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D&D in the Media
I've been watching the show Freaks and Geeks recently. Actually, powering through the episodes more like, as last Saturday it rained all day and I spent pretty much all day watching one after the other. I was anxious to see the last episode, which I knew featured D&D, and to listen to the audio commentary for that episode as well.

I'm very interested in the portrayal of D&D in mass media, and it's kind of hard to find. I'm not talking about stuff like the Dungeons & Dragons movie, but stuff that actually portrays modern characters who play the game. In the final episode of Freaks and Geeks (Discos and Dragons), we actually see the characers talk about playing the game, and an actual session appears during a montage (I understand from the commentary they really sat down and played a session to get that footage). It's probably about the best and most honest portrayal of the game in any movie or TV show. Though one minor quibble: at the end the DM congratulates the new guy on completing his 'first D&D campaign'. That struck me as odd, I'm not sure I've ever heard someone call a single night's game a 'campaign'. Campaigns usually imply a much longer series of games.

I was trying to think of other appearances of the game in mass media, and am only coming up with two. Though I'm sure there are plenty of others similar to the first, which is the episode Radio Daze from That 70's Show in which the cool DJ character turns out to be very geeky, and plays D&D. It's the punchline of the joke -- he's such a dork that he invites the main characters to go play D&D, and then there's a gag shot at the end of him and a couple other characters playing. While the reputation of the game as having a large following among the socially inept isn't entirely unfounded, it's unfortunate to see this cliche come up as the most common use of the game. I'm sure there are several other cases where a character is portrayed as being a dork or geek by expressing interest in D&D.

The other unfortunate connotation the game has, which strikes me now as horribly out-dated, is it's tie to Satan worshiping. I think most people today know what bunk that idea was, but back in the 80's the idea had a bit more pull, and you ended up with the unfortunate Mazes and Monsters For those not aware, this is a film based on the James Dallas Egbert disappearance, in which a very young Tom Hanks portrays a troubled young man who loses his grip on reality and believes the RPG he's playing is real. While many are angry at this film as a vehicle for propogating the idea of D&D as a bad influence on youth, it's at least an interesting record of the paranoia around the game that existed back then. Also, kind of funny when watched with the correct sarcastic mind set.

OK, there are actually a couple of D&D themed indie movies out there made by the community for the community, such as The Gamers, Gamers, and Thac0. The last one I own and is very funny, the former two I have yet to see. In general these movies a filled with in-jokes that only actual players of the game understand, and walk the line between funny self-deprecation humor and mean-spirited mockery.

I wonder if there are any other movies or TV shows out there where characters play the game, but the fact that they play is not the focus of the story. So far, Freaks and Geeks is the only one I've seen. More's the pity.
September 15th, 2009 - 08:33 am | Comments (0) | PERMALINK

One of the hardest parts, I think, of running a convention game is getting the players to care about each other and about the plot. Before any real roleplaying can begin, each player has to answer for him or herself the questions: 'Who am I, and how does what's happening affect me?' In a larger campaign, characters have the context of things that have already happened to them and established relationships with the other characters and NPCs to answer these questions, but in a one shot it's got to be addressed up front and quickly before the real meat of the game can be enjoyed.

The last con game I ran, I wrote out little facts on index cards for each player, each one either tying the player's character to the plot or one of the other characters. Recently I had another idea, inspired by the character creation system for Dread. When I played that game at the last HelgaCon, the GM had pieces of paper with leading questions written out that you had to write responses to. Each question not only introduced some concept to your character, but also gave you the chance to elaborate on it in your own way. Here's an example, my character I think had the question: 'Describe the horrible accident your character witnessed as a child that produced the fear your character still has today.' So now I know my character witnessed some bad accident as a child and is now afraid of something, but I get to introduce what his phobia is, and what exactly it was he saw.

Anyway, here's what I was thinking. In your standard fantasy RPG, it's common for the players to travel long distances by foot or horse, meaning they must spend a lot of time on the road together. It's something that's usually glossed over in the actual game, but I always thought would be the real time the characters would bond, sharing stories from their past or tall tales to pass the boring travel time.

