Thursday, January 28, 2016

Level Advancement in Lost Songs of the Nibelungs (with some D&D RC in it)

We are now several play-tests into exploring if level zero game works or not. It does and I got no reason to find more excuses to delay digitizing what I have on my desk for more than three six months now: the rules for advancing characters in Lost Songs of the Nibelungs (cue for epic music ...)! So this is the first version of how characters will advance in that grim Dark Ages fantasy heart-breaker of mine.

A Difficult Birth

Okay, I thought I'd write a few words how difficult it was (for me, at least) to put this together. One would think that Level Advancement just needs a way to earn experience and another way to spend it and gain levels that express the different shades of power. That's true, of course, and it should be very true for a Domain Master and his players.

But behind the scenes it can get messy. The thing is, do something right and no one will notice, but make a mistake and people will not stop telling you. So in an ideal case I'll set up this system and no one will notice it because it's intuitive and runs smooth in the background. To make this even possible, I need a complete overview of the game. And that's a hen/egg story, really. I need an overview to test it, but also need to test it to get an overview. See what I mean?

Anyway, next thing you know is that you are writing a huge post that is all over the place. I still discover areas that need some further exploring. But that is to some extent the reason for writing those development posts. So here goes an early system. Most of it tested one way or another, some of it as just a consequence of the tested and a small part untested. Let me know what you think.

Level Advancement (compared to the  D&D RC)

Next weekend I aim to put up a post connecting all the dots, but for now I'll just get the proper advancement for the game out there and talk a bit about it. The basic idea was and has always been to take the class based system we all know from, say, the D&D Rules Cyclopedia and break it into digestible pieces, with the hope to end up with a hybrid system that is somewhere between a class-based structure (like D&D) and a completely modular structure (like, say, GURPS). A system where it's easy enough to specialize but just as easy to diversify.

All that needed to be balanced and has to work with the system I already got. Some quick notes how all is this still (if by a thin thread) connected to D&D. I basically assigned the D&D RC class abilities to 6 areas of expertise (3 physical: Do, Fight, Endure and 3 mental: Learn, Meddle and Cast) which correlate with the 6 Qualities (think ability scores) of the game.

Next step was to fracture this even more to allow a balanced development across the 10 levels a character can achieve in the game, so all of those 6 areas got 5 levels of advancement, with 1, 2 or even (in one case) 3 options per advancement and area. That meant that someone could specialize completely in two areas (2 times 5) but with enough wiggle room to end up with a different character than another player choosing the same path.

But first things first. Here is the promised Level Advancement:

Open in new tab for details!

Back to the D&D RC. To make this comparable, I'd need to be able to "simulate" a basic class with Lost Songs. This is where it gets a little more abstract. Take a fighter, for example. Through the editions you'd say he has a focus on fighting and enduring. A high level Magic User could nuke a whole group to oblivion, but the high level fighter has a chance to still stand after a hefty punishment, most of the time even with enough punch left to kick some ass.

So this is hat I needed here. A character that advances only in Fight and Endure will end up knowing legendary combat techniques, will have lots of combat dice (so he's fast and brutal) and will also have more Health and Endurance and a way better physical condition than the others. That'll do, I think.

It's also easy. Thieves turned out be way more difficult, of course. Do and Learn with one or two advancements in Fight should do the trick, then. It goes on like that. Magic User? Cast and Learn. Cleric? Take the complete Meddle and mix Fight and Endure. It's all there!

But the beauty is (sorry if I get a bit carried away here ...), well, the beauty is, you can mix it as you please. The only two requirements are that the advancements need to stack and that you can't take 2 advancements of the same level and the same area. Other than that you are free to advance the character as you see fit, one advancement per level.

More in a few days when I paint the big picture from creating a character over gaining experience up to advancing, sprinkled with some new ideas about Oracle Dice and Magic.

That's it for now

But the thing is complex enough on it's own. And although D&D was an inspiration along the way, I believe I managed to come up with something different in the end. I have to say, this was by now the hardest part to get done. Face to face restart tomorrow and leveling up will be a topic very soon. Then I'll see how the players take it ...

Comments are, as always, very welcome. What do you guys think of this?

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

My RPG Bucket-List (Top 10)

[skippable detour:]

You know those days where you really, really want to do something but you feel somehow drained, resulting in something like a restless inactivity where nothing seems to get done? I read somewhere that the best way to deal with a situation like this is to shift gears and do something else until you feel that urge again to write and create. Well, every time I get to this point, I'll ask myself what fun things I could do with the time I'm not writing or spending time with the special someone.
When he's right, he's right ... [source]

Most of the time I'll plain end up reading more books instead of blogs and the g+ feed. But sometimes I get the urge to tackle one of my "long time projects", like (I kid you not) finally playing a complete run of the Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind - Game of the Year Edition (first generation xbox). I am right now a level 30-something Dark Elf with around 500.000 gold and a long sword I call Daedric Boomstick as the final solution of all problems (as it deals another 40 to 60 damage of fire damage adding up to 100 with a good hit ...).

