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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Fortune Favors The Bold!

Here is an issue near and dear to every gamer's heart. No matter what RPG you play, no matter what race, class or skill set your character has, no matter what genre you play in, one constant remains: Dice. Like it or not, your character's success or failure, their life or death, and occasionally even the fate of their world depends on those little polyhedral random number generators.

They can be a blessing or a curse, and I have seen both. I have seen dice lovingly stored in special handmade containers, hand sewn dice bags with silk drawstrings, ceramic bowls adorned with feathers and New Age crystals. I watched a player rub his own blood on his dice. I have also seen dice thrown across the room. Hard. I've seen them frozen in the freezer, microwaved, flushed down the toilet and smashed with hammers.

Roleplayers joke around, eat junk food and engage in a lot of tomfoolery, jocularity and even jack-assery while at the game table. Threaten a player's character, though, and you better be prepared to back it up, because you will be challenged. The attachment roleplayers develop with their characters is more than a simple competitive desire to acquire loot or defeat enemies. That kind of vestigial attachment is for wargamers and MMO gamers. Hardcore roleplayers get attached hardcore. This is why some people wear cloaks, adopt exotic accents and have funeral ceremonies for their character sheets. A roleplayer's character is like a member of the family, and their well being is taken seriously.

That being the case, every player has to come to terms with the fact that many times over the course of their character's adventuring career, their 'life' will rely completely on the result of a single roll of the dice. As with all things in life, people deal with this in their own ways, and that's why we get the microwaving and the crystals and the blood.

I have been in a position to objectively witness this phenomenon, and I am prepared to share my somewhat surprising conclusion.

Most players are like me. Dice are dice. There may be some manufacturing defect or some other obscure condition at work that effects the way dice roll, but for the most part, dice are dice. All that ritual and superstition is little more than the projection of value and meaning on an inanimate object. Isn't it?

Most groups have a player whose dice are charmed. This player consistently rolls well. Not always, but over years, it becomes obvious to everyone that this person is 'lucky' or has Magic Dice. In my group, and in others that I have witnessed, these players often share certain qualities. They are often intense people, perhaps even charismatic. They are often 'adventurous', and have lots of exciting stories from their childhood and are not afraid to burn bridges or take risks in life.

The opposite is also true. Some players seem cursed. They consistently roll low. Their characters fail saving throws regularly and accumulate damage like a sales exec collects frequent flyer miles. For these players, their characters are always at risk, and so they do what is natural. They play it safe. They stack on armor and talismans and carry healing potions by the dozen. They fight from the rear, and take no risks. They plan ahead. They come prepared. They focus their attention on controlling all the variables they can, because anything not in their control is a threat. Roleplaying is sometimes a foggy mirror of life, and so these behaviors often have a correlation for these players in their personal lives.

I have done both. In the relatively few times I have been a player, rather than a game master, I started out conservative. I was cautious with my character, mitigating risk and getting more and more anxious as the Boss Battle approached. I liked my character. I made him. He had hopes and dreams; mirths and melancholies. When the battle came, he didn't survive. He died. Badly. There was a dragon. Things were done.

But I didn't let it get me down. I tried again some time later. Same kind of character; same race and class. This time, though, I didn't bother with all that development. I made him stupid. He had to be simple minded, because I was going to do stupid things with him. All my precautions and preparations before had not saved me, so this time, I was throwing caution to the wind. It was just a game, after all. What's the worst that could happen?

An interesting thing happened. He survived. He didn't just survive, either. He killed enemies with tableware. He leapt chasms while everyone else was digging in their packs for rope. He tackled people and bit them when he could've just chopped them with an axe. He caught on fire a few times. That will happen. He challenged authorities and was kicked out of town for it. This guy could not fail. And I tried. The crazier I got, the better I rolled. It was a revelation.

I'm not saying all players should make crazy, stupid characters with no impulse control and less conscience. Not all at once, at least. Have mercy on your GM. Have respect for the creative effort they put into making a game for you. Nevertheless, most groups would probably benefit from having one in their gang. Try it out, at least once. It's a blast!

Both approaches have their benefits. Conservative players enjoy the fruits of their labors when a plan comes together. Their characters don't always die horribly, but even when they do, it can be quite spectacular. One conservative little spellcaster died three times from one arrow. That's a record. It was incredible!

Reckless hotheads also have their worth. Who else is going to leap into that kraken's maw, hacking their way out from the inside, where their flesh is soft? The wizard? The party treasurer? Hah! Step aside, eggheads! And these guys don't always survive, either. One time, a guy went for the inside-out kill, and was spit up, minus his fancy super weapon, and then got his ass stomped into the river bank while his buddy ran for the hills, never to be seen again. There's a fine line between bravery and foolhardiness. He crossed it.

The conclusion is this: It's all good! Either way, you'll have a great time at the table, and even though someone may die horribly, it will be the stuff of legend and you'll be talking about it for years. And that's what it's all about, baby. That's how we roll!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

If you could fight anyone from history OR fiction, who would you fight?

