#RPGaDAY 2018 ~ Day 24

Which RPG do you think deserves greater recognition?

Where to start? ~ This is a niche hobby to begin with. Then consider that the lion’s share of attention is given to one or two games. Zoom out a bit more and you still see that a handful of games dominate most discussion and apparent play. (I say apparent, because one can never assume that how things appear to be is an accurate reflection of what is really going on). Step back still further, and you might find 20-40 RPGs getting the most spotlight time.

As you observe this dynamic, keep in mind that there are thousands of RPGs out there. There is no way that one person could play them all, or even know what they all are. ~ Sure, some are well designed & well written, while others fall short. Some are innovative, while others are less exciting. But even if only ten or twenty percent of the RPGs out there are worth the candle for you, that’s still a lot of games.

When I first saw this question, I realized just how limited my exposure to the myriad of games out there has been. In many ways I’m playing “catch up” due to my periods of inactivity in the hobby and my original tendency to stick to a particular set of RPGs. ~ I look at my shelf & I could honestly say that most of the games I’ve bought in the last two years qualify as deserving greater recognition. Hollow Earth Expedition & Leagues of Adventure may have greater fan bases than Circle of Hands or Broken Rooms, but all of them are worthy of play. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

So, I’ll answer this question a little differently. ~ The game that deserves greater recognition is the one that your friend has discovered and has been trying to get you to play. It’s the RPG that you have seen a review of by someone that you have come to respect or trust or identify with. It’s the game that is outside of your comfort zone or preference or experience. It’s the game that will allow you to explore sides of the hobby that you haven’t before, and it’s the RPG that supports the play experience that you like, but does it even better than the last one.

The RPG that deserves greater recognition isn’t just the one that you’re excited about. It’s the one that you discover quite by accident, when your friend shows up and says something like ~ “Hey guys, anyone want to play Blue Planet with me?”

#RPGaDAY 2018 ~ Day 23

Which game do you hope to play again?

I have a lot of games on my shelf and on PDF that I hope to play, but I haven’t played them yet, so they don’t qualify. Likewise, there are games that I have played that I hope to play again, but I can’t imagine that I’ll have trouble getting some folks together to play FFG Star Wars or Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea.

Many of the games that I’m playing are being done slowly, when we can all find time and coordinate schedules. I hope to play these again, but I’m currently playing them, if you catch my drift.

So, I’ll give you two answers. One of these games has a very good chance of seeing play in October, which makes me happy. The other is technically on hold, but I’m not convinced that the players all want to return to it, so I’m counting it as not currently “active”.

Desolation is a wonderful RPG by Greymalkin Designs, and by wonderful I mean a dark post apocalyptic setting where a high fantasy world was ruined overnight by a cataclysm that none really understand. Powered by Ubiquity, it is not exactly pulp heroics, but it does have an awesome free form magic system. This has the drawback of being able to kill the caster if they are not careful. ~ Good Times.

Uncharted Worlds  by Sean Gomes is my other pick. A very atypical PBTA game, this space opera is an RPG that I would like to explore in more depth. It’s probably never going to be one of my favorite games, but I really find it compelling & I’d like to take it for a longer test drive with some players. Hopefully as a rotating GM experience.

Time will tell.

#RPGaDAY 2018 ~ Day 22

Which non-dice system appeals to you?

I’m going to cheat a bit & talk a bit more about dice. But, I promise that it will be a nice segue into the actual topic ~ & besides, it’s my blog, I can do what I want.