I'm really hoping that the game doesn't die on me again (it did already do this to me about three times in the last 12 years) or that I somehow manage to kill someone important for the main quest ... again (like that last time I played, had been level 45 at the time and was on a good run, then I killed the wrong dude) as I'm starting that main quest affair as I write this.

[end of skippable detour.]

And with all that doing nothing, thinking about what I should do and what I could do, I realized that I actually have a bucket list of rpg-related things I want to do. Then I thought I should write a post about it :) So without further ado:

My RPG Bucket-List (Top 10)

1. Trying for 12 years (solo rpg): Finally finishing Morrowind (5th attempt as of now, looking good).

2. Other computer rpgs (solo rpg): Also on the table and waiting to get played through: Baldur's Gate 1 & 2 (tried two times) and Neverwinter Nights 1 (also 2 times already ...). And here you see how far I'm behind in all of this. I won't even start with newer games like this.

3. The published AD&D campaign (as DM): DM a classic published AD&D campaign RAW (or using HackMaster 4e, I don't care that much). Something legendary like the Temple of Elemental Evil-series (started it once, never got behind the moat-house) or the Queen of the Spiders-series.

4. The complete D&D RC campaign (as DM): DM a complete campaign using the D&D Rules Cyclopedia, going from level 1 to level 36 with one group (not sure it could be done, but I'd sure like to aim high with this!). This would be in my own campaign world (nothing published) and house ruled (not RAW, customized classes, mana pools, stuff like that), but a D&D sandbox through and through.

5. The megadungeon campaign (as DM): I'd really like to DM a complete exploration of a megadungeon. It's a love that started with a Rappan Athuk campaign back in the 3e days and was rekindled with giving 3 sessions and a starting exploration of the great Stonehell Dungeon. I'm also starting to think I need to get me some Dwimmermount ... 

6. The RuneQuest campaign (as DM): I love RuneQuest (3e is what I know) for everything it makes different than D&D. And although it is the 4th campaign I'm listing here, it's also a very different set of stories I imagine getting told in a RuneQuest game, maybe with more of a Swords & Sorcery/David Gemmell/Michael Moorcock kind of vibe. I even started a campaign like that years ago, but the players didn't like much how gritty the system turned out to be (I remember one player getting stabbed in a bar fight and being rather surprised about the harsh result ... people also started loosing limbs quite easily) and we switched to something else after only 3 sessions (or something like that).

7. The complete campaign (as player): I got a few opportunities to be a player in one shots or on conventions, but never for a whole campaign. Or at least it never held long enough for some reason or another. I know I'm missing out here, though. This would be more about the right kind of people with the right kind of DM, not so much about what game is actually played or what it's about, as there is a shit-load of games I'd be willing to play (d6 Star Wars, AD&D, HackMaster 4e, oWoD, Cyberpunk, Midgard ... I could go on and on).

8. Going to the source: I guess that's a dream all non-American gamers have, to visit the states and see what's what. GenCon, GaryCon, OSR-Cons, local game stores and burgers are on the top of that list, but interchangeable. Way more important would be to meet the people I met online in real life, maybe even throw some dice with them. Honestly, that would be so nice. It needs to happen.

9. Getting the physical evidence: I love collecting print versions of what our hobby tends to produce. Especially what gets done in our little corner of the internet. It's not so much about the quality, even, it's more like proof that all of this actually exists outside the internet/my brain. But i do that all the time when I have the money and it wouldn't do for a bucket list. What I'd really like to achieve, though, is getting something out there with my name on it. Something I could have printed and pester the grand children with (those I don't have either, but that's a different list).

10. ,,, is probably stupid, but here I go anyway: So this last point could be perceived as somewhat shallow and it's nothing I could really do, actually, but something that should happen by accident. Well, to keep it short, I'd really like to meet someone that knows this blog here and maybe even has an opinion about it. I mean, nothing fancy, really. I get feedback and I've met lots of nice people over the last 4 years, but to meet someone by pure chance that says something like "Oh yeah, that's a blog about old school role playing games, right?" would make me very, very happy. I know, it's stupid. But honestly, once would be more than enough. I'll shut up now.

That's it, folks, that's my rpg bucket list. Nothing of this is easy to achieve, I think, and that's the point. Is it complete? No. I'm not even sure those are the 10 most important. But they are definitely up there. So how about you guys? What rpg related things would you like to see realized for yourselves? 

