Archive for the ‘DM Tips’ Category

One Game to Rule Them All

Posted: September 12, 2015 in DM Tips, RPGs

There’s these people, I think, that believe that there is a platonic ideal game system, that is universal in nature, that can be applied to any type of story, in any setting, and excel. Let’s talk about that for a bit, shall we?

RPGs are mostly about fantasy.  My experience leads me to assume that at least half of RPG activity is in the fantasy milieu. Other genres, such as Sci-Fi, Modern Horror, anime, superheroes, spy/technothrillers, drama, historical realism, etc. are well represented. There are further subsets to these genres, but to keep it simple, let’s just list designed settings (where much of the world-building grunt work has been done by the writers of the RPG) and open settings (where very little world-building is included).

A system is the ruleset, that is mostly there to resolve conflict. Does your arrow hit the orc baby? Roll a d20, and if you roll a 4 or higher, you hit. Does the Psi Cop convince you to let him leave Babylon 5 without further incident? Roll a dice and add your resistance bonus, the Psi Cop will roll a dice and add his skill bonus, and if you roll higher than the Psi Cop, then you overcome his telepathic manipulation. The system tells you how to make characters, how to use skills, how to achieve effects and what effects are possible.

Most RPGs marry a setting to some sort of unique system. Traveller is both a system and a setting. Vampire: The Masquerade was originally both a system and a setting. Now, with V:TM, the system used in the game was separated out and is called the Storyteller system, and has been reused in various other games that either share the same setting (the World of Darkness modern horror setting) as V:TMas (such as Mage: The Ascension, Werewolf: The Apocalypse, Changeling: The Dreaming, Wraith: The Oblivion) or an entirely new setting, such as Exalted which is more like a fantasy anime. Here we see the versatility of a system originally designed for a single setting to be applied successfully to different settings.

Other RPGs took a different approach, and set out to design a Universal system. GURPS, which stands for Generic Universal Role-Playing System, was designed in 1986 and has certainly had success in being Universal. Here is a list of GURPS books, and you can see from the diversity that many many types of games can be easily played using the GURPS setting.

A more modern game, Savage Worlds (2003), attempted to do the same thing as GURPS, but with a more rules light approach. Again, a list of Savage Worlds books shows the breadth of gameplay that has been published with the single, core system.

Finally, FATE Core and FATE Accelerated should be mentioned side by side with Savage Worlds, but with an entirely different approach to system design. Your character is defined by aspects (free form descriptors) and approaches (one of 6 ways problems can be approached – forceful, brash, clever, etc.). If you attempt something, you really just need to sell to the troupe whether an aspect applies, choose an approach to the situation and then roll. A Star Wars character might have the aspect of “rogue Jedi Knight”, a James Bond game PC might have “double 0 rated British spy”, and a medieval knight might have “mounted knight in the service of King Hegabold”. The simplicity and utter genericism of such an approach is truly universal.

A universal system has a huge advantage over other games. You can play entirely different games without the need to spend any time learning a new system. Maybe for a year, your gaming troupe explores wild west horror, but then you collectively decide that you want to explore play in the Star Wars universe. Later, you all get excited about the Avengers movie and want to roleplay superheroes. Next, you get the idea that you should explore deep characterization in a setting very like Gone With the Wind. Without a universal system, that’s four games that you would have to learn, each with their own intricacies and flaws. House-rules might have to be applied, sometimes retroactively, to match the game systems to the needs of your troupe.

With each game, there are idiosyncrasies that sometimes don’t match your game style. For instance, maybe healing is too slow or too rare in the RAW (rules as written) for your high adventure, high pace game. With a universal system, once you’re familiar with the system, you can apply it to another game setting, and you will probably know enough about the system to apply a skin or set of customizations to the system to match your goals and theme of your new setting.

To be fair, there are gaming groups that do this, and only play one game system. Like, ever. I know, right?

All roleplaying game systems can be applied to any other unintended setting. If you have a copy of Dungeons & Dragons 2nd edition, but you want to play Star Trek: The Next Generation, then all you need to do is reskin everything. The Fighter class becomes the Security Tech class, elves become vulcans, a crossbow becomes a phaser, spells are discarded or repurposed as tech -> Teleport becomes the transporter. That’s a lot of work, but the harder part, which is designing a system where you understand how to balance obstacles and conflicts for the characters, has been done and you know how it works.