So the premise is, the characters have traveled together for some time before arriving at the location of the start of the adventure. Some of them may have known each other for a long time, others may have just met on the road. Along the way, they tell each other stories about themselves and their exploits. I give each player three of the questions from the list below. Maybe I could print them out on cards and have the players draw three each. Then we go around the table, and each player answers the question out loud. It's up to the player whether to just give a curt couple line answer, or spin a tale for several minutes. Hopefully not too long, as you do have to go through one for each player. At the end, hopefully each player has something interesting about his character to latch onto, and perhaps a relationship with one or two of the other characters. And I as GM, should have a good number of interesting leads, NPCs, etc. to weave into the game.

The list of quesions I came up with is included below. I hope to add to this list, and would love to hear any suggestions. I used this name generator to inject some interesting names, and some of these place generators for location names. You could easily modify the list to include names of NPCs or locations in your own world if you wanted.

  1. Tell us how you bargained with Moriz the Fat and lived to tell the tale.

  2. Tell us of how the Moonmark Gem slipped through your fingers, and where you suspect it now lies.

  3. Tell us of how another character here fell afoul of the goblin tribe of the Yellow Eye, and how you came to his/her rescue.

  4. Tell us which type of monster strikes fear into your heart, and the special precautions you take to ward them from you.

  5. Tell us why Bjarni the Knife dogs your steps to this very day.

  6. Tell us which other character here is a braggart, and which part of his story you know to be untrue.

  7. Tell us how you met Vladik the Pirate, and why he now owes you a favor.

  8. Tell us why you seek the wizard Hedeon, and what aid you hope he will render you.

  9. Tell us why you forced to leave the last town in such haste, without even having finished your breakfast.

  10. Tell us how you met another character here as a prisoner of the Hobgoblins, and how together you gained your freedom.

  11. Tell us how you came by your current weapon, and why you cannot sleep without resting one hand upon it.

  12. Tell us the name of the person for whom you and another character here were once rival suitors, and how neither one of you came out on top.

  13. Tell us why the people of Pinetree Valley call you the Doomsayer.

  14. Tell us how you were cheated by Govannon the Traveling Sorcerer, and what you will do to him if you ever meet again.

  15. Tell us why you have traveled so far to seek the council of Garabed the Wise.

  16. Tell us how you learned the name of the Elven Lord of Whitebrook Glade, and how it saved your life.

  17. Tell us why the one arrow with the green fletching is your lucky arrow.

  18. Tell us why you wear the symbols of two different gods.

  19. Tell us why another character here owes you a sum of money, and how he/she plans to repay you.

  20. Tell us why you carry that old chipped and rusted dagger, and where you hope to lay it to rest.

  21. Tell us how traveling to the remote village of Rockwick is going to help you find the lost Scrolls of Thrand the Storm Wizard.

  22. Tell us the omen that was witnessed at your birth, and to what it portends.

September 5th, 2009 - 10:49 am | Comments (2) | PERMALINK

Mastered the Master Lock
I've had a combination Master Lock attached to my gym bag for several weeks now. Between vacation and then being bad for a week and not going to the gym, I had forgotten the combination. I was thinking maybe it was time to take a hacksaw to it and buy a new lock.

I did a little googling first. I found this site, which describes a way to narrow the number of possible combinations to 80. It gives you 10 possible numbers for the first value, 8 for the second, and 1 for the last. I figured it was worth a shot. I wrote down all 80 possible combinations, then started cherry picking ones that felt right.

It helped that one of the 8 values for the second number looked very familiar to me. I tried those 10 first. It was the 10th one.

Holy crap, I can't believe after just 10 tries I figured out the combination to this lock. Kind of worrying, but kind of cool too. If this hadn't worked, I was next going to try building a shim from a tin can.
August 31st, 2009 - 08:32 am | Comments (1) | PERMALINK

Emergent Story and the Organic Sandbox
Our lunchtime D&D game is running reasonably well these days, though I find the time limit very stifling. It feels to me much like roleplaying over internet voice chat: it's clearly technically the same game, but something's missing. It is more fun than not playing though, and it's also helping flush out issues in the system that will be helpful if I ever run a 'real' campaign of B/X. Also, it's my first solid experience running an organic sand box setting, and we're starting to really see the fruits of that effort.

The theory is that story should be emergent from gameplay, a concept I'm really starting to come to grips with. Not only am I not creating a large over-arching plot line, but I'm also keeping the world relatively adaptive, adding and removing elements based on what makes most sense at the moment. It's sort of like SCRUM for roleplaying, only even the end-goal is constantly shifting and undefined.