Friday, January 15, 2016

Principles of Magic 1: Oracle Dice (in LSotN)

I had one of those moments where pieces started falling into places and I'm happy to report that Lost Songs of the Nibelungs is now complete. At least in my head. Oracle Dice and Magic had been the two great unknowns so far and I had been looking for something that connects them and also works well with the system. What I came up with is bordering on the esoteric, but make no mistake: I'll only be using what I need and make the rest up as I see fit. This is about magic in a role playing game, not about magic in the "real world".

They knew their dice in 550 AD (the Platonic solids)

Alright, so I didn't know that someone actually found an ancient Roman d20:

How awesome is this! [source]
My first thought had been something like "I wonder what games they played with it ..." and my second thought had been about those symbols. But the first thing I found when googling about was that they already had an idea of the geometric forms we use in our favorite games. And not only that, they went as far as stating that those forms are the underlying structures of our world.

Here they are: d4, d6, d8, d12, d20 [source]
There had been four Platonic solids in the beginning (d4, d6, d8, d20), Aristotle had the idea of a fifth element he called Aether (d12) and those ideas might actually be far, far older than that, as there are theories that those Carved Stone Balls they found in Scotland could be somehow related to the same concepts ... But honestly, who cares. All I could think was: DICE! They had them, so using them in a pseudo historical setting is actually fitting.

So Sacred Geometry had been the next logic step, to be honest. Symmetry, the Golden Ratio, the ancient meanings of those beloved geometric forms needed exploring exploiting. At this point I'm still not as much reading as looking for connections. Okay, okay, there is a connection between those geometric forms and the elements. The d4 is fire, d6 is earth, d8 is air, the d12 is Aether and the d20 is water. There are 5 of them, so the union of them is actually a pentagram! That's nice. Golden ratio, magical symbolism, it's all in there. It's all done.

And there is some additional meaning. Fire is transformation, Earth is stability, Air is Change, Aether is Potential and Water is Protection. I can see it shaping up, but there is still something missing. The connection to that game I'm writing is still at large.

So where is that d10?

Yes, that one form is missing. It's one of those rare occasions where the d12 gets more love than the d10. And right there is the missing link: there is the 3d10 Random Territory Generator I use to build the world for the characters of Lost Songs and characters have 10 levels. And that is, again, a Platonic idea: macrocosm and microcosm! So the basic structure of the world and the development of the individual in Lost Songs are somehow connected to 10.

My next thought had been that I need to cook down those 3d10, so taking digit sum seemed to be my best shot. But that'd only result in digits between 1 and 9, so the 10 is actually missing. That worried me for a short time, but then I realized that the missing digit couldn't be anything else but the individuals shaping the world, which brought me full circle: the 10 is the key hole for magic, this is where the individual, be it god or fairy or human, step in to alter reality.

This is magic in Lost Songs of the Nibelungs ...

What we have here is a basic understanding how the world works and an idea how to change that. Let's have the ideas so far combined in one picture:

There is no system to speak of yet, but all the ingredients are there. The last important connection here is between the main Quality to weave magic (Wits) and the five elements and since every Quality has 5 advancement levels in LSotN, we have our first rule of magic: a character can handle 1 element per quality advancement in Wits.

This is where it gets a bit more complicated. We have 5 dice for the elements. It would be nice to have them connecting in a way consistent with Lost Songs, so doubles and triples are interesting, as are 1s and maximum results (as it is in Combat). That means (for one) that it might be useful to have a wizard roll all 5 dice at one point, but doing so every time seems like a bad idea, so how about doing something like D&D (for a change) and have them do it every morning during meditation (just like memorizing, well, close enough).

So they roll the 5 dice and read them, choosing a number of dice according to their level and as they see fit. Doubles, triples and so on, may draw additional dice into a wizards daily pool. This is a bit tricky, because it means that only the numbers 1 to 4 have the potential to trigger in all 5 elements at once, which means those numbers are STRONG. But I love the rule "high is good" and I won't start to change that with the game I'm writing, so there is a second layer to this where a high result with a die makes him ENERGETIC. And a third layer would be BALANCE, where all results synchronize ...

That's that in a nutshell. Expect me expanding on that in the near future. But the reason for this post, other than introducing the whole concept as complete as possible, was explaining the Oracle Dice. This is where it all connects to a World Engine.

No shit, the Oracle Dice are Noircana reloaded

Some of you might remember (okay, 2013, who am I kidding ... but please, play along) the vivid exchange I had with Porky (where are you, man?!) and Garrisonjames a few years ago about a system that would connect the basic values of a world with the rules of interacting with said world in a way that'd make it possible to trace everything back to it's source because of the signature things have.

