Sunday, November 30, 2014

Weird Movie Sunday: Alex Alice's SIEGFRIED (actually not a movie ... yet?)

Look at those gorgeous animations and tell me you don't feel the itch to get some gaming going:

It's not only the trailer for a movie that might never happen (which would be a shame, I'd totally go and see this), but it's (also?) promoting a comic book series by Alex Alice called Siegfried (based on Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung, some of it is the background-music in this amazing short) that looks equally awesome*. I'll definitely give this a closer look.

And it reminded me to go and check if somebody already made a role playing game/campaign setting/what-have-you using the The Song of the Nibelungs ... I mean, it got a Dragon, magic items, heroes, dwaves and a story that could make Game of Thrones blush. A mix ripe for a very gritty and dark fantasy setting with some Brother's Grimm fairies in it and a strong Dark Ages vibe to round out.

Turns out, nobody did something like this just yet (or my google-fu left me).

Hm ...

* Thanks to +Joey Lindsey  from Metal vs Skin to send me down that particular rabbit hole (with this post).

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Customized DIY(+) DM Screen for all Occasions (with pictures and musings and all that)

I really love to use DM-Screens. The main reason being that my players don't have to see what I roll. Or better yet: I believe it's far more effective to allow players sitting next to me an occasional glance behind the screen. Or decide on the fly to roll in the open to heighten tension. The more I think about it, the more I come to the conclusion that DM Screens are necessary tools for so many reasons. You may have huge amounts of information for the game at your fingertips and, if need be, protected from prying eyes. And let's not forget, the art depicted on a DM screen helps facilitating a mood for your games.

Anyway, most will be aware of those benefits, some might even disagree. But I believe there is no DM out there that likes DM Screens and didn't experience the annoyance coming with some of the published proposals. Like bad/ugly/stupid art. I really hate, for example, the art on the 3E DM Screen. It's such an ugly thing (and I won't post a picture of that aberration).

Bad organisation or bad selection of rules is another on. I mean, check out the Official HackMaster Game Master's Shield:

I really wanted to like this, but ...
One could say they take this idea to the MAX (which is kind of funny, I guess ...). Layers and layers within layers and layers of information. It's just too much. Way too much. I tried to use it but always ended up looking in the books.

The third crime in this regard would be poor quality. It is an item that'll be used quite often. So if it falls apart after 20 sessions, it's bad quality in my opinion. "Scares", on the other hand, can give a GM Screen some character. Behold my Midgard RPG DM Screen:

Did use this a lot! Good times.
Used almost every Friday for five consecutive years. And it shows (it did hold up quite well, though).

The last thing that will eventually happen to all published DM Screens is that they get obsolete because of a new edition (which would be true for all three DM Screens described above) or because the Dungeon Master decided to go with another game (also true for all three examples ...).

There are alternatives, though.

OSR, DIY and the customized DM Screen

When I discovered those small blogs that would form the OSR later on, my focus in gaming also changed to older games (The D&D Rules Cyclopedia ftw!) and all those small games that got published (often for free) in that particular blog-o-sphere (and some indie-games I could get my fingers on ...). It won't come as a surprise that DM Screens are a very rare thing for those games. So a DM would need a flexible and neutral screen for this. Of course those things can be bought. But I never saw one that I liked and why buy one if you can do it yourself with all the freedom you want to get what you need?

That's what I did end of last year. Result:

A 4  panel customized DM Screen, laminated and connected  via spiral binding ... 
... with 4 for implemented (glued) sheet protectors inside ...

... and with the name of the blog and an OSR stamp to round things up.
I'm quite fond of it by now.
All I had to pay for this was the material and the copy-shop clerk who laminated and bound the pages. The art is the picture of a historical Japanese room divider (public domain, too), which was ideal, because it was already divided into 4 panels, so stretching it to DIN A 4 and making 4 pdfs out of it was quite easy (doesn't even look stretched). Adding the name of the blog and the stamp where the final touches using The Gimp, Scribus and Inskape).

This is what it should have looked like, but they couldn't print the whole page,
which resulted in the white frames you see above.
This is it. I'm using this one for a year now and it came in quite handy so far. I lucked out with the art, as I really like that picture and the atmosphere it transports (took me some time to find something I really wanted to use). And it's system neutral, so to say.

Question to the readers: What's your DM Screen of choice and why?