Checking out a lot of the responses for day 21, I was reminded of one of the preferences I have for dice mechanics that I didn’t mention. I like them to be simple & elegant. Not just for ease of learning or ease of use, but so that the dice can be a powerful symbol of the fiction with a minimum of interpretive steps needed to know what the outcome represents. ~ In other words, once the dice mechanic is internalized, it is a powerful experience to have a group of players all bent over the table waiting for the bones to stop rolling. The cries of elation or despair are as natural as they would be as if we were all present in the fiction & witnessing the events that the dice roll represents. Sure, some systems like FFG Star Wars or the Reaction Roll in B/X D&D require some creative interpretation of the particulars, but we can all look at the result and instantly know if it’s bad, very bad, good, or very good. ~ The more layers of procedure or lookup post roll, the less the dice act as an analogue of the events in the fiction, & the less captivating the roll becomes.

That said, there are many non-dice resolution mechanics out there which are fascinating, but the more complex the interpretation of what they actually mean becomes, the less they appeal to me. Some of the card based ones are fascinating, but many of them do involve those additional layers of lookup & interpretation, so they are less visceral than the quick clatter of the dice. (besides, I’m terrible at shuffling cards, as in really, really bad at it). ~ There are lots of non-dice systems or mechanics or procedures besides resolution based ones, but I’ve decided to stick to resolution based ones for RPGaDAY as it fit with the thoughts I had about the last three questions as a whole.

The one I’ll talk about that appeals to me a great deal is something that we have been doing forever in the RPG hobby, but which has been formalized in some games. ~ The technical term for this resolution mechanic is Karma. It’s not a term I would have chosen, but it has stuck & I have acquiesced to reality.

In short, Karma works by comparing the difficulty of a task or attempt to the competence or raw ability of the character. No roll needed. I’ve been doing this since 1981. ~ The player declares that his character tries to cross a slippery plank from one rooftop to the other. “What’s your Dexterity? 16? OK, no problem, you cross the plank.”

Just about any character has some list of numbers or words informing us about how competent they are in various areas, how strong they are, how lucky, how graceful, if they’ve been a cop on the beat, if they have the ability to sway a crowd, whatever. Usually there will be an indication of where on a spectrum they fall in a number of different skills or attributes. ~ Coincidentally, the game will generally have an indication of the relative difficulty of various tasks. In most case both the relative ability of the character & the relative difficulty of a task will be represented numerically. This makes them easy to compare at a glance. ~ Even in games that use signal words for competence & for how daunting an attempted action might be, a comparison of these values isn’t tough.

The Ubiquity System used in Hollow Earth Expedition, All for One, Desolation, & many other nifty games has taken this long used method of diceless task resolution & formalized it in the ability to “take the average”. ~ Unless the GM or the fiction dictates that a roll of the dice is appropriate, the player has the option to “take the average” result of rolling their die pool, which is equal to half the size of the pool. This means that a character with an 8 die pool in a particular skill can automatically succeed in tasks related to that skill that require 4 or less successes on a roll of the dice. They’re just that good. (Remember how we talked about how dice pools model operating at your level of competence yesterday?)

I like that the system allows & encourages the GM to take the average for NPCs, so often as a GM you don’t roll dice. ~ A lot of the game can go much faster that way, & when the dice come out it’s special. Another cool thing about Ubiquity is that the style points resource can be spent to add more dice to a pool in order to represent the character pushing themselves above & beyond their normal capacity. This can be done in a manner that requires a roll, but just as often that character with the 8 die pool can spend a couple of style points to be able to succeed at a task requiring 5 success via Karma/Taking the Average as well.

Rolling the dice is fun and can be exhilarating, but do it too much and it becomes commonplace & stale. Whether it’s part of the rules as in Ubiquity, or used informally as a bit of common sense, the use of Karma to resolve less dramatic moments can help make the really dramatic ones come alive as the dice hit the table & we all bend over them in anticipation.

#RPGaDAY 2018 ~ Day 21

Which dice mechanic appeals to you?

They all do really. ~ I like dice. I find the mechanics that we use in RPGs fascinating. What are we trying to model? Why? What sort of outcomes are the dice called upon to determine? How many different fictional prompts are possible from one roll? How do we decide when to roll them and when not to? ~ The list or questions is seemingly endless.