This gives me hope that I finally arrived at a workable solution of the problem that came along with the idea. So what are the Oracle Dice? They are the big picture mirroring what wizards do to cast magic and that'd be the 5 elemental dice. This is what happens: the DM is to roll the elemental dice before characters are going on a quest and keeps that result during the whole adventure. Those are the Oracle dice and they connect to the surroundings in two ways. The first is the digit sum of the hex-field the characters are moving in (1 to 9) and to all magic that is done in the area (10).

It's a bit like the idea of environmental dice for combat. There are (as of now) three important rules: (1) a one with an Oracle Die is static, (2) every time a caster comes up with a double, triple and so on, it results in a local effect and the triggered Oracle Dice are re-rolled and (3) when Oracle Dice form doubles, triples and so on, there'll be a negative local phenomenon in effect.

That'll mean in the game that local wizards will be aware of the presence of other casters and might even get an idea what magic they did (and where). There is also the idea of Balance. Balance for Oracle Dice is when all dice are either maxed out or synchronized with the digit sum of an area. Holy man are considered the agents to bring that balance (every time they achieve that they should be allowed to let some wonders happen). Balance, of course, is always threatened ...

Final thoughts: if during a quest, for whatever reasons, all Oracle Dice change to be 1s, it results in a local cataclysm of sorts. If a wizards comes up with a 1 for an element already showing a 1, it might produce an additional die of the same element that stays in the area. There is three kinds of magic: ancient sorcery (classic education, "spells"), having fairy blood (wild magic) and holy men (a chosen path). Aether is what Spirit was on the character sheet and still the currency for casting anything in Lost Songs. Saves connect to this, of course, reducing Aether (Sanity Save) and potentially Wyrd. Ley lines will get interesting again. This system will be able to drive the narrative in unexpected and random directions in a meaningful way ...

And that is it

I know, it's a lot to begin with, but it is all there and connected (well, I already got some loose ideas for more, but this is what I can already tell). Now it needs lists and more lists, some reworking of Level Advancement and testing, testing, testing. But I already see the light at the end of the tunnel. Although I don't know how much I'll have to change in the future, I know that the ideas formulated above show the direction Lost Song is taking right now and might give those following the development of the game give an idea what the whole thing will look like :)

Oh, and one final thing: I know this all seems brutally complex right now, but the way it is set up, the heavy lifting is all with the DM. It will be an easy transition for the players (start tinkering with 1 element at a time, see what happens, get better at it over time as a player and with advancement, that kind of thing).

More when I get there. Opinions, ideas and impressions are, as always, very welcome!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Riding that Dead Horse like a Cowboy! (about group dynamics)

Sometimes I wake up and have a title for a post I shouldn't write. And I love that title so much that I start thinking about how I write that post, how I phrase it all. Just to end up asking myself if there is a way to write it despite the fact that I maybe shouldn't ... And then I sit down and write it :)

About that post the other day ...

So I wrote a post the other day, asking if a DM should "please" his players or not. I have things like this seen done (never participated, though) and believe it isn't that uncommon, given that people do lots and lots of stupid things to get attention or keep others hanging around. But it is, of course only a facet of a bigger picture: it's about the roles we assume and group dynamics. Yes, that's right, it's not about the characters we play in role playing games, but those we bring to the table as individuals. Let's see one aspect of this up close.

Part of an interesting presentation you can find here
What I make of this:
  1. "imposed leadership" is a group member in an official capacity (publisher or related, active game support, stuff like that)
  2. "occupied position" is the group member in the position as DM as per the rules (which might be gradually weaker, depending on the system used)
  3. "informal leader" is the group member actually being accepted as leader of the group

So as you can see here, there are 3 different aspects of Formal Leadership. Ideally a DM would incorporate all three of them, but either way it turns out, it has an impact on the dynamics of the group. So if there is no organization to "impose" a DM on a group (first point just doesn't happen that often in rpgs) and the DM in charge is only DM because the rules say so (second point), it's that third point that could have a huge impact on the game if it's not the assigned DM assuming it.

In other words, if you got a "player DM" at the table and he is actually in charge, you are in trouble (as a DM). Now, this is a situation and very dynamic, not necessarily how it has to stay. One example I can think of, had been a Support player from a German rpg publisher in a con game (actually one of the rare occasions where that first point described above is in fact part of the equation: he had been an "imposed official").

I had been DM and welcomed that as someone representing the developers of a game I love. By association he had, for me at the time, the power to judge about how I rule that game. You know, that whole "Am I worthy" crap. Turned out that he really loved that position and started to seriously undermine my DM calls. Especially when I made a call instead of using the rules. So that was the situation. It started to get on my nerves, for obvious reasons and I waited for an opportunity to stop him cold and tell him off. After that was done (in a polite way) we agreed that I was the DM and he started from his official capacity to support me as a DM!