Some people love to repurpose games. D&D 5e, a recent darling of the RPG community, has been converted to countless systems as people take what they love about the 5e, and attempt to reproduce it in another setting to tell different stories without having to buy a new game system that they may not love as much. That’s awesome, and that DIY attitude is fundamental to all geekdom. You see it in cosplay, in home decorations, in historical reenactments, and in medieval faires.

The core argument that I will make, however, is that there isn’t One Game System to Rule Them All. The ‘media is the message’ rings true here for me, so let me attempt to explain my thoughts.

A superhero game is action heavy, and the game system needs to encourage the characters to attempt outrageously heroic endeavours with an appropriate change of success. A modern day horror game, however, needs the characters to be vulnerable. You could use the same system to roleplay both stories, but if the system is action heavy, the players are going to feel the urge to use some of those action possibilities in the game. It may be limited to the narrative, it may expand to character choices during character creation. If they’re sufficiently afraid of failure, they may attempt to steer their character design to maximize survivability. Similarly, if the setting is action forward but the game system is action unfriendly, say where a sense of realism is layered on the game, then the narrative and character choices are going to be mired down by action economies not intended for the high-flying caricatures of a superhero story.

The theme and mood of a story are exemplified in the system. The system informs the expectations for the characters, the realm of possible actions that can be achieved, and the relative chances of success. While experience with a system allows a player to better design the character they want to play, it doesn’t necessarily engender the mood of gameplay desired. Let’s be clear… good roleplayers can make Hamlet given greed eggs and ham, but it takes a viking child to raze a village. I get that, and even acknowledge that. But if you give those same good roleplayers a better set of tools, wouldn’t their game experience be even more on point?

On point… I think that is a ballet reference. You know, where the cyborgs are genetically engineered for perfect thigh gap and can stand on one toe? But the ballet is a good analogy. Consider Swan Lake but with Britney Spears music. Could be good, there are some decent Hollywood musicators out there that would make it work, but probably harder to mimic the intended mood of the without the original orchestral score.

As we have reached the point of the posting where my analogies are spinning out of control, lets change the channel to a new day and see you on the flip side. Variety is the spice of Arakis.


The Social Contract

Posted: May 31, 2015 in DM Tips, RPGs

This post is about a social convention of which we do not speak. I will adopt a name that I’ve heard it used for it, “The Social Contract”.

The purpose of The Social Contract is to establish the parameters in which we will play a game. In many games, the unspoken first rule is that: Unless otherwise agreed, we will follow the rules as written. For example, the game Monopoly includes rules for bank loans. Some players hate bank loans and so they specify a “home-brew” rule that there shall be no bank loans. So The Social Contract is thus evolved to “We’ll play Monopoly in accordance with the rules as written except no bank loans.”

Your cousin Vitaly from Minsk comes to visit, and you decide to play Monopoly because your family is lame, er, because it’s a tradition. You all sit down and shuffle the things and place the things and pick your doo-dads and play. Eventually, Vitaly tells you, in broken english made harder to understand from a slight cleft lip, that “He would likingk the $200 loan from bankk so can be buyingk Marvin Gardinsk.” Agast at this betrayal of the social trust, your family begin crying and tearing at their hair, wailing a how such a terrible thing injustice could have fallen upon your house. This drama could have been avoided by simply explaining to poor, innocent Vitaly, the The Social Contract.

In a more complex and interesting game, and here I’m inevitably talking about role-playing games (RPGs), The Social Contract also serves as a codification of home-brew rules, but it also provides what is expected of the players and the gamemaster.


Some examples of home-brew rules are that: healing potions in D&D always provide a fixed, average heal, i.e., instead of the player rolling 1d8+1, drinking a Cure Light Wounds potion instead always restores exactly 5. This is contrary to the rules as written (RAW), but in some games people have decided that it provides a convenience to not have to roll, and perhaps to know in advance what the effect will be before dedicating an in-combat action to use it.

Home-brew rules also first occur first during character creation. A game-master may say something as simple as “level 1 characters from any character build from any published books” or “official books only” or “everybody will play Neutral Good gnome bards”. There is no RAW preventing a player from choosing any character type published on the internet, or equipping said character with the best gear that internetters have invented. There should be an understanding, though, usually written in RPG books that “gamemasters have the final say in anything” including which rules will be used and which won’t. The reason for this overarching meta-rule is brutally clear: the gamemaster doesn’t have to run the game, and if the game turns into something that the GM isn’t interested in participating in, then xe won’t.