Which dice mechanic appeals to me really depends upon the effect that it is being used to produce. Different mechanics produce radically different feels, and we’re not just talking about how often you succeed or fail. Creative game designers can have dice mechanics that represent a myriad of elements of the fiction. ~ Some do a fantastic job of emulating a genre or tone, and that always appeals to me on an aesthetic sense. However, I might not like the final feel of the game, but you might. Different strokes.

Percentile dice have always appealed to me. Math is funny. All dice mechanics boil down to percentage chances of various results. I don’t care if you’re rolling a rainbow fistfull of FFG Star Wars narrative dice, there’s a percentage chance of each possible combination of symbols coming up. Get enough d10s together and assign them to tens, units, tenths, hundredths, thousandths, etc & you can model anything. ~ But then again, you could just use the other dice you’re trying to model.

Silly examples aside, I still like percentile dice an awful lot. A game doesn’t have to be complex in order to use them to good effect. ~ It’s also very easy to wrap your head around your chances when dealing with percentages.

I’ve become quite enamored with dice pools as of late. Now, the criticism that single dice mechanics like a d20 or d% are “too swingy” compared to dice pools doesn’t exactly hold water, depending upon what the dice are supposed to be determining. If the roll is for a simple success or failure, then the final number you end up with really doesn’t matter. Don’t believe me? ~ Read on.

The chance of rolling at least 4 successes on a pool of 8 “yes/no” ubiquity dice is approximately 65%. (63.67) The chance of rolling at least an “8” on a d20 is 65%. ~ If both of those conditions indicate success, then they are pretty much equal. The fact that the results tend to cluster around 4 successes on the dice pool while they are all over the place on the d20 doesn’t matter. Unless…..the roll also determines the degree of success or failure.

It just so happens that Ubiquity die pools can determine a degree of success or failure, which is cool. That clustering around the middle means that on average, a character of a given competence level will perform at or around that level of competence on most attempts. Minor failures and somewhat better successes are also rather likely, which also represent performing just below or above the character’s level of competence. Abysmal failures & remarkable successes are rarities, just as they tend to be in real life. This is one of the strengths of dice pools like the ones used by Ubiquity, Fate/Fudge, and a host of others. ~ Even a small dice pool like the 2d6 PBTA mechanic is designed to have “partial success” occur most of the time. That might not be the most “realistic” result, but that is a hallmark of that system.

However, the other side of the coin is that while dice pools do an excellent job of modelling competence in a “realistic” manner, the likelihood of “Hail Marys” and “I can’t believe you tripped over your own shoelaces” becomes vanishingly small. ~ If you want those effects to show up on a somewhat regular basis, then a linear mechanic like d20 or percentile dice where the number rolled actually matters beyond simple success or failure is your best bet. ~ Which one appeals to me depends upon what feel I want for a given game.

Then again, sometimes the old standards are the most appealing to me, especially when I need a quick resolution for an unexpected situation. “You want to what? ~ Roll a d6, try for low.” ~ It’s easy to discount such a simple and ancient mechanic, but it has its charm, and it can model a range of chances fairly well. ~  Is it a Hail Mary? 1 in 6. Hard? 2 in 6. 50/50? 3 in 6. Easy? 4 in 6. Almost a sure thing? 5 in 6.

D6 roll low isn’t for everything, but it does have its place.



#RPGaDAY 2018 ~ Day 20

Which game mechanic inspires your play the most?

The questions for the next three days are pretty interesting. I’m afraid that a certain part of my answer for each day will include a bit of “it depends”. However this isn’t being indecisive. Far from it. Rather, the intention or desired effect has a lot to do with which mechanic to use. Game design intrigues me, & I keep toying with the idea of designing a couple of simple ones just to try out some ideas. Stretch goals on my kickstarter will be autographed pictures of yours truly ~ because who could possibly be more fascinating?