So he had point 1, went for point 3, leaving me DM just per the rules, but we changed that dynamic and he began using his position (point 1) to support me with point 3 (actually a stronger position than just having point 2 and 3!). We ended up having a good game all around.

Social dynamics are complex!

That example above describes the situation and might already explain my point quite well, but it lacks describing the motivations behind how we acted. Why did that guy undermine my position? After we had our little "show down" he played along happily enough. No bad blood (he could have left the game, making a scene, et cetera), he relaxed and played the game, helping with the rules when I asked for it, being a supportive and entertaining player all around. Which leads me to believe that he, the role of an official being enforced on him, assumed (maybe out of insecurity? or because we had been strangers? bad experiences just before? in general?) that he had to take control over the game ...

Either way, clearing the air had helped him finding his position in the group as an official by embracing it and leaving me to the rest of it. Me accepting his official capacity, on the other hand, was just as important in this dynamic, by the way. If I had not only questioned him aiming for "point 3" and instead had also questioned him being fit enough to represent, it also could have ended with bad blood and open conflict.

Mind you, this is still a very, very, very simple example of dynamic group behavior. Is one of the players your girlfriend/boyfriend or is there bad blood for external reasons or debt or guilt or dominant personalities or submissive personalities, or is one of the group members a DM in another group/the same group with another game, ...? What position an individual has in a group, or even what position it needs to hold in a group to make it work is highly dependent on circumstances and the other individuals involved.

There as many variations as there are ways to change a given situation and we are individually, as it is, alone in our judgement what works and what not and are only able to change a situation by the level of awareness and the power we could muster.

It's a sad truth, isn't it?

This is the sad truth about our hobby: we are mostly alone in making it work for the individual groups we interact with. There are no institutions powerful enough to sustainably install DMs in a respected and acknowledged capacity, which makes "point 1" almost non-existent and everybody can occupy the position of a DM, which seriously undermines "point 2" above. There is no "driver's licence" for DMing it, only the School of Hard Knocks and the hive mind of the hobby, which is most of the time as random and helpless as the rest of us (as we are the hobby).

At this point it gets complicated enough to be reduced to opinion again. The only guidelines we are left with here are those imposed on us by our respective cultures (and let's not forget: that means, there is a huge variety right there, even within the same nation but very much so on an international level). There is a baseline, though, as one could say that maturity and open communication make good grounds for healthy group dynamics (a social contract, if you will), which, in turn, should support what could be considered a "good game".

"That horse is dead, cowboy."

I'll leave it at that. While writing this, I came to ask myself if our hobby needs more "official standards" to help enforcing a healthy group environment for role playing games in general. Something like "if you engage in a role playing game, you assume a certain role in the group and the implied hierarchy is necessary to make the game work while the rules ensure that the hierarchy the game needs is not exploited and that means ..."? But that sure is a can of worms left untouched for another day (if at all, to be honest, telling people there is a hierarchy implied in role playing games is not popular).

Personally I think we are more or less on our own in this and need to decide for ourselves what works for us and what not or to what lengths we go to make happen what we want. But just saying "Whatever works" never sits right with me, because abusive group dynamics actually (and unfortunately) do work for so many people that stating something like that sounds like a justification. Same goes for "Don't be a douche!", which sounds good at first glance but doesn't hold enough water to actually help anybody, as the most capable douches will definitely use it against others whenever possible.

So what is left after that?

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Pro/Contra: Has a DM to please his players?

I'll try something new today: a pro/contra post. The idea is to look at two sides of an argument and maybe spurn an open dialogue where more pro/contra arguments are collected in the comments. Let's see how it goes ...

The Issue:

The Dungeon Master is (arguably?) the person investing the most into a role playing game. He knows the rules, he prepares the sessions appropriately, he puts in the hours to organize everyone. So how fair is it to say he also has to cater to the players' whims? Has a DM to please his players to keep the game alive?


Yes, he has to do exactly that. The most obvious argument here is that the players would leave the game otherwise towards greener pastures (comparison to cattle unintended ...). But that'd be short sighted. The proper argument, in my opinion, would be that DMing a game is not about the story that is happening at the table, it is providing a service. As a referee he has a very specific position in the game he is offering. What he actually wants is the wrong question. To be honest, him wanting something other than what he decided to do in the first place (i.e.: refereeing a game), is a good indication that he is not right for being the DM in a role playing game and he should maybe start writing a novel instead or be a player himself. And if the players don't want pirates (or whatever) in the game, he'd better oblige, right?