The important part here are the expectations: if the gamemaster naively or brashly says anything goes, then xe must be prepared for weird stuff, and if after being presented with 4 entirely incompatible character builds the GM grows uncomfortable, then a problem has arisen and the game may be doomed. While expectations were vocalized, there were other unspoken or implied expectations, as well. One of these might be that the party should have worked together to create characters that are compatible with the GM’s vision for the game. “I know that I said anything goes, but there are no Jedi in Call of Cthulhu.”

So it’s important for the GM, and the players (see below) to hammer this stuff out in the beginning. A common shortcut is to say “anything from the official game material is fine, but if you see an optional rule or something in some other source material somewhere, then discuss it with me and I may allow it. Also, if I decide to alter a RAW, then I will tell you in advance, or we can discuss altering your character mid-game, as necessary.”


Another big part of The Social Contract are the expectations about gameplay itself. Here are some sample expectations:

  • The GM and players should arrive at the gameplay location between 7:45 and 8:00 pm on Saturday night. Barring emergencies, everybody is expected to confirm by email that they will be there by no later than the Wednesday before.
  • Between 8:00 pm and 8:30 pm, conversation and friendly chatter is expected, but we’ll also be setting up the game area.
  • At 8:30 pm, we’ll start gaming. At this point, no out-of-game anecdotes are allowed. Late players will be left out of gameplay until the GM deems that it is feasible to introduce them into a scene.
  • We will game until 12:00 pm only, because Vitaly has to work Sunday morning in salt mine.
  • Snacks are not expected to be shared, so only bring what you want to eat or drink, and don’t mooch.

These sample rules are designed to set social parameters for the group. In some groups, these rules are less necessary, but there are always people that play fast-and-loose with schedules, and while waiting for them, the others just sit around waiting until it is agreed to do something else. If the late/absent player is in a key party role or has a pivotal scene to move the story forward, and no one knows when they will arrive or if at all, then some or a lot of the players’ and the GM’s time will be wasted. This is a real world problem that can, and has, destroyed games.

Another, largely undocumented part of The Social Contract is the expectations for the type of game. There are games that I have run that I have pitched with something as vague as “I have a great idea for a D&D campaign; everyone will start at first level”. Those games may or may not work out. A better idea is to say “I have a great idea for a Star Wars campaign; everyone will start at first level, and will know each other to start as crew members on a smuggling freighter. The theme of the campaign will be mostly pro-rebellion, but as you will also spend a lot of time in Imperial Space, you will need to be able to blend in somewhat. I want the PCs to work towards something heroic that assists the rebellion in the background of what made it to the official movies. Also, consult each other with your concepts and goals – I want the characters to be motivated to work together and the onus is on you lot to make that happen.” A pitch like this tells the players what you’re expecting of them, namely that they should all make characters that know and accept each other, and can operate a spacecraft. They may take it upon themselves to pick and choose various roles so that there are no obvious problems (like no pilot). Also, they should suspect that a Jedi is probably off-limits. Ideally, the players should be free to suggest modifications to your pitch, such as adjusting the starting point, or the theme. Perhaps the players all decide that they really want to play Imperial spies, or be traders on fringe space well away from any “Imperial entanglements”.

At this point, The Social Contract begins to take its true purpose, which is steering the game. Once the theme and pitch for the game have been agreed upon, then the GM can gently steer the ongoing action to the expected objectives, and may be less compelled to direct play along an entirely different narrative. Equally importantly, the players know what the game is meant to be, and will be less likely to all decide to go off mission and sack Bespin.


You don’t need to write out The Social Contract in excruciating detail. The big items should be discussed, and maybe an email follow-up of what was agreed can be sent out. The main purpose is to get buy-in from all of the people involved in the game prior to game start. If the schedule is too rigid for a shift-worker to commit too, then maybe they’ll agree to playing a less prominent, supporting role as they might not make it to every session. If the players make characters with goals incompatible to the agreed upon pitch, then you and they will know in advance, instead of finding out 3 sessions into the game. If a player really wants to try an unofficial character design, or use an optional rule, then you can work with them to ensure that it is appropriate.