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Dirkterwalde: First Session (a welcome and bad dreams of a dark future)

Alright, I got to do those session reports. They'll be as detailed as I dare them to be (and remember it ...), spoiler free (as the players will most definitely read them) and with some musings about the game at the end. Most part of the first session was spend for character generation ...

Setting: Dirkterwalde, a mysterious backwater-town in East Germany at the end of the 90's (see here for the campaign set-up and here for an introduction to Dirkterwalde).

Characters (see here for a full description of the cast): Vale Viem (witch and owner of a small cabaret), Jan Jester (mundane sausage-salesman and a thief) and Gabriel Zöller (powerful psychic and a nerd).

Session 1 - Welcome to Dirkterwalde

The year is 1999 and it's Tuesday, the 7th of July. A mild summer day, if you believe the records. Nothing really interesting was happening in the news, many people were on vacation. All in all it was a really unspectacular summer in East Germany in general and in Dirkterwalde especially. I would hazard that on a day like this people actually thought more about either seeing Notting Hill again or checking out The Matrix instead (because everybody was talking about it) than about the upcoming Millennium and the end of the world (or other dark topics).

It's a nice evening. Jan and Gabriel decide after training (both frequent the same dojo) to go for a beer and see, as they often do, the evening performance at Madame Viem's Varieté Obscure. Lots of beautiful young women, reasonable prices and it was just a stone's throw from the dojo (it didn't take them long to become regulars).

This is where the 3 characters meet each other. The only event this evening worth mentioning was a poor old Sorbian woman that had managed to get into the Obscure to sell her trinkets to the customers. All three bought a small trinket before the woman was ushered out politely.

They stay until the end of the evening's entertainment and part ways after that, doing whatever business they got left for the day and went to bed after that. As they fell asleep and entered their dreams, a Willpower-check was in order. Gabriel was the only one succeeding and thus the only one being aware that he's dreaming. Jan and Vale accepted the dream as reality (what one might call "dream-logic" worked for Jan and Vale, but not for Gabriel).

A strange and frightening dream followed.

In their dream they were all back at the Varieté Obscure. Gabriel in front of it, Jan and Vale inside. The Obscure and the street going past it looked ruinous and deserted. There was no electricity, just a diffuse flickering light brightening the clouded night in the west of town.

When Gabriel saw a strange group of people with torches coming down the street towards him (they'd looked like Neanderthals in medieval armor) he decided to enter the theater. He heard someone talking, went for the noise and discovered Jan and Vale discussing their situation. Since he believes them to be part of his dream, he chats them up as if they were old friends, uses his abilities to ignite candles and makes them fly around, stuff like that. Jan and Vale on the other hand accept this to be as it should be anyway, since they are not aware of their dream-state.

Now, them talking to each other startled something on the floor above them and they decide to follow that noise. A door leading to a hallway with some stairs to the first floor is by the bar. Jan takes the front. He thinks a gun would be helpful in this endeavor and discovers he's already carrying one. Vale got a sword the same way: it has been there all the time.

They open the door to the hallway leading to the stairs to hear more noise, but this time from the kitchen to their left and confront some small and ugly humanoids with sharp teeth and pointy ears that were on their way out through an exit to a back alley. They snarled and hissed at the group and vanished with the words:

"This ain't your realm no more, humans. It is Zardok's realm now and you are not welcome!"

Closer examination of the kitchen revealed a ghastly surprise in the defunct cold store: eight dead humans, hung up on their ankles like cattle. The stench was revolting and just as Jan was about to close the door again, the corpse closest to him turned his head and lifted an arm to grab him. He closed the door so much faster after that and took care that it stayed shut ...

Examining the first floor they found the first rooms empty and demolished. One showed traces of old blood, another one looked like an improvised camp site. In the fourth room they discover a suicide and a note with the sad tale of a girl that hoped to get a chance and the world disagreeing. Vale checked if she knew the girl, but didn't recognize her.

Meanwhile they hear someone calling for attention down on the street. An old man in his pajamas who seems lost. They identify him as one of the guests of the Obscure just a few hours ago and think that he, too, might have bought a trinket from that old lady.

Things escalate pretty fast from that point on. The man gets attacked by those small creatures from the kitchen (or very similar ones). The group tires to help. After some shots are fired, a dragon makes an appearance and tries to burn the old man, Gabriel and Vale. Both characters wake up before dying in the flames. Jan fights some of the zombies that managed to break free from the cold store until they manage to overbear him and he, too, wakes up before it gets worse.

