Saturday, August 28, 2010

Building an RPG Arc

I did a bunch of casual roleplaying with friends in High School, but it wasn't until college that I found people with the time and interest to run long-term games with ongoing plotlines. I've run a number of semester-long games with friends, but didn't have the time for much RPing last year. I've got a much lighter coarseload this semester, and I'm looking forward to running a game again.

Story arcs have always been one of my weak points as a gamemaster. My ability to create interesting antagonists and exciting situations has gotten me through a lot of games, but my campaigns tend to be very episodic with little overall plot. With that in mind, I want to try my hand at planning the skeleton of a story out now and see what meat I can put onto it later.

I'm starting the way all good RPG stories do, by plagiarizing everything within arms reach. Since I'm aiming for a plot that is both goal-oriented and character-driven, I'm borrowing heavily from computer RPGs in the vein of Deus Ex and Vampire: the Masquerade: Bloodlines.


Urban Fantasy borrowing heavily from D20 Modern's Urban Arcana and White Wolf's World of Darkness. Magic exists but is unknown to the common populace, protected by both an enforced conspiracy and inherently selective perception. Those who are aware of magic and supernatural creatures are considered "awakened."

Plot Summary

The PCs are caught in the middle of a three-way fight over a macguffin. Two of the factions present a moral choice between order and chaos. The third faction are one-dimensional antagonists to be fought without guilt.

Important NPCs

Victor - Local magistrate and chessmaster. Organized businessman/politician type. The PCs start in his employ. He is highly ambitious, but acts within the law and rewards loyalty well.

Janis - The PC's contact with those who oppose the magistrate's rule. 30-something street punk. Well intentioned and very anti-establishment. May become leader of the opposition if the PCs support her.

Roy - Runs a local bar with an awakened-only VIP room. A good source of friendship and information for the PCs, being one of the few major characters without an agenda.

Sariah - Knight Templar leader of the Hunters. Believes that all magic users and supernatural creatures serve Satan and must be exterminated. A primary antagonist throughout, and penultimate boss battle.

Six Session Breakdown

1) The PCs owe Victor a favor, and he's calling it in. He's heard stories of something big going down, and sends the PCs on a mission to find out what it is. The PCs recieve help from Roy, encounter the hunters, and uncover the existence of the macguffin. Victor tells them that if they bring him the macguffin, their debt to him will be more than repayed.

2) Victor sends the PCs on another macguffin-related mission. The encounter Janis, who warns them not to trust Victor and asks them to help her and the opposition. PCs can take any course of action without major consequences.

3) PCs get a mission where they will have to make a major choice between Victor and the opposition in the fight over the macguffin. Whatever they do, the balance of power will be upset.

4) Shit gets real. As Victor and the opposition fight openly, the hunters become a real threat with the arrival of Sariah. She knows the identity of the PCs and has no compunction about going after their friends and families.

5) The PCs must by themselves some time and and steal the macguffin from the hunters. Session ends with final showdown with Sariah.

6) Macguffin in hand, the PCs must defend it while they decide whether to side with Victor, Janis, or take a third option. The final showdown may consist of either side or of the macguffin itself, being some sort of sealed evil in a can.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Scrubs and Playing for Fun

My post "Playing to Win versus Playing for Fun" is probably the worst article on this blog. It's a subject I have strong feelings about, but they can be difficult to articulate. I'm going to take another crack at the subject, focusing on a different aspect of the issue.

Today my roommate was playing Storm of the Imperial Sanctum (a DOTA-ish game on Starcraft 2) and an opponent called him a "scrub" for choosing a character rather than playing on random, as the opponent had. I can only dream that one day that person will learn the irony of their words.

The term "scrub" refers to someone who tries to impose their view of the "right" way to play on other people. A scrub is someone who considers any tactic that can defeat them to be "unfair," or even, bizarrely, "noobish." They can be found in all walks of casual and professional gaming, whether they're complaining about grabs, rushes, combos, or builds.

Obviously, if you're playing to win (at a tournament or the like), scrubs should simply be ignored. The difficulties arise when people are playing for fun and have strong preferences in how they enjoy a game.

TV Tropes says, in its infinite wisdom:
"What ultimately makes the Scrub undesirable isn't the rulesetting; it is the attitude. What distinguishes the Scrub from someone who is simply trying to make their game fun without having to invest hugely into skill progression is that the Scrub believes that his way is the only proper way to play the game."