Let me give a concrete example. In our lunchtime game, I created as starting town and a few simple nearby locations to explore. One of these was an old delapitated keep that had been taken over by some bandits who preyed on travelers along the road that led to the starting town. It was a very simple location, just a few rooms and a small band of half a dozen or so bandits.

I had some other locations that were much larger and more fleshed out, but this was the lead the group latched on to, perhaps because it was the first one they discovered by talking to some merchants at the local tavern. They learned a name of the bandit leader, Hank the Highwayman, and then immediately rushed off to go take care of it.

At first I was a bit disappointed that the party so quickly latched onto this lead and ignored all the other stuff I had created. Especially as the players had a rough time with the bandits to start, due to some bad luck and perhaps still getting used to the system. By the time the players reached the bandits, the bandits were fully aware of the players' presence. The players were beat up, and I felt like the full force of bandits would quickly take them out. So I modified the encounter a bit. Instead of ambushing the players with the full force, I busied a couple with loading their ill gotten gains into a boat to escape if things went badly, and removed the higher level leader from the group. Even then it was touch and go, but the party lucked out when after dispatching two bandits the remaining ones failed their morale and jumped into the prepared boat to escape.

Well, turns out one of the beaten bandits actually lived, and the players started interogating him. 'Where is Hank the Highwayman?' they demanded. Oops, by removing the high level leader I didn't realize I had removed their actual target. Quickly, I had to make something up. 'He's down in Bridge Faire, contacing our fence,' the captive told the players. It made sense, and the players then prepared to journey to the distant city to track down their new nemesis.

OK, in between there I attempted to push the party more in the direction of one of the more fleshed out locations. They bit, they explored it a little bit, but then decided to return to the Hank the Highwayman issue. I realize now that pushing them towards that location was a mistake. The players had clearly chosen what they wanted the game to be about: the capture of Hank the Highwayman. My mistake of removing him from his location had only increased interest, and now I realized it, and decided to focus my energy in expanding that plot. I expanded Hank's operation, added some more NPCs between him and the party, and essentially turned him into much more than he was ever meant to be. It seems to me the players love it. They chose Hank as their enemy, and who wants a boring run of the mill enemy? It's much better that he's turned out to be someone important and interesting.

What's Hank really up to? When the players arranged a meeting with his second in command, why did the man turn up dead? Honestly, I have no idea. My goal is to stay just a couple steps ahead of the players. I continue to make mistakes, like leaving the bandit leader out, but then I try to reinterpret what happened such that the mistake actually makes sense. It's like the Bob Ross style of GMing: there are no mistakes, only happy accidents.

I think it's working. There's an interesting story brewing. What will it all actually be about? What will the conclusion be? I have no idea, and I can't wait to find out.
August 25th, 2009 - 09:32 am | Comments (0) | PERMALINK

Kask and Mentzer
James Maliszewski wrote a post about a new company being formed up by Frank Mentzer, Jim Ward, and Tim Kask. If you don't recongnize these names, these are guys with some very strong ties to the very early days of TSR. You know, when it was good. :)

Here's a post by Mentzer himself with some details about the company. Maliszewski is fairly skeptical about the prospects of this company, and I admit that a few things in that post make it sound like they might have some trouble getting their company up and running. Perhaps they really ought to get someone with good business sense involved to deal with the financing and the like.

However, that said, I'm personally pretty excited about the idea of this company. If you follow no other links in this post, I highly recommend you check out these interviews with Kask and Mentzer. Each is about 5 minutes long, and should give you a good sense of where these guys' gaming sensibilities lie:

Interview with Frank Mentzer
Interview with Tim Kask

If these two guys are forming a company to write gaming material, you can bet your ass I'll be buying it. My glasses aren't so rose-tinted that I'll send any money to help them start the company, but I'll gladly purchase their products. I hope they make it past the difficult company forming stage and we see some stuff for sale soon.
August 21st, 2009 - 07:55 am | Comments (0) | PERMALINK

Gaming for Girls
One day during our vacation it rained, and we ended up cruising the local Barnes & Noble. I've seen Mazzanoble's Confessions of a Part-Time Sorceress: A Girl's Guide to the Dungeons & Dragons Game on the shelves before, and I've always been kind of curious about it. Curiosity finally got the better of me this time, and I bought it.

I won't comment on the obvious sexist tone of the book. Jenn finds the very title insulting, along the lines of the Science Book for Girls. I think it could have recovered from the title, but didn't. While the author goes through great pains to dispell common stereotypes of gamers, she seems to have no problem playing on all the old cliche stereotypes of women. But wait, I said I wasn't going to comment on this aspect of the book...