Finding out mid-commitment that there are serious, unwritten expectations, rarely turns out well, in game or in life.

Sometimes when running a game, the game-master (GM) wants to advance the story’s timeline.  But, game-wise, what should be considered when you do this?


The main reason for doing anything in a RPG is because it seems like a good idea at the time.  Other good reasons for inserting an interlude into a campaign include the following:

  • Closure – by definitively inserting a lengthy passage of time into a story, you provide closure to the events of the first period, and provide a beginning to a new story.  This story signal lets participants now that the dangling plot threads are ‘as undangly as they gonna get’ and that the opportunity for pursuing them further was missed.  This allows the player characters (PCs) to refocus on what matters in the moment, rather than doggedly chase after every villain or rumour in their big book of adventures.
  • Realism – realism is something that Immersionist type players cherish, and it sometimes feels more natural in a story for adventure opportunities to arise sporadically, rather than two new ones popping up when one is cut off like some sort of cosmic narrative hydra.  The time between chapters then becomes part of the flavour of the immersion.
  • Expedience – the next cool bit that the GM has planned may take in-world-time to bring to fruition.  Perhaps Sarumon needs time to breed an orc army, or the villains need time to construct their new super fortress, or maybe you’re playing in London 1892 and you want to ‘skip ahead’ to 1897 when the big guy comes to town (oops, spoilers!).
  • Gestalt/montage – sometimes, when trapped in a series of repeating circumstances, it is better storytelling to simply allude to the repetition, showing typical outcomes and highlighting only that which is important.  In the movie Soldier with Kurt Russell, after the initial training, the soldier’s unit is montaged through a large number of battles, in various places on Earth and later in space.  The montage shows that there are continuing conflicts, but from the stories perspective, you’re also showing the acquisition of experience without being pedantic about each and every lesson learned or skill improved.

Game Considerations

In some games, like D&D, there may not be a mechanic for advancing characters outside of combat. But unless the PCs are cardboard cutout parodies of characters, then they probably have life goals.  They have families, careers, hobbies, that is, interests outside of spelunking and slaughtering.  Wizards may want time to research, bards time to travel and perform, and in general, maybe a PC gets married and has children, or opens a business.

However, if we’re being Immersionist, then we want some sort of sign that the 4 years a PC spent tailoring in their shop has somehow made them a better tailor.  Or, if they’re even less cardboard cutout parody action figures, then maybe they’re advancing more than a single life skill.  Does the PC as a spellcaster learn new spells, as the newlywed become more compassionate, as the sneak become more sneaky, learn more ‘local knowledge’, become more diplomatic, et cetera.

Do the characters level up?  In simple RPGs, this is often the one lever that is provided in game for advancing PCs.  You award them experience points and they spend that experience on random combat skills possibly entirely unrelated to their lives within the interlude.  In other RPGs, you can award skill points specifically related to those skills most appropriate without triggering a cavalcade of secondary consequences.

Anything Else?

An interlude can also be a story summarized.  Allusions or Coles Notes versions of events can be given, but important things can be delivered as well.  Here are my draft notes for the last interlude from my Victorian Age Vampire game.  My actual notes are longer, and contain additional details to help the PCs advance their own personal timelines, which I will omit here.  Where last we left the characters, two of them had engineered a train crash, while the other found a cabal of evil werewolves in the tunnels under London.

On a particular Sunday night, a train derailed.  Toxic chemicals spread everywhere, and a great fire ensued, destroying several chemical plants.  The wreckage lay where it fell and nobody would enter it.  The area was rendered inhospitable for some time, and no cleanup was attempted.  The area became a haven for decrepitude, until one shocking night of violence when the rats nest was cleaned out.  The damage was severe, the infestation greater than imagined, and many neonite kindred fell, as well as several powerful kindred were destroyed, including the newly appointed Scourge and the Sheriff of London.  A special crew was brought in from Vienna, and while they dealt with the matter, who knows what concessions to the Camarilla the Prince had to make for such rare expertise.

After repelling several Sabbat invasions and destroying a number of packs, the kindred of London believed the war to be over.  Many on the street wondered what was the purpose, with only a few elders dead, and no headlines in the papers, other than a few mentions of increased violence in the streets.  But the damage was more severe than could be easily realized.