A friend recommended I put certain movie characters into The Edge and see how they fare. Little did he know, it wouldn't be the first time!

Once, when we were in The Edge, the characters were walking down the street. It doesn't matter what street. In fact, the streets didn't even have names back then. Heck, back then, there were really only two destinations: Grondy's Weaponarium and Joe's Interdimensional Tavern and Grill.

Crossing the street was an adventure in and of itself, back then. The characters would walk out the door of Joe's and I would open up the ol' Book of Foes and pick a foe. Whatever it was, that's what jumped the characters. Yes, right outside the friggin door. The characters would blaze away with guns, powers and occasionally a bow with an electrifying bolo arrow, and then the looting would begin. If you had just left Joe's, then by the time you fought your way to Grondy's, if you survived, you had a few duffles full of looted gear to exchange for ever bigger and better hardware.

They were simpler times. No further plot or story justification was needed. It was a self perpetuating machine, fueled by attack and damage rolls and churning out Experience Points and sweet fantasy/scifi loot. It was like playing the slots, except you won every time. Well, almost every time.

This time, though, as the characters walked across that nondescript street, I opened the Book of Foes and I picked the Psychokiller.

In the mythology of the Lords of Creation RPG (the game system in use at the time), a Psychokiller is an artificial person. A construct. A mindless killing machine made to order, serving as a disposable assassin. They were like the Terminators, because they were fake, deadly, passed for human and were really hard to kill.

I took it a step further. Three steps further, infact. I figured that if these things were made to order, then why couldn't they be made to mimic the appearance, abilities and characteristics of 'famous' killers?

In The Edge, anything can happen. Spaceships fall out of the friggin sky, booby-trapping goblins fill the alleyways and something resembling a pound of raw hamburger will slowly devour a fallen corpse if you let it lay around too long. These things and worse are seen all the time in The Edge, and no one bats an eye. Instead, they pull a trigger. That's just the way it is. There are portals and warps and any number of other ways for creatures to show up inexplicably, so why hold back?

So, the characters are walking by a movie theater when suddenly (because these things don't happen gradually), the audience pours out of the theater screaming, “Oh my God! They're coming to life! They're killing people!”

The players needed no further motivation to take action, and so we cued the action music and started rolling dice. Only one player was curious enough to ask what was on the marquee.

Above the door, where dozens of civilians were running for their lives, the marquee said “All night triple feature: Friday the 13th, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street.” This particular player was, at the time, a rabid Freddy Kruger disciple, and was actually squealing with glee as I read off the sign.

Then, in the parlance of our time, things got real. After the last civvie bolted from the theater, three of the scariest, deadliest, murderous-est and ugliest bastards this side of the silver screen stalked out into the street. That's right, Jason Voorhees, Michael Meyers and Holy Crap, Freddy Friggin Kruger! Squeee-eee!

No players ever enjoyed being the instruments of righteous vengeance more than these guys. They fought, they dodged, they blazed away. Finally, when the streets were slick from geysers of blood and littered with literally thousands of empty shell casings (one of the guys had a minigun, for the love of Pete!), there stood the characters. Victorious!

Trophies were taken. Oh, yes. We now had one character wearing Jason's hockey mask, another wearing Michael's white mask, and our curious Fangoria subscriber wore Freddy's glove, beaming with pride. It's still on his character sheet today, twenty years later. He still kills punks with it. Freddy would be proud.

Ah, memories! That's why we play these nerdy ol' Pen and Paper games. Because walking around with Freddy's friggin knife glove is what it's all about, and because when you talk about it twenty years later, it's still right there, as if it were only yesterday.

So, look out, players! There may be some familiar faces as you explore The Edge. We've already seen Harry Callahan's little brother (He carries a Glock. Tsk, tsk!). Who else may be creeping around those blood-soaked streets?

Can Bill and Ted survive an Excellent Adventure in a city full of six-legged hairless rats? Gnarly, dude!

Can Neo? Well, he does know kung fu.

What about Patrick Swayze? That depends on if it's Roadhouse, Red Dawn or Ghost, I reckon.

Let's throw in a few Goonies and see if they can find a Peanut Butter Solution to the Hellraiser puzzle box while they Dream a Little Dream about the Monster Squad!

Roll initiative, you nerds, and game, baby, game! (Yes, that's a verb)

A new doorway opens to The Edge!

Two weekends ago, we tried a new game. Well, new for us, at any rate.

The game system is new (for us), but the setting is not. We went to The Edge. It was like coming home after a long trip away.

For those who may not know, The Edge is the name I gave to a setting I conceived back when I was a teenager. (I didn't know who U2 was back then.) It is a crazy post-apocalyptic setting that includes aliens and wizards and spaceships and time travelers. I first used it for an old Avalon Hill RPG called Lords of Creation. In that game, your character travels through time, space and dimensions on their adventures. The premise is for your character to become a God-like being, but we never got even close to that. What we did do was fight all kinds of monsters from myth, fiction and even pop culture. The Edge was made to be a place where all these foes could be encountered. It was a world between worlds, with portals opening all the time. All these things (including the characters) were trapped there. It was a world on The Edge of reality, and it was the height of my creative expression at the time.

