for movement. Sure, you could try to break out rulers to simulate movement, but there weren't systems in place for it.

This, admittedly, had drawbacks. With no physical representation of where everyone is, everyone could easily visualize things very differently. That Orc could be right on top of your magic-user in the DM's eyes, but you thought that it was obvious that you were standing behind the fighter.

However, it was a narrative system and that tells a much better story.

D&D 3.0 and later moved to a grid movement system. Now, characters move six squares per round.

Sure, you know where everything is, however, the narrative and storytelling is lost in this.

In the older systems, you had to tell the DM what you were doing. This is an amazing difference in creating atmosphere and a narrative arc for a battle.

In the old systems, when the DM asked you what you were going to do on your initiative, you would have to give a narration. Even if it was as simple as, "I charge the orcs," you have narration there. You are telling part of the story. But that is simply lost when you rely on a grid.

On your initiative in the old systems, you would say, "I rush onto the bridge to try to block the Balrog from passing to let the others escape."

However, in the new systems, this is, "I'll move two squares forward and one square to the right since if I move diagonally twice, it'll count as three squares. Now I threaten the eight squares around me ready with attacks of opportunity."

This matters in games. This is why I have come to hate combat in D&D. There are tons of great tactical combat games and tactical miniature battle systems. If I wanted to play one of those, I would. But I'm ostensibly playing a roleplaying game. So I would much rather have narration and challenge players to describe what they are doing and run with it.

In what should be a game that thrives and focuses on narration and storytelling, the newer systems took the largest section of the game--combat--and took all of the narration and storytelling out of it. Cynically, I could say that it was to sell miniatures.

The other problem with grids and maps to track combat is that it takes away the creativity of the players. You may not realize how much it does, but it really takes away a lot.

I remember running an old D&D game where one of the players had gotten in trouble with the city watch and was trying to fight them off while still on the run. He turned and entered the courtyard and I quickly gave a description of it, the guards on his heels. His response was, "I jump into the well."

I didn't say that there was a well in my description. In my little town map, there was no well there. Maybe he misheard me or maybe he just assumed that there was a well. But it was a brilliant move and very fitting for the scene and the moment. So, suddenly, there was a well there for him to jump into. He had to make a roll to stop from falling all of the way to the bottom and it became a quick, wild, fun twist.

The problem with grids are that you become confined by what it before you. It's not set in stone, but it's set in dry-erase marker. I would not have drawn a well onto our battlemat and so there would not be one. No player would look at that map and say, "I jump into the well."

So moments like that are lost. Newer editions took away the "just go with it" rules and attitude and structured everything to the point where roll for your downtime checks.

This used to be D&D.
My wife pointed out that D&D used to be something that you could play lounging on the floor together in someone's room with a few books and dice. But now it's that thing that you play at the table with a battlemap in laid out on it and miniatures prepared for every possible encounter for the evening.

But ultimately, the map takes away more options of narrative.

D&D shouldn't take away storytelling in combat and replace them with computer game combat mini-games.

My other biggest problem with D&D/Pathfinder is advancement.

First of all, it is a genius way to invest the players into their characters. A carrot is dangled in front of you as you constantly move toward more abilities, higher stats, more spells, and more hit points. And they are very liberally given out like candy along that endless route. And it feels like you are getting more invested in your character, but you're not. You are getting excited over having more abilities to kill shit so that you can become better at killing other shit. But that's not your character.

If you are excited because your character now has ties to the Thieves Guild and they have two noblemen both trying to court you at the same time while really spying on both of their houses for a rival prince from another nation, then, yeah, that's your character. However, D&D/Pathfinder has no actual systems for any of this stuff. So, since there are no systems for it, why bother using this system?

Another problem with advancement is that you pretty much exclusively do it by killing shit.

Player 1 spent the session courting the princess while pretending he was someone else. During the course of it, he was challenged about the truth of his story and, without rolling a die, he came up with an amazing tale that made his credentials seem beyond reproach. Later, he saw a beggar and felt such mournfulness in his heart as he remembered his father the smithy's collapse once he lost his arm and could no longer work. The player got so into character that he cried while he sat next to the beggar throughout the rest of the night, talking to him while the princess's party continued on without him.

Player 2 saw three goblins and killed them with his axe.

At the end of the session, Player 1 earned 0 XP and Player 2 earned 405 XP.

D&D/Pathfinder has no real systems for advancement in this manner. There are arbitrary mentions of story rewards, but it is not defined in any way like how it is defined for killing shit.

My other issue with advancement is the power creep. Or, actually, as it really is, the power rush. Admittedly, however, this is more of an issue of personal preference than an issue or flaw in the systems themselves, so I'll just touch on it briefly.

Early in your career, your party fights 3 Orcs and it is a good, tough slugfest. Then you level and you fight 5 Orcs. Then you level. And now those Orcs also have a Shaman. But you'll eventually hit a point where you leave the Orcs behind altogether. Twenty Orcs eventually become a joke, so why bother?

My problem is that you should never be so tough as to shrug off being outnumbered 20 to 1.  But unfortunately the massive power gains forces people to just creep up the Challenge Levels to the next set of baddies.

I'll end this part of this discussion with this:

Think about your favorite memory or memories from your D&D or Pathfinder games. Seriously. Stop and think about them.

Now what are they?

Did the mechanisms and systems in the rulebooks create that situation? Or was it from something not covered in the books?

Was your favorite memory when you rolled and succeeded at your Climb skill check? Was it when you rolled a natural 20 (something so amazing that there is a 1-in-20 chance of you doing it) to hit the baddie? Was it when you moved 6 squares in such a way that you were able to avoid any attacks of opportunity?

These are the things supported by the rules and the systems.

Or was your favorite memory when you came up with that speech on the fly and convinced the king to send his men to help you? Maybe it was when you swindled the merchant and tricked him out of his money? Or maybe it was the bond you had with another player's character and how you felt when his character died and you rushed to your certain death to try to avenge him?

None of those things are supported by the rules and the system.


And if our favorite memories from the game aren't from things that the game actually supports... then why are we playing that game instead of another one that supports the things that become your favorite memories?


In Part II I try to take a look at what different roleplaying systems are designed to do and some of the things that they do very well.