Somebody has a point here ... [source]


No, the DM is not a entertainment system for the players. He is as well part of the game as the players are, just in the necessary position to actually make role playing games work. Yes, there is a clear distinction between a player and a DM. The players decide the course of action, the system decides the outcome and the DM interprets and communicates said outcome. In this clear distinction is lots of room for the players to do what they want and the DM also getting the game he wants. There are things a group has to be on the same page about, like genre and system, for instance. There might even some no-goes in a game, but the idea that something like that is only for the players to decide needs to die a slow and horrible death.
A DM needs to be at least an equal partner in those things. It's also worth pointing out that no player has a right to keep his character or even to develop and advance said character as he wishes. Failure and Death are integral parts of a role playing game. So players, too, have a position in a game and there is a only promise that character can get mighty and powerful. Demanding a certain outcome or development in a game or thinking that it is the DM's fault if it doesn't happen a certain way, is not only juvenile but also not within a player's rights (or, as per the rules, in the DMs power, for that matter). You couldn't even play a board game with an attitude like that.

So that's that. I'm sure there is more to both arguments, but leaving this open (and faulty!) for discussion is part of the point, I guess. Please feel free to add and argue about the issue and arguments above. [Edit:] There are already some great comments connected to that post, but you might also want to read here and here for some more complete thoughts on the topic. It furthermore has +Adam Muszkiewicz (somewhat) expanding on it over here and Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque asks the right questions here after I asked the wrong ones.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Good Game (another exorcism of thoughts)

Don't be afraid, this won't hurt much. Roll a save vs. Death, please ... there. You see? Character didn't feel a thing. Yeah, only thing left are the smoldering boots. Breathe easy now. Relax. Here are 3d6. You know the routine, right? Group needs a new fighter, after all.

In which I start somewhere and end somewhere else (but close) ...

The system is your friend!

I'm well on record now as someone that likes a little crunch in his games. HackMaster 4e, The D&D Rules Cyclopedia, I do not fear complexity. On the contrary, I think it helps a DM getting the necessary distance to his "job". The Save Or DIE!-rule of yore is actually a great example of this, because you, as a DM, aren't left with the decision if a character dies or not, the system does it. And that is a very good thing.

Ledger killed it in this one ... [source]
Think about it. There are several grades of player stupidity curiosity that will kill a character. Since there is a discrepancy between player and character (although often enough ignored) it's actually not surprising that decisions using a character will not only go beyond what a player would do to himself, but often enough also doom that character in the process. If you've DMed a while, you will have seen this more than once.

So I believe it's more than fair for them to get a (one) roll to see if a character survives or if he's toast. I also believe that complex systems more often than not allow for some flexibility in that regard (sacrificing honor in HackMaster as a very last resort and the Resurrection spell or wonders in the D&D RC, for instance), while rules-lite systems tend to leave the decision with the DM (which practically forces him to avoid those situations because he'd take the blame otherwise) or go as far as give the players enough powers over the narrative to actually twist wrong decisions until they are "awarded" instead of "punished".

Yes, those parentheses are for real. Sure, it can be fun to play without consequences or with shifting the goals of a game away from things that can kill you to, say, the narrative of a game. But it's exactly that: a shift. And if we stay with the very first definition of that game we all love and write and talk about, taking away the chance to learn something crucial will also take away the chance to get better at it. Simple as that.

That's not to say other games are "wrong" (they aren't) or can't be fun (they can be), but it's having one or the other. I, as a DM, want (need?) the system making those decisions because I like to DM a game were characters can die. It's a "You get what you need, not what you want." kind of thing.

Randomness is bliss!

Same reasons here. Why should a DM decide about the mood of an encounter? Why decide what they encounter or how to begin with? In the end he's the one to take the blame and that's just wrong. If you roll a random encounter table and come up with a dragon, you could as well check how the presence of the dragon manifests (since such a beast wouldn't just drop out of the sky, right?). the characters might end up finding some half eaten cattle or a burned down village or some fleeing animals. And even if the group, for whatever reason/roll, actually have to face a dragon ... well, he might be in a good mood. So why decide this and not let the dice decide it.

So true! [source]
Learning to roll with such random results, whatever they are, is in my opinion one of the most powerful tools available to a DM. Random results add to the story unfolding at the table, sometimes even force the direction of it. And it surprises the DM, keeps him engaged. It's not just kicking doors in, killing and looting, the surroundings actually come to live. One could say that it, at least partially, allows for the DM and the players to explore a world together. And that's nice.

But who watches the watchmen?