The dead elders were almost entirely Ventrue, except for one Toreador.  The Tremere primogen disappeared when his haven burned down, but no body was found.  With the loss of several of the prime movers in London, a power vacuum opened, drawing in the ambitious to the unprotected core.  A nightmarish display of brutality by the Prince on a particularly egregious grab for power only forced them to become more subtle, and clever.

The independent kindred who had made London their home these past decades eventually returned.  Some had disappeared in those nights, and rumors abound of secret hit-squads that took some of them for loyalty testing, never to be seen again.  The bowels of Bedlam were searched once again, to no avail.  Of those independents that returned, could they ever trust the court of Mithras again, and vice versa, could they ever be trusted by the court again.

Underneath the city, something grew.  Perhaps it fed on the violence and destruction above, or perhaps it was the cause of it all.  The kindred who had previously enjoyed refuge in the Aethenium beneath London slowly began to disappear or otherwise abandon the tunnels.  Stories of hungry darkness and fell spirits abound, and soon the tunnels were emptied of all those who had kept watch.  They say that the Goblin Market still periodically occurs in the Aethenium, but who could possibly know.

I’ve spoken previously about mashing up RPGs, and playing different systems simultaneously at the table.  I continue to think that this would be doable.

However, a more typical mashup involves smooshing two or more fandoms into one (hopefully) glorious tub of squishy fun. For example, you might play Shadowrun but the game will be “Let’s combine Doctor Who with Django Unchained”.  After some appropriate head scratching, your troupe shouts ‘Hooray, our dreams finally come true!”  \o/

How does this work?

Why do people ask me these questions, do I look like I have answers? I guess that through immersion the imagination simulates proximity to celebrities which excites the hypocampus, resulting in a brief, repeatable flood of… Sorry?  Oh, the RPG side of it.

So how it works is that you need to decide how the game will progress.  There are some options.

1) Put characters from fandom A into story and plot of fandom B. That is, your players are the four iconic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but they are confronted with the story and NPCs (non-player characters) from Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace.

2) Put characters from fandom A into the story and plot in the style of fandom B.  That is, your players are the girls from Little Women, but they are playing in a WW2 epic inspired by, but different from, Saving Private Ryan.

3) Put characters inspired from fandom A into the story and plot in the style of fandom B.  That is, you might have the players play part of a wild west space gang inspired by Firefly, but they are playing in a story similar to, but not the same as, Moulin Rouge.  Wait, maybe that was an actual episode of Firefly.

4) For completeness, let’s add “Put characters inspired from fandom A into the story and plot of fandom B.”  That is, maybe you have a trio inspired by the core of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, and your going to set them in the story Alien Resurrection, maybe as a different band of mercenaries that land on the xenomorph research vessel.

No really, How Does It Work

The trick is that the players get a free pass to imitate beloved fictional characters, or even real life people for that matter, while paying tribute to another intellectual property. The game “What If” was even the basis of a comic series, where the artists and storyers were given license to mashup, such as “What If… The Punisher went to Riverdale?” (I have that comic, btw… pure figurative gold).

The hard part might be picking the RPG ruleset to use.  If the player characters have specific abilities, then the system should have an accessible way of arbitrating the use of those abilities, like gun rules if there are going to be guns, or starship combat rules if there is going to be space combat.

This isn’t necessary, however.  Most systems are expandable if you’re okay with thinking it through.  For example, my wife is a fan of the Eddings fantasy series The Belgariad, and decided that she would like to run an RPG in that world.  [While this isn’t strictly speaking a mashup, it serves for the example.]  It might seem straightforward to use one of the many D&D systems that we’ve played, or maybe the Dragon Age RPG rules.  Instead, she chose the (classic) World of Darkness, and this makes sense.  Why?  The game has a straightforward game mechanic – combine an attribute and a skill and you get a dice pool which you roll against a target difficulty – that is easy to use on the fly, without having to look up specific mechanics in a tome of arcane rules.  Second, the game is made for superpowers (vampires, werewolves, ghosts, faeries, mages, etc) but also for playing normal people as well, so you can easily mix in some special abilities, like Barak’s bear rage, or Ce’Nedra’s nymphness.  Third, the Merits & Flaws system gives you the ability to customize the players with some of Eddings races unique abilities – maybe Drasnians get a bonus die to social roles, etc.