The book waffles between two major themes. The first is a first person account of the author's own introduction to the game, and the second is instructional text on how to play the game. I had no use for the latter, which is hard to write without sounding condescending, and I wish it had been omitted from the book. It would have been far more interesting as a simple account of this person's introduction to the hobby, and perhaps by focusing on her personal experience the sexist tone might have been down-played or even non-present. At least these parts are easy to identify and skip, which I did.

The account of her own introduction to gaming is interesting, but left me feeling sorry for her and everyone else in that game. It sounded like a miserable group, full of players who are more interested in passive-aggressive sniping with each other than actually playing a cooperative game. The players constantly behave childishly, never really getting into the mood the GM is trying to push, and making all manner of anacrhonisms (is that the right word?). The GM, in turn, deals with this by ignoring them, reading a book until they 'settle down'. He also pre-draws the map on their battle mat before each session, clearly indicating the highly rail-roaded plot line, which clearly only he cares about. The players, as far as they're concerned, seem to just be playing a board game where they pretend to be their pieces.

So I have to ask myself, what's the goal of this book? The clear answer would seem to be to bring new players into the game. It seems to be the golden ring of the industry: to make the game more mainstream. But is this wise? Do we really even want these people in our games? OK, that sounds elitist, but let me contrast that with how I would go about introducing someone to the game who told me they were kind of interested in the concept. First I would make sure they've read some Leiber, some Howard, some Vance, or some Tolkein. Then I would ask, did you like the books? Would you enjoy a game that immerses you in that genre? If not, you probably wouldn't enjoy D&D. Perhaps a different RPG in a different genre would be more fun for you.

That's the real problem with this book. It imparts none of the magic of the game. It sounds about as fun as playing tic-tac-toe. Where's the mystery? Where's the excitement? Maybe she never experienced it. Poor girl. I also have to wonder, where in this sequence was she approached by WotC to create the book? From the very get-go? After she played a few sessions? Was there no-one in the company who realized, wow, she's playing in one of the most dull games of D&D ever, perhaps her experience is not the one to base a book on.

As one final note, I will end with the absolute outrage I experienced when I discovered the section where she in turn tries to introduce the game to a bunch of her non-gamer girl friends. Her advise: trick them into playing. She actually specifically recommends that you gather some friends together under some other pretense and then surprise them with the game. Wow, there's a great way to win people over.
August 18th, 2009 - 08:10 am | Comments (6) | PERMALINK

Warhammer 3e
Did a bit more poking around on Fantasy Flight's website, now that I have better internet access. This pretty much sums up how I feel:

Warhammer FRPG Description

Yeah, I just copied the official Warhammer page from Fantasy Flight and changed the images a bit. I think it speaks for itself.
August 16th, 2009 - 04:44 pm | Comments (0) | PERMALINK

Still Not GenCon
Perhaps the only consolation to not being at GenCon right now is the gentle waves lapping at my feet while I write this. OK, actually I'm on the porch of our B&B, but I did just get back from the beach where the waves were lapping at my feet.

Still, despite having to leach network access from someone across the street (wifi is only working here at the front of the house), news from the con seeps in. I just heard that Fantasy Flight Games is releasing Warhammer Fantasy RPG 3rd Edition.

Sadly, it appears the boardgame-ification of D&D has reached Warhammer, and the new RPG comes with 'four different rule-books, 36 custom dice, over 300 cards, counters, 'character keeper' boxes...' I keep trying to convince myself that it might be cool, but I'm failing. Sounds to me less like WFRPG 3rd edition, and more like Warhammer Quest 2nd edition. Actually, the latter would be pretty cool, and I did and still do really enjoy Warhammer Quest. Perhaps though that's only because it's up front about what it is: a board game.

Warhammer Quest comes with a 'roleplay' book with optional rules that can be added in bit by bit until you are pretty much playing a roleplaying game. I've never felt like doing it though. I appreciate WHQ as a quick, light dungeon crawling board game, and when I want something more serious with persistence I'll play a real roleplaying game thanks.

Though interestingly, one thing this news did instill for me is a desire to go back and check out the old editions of the Warhammer RPG. I mean, a big factor in my current old school glut has been how disgruntled I have been with the 'progress' of recent editions of D&D. If Warhammer is following the same trends, perhaps its early editions might hold just as much interest. Is 2nd edition the 3e of WFRPG, and might I not actually prefer the earlier version?