Writing a system like that is very hard to achieve or at least very work-intensive. And this is, to some extent, where this post started in my head. I have an ongoing dialogue with +Chris Stieha about the game I'm writing (Lost Songs of the Nibelungs), since he's testing it and is kind enough asking questions and pointing out where I failed to explain the rules properly (it's hugely productive, as one could imagine). At one point he wrote something that made me stop and think about what the game actually tells about me:

"I played some LSotN last night. I focused on saves and tests, which was pretty fun, but brutal. I've decided that whenever you decided on a design choice, you paused and asked yourself how you could make it more brutal :) In the Nibelungenlied, I am at the point where the Nibelungs are staving off the attack from the Huns (and everyone else), so I get the brutal."
I think Chris is on to something here. As a DM I like games that manage to make physical and mental exhaustion of the characters felt and Lost Songs mirrors that to the extreme. But I started to ask myself why it ended up being so brutal and found that when writing and testing the rules, I tried to make sure to find short-cuts for rules I tend to forget. Endurance didn't work. I love Endurance systems. I found a way to sneak them in there where I don't forget them ... which results in the rules being actually in effect during the game.

By now I manage to realize almost the complete game at the table, because the rules step in where my shortcomings as a DM are (the beauty of DIY rules, really) and it not only helps me realizing the game I want at the table, it's also scary to behold and unforgiving at times. For me at least, that's a good thing, because it really is possible to survive the game with proper resource management and teamwork, two things I also like to see realized in games.

Remember that guy? [source]
I'm also pretty sure that this isn't for everyone. As one player put it at one point: "I'd rather die and start from the beginning than getting crippled like that." And she had a point, so I tried to make sure that the scars a character collects over time are important for his fame as a hero and are as much out of the way as possible as far as level advancement is concerned. Because I think scars are essential in the stories I'd like to tell, but the same goes for the characters being epic heroes.

In a way it's the synergy between DM, the system and the players that make the game (as I've pointed out before) and there are several ways to achieve a balance here. One way (my preferred way) is by keeping the hard decisions (like death, betrayal and crippling) entirely within the system, as it keeps the trust into the DM and his decisions intact when playing in a dark and gritty environment.

The system is not your friend?

For the players it is a bit different. Players should be able to trust a system, but they should be aware that the system is not their friend. It's not written for them, it's something they are facing. They need to find a way to either work with it or find loopholes to exploit. Again, it's crucial for this to work that the system holds this kind of position instead of the DM, because he needs to be the neutral party in this.

With those positions being clearly defined, knowing the system will allow characters to strive. This is true in all (role playing) games, of course. But there are different schools, if you will, that see rules, DMs and players in very different positions and relationships.

Take Pathfinder, for instance. While player skill is certainly something that can be of great value for a player, you also have a system here that gives players the idea that he can get and do what he wants by the sheer availability of options. The idea of playing as effective as possible is (at least) in conflict with the idea of building a character over the course of several hours and planning his career (for even more hours) in advance. One is ready to defend his character against all odds and dying if the dice fall that way, the other wants to see the character completely realized over time, also at all costs - which directly connects to ideas like "balanced" encounters, et cetera.

But most of all, this system-inherent discrepancy puts the DM in a very difficult position. Player skill (and, in a worst case scenario, even teamwork) really aren't necessary if it's just about collecting the xp and going the distance (I'm simplifying here, I know) and people really get pissed when their special snowflake dies under circumstances that could be interpreted as "unfair".

I know a fighter like that ... [source]
Which, and that's just an aside, results in an excessive amount of rules lawyers, munchkins and cheaters (the very symptoms of a game with system-inherent troubles). That's not to say PF is a bad game, but there is a dissonance a DM needs to be aware of and that needs to be addressed or it'll potentially disrupt the game because of the conflicting expectations and perceptions of how it works, who is in charge and who is to blame. And that's only if the DM isn't the problem and not part of it ...

The Good Game

DM despotism (to pick another example of what could go wrong in a game) is a real thing, I'm sure. I've experienced games where the DM excelled in hurting the players or loved and celebrated their DM characters. It's not the grown up thing to do, but it is out there. I think I've shown above that those things can be avoided or supported by a system. There is a third option where the DM just doesn't get enough power to really abuse the game, but that's just recognizing the problem and handling it wrong (in my opinion).

This post started with the idea that potentially harmful events in a game should be part of the rules to protect the DM and the players alike. I should finish with that. The idea of DM brutality or despotism or the "killer DM" all derive from the idea that people DMing a game might have an agenda and the rules allow them to enforce it on others.

But that's not DMing a game, it's some guy or girl being an asshole. They don't even deserve to get called Game Master or Dungeon Master and I think it's the wrong perspective on the whole matter.