Once you have chosen a ruleset, and the players have chosen characters, then you need to flesh out a story that achieves the desired mashup.  Think hard about what it is about the fandom that evokes the story, and lean hard on that.  Really hard.  For example, maybe the TV show Supernatural for you is really about the angst (dramatic poles shifting from familial love and outright distrust) between the main characters, and if so, then you really need to ensure that that emotional diametric is prevalent in the story.

That’s really it.  Don’t be afraid to be unsubtle; players (and GMs) love it when they recognize elements in a mashup, so feed it to them with a shovel.

Imagine playing an RPG. Okay, now imagine that you have four players. RIght, now each of those players has a character sheet FROM A DIFFERENT GAME!! OMG, right?

Total insanity! Why would you do that? What would be the point?

I don’t know, but in some ways it seems to me that it would be pretty cool. Let’s walk through the process.

Caution: rules lawyers best leave now

First, let’s be naysayers.  “Boo, hiss, harumph… we tried that back during the winter of ’77 and our gaming group completely disbanded afterwards. Also, there was a nuclear accident.”

Those are excellent points, and in summary:

  • WTF
  • how would… how can… but the… acckkk

or more simply put: how would you arbitrate anything?

Your four players, each with a different character built from completely incompatible game systems, (like maybe Star Wars:Edge of the Empire, FATE Core, Call of Cthulhu, and Warhammer FRP), are facing a 5th generation Assamite from Vampire: The Dark Ages. Got it? Not. at. all. compatible. They don’t even use the same dice.

Except, isn’t everything compatible? We’re imagining stuff, aren’t we? We have these amazing squishy brains and they can process stuff, and make shit up, and generally fill in blanks.

That is, we can do math. We can render all kinds of advanced differential equations intuitively (try catching a Frisbee when it’s windy – that math is brutal), and generally just ‘get’ when things are fair.

Let’s assume the difficulty scale is that the player needs to “roll marginally“, “roll well” or “roll awesome“. Well, if you’re familiar with a game system, you know what all of those mean in relation to the character.  

I’ve just broken down every mechanic of every system: the player needs to roll dice, or draw cards, or rock/paper/scissors/lizard/spock against a target or opposed application of the mechanic. If the roll exceeds the target, it’s a success, if not, then it’s a failure.


Any questions?

Oh yeah, hit points.  Hit points are stupid, go sit in the corner.  No really, they don’t make biological sense.  So ‘gestalt’ them.  DMs do it in most games anyway, and say things like “I don’t track hit points, the monster goes down when it seems right that it should do so.” So why not track it as 6 marginal hits or 3 awesome hits, or something.  Bam!

Initiative/turn order? I don’t know, draw cards or something, or look up Popcorn Initiative. There are some truly cool alternate ways of tracking turn order other than “fast things usually act before slow things.”

When in doubt, have the other players vote.  “Ask, what happens?”  Players know what’s fair, let them share some of the fun.

Okay, so I have satisfied every possible question about how to arbitrate random rules in a mashup insanity game.  Let’s move on to why the fiddlesticks would you do this?

Rule #1: If you’re not doing something fun in your RPG, then maybe you should be doing something else.

  1. Wouldn’t it be cool once?
  2. It seems like an amazing way to really get to know how systems work
  3. It seems like an amazing way to really get to know what you like about roleplaying
  4. It would all be story driven, with chaotic, unpredictable interactions

I’ve spoken before about RPG Game Theory, and one thing that people like, is mastering rules and applying them to success.  This insanity random mashup?  Not going to satisfy that gamist craving.  But, for a short game or story game arc? Rules are merely there to focus the possibilities of play – we don’t always need that.  Sometimes, it’s fun just to play WHAT IF…

I’m going to put my Gamist hat on once again. I love RPG mechanics, that is, the intersection of the rules, and the dice, and the tactical decision making. I love maps and miniatures and such. I’m talking about the mechanical elements of the RPGs – the crunch of the system.

I posted a ‘meh’ reaction to D&D5e earlier, but 5e had some great features:

  • Advantage: I love advantage. Specifically, any time you can roll two dice and take the better – this is awesome. It’s like a re-roll where you still get to keep the first roll if it’s better than the second.
  • Backgrounds: I love backgrounds. We rolled up some D&D 3.5 characters before Christmas for an interlude D&D game, and we included 5e backgrounds. Many other games already have this feature, but it stands out when missing.
  • Inspiration: this is pretty cool. If your character has “inspiration” then they can ‘use up’ their inspiration to gain advantage on a roll.