One way to find out I suppose. It'll have to wait until Sunday though, for now it's off to dinner and perhaps another evening stroll along the beach.
August 14th, 2009 - 04:07 pm | Comments (6) | PERMALINK

Here's my idea for roleplay XP. This isn't anything new, I'm sure I'm ripping this off of some indy rpg or another. Probably comes from spending all last summer listening to the Sons of Kryos. (Man, I wish they hadn't gone to video -- I loved listening to them on my mp3 player while walking to work.)

Anyway, the idea. The party will be responsible for maintaining a list of no more than 5 party goals. They can modify this list at any time, so long as its presented to the DM at the start of the session. The party will then earn XP each time they collectively do something that furthers that goal. The amount of XP awarded will be the same as if the party had killed a monster of HD equal to the total HD of the party, counting hirelings at half HD value.

Example: The party has a goal of 'Bring Hank the Highwayman in dead or alive.' For this session, the party consists of four players and two hirelings all at first level. Thus, the total party HD is 5. During the session, they do the following things that DM determines apply to this goal:

  1. Interrogate one Hank's former gang members they had previously caputred.

  2. Journey to the distant city Hank reportedly used as a base of operations.

  3. Arrange via a third party at said city to meet with one of Hank's known underlings.

Each of these items is worth 175 XP, the same as defeating a 5 HD monster. Thus, they win a total of 525 XP, or 105 XP per player and 53 XP per hireling. This example is more or less what actually happened at our last session, and I think is in line with the amount of XP I'd expect the players to get out of an hour of dungeon delving.

My reason for tying it to HD of the party was two-fold. First, that it roughly reflects the amount of effort required to come to an agreement at the table amongst players (and thus why hirelings only count for half). The more players present, the more HD and thus more XP they earn, and the longer it takes for them to argue over what to do. Second, that as the party gains levels, the amount of XP for completing goals should roughly follow the same amount they're getting for killing monsters and taking their stuff.

Will it work? Obviously it worked in this one example, but really I worked the system from this example so of course it worked. I'll revisit this after we've had a couple more sessions of using this system.
August 7th, 2009 - 01:30 pm | Comments (3) | PERMALINK

XP for Lunch
My lunch time B/X game continues on, and I've run two sessions since the session of calamity. The first session back was pretty reactionary, just a quick surgical strike to get the loot they almost got before the calamity. The second session was all build up as they took the plot in a totally different direction, traveling far off in pursuit of the very first plot hook they discovered.

In previous sessions, I thought the low XP gain was because the players were just still getting accustomed to the play style. They were regularly pulling in about 25 XP per session, which would still only tally to 75-100 XP if we were playing full 3-4 hours essions. The big haul landed them roughly 150 XP, and the following session was all roleplay, thus 0 XP. I realized then that I had a big XP problem in this campaign.

First of all, I really don't want to discourage heavy roleplay like we had in the most recent session, and I assume 0 XP is a pretty strong inducement against such activity. Secondly, I still think the XP gain is way too slow. Even if the players could pull 150 XP every session the gain is still way too slow. I had hoped that the counter point to playing for such short sessions would be that we play more frequently (I've offered to run any/every day but Thursday). In reality, we're lucky still if we get one session off per week.

At 150 XP per week, that's 10 sessions or 2.5 months for the Thief to hit level 2, assuming he doesn't die first. About 3 months of play for a Fighter to hit level 2, 4 months for a Magic User, and almost 6 months for an Elf. Hoo-boy, that's a slow campaign.

I've decided to do two things about this. First, I'm going to make some system for roleplay rewards. The concept of bonus XP for roleplay is probably as old as the game itself, but I don't like it when it's fully subjective like that. I want some kind of system to help me figure out how much XP to get, otherwise it feels too much like I'm just arbitrarily picking the XP for each session (a problem I think our current Warhammer game suffers from).

The second thing I'll do is increase the XP for monsters and treasure as well. Probably I'll just come up with a roelplay reward that makes it equivalent to the amount of XP they'd get if they spent the hour fighting monsters and looking for treasure, then multiply the total XP by some constant number each session, regardless of where it came from.

I'd really like to see some of these guys hit level 2 eventually.

August 7th, 2009 - 12:34 pm | Comments (0) | PERMALINK

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