That was literally decades ago (Damn, I'm old!), and these days, the setting that was once The Edge has grown and evolved like a gooey science experiment in the petri dish of our collective imagination. We have been having adventures there for years now, often going a few years between visits, using the rule sets of various RPG game systems. This was an attempt to find a suitable vehicle for the setting, which captured its richness while also satisfying my intellect and game playing preferences.

Over the years, we have journeyed to The Edge, riding the busses of Lords of Creation, GURPS, Masterbook/Shatterzone, Shadowrun (2nd and 3rd Editions) and d20 Modern, to varying degrees of satisfaction. Of course, each game system has their own strengths and weaknesses.

This time, we tried a game system called Savage Worlds. If you're a gamer, you've probably heard of it. When I say 'gamer' here, I mean old school. The 'First' gamers. Those who passed through the crucible of stigma that came with being a gamer in the Olden Days. I'm talking about a group of friends gathered around a good sized table, surrounded by unhealthy snacks, stacks of books, scattered papers and dice. Oh, the dice. Weird, polyhedral shapes in plastic with numbers on them, not dots. These days, this is called “Pen And Paper Gaming”, as if we were relics of a forgotten age.

Since those days, the 'gamer' label has become a bit of a badge of honor, mostly due to the rampant success of video games and collectible card games. But I digress...

Savage Worlds is currently the New Hotness. When you flip through the registration booklet for the gaming conventions in my town these days, there are more Savage Worlds games being run than D&D. That's a big deal. D&D has always been the king. The incumbent dictator has always had its 'royal court' of subjects; other RPGs that were not as popular, didn't sell as well or that were not known as prolifically. None of these were ever a threat to D&D's throne, and I doubt Savage Worlds is either, but it is the New Hotness at the moment.

It is the New Hotness primarily because it was successfully marketed to its target audience: the Old School Gamers (OSGs). The game is easy to learn, easy to play, and most importantly, it can be played in nice four-hour chunks. It's also cheap and wildly prolific. The OSGs have grown up now. They have families and careers. We are poised to take over for the Baby Boomers (most of whom are our parents) as the primary economic force of this ol' country. This is obvious when one pays attention to popular media and advertising these days. Comics, fantasy and scifi are mainstream now. TV shows like Big Bang Theory reference D&D and other 'nerd culture' all the time, and people get it. We have arrived!

Normally, I have an annoying inclination to resist the ocean's whim, as it were, and I deny association with New Hotness in general, not wanting to be seen as a trendy dweeb. But Savage Worlds is different. From the begtinning, it felt natural. That's the power of good marketing. I am the target audience, after all. When I put it off, it was out of convenience, not defiance.

I eventually got the rule books and absorbed them into my not unimpressive mental library of game systems. I didn't regret it. It folded me into the warmth of its embrace, and we danced.

Savage Worlds is a 'universal' rule set. It has no 'official' setting around which it was created and to which it is bound on the molecular level. It is a rule set only. A variety of settings are published, and the publishers have learned a lesson from the tremendous success of D&D's 3rd Edition and have an open license agreement, allowing any schmuck with the means and the moxy to publish their own settings (and accompanying rules variants) for the game. This, combined with the ease of internet publishing and the proliferation of PDFs as an acceptable alternative to hardcopy printing, has allowed Savage Worlds to become extremely widespread and extremely popular in an astonishingly short period of time. Welcome to the 21st century, OSGs!

So naturally, before I ever opened that first Savage Worlds document, I knew that I was going to ride that bus. First stop, The Edge, baby!

It took a good deal of work. It always does. Adapting a setting to a game system is something like translating a book into a different language. That's okay. I've done it a hundred times. I like it. So I did it, and then, two weekends ago, I ran it for a few friends.

Some of these friends had been to The Edge before, riding different busses and trains to get there. Nevertheless, it was a great trip!

The pregenerated characters I made were one-dimensional and in some cases cliched, but they served their purpose; they got my friends into The Edge on the Savage Worlds Safari Bus. These unfortunate characters were ripped from their comfortable lives and were subsequently plunged into a dangerous, unknown world in the most turbulent and deadly period of its life cycle.

Miraculously, they survived. There was a handy and ignorant redneck, a vengeful cop, an anemic college student, a pro athelete, a marketing analyst, and an EMT with a death wish. Over two days of play, these unfortunate noobs struggled through murderous scavengers, swarms of carnivorous insects, a giant hairy Mauler and even a pack of Edge Wolves.

All in all, the game play was a success. We all had fun and the Savage Worlds rule set handled things admirably. The continued survival of the characters is not guaranteed, but whatever happens, we will continue to enjoy watching their story unfold.

The bus had left the station, and the driver's maniacal cackle could be heard by all as we were left to fend for ourselves amid the garbage and the monsters and the ever present haze. This place is home, and I do believe I will stay a while.