Other games have great features as well, here are some of my favs:

  • 13th Age: One Unique Thing – this is something about a character that is unique in the world.  The OUT shouldn’t be a combat mechanic, but more a personality trait, a connection, or personal history thing. I rolled a gnome ranger who’s OUT was “has a fantastic handlebar mustache and elaborately shaped beard. In fact, it’s particular style resists all attempts to restyle it, and it grows back if cut.
  • Feng Shui: Fortune Dice – characters have a pool of Fortune Dice that they can spend, one at a time, to add an extra d6 to a roll.  Note that in FS, each roll is 2d6, with one of the d6 negative and the other positive, and 6s exploding, so the extra positive d6 is pretty big.
  • Feng Shui, Rolemaster, World of Darkness: Exploding dice – If you roll high enough, you get to keep that result, but roll again and add it. How awesome is that! It makes dice rolling more exciting, and makes the impossible more possible.
  • Varied systems: Critical Hits – critical hits are an awesome mechanic wherein a character gets hit for way more damage than the player was mentally prepared for (/shockface), or the damage that the character does is way better than the player expected (/fistpump). Critical hits are a gamist-ically complicated topic which I will go into in greater depth in a future blog post. Sneak peak: in my opinion, critical hits aren’t always done right.
  • Feng Shui: They Saw It Coming – if you describe your attack blandly (“I punch it.”), the difficulty of the attack increases slightly. The intention is to describe your attack in a creative way that is evocative of the setting, and failing to do so diminishes the game. Wouldn’t you rather hear “I feint left, spin around and attempt a flat palm punch to the shoulder.”
  • Pathfinder/D&D5e: Unlimited cantrips – minor magical effects that can be cast over and over again. I don’t really like Vancian magic, and this helps some.
  • Rolemaster/D&D 3+: Spontaneous Casting – instead of picking your spell slots and memorizing a specific spell into each slot, you instead have access to a list of spells, any of which you can cast as needed, so long as you have the open spell slot or requisite Power Points (see below). Your choice.
  • Rolemaster: Power Points – instead of picking your spell slots and memorizing a specific spell into each slot, you instead have access to a list of spells, each of which costs energy (power points, or PPs) to spend. You can cast any spell you know as long as you have enough PPs, instead of being limited to 1 third level spell, 2 second level spells, and 5 first level spells, or some such rigid allocation.  There was a AD&D 2e Spell Option that allowed spellcasters to do this. So you could use all of your PPs to fire off several high level spells, or a bunch more low level spells. Your choice.
  • Feng Shui/D&D 4+/13th Age: Mooks/minions – some creatures are meant to be a wall of meat to get through. We don’t know where the Bond villain gets his army of mooks from, or the several dozen orcs that Gimli beats down in any given battle, but they are more of an environmental hazard for the hero to wade through, perhaps injuring him lightly on the way through. Mooks generally have low odds of damaging the PCs and negligible hit points, so the PCs can mow them down by the dozen without serious threat of falling. Still, in great numbers, they remain a threat that can’t be ignored. Very action movie and heroic.
  • Numenera/The Strange: Player Facing Mechanics – as much as I like rolling dice as a GM, I really like the idea of players always making the rolls. Players either roll an attack, or a defense; a skill check, or a resistance to a check. It keeps the players involved in the game more, rather than watching the DM consult some stat blocks, roll a bunch of dice, and announce a result. Technically, you could do the same in other systems. For example, in D&D, you could roll your armor class as a defense against a static attack roll. Consider that the base attack formulation is a 1d20 + offense modifiers (random attack roll) vs. 10 + defense modifiers (static armor class), is equivalent to a 12 + offense modifiers (static attack roll) vs. 1d20 + defense modifiers (random defense roll). [The static offense roll of 12 + modifiers instead of 10 + modifiers includes a modification so that the tie goes to the “dice roller”, and the derivation is left as an exercise to the reader.] Note to self: I should try this.
  • FATE: Compels/Intrusions – the DM can use an Intrusion to make bad stuff happen to a PC, but the PC is rewarded for it with a FATE token. Similarly, a player can Compel stuff to happen by spending a FATE token. An economy of FATE tokens results where the DM and the players can override simple dice rolls and make an encounter more predictable. I used a similar mechanic in Feng Shui where Fortune Dice could also be spent to effect the story or alter the plot in interesting ways.
  • Feng Shui/Shadowrun: Extra Actions from High Initiative – In these games, the higher your initiative, the more times you can act in a round. If you roll really poorly, maybe only once. This creates a countdown each ‘round’ as you start high and countdown until zero. Some actions take less ‘time’ to execute, so they spend less of your total actions i.e., decrease your initiative score by less. Initiative is rolled every round. For example, in one iteration of Shadowrun, if your initiative was 22, then you would act on 22, 12 and 2, but if your init was 18, then you would act on 18 and 8.
  • 13th Age: Minimum damage – even if you miss in 13th Age, you still do your level in damage. This mimics nicks and cuts that wear down an opponent, and ensures that very high level characters will auto-kill “mooks”, or anyone whose hit points are less than the high level attackers level.