It really didn’t take me long to realize what my answer for today would be. It’s not really a specific mechanic, but a family or type of mechanics. They model what we have done by feel in RPGs for a long time, but they formalize the process and remove most of the potential for cries of “unfair GM fiat” while at the same time reminding us to utilize a powerful method of making the fiction far more interesting.

The mechanics in question insert the possibility of effects that are in addition to, tangential, or orthogonal to the intent of the characters when they make an attempt to do something. These are the “ANDs” and the “BUTs”. They include the idea of a degree of success or failure ~ (“YES you succeeded at hacking the computer AND you were able to hide your intrusion entirely” or “NO you were unable to pick the lock AND you just triggered an alarm”) ~ however these mechanics go beyond that idea and take it a step further.

Perhaps the best example of this type of mechanic is found in the narrative dice system of Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars & the spin off Genesys “generic system”. Dice are rolled during skill attempts to determine success or failure, but they also can indicate advantages, threats, triumphs, & despairs. This second axis of fortunate & unfortunate events can sometimes represent a degree of success or failure over and above the simple yes/no paradigm, but more often it indicates positive or negative effects caused by or related to the attempts or actions of the characters, but that occur independently of success or failure. This introduces the “BUTs” into the narration. ~ (“YES, you succeed at talking your way past the guard, BUT once inside the convention hall a rival smuggler recognizes you and looks as though he suspects something’s up” or (“NO you don’t hit the stormtrooper with your blaster shot, BUT you do hit the comm panel next to him & he is unable to call for reinforcements”). ~ The combinations of successes, failures, advantages, threats, triumphs, & despairs are practically unlimited, (outside of not being able to succeed and fail at the same time), so many outcomes are possible from a single event.

Other games such as those powered by the Apocalypse World engine (PBTA) include a “partial success” or “success at cost” possibility in the dice mechanic. While the partial success is an interesting outcome, I find the success with a cost or failure with an opportunity for advantage type of results to be much more inspiring. ~ In many cases I find the spirit of that mechanic to be more inspiring than the actual numbers that a given mechanic produces, but that is a topic for another day.

To me, this type of mechanic opens up many possibilities. The various systems often formalize player narration or choice of positive outcomes, which took some getting used to at first, but really seems to foster engagement in the fiction. Other mechanics invite this participation as well, but these seem to excel at it, & the formalization of the collaborative narrative effort removes a lot of uncertainty.

As I mentioned in the beginning, a wonderful thing is that it reduces the potential for adversarial relationships between the players and the GM. (Actually, it reduces the potential to suspect an adversarial relationship). As Game Masters, many of us have been inserting and narrating these tangential effects (positive & negative) for many years. But it was entirely upon our discretion. With this sort of mechanic, the dice decide when these unexpected events happen. The plastic gods speak, and the onus of responsibility is off the GM who can sit back and be transparently impartial.

Finally, as I also alluded to, the cool thing about these mechanics (of which there are several), is that they prompt us to insert interesting and unexpected elements into the fiction. Let’s face it ~ it’s really easy to get into the groove and think of everything in terms of success or failure. RPGs are wonderful because the creation of the fiction is collaborative between several people, however, even that can get stale & predictable. These mechanics, with their sideways and sudden insertion of boons & banes seemingly from left field, force us out of established patterns and demand that we enrich the fiction with the narration of events that no one could predict. ~ We play to find out & the mechanics guide us, but we get to create the details & nuances of those unforeseen effects.

What’s not to like about that?

#RPGaDAY 2018 ~ Day 19

What music enhances your game?

This is an interesting question, especially since I’m a musician & love music in general.

I have vivid memories of reading my old AD&D books & coming up with ideas for campaigns & such while the headphones were blaring Rush. Iron Maiden, Sabbath, and other bands also made the cut, but it was always Rush. Caress of Steel, 2112, Hemispheres, A Farewell to kings, All the World’s a Stage ~ great stuff.