The next morning begins for Vale with the arrival of a new girl seeking shelter in the Obscure. The session ends with Vale recognizing the young as the suicide from her dream ...


I was quite happy with this first session. It seems like not much is happening, but it was more important to give the players a feeling for the setting and give them a chance to meet and establish some connection between them. What I wrote about WitchCraft the other day still holds true: very fast, very flexible.

In this first session I only got a glimpse of how powerful those characters really are. Most tasks didn't pose a problem and it became quite difficult to produce some tension because of that. At least within surroundings the players believed to be controllable (that is: reality). That changed quite a bit in the dream sequence as soon as those corpses in the fridge started to move ...

Most fun was the fact that Jan and Vale where immersed in the dream and Gabriel wasn't. Gabriel started to treat the others as figments of his imagination and found lots of opportunities to tell them about his psychic powers, demonstrated them even (which got quite important in the next session and helped getting the group together), while the others tried to find ways to use the dream world to their advantage. A fun first session ...

This got rather long. I'll try to keep the following reports somewhat shorter :)

Sunday, November 23, 2014

How I prepare Maps for The Game (let's call it a Brain-Crawl ...)

Busy weekend, I know. Got the time and energy to get some things written. Maybe it's not very clever to post this stuff so fast, but I never gave up hope that I'll be able to do something on work days ...

With all that recent talk about Hex-Crawls and Point-Crawls, I wanted to share a third variant (a hybrid, maybe) I use in my games: the Brain-Crawl (because maps are in the head, you know). I'm not really calling it that, but it was the first thing to come to mind ... Anyway ... Let me illustrate. I couldn't draw a nice picture to save my life*, so drawing beautiful maps to wow my players was never an option. I'd mostly try and get away with describing things and use maps done by others.

This changed when I started to blog, though. All that jazz about DIY made me think about ways to, well, circumvent my shortcomings and find a useful solution without the need to draw something. I tried to go the hex-crawl route, but for me it's lacking lots of information I'd like to have on a map. It's just not for me anymore (I have an idea where I use hex-fields to generate random regions, but that's for another day ...).

What I've done now (and used already) is still a work in progress, as there are several things I want to add in the future. Anyway, it worked just fine the way it is. Here we go:

I know it ain't pretty, but it is functional and easy to randomize (I used Inkscape for this map)
The color of the frames indicate the alignment (as I see it, anyway) of a certain area (white being the exception, it's just the frame for a landmark). I don't care that much for distances on maps, as you might have noticed. The concept of distances on maps is, in my opinion, ludicrous, as the distance between two points will never be the distance traveled between those points. So I decided to go without them.

Instead I use several landmarks to give the players orientation and  just estimate how big and where the areas are, using the given proportions and position to each other (the only more or less fixed distance I got is the one between settlement A and B, which is roughly an hour travel under normal circumstances). Add weather, altitudes, mode of travelling and type of terrain and the result could be something like: Travel through the Merkwoods north of town (Settlement with A in the center), facing the highest peak of mount Knell (high landmark with the V) until you reach the Sea of Stones (local landmark I). Now you turn north until the forest get really dense. Beware of the fairies there (x3), I've heard they are at no good terms with the barons woodcutters (border between two terrain types) ... And so on.

With the alignments I know how hostile/civilized an area or road is to travel. There is enough room on the sheet to implement small Random Encounter Tables in them (like I did in the lower right) and one thing I want to add are sanctuaries. The rest is more random tables (like several reaction tables ...), a reference sheet with names, the locations marked on the map and this sheet I made about the status of an encounter.

Just a beginning

This is just the tip of the iceberg. A lot more is possible (still thinking about using ability scores to give those areas some character and a big question is how to make this a dynamic and random environment, stuff like that). And I still need to connect this with some of the other ideas I already wrote about (that whole Noircana brainstorm that's still hunting me in my dreams). For now I hope this could give you some ideas how I use maps in my games. If it's any useful is for you to decide.

Next up is a little something I'm working on to create complex random cavern systems on the fly using cards. For the Goblin-Tribe Simulator and whoever dares to use such a thing (but next weekend, earlier is highly unlikely).

* Funny story right there: In school, when we learned reading and writing, I had showed tendencies to be left-handed, but the teacher at the time forbid it because (I kid you not!) she wanted a unified look when her pupils where writing, which was, of course, all right handed. And I never quite got the hang of that ...