It would be expected to suggest that I might now try and build a singular, perfect system that incorporates all of my favourite mechanics. However, I really do like playing different games. Different games have different feels to them, and different ambiances, and different connotations. Part of the uniqueness of RPGs are the interesting ways that mechanics intersect with game play. To attempt to codify the ONE TRUE BESTEST GAME EVAH would fail because it could not possibly reproduce fond memories of, say, arguing about every single rule in AD&D.

HOWEVER, DO mess with your games. There is no reason that you can’t use exploding dice in D&D, or Power Points in FATE, or whatever floats your boat. Who knows how much awesome you’re missing out on if you don’t try, eh?

On TVs and Miniatures

Posted: April 7, 2015 in DM Tips, RPGs, Tech

I’m going to put my Gamist hat on for a bit. I love RPG mechanics, that is, the intersection of the rules, and the dice, and the tactical decision making. I love maps and miniatures and such. I’m talking about the mechanical elements of the RPGs – the crunch of the system.

My regular Changeling: The Lost campaign was postponed on Saturday, owing to a member being AWOL. We have a D&D 3.5 game that we have been playing in these off days, and the party had been left mid-dungeon, of Christopher Perkins’ excellent Life’s Bazaar, from a Dungeon magazine back in 2001. This was the first of the Shackled City Adventure Path. The party had previously cleared out the gnomish ruins of Jzadirune, and were ready to go down an elevator to the mysterious depths. What they didn’t know was that the final adventure would take place in an underground Dwarven stronghold called the Malachite Fortress, on the doorway to the Underdark.

So, dwarven fortress. I’ve previously mentioned that my gaming area isn’t super map and miniatures friendly, owing to the massive area that snacks take up on the central coffee table. I’ve also mentioned how I use tech to enhance ambiance. Here is what I did different this time:

  1. I bought a $20 Walmart whiteboard, lightweight, magnetic, and about 18″ by 24″.  I drew 1″ x 1″ grid on it lightly with a black pen and ruler and let it dry for a few hours.
  2. I downloaded a map of the Malachite Fortress using Google image search. I picked one that didn’t have secret doors and traps marked on it. I edited the file with Fresco Lite, a free android app. I chose it because it was free, and supported layers. I then added a layer to the image which I filled black. I then erased the black from the top layer above the entrance, exported the image, and Chromecast it to my LED TV. Fast and easy.

So the players went down the elevator and opened a door. I drew the room on the whiteboard and they fought a Stone Spike (from the MM2, me thinks). After the battle, I updated the map on the TV, which takes about 20 seconds. They opened a door, I drew the next room on the whiteboard, and they fought a size medium ogre (really an Otyugh who had been polymorphed by a magical trap). I updated the map on the TV.

All in all, the setup worked really well for me. The whiteboard was small enough to not get in the way of the snacks (cookies, chocolate cake, chips, Cadbury minieggs i.e. crack, …), the candles and the drinks. The TV map kept the record of where they had been and was quick to execute.

The players engage with the map and miniatures in an unique way that I miss when we just “Theatre of the Mind” D&D combat. To me, the minis and such really add to the “GAME” part of RPGs. I found that equally true playing SpaceMaster many years ago, so I know that it isn’t just a D&D sense-memory thing. Some games, like Changeling: The Lost, are more roleplaying heavy, and it doesn’t occur to us to use minis – combat is infrequent and usually strange.