Complex systems are also not the solutions for all the problems above, even when done right. The willingness to accept (and enforce!) randomness, on the other side, is, in my opinion, a good indicator if a DM has a tendency to brutality and arbitrariness or not. But it's only a small part of the whole thing.

For me, a well balanced system, with players up for a challenge and a DM without an agenda other than what's good for all the people involved and a good understanding of the rules, is what makes a good game. You just don't sit down and it all works, no, it actually needs investment from all, players, rules (or writers) and DMs alike.

Sometimes I get the feeling that's something not said often enough (and just saying "Don't be a douche!" just doesn't cut it for me).

See what I mean?

Sunday, January 3, 2016

What's gone and what's happening (sort of a New Year's Resolution)

Because writing such a thing in June would look funny. And it's always good to announce stuff. I'll keep it short :)

Last Year is gone, but ...

What a year that was! Lots of changes (like moving 450 kilometers) and beginnings (like writing my own game). Other than the years before, I didn't stop blogging to compensate the waves of life, but embraced writing here as a way to keep at least some of the old routines and posted as regular as possible (close to 2 times a week, amounting to 90 posts!). Also had the chance to meet some of you awesome people and made new friends here (Yay!).

There can't be enough of the good stuff, so there should be more of the same in the coming months. I already have a backlog of things I want to write about (more free stuff from the hard drive, more D&D RC Oddities, way more about my crazy ideas and, I hope, some surprises) and I will try to post more often.

The only two things I really regret about last year (blogging-wise) is that I totally neglected to post more about the Goblin-Tribe Simulator and writing a adventure location for a zine that never happened. But I'm eager to tackle both as soon as I see an opening.

I also started some projects and even made progress. Let's take a look.


Lost Songs of the Nibelungs: Some people are really into the game and some are at least curious. I'll take it all and thank you beautiful people for embracing the game that is created here on the blog! One of the hardest (and most important) lessons I've learned last year, was that you can't get them all. It is hard to see if a design choice is plain wrong or if it's a matter of choice, but there are occasions where I just have to say: Well, than Lost Songs is just not for you ... and that's totally okay. No, actually, it's crucial. This is not about opinion, but about what works. And if it's working, but just not for everyone, it still works for me. And what have I left when I'm giving away what drives me to write it just to make someone else happy? Nothing.

Anyway, let's close this one with a more positive note. A friend of mine not only took a liking on Lost Songs, he also started drawing interior art for the book and I'm really, really happy with the direction he is taking here:

Open in new Tab for more detail (art by Vincent Leppert)
There is more where that came from, so expect more of that soon as I start tinkering with the layout for Lost Songs.

Amazing Adventurers incredible Exploits 2e (short: AAiE! 2e): So +Mark Van Vlack  wrote a game once over a weekend, played it a bit, talked about it on his blog and moved on. The version of the game he had made was what he needed to make it work at his table. At some point I got a pdf of that game and fell in love: it's a diamond in the rough, a game where everything is random, from the character generation to the first adventure seeds. Strong characters might end up being Wizards, only with a cooking pot as their main beginning weapon. It features dozens of great random tables for everything. It's deadly, it's glorious and I thought it's very, very funny. Something like a "Beer & Pretzel meets Rogue-like" p&p RPG.

I also thought this game needs a proper layout and more art. We talked about it, I proposed a layout and some ideas and we decided to go for a completely revised version with additional content like "The Town" (a boom town that grows as the characters advance), new character classes (a turtle character class!) and more art. His writing, art and ideas, my editing and layout. The cover:

Art by Mark van Vlack, inkscape helped me make that cover ...
Honestly, this makes me happy (and I am proud owner of the first edition). We'll take the time needed to make it, but expect more about this in the coming months (and I totally believe it's going to go live this year). Here's what Mark is saying.

Nice Streets Above (aka NSA) by +Christian Kessler: I'm just helping a bit with the historical context here (English sources are scarce in this case) and will do some beta play-testing later this year. Although my participation is very small in it, I think it's worth mentioning here just to give this megadungeon based on a real location (I wrote about it a few years ago) some more attention: NSA will play in the Oppenheimer Kellerlabyrinth under Spanish occupation during the infamous Thirty Years War of the 17th century, using the Lamentations of the Flame Princess rules (and elements of horror, as you'd expect). Christian has some great ideas for it, does a mean job with art and layout and you can (and should) read about it on his blog.

I'm really looking forward to this one. Not only did I like what I saw so far, but it also plays in a dungeon I actually visited.


So all this will keep me somewhat busy. But apart from that I'm also writing my very own first adventure for publication right now: the Mines of the Screaming Stones (I wrote about it here) and will keep working on all the things I started over the years. The Goblin-Tribe Simulator being the first among many loose ends.

That's it for now. But who knows what 2016 will also have in store ...