Saturday, November 22, 2014

(Dynamic) Balance in Role Playing Games

Every now and then you'll see a post floating the blog-o-sphere that discusses the importance of balance in the design of a game. Not without reason, of course. To give a DM some tools to ensure balanced encounters is an idea at least as old as the D&D Rules Cyclopedia, got quite famous with the third edition's Challenge Rating  and is opposed by such concepts as Tucker's Kobolds and the (I'd say, controversial) Quick Primer to Old School Gaming. There's a whole plethora of arguments one could muster for both sides, I guess. But when all is said and done, one fact will remain: balance ain't something a set of rules can produce. There, I said it, both sides are "wrong" or, rather, get right answers to the wrong questions. It's not a question of perspective, either. It's, in my opinion, a question of definitions that leads to the right questions, which in turn might lead to some better understanding of what a game needs and how that could be achieved. I'll try and go there.

Challenge Rating = Bad Game Design

Done right, the idea itself might have merit. But D&D (and especially the 3rd Edition) ain't the game to support it, because it can't provide the constants a game would need to make it work. To give but one example, 3E needed so much revising, that you couldn't call it "done" until it changed it's name to Pathfinder. Add third party publishers muddying the water further with alternative (mostly even more unstable and untested) rules, items, spells and monsters and you end up with a game where you couldn't tell anymore what a group of any level might be capable of. Challenge Rating became very fast a very dangerous tool to trust in (or it made things far to easy for the players).

And yet, people often enough believed in it to be an essential part in providing some, as I've read so many times on several occasions, needed balance. Functional as a set of rules or not, this is (for me, at least) the main reason to call this bad game design: it undermines a Dungeon Masters authority in making players believe that if something went wrong, it's not because the game is broken, but because the DM fucked up in assessing the Challenge Rating right. A cynic might say it's more like a marketing tool to ensure that a DM would rather buy more product than bother with a much to complex system where he might end up taking the blame for something that ain't his fault ... Anyway, let's just say it's bad game design for lots of reasons.

Ignoring Game Balance = Bad Advice

Because consistency creates room for balance. As much as no player has the right to expect an even challenge he'll be just good enough to overcome every time he has an encounter, he has every right to count on the rules that are agreed upon to be in place. A sword will always do the damage it is supposed to do and everything in the shared imagined world works under the same assumptions, with the same machinations. Rules that support the idea of game balance are, to give a few examples:
  • hit points - everyone has them, everything dies if they are gone
  • armor class - things are more or less hard to hit, but everything can be hit
  • levels - indicate the position of an element in the power structure of a game, higher level = better position
  • saves - a tool to give a character a chance to react against something he couldn't have been aware of
  • ...

The list goes on, but I believe the point is made: although, for instance, the amount of hit points of a creature might vary, the effect of what happens, if they're gone, is a constant. And this form of consistency in a set of rules allows some balance in the game. A player can't be sure what lurks around the next corner, but he can be sure that the game allows a correct assessment of the thread a possible encounter might pose. Telling someone to ignore or forget this, is very bad advice, giving an impression of anarchy that really isn't there.

Balance is NOT Fairness

Really a common and, I think, rather annoying mistake to make. Take chess, for example. The rules are the same for every player. One could say they are very balanced. But if a beginner plays against a very experienced player, it won't be very fair for the beginner. The same goes for D&D (or role playing game in general, as a matter of fact). Or take the infamous "Save or Die"-rule: A Save Or Die is never something a player could experience as "fair" in any way, but I believe it is a balanced aspect of D&D as it reflects a certain aspect of the game that is very real for every imagined party interacting with it.

So "fairness" describes a very subjective concept, while the idea of balance describes a very objective condition of harmony between the involved parts. A feeling of getting a fair treatment is one of the results of a balanced game, though. But it really ain't the same by a long shot.

I also think it is important to understand that the set of rules used in a game is just ONE part of what constitutes a balanced game. Which leads me to my next point ...

Balance starts with a DM, not with the rules

There are at least two ways to support this argument: (1) the DM is the one choosing the system and interpreting the rules, so balance starts with him or (2) the DM is the one that decides how the world reacts to the players and how it interacts with them, so he regulates balance in every instance before any other element of the game might act (and yes, using random tables is a form of decision making, writing them up is a direct act of influencing balance in the game ...).