Somehow RPGs and Rush got paired up in my head like chocolate & peanut butter.

The funny thing is, I don’t know a lot of the words to a good deal of my favorite music. I’ve just never internalized most of them. For me music is more of a feeling. Tone and dynamics move me far more than lyrics ever will. I couldn’t tell you why, it’s just how it is. That said, there are some great songs which inspire the desire to play or which suggest certain themes or moods. ~ Sometimes it’s the lyrics, but often its the emotions that the music stirs up. Every once in a while I read an RPG while listening to music & the two get connected in my head. Circle of Hands & ‘On my way to the cage” by Rollins are stuck that way now. ~ Go figure.

But we’re not talking about inspiration ~ that was yesterday’s question about art. Today’s question asks us what music enhances our game.

For me, the simple answer is ~ it doesn’t.

I have friends that love theme music and soundtracks for game sessions. Those just don’t appeal to me. Often they simply prove to be distracting. ~ This doens’t mean that I don’t enjoy listening to some favorite music prior to a game, but during the game itself I don’t want any outside distractions if I can help it. ~ If a song is suggested by the events of the game, trust me, it will start playing in my head. (Yes, I admit, I totally had fun playing Star Trek TOS fight music during a combat in our Star Trek Adventures game, but I was goofing around & us old guys were bonding over the way things used to be before the Federation got so stuffy & proper).

A favorite moment of mine concerning theme music and other plans gone awry can be found in my video The Sword is Mine!. I can still picture that music from Conan in the background, but things didn’t go as planned.

So, oddly enough, despite the fact that I love music and find it to be incredibly evocative and moving, I don’t find that it enhances my RPG experience. ~ It could be that when I pay attention to something that I really pay attention to it, & having two strong contenders for my attention can be overwhelming. It could also be that at any given moment the song that my internal jukebox decides to cue up doesn’t match what someone else has decided that the “theme music” should be.

Pre or post game is a different story. ~ Sometimes I’ll think about Phillipe’s Journey in All For One and “Naveed” from Our Lady Peace will cue up. ~ Strange….

#RPGaDAY 2018 ~ Day 18

What art inspires your game?

RPGaDAY is all about being positive, but it’s also about being honest & exposing ourselves a little bit. ~ So, I can honestly say “it depends”, and sometimes “it doesn’t”.

But let me explain….

I’m interpreting this question to mean “art” in the visual sense. Cool pictures, paintings, illustrations, etc. Stuff you would find in RPGs and other places like book covers or that great source of truth & beauty ~ the internet.

I like art, I really do. Quite a bit actually. Some pictures are quite evocative of a mood or a setting. Very often they fire the imagination. I tend to find those not actually connected to any game or other media to be the most inspiring, as I can make up what they are about. This can come from anywhere, but I suppose the common denominator is the ability to determine for myself what it is. My imagination isn’t constrained by what it’s supposed to represent or what it’s connected to.

The actual art in RPGs is hit or miss for me. Some of the art from my youth is so iconic that it never fails to make me smile. There are games that have art that matches up so perfectly with the images that I get in my head that it inspires me to want to play the game. Masks has art that just jives with how the game makes me feel when I read it. ~ Vigilante City by Eric Bloat is another one that has art that just lines up perfectly with the images that I get in my head. The fact that when you look at the art in those games it might not match the images in your head is kind of irrelevant. Art is funny like that, and so are human imaginations.

There are plenty of other RPG books where the art ranges from annoying to distracting. Very often this is nothing more than a conflict between how I imagine the scenarios & characters that the game describes & how the artist conceives of them.

When it comes right down to it, art is a crap shoot for me. Sometimes it is extremely evocative & inspirational, & other times it conflicts so strongly with my own imagination that it gets in the way & I have to do my best to ignore it.

If a picture is worth a thousand words then sometimes the guy with the mic has your undivided attention, & other times you just wish that he would stop talking.