This has a lot of implications for the role of the Dungeon Master in a game and some of them don't come up often in discussions. Well, at least not often enough. It actually demands a lot from a DM, but I believe there's no other way. There is, for example, the idea of fudging results. If the primary goal of every DM is to produce balance in a game, fudging some results to achieve a certain flow in events (for the sake of balance!) is more than legit. It might even be necessary to filter some glitches in a set of rules. House rules, same idea. The DM is the first to propose and the last to approve of house rules in a game. He is the one to decide if they hurt the balance of the game from the very beginning and on every instance down the road.

Every aspect of a DMs job is somehow connected to the idea of a dynamic balance, every roll he enforces, every decision he makes. All of it. Is it something you'll find in a rule book? Not that I'm aware of. Certainly not in D&D.

Players threaten the balance. And they should ...

But the players have a very important part in that balance, too. They test it at every turn. Seek loopholes and try to use the system to their advantage. It's the definition of balance that there is a counterpart for every force to even it out. It's the dynamic of the game. The players test the limits of the system/the world/the story and the DM improvises/prepares/decides countermeasures to generate the flow necessary for a good game.

In an ideal group, the game becomes more than the sum of it's parts. Just like the ideal cast for a group of D&D characters creates a balanced entity that is able to confront all aspects of the game one way or another, it's the blend of player personalities that decides about balance in a game. A Munchkin will test the bounds of what's possible, a player who's there for the story, will demand a certain depth of what happens to the group and a rules lawyer will constantly check how a DM interprets the rules and question those decisions occasionally.

"Threatening the balance" doesn't mean in an abusive way, though. There are boundaries to what is healthy for the game and what is not. Again it's on the DM to have the final word here to establish a certain balance.

Please, question those ideas!

When I started writing this post, I didn't think I would end up here. System is not an important part of the game, it's actually quite secondary what you play. Much more important is the role of the DM at the table. Which leads to far more questions than answers right now. For me at least. The main question being: am I right in my conclusions? And if so, what does it mean for how we perceive the game and talk about it? What tell a newbie DM? How is this idea challenging published descriptions of what constitutes a DM or a group or the position of the set of rules in this context? And that's just the tip of the iceberg, right?

But in the end, the funny thing about dynamic balance is, if you argue it in a Daoist fashion (and that's where I got the term from), that achieving it is an act of doing without doing (wei wu wei). Which would mean a good DM is defined by what he's achieving in decisive non-action.

Or does it?
Don't try too hard, things will come natually [source]

Friday, November 21, 2014

A salute to Stelios, whose digital presence went dark while I wasn't looking ...

Damn, I'm gone for a month and coming back I had to discover that one of my favorite bloggers has killed all his accounts. Not with a bang, but with a whimper. Stelios V. Perdios of Word of Stelios fame (former D20 Dark Ages) is gone, it seems, for good. He'll have his reasons and it is on him to share them or not, but I wanted to take the time to say that it didn't go unnoticed. I'd always check his blogs for updates and enjoyed his writings immensely. Right now I'm thinking I maybe could have commented more often, since I believe it really helps a blogger to keep on trucking when others take the time to share their thoughts about a post you've written (and it's something I don't do often enough in general, but that's neither her nor there). Anyway, whatever his reasons are, a lack of comments won't be the main issue here and what we are left with is that he's gone and that's a sad thing to behold.

Alright, Stelios, here is my salute to you: I've enjoyed your blogs for the years they've been around and it's sad to see you gone. I really hope it's not your final decision. And whatever you are doing right now, I hope you're well and wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors.

Edit: Now we know he will be back! Which is a good thing :) Way better than going without saying anything, which would just show us all how fragile every social contact in the internet is. Nobody wants that ...

Anyway, now for something completely different.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

As my brain gently weeps, shivering in decline ...

Yeah, there are days like this. Weeks, even. It's not for the lack of topics tumbling through my poor and exhausted thought-machine, but for the lack of energy (work, girlfriend and a regular campaign take their toll). But still, I'm not done yet. I've a long weekend coming up and there will be some content other than me whining about poor old me. More about the goblin-tribe-simulator (those goblins are sitting in the corner of my room and look somewhat pissed ...) and some other things I've been working on. So if you were one of the few thinking "Ah, well, he didn't post for a while. What a shame ...", I'd like to thank you for considering me :) For now, I'm back. Let's see what happened in my absence ...