Wanting to play a game a certain way at your kitchen table should not automatically be considered scrubbish. There's a big difference between "Don't play character X because he's cheap," and "I don't enjoy playing against character X." The latter should be respectfully considered. The former should be ignored, or ideally retrained into the latter. This is not to say that any whim of your friends should be taken as law.

Obviously, different people within a group will often have different expectations and desires, but this is true in all areas of life. If you can decide where your group wants to go for dinner, hopefully you can figure out how they prefer to game.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Hard and Soft Game Politics

Some people dislike competetive multiplayer gaming because they feel that the politics overshadow game skill. Other feel like multiplayer politics can be a fun strategic skill themselves. I appreciate the skill required to deal with a group of opponents, but can also understand frustration at getting ganged up on unfairly or losing to another player's poor decisions. Thus, I propose a distinction between two different types of politics within multiplayer gaming:

Hard politics are the spoken deals, alliances, and threats. "Don't attack me for two turns and I'll kill him," "If you leave me alone I'll let you have Europe/Park Place/whatever," or "Look at how powerful Devon is, we all need to gang up on him at once." The use of hard politics often includes mutually beneficial deals, vague threats, and chicken-little-style fear mongering.

Soft politics, conversely, are political decisions made within the scope of the game: Piling up your military to indicate a threat, or choosing to remain unthreatening rather than commit your full power to the board. Soft politics are all about shaping perceptions through gameplay.

Personally, I love soft politics. Considering the reactions of other players adds a whole new level to strategic thinking. The "right play" may well be a bad choice if it would draw too much ire from your opponents. Hard politics are not inherently bad, but they have much more potential to be problematic. Games like Risk and Twilight Imperium often slow to a crawl as everyone makes treaties with their nearby opponents. Some games or groups try to discourage this by banning "table talk," but this is hard to enforce and can easily ruin a friendly atmosphere.

Soft politics develop naturally, but the impact of hard politics needs to be considered in game design. I find Risk almost unplayable because treaty-making is both so necessary and so game-slowing. On the other hand, games like Munchkin work with the hard politics, making scheming, temporary alliances, and constant backstabbing are part of the fun.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Board Game Review Part 2 - Sci-Fi and Horror

Yesterday I covered Eurogames, full of indirect competition and family-friendly subject matters. So today I tackle a trio of sci-fi and horror games, complete with rampant infighting and backstabbing!

Betrayal at House on the Hill

Betrayal was published by Avalon Hill (now owned by Wizards of the Coast) several years ago, and I consider myself lucky to have played it. This is because it's been out of print for a while and now routinely sells for $150-200 online. Fortunately, a second edition is planned to be released his October, which should be much more attainable.

The game begins with the players exploring the house, flipping over new room tiles each time they enter an unexplored area. They move around finding various eerie items, events, and omens until eventually the "Haunt" occurs, moving the game into its second phase. When the Haunt takes place, one of the characters turns traitor and any one of 50 scenarios occur, including horror classics like zombie attacks, werewolves, zombies, or even the house itself coming to life. Often the traitor and other players receive different information about the situation, and they rarely know eachother's victory conditions.

Betrayal is practically proof that if you have an awesome enough concept, you can throw everything else out the window. Many of the scenarios are wildly imbalanced or luck-dependent, the rules can be frustratingly ambiguous, and the finite number of options may limit playability, but the game is just too damn awesome for any of that to matter very much.

My other gripe about the game is the packaging - it came with literally hundreds of little cardboard tokens indicating various items, opponents, and hazards. It was ridiculously excessive and largely unnecessary - it could have just come with three colors of tokens and specified what each was for various scenarios. Hopefully the new edition will reduce extraneous cardboard and improve the wording of the rules.

Verdict: If' you're looking for an in-depth strategy game to test your mettle, look elsewhere. If you're looking for an absolutely awesome casual game to play with a bunch of friends late at night, check this out next October.


Also by Avalon Hill, RoboRally is a game Richard Garfield pitched to Wizards of the Coast back in 1993. They turned it down for being too expensive to produce, instead opting to try out some idea of his called Magic. It worked out pretty well for them, so years later they had more than enough cash to make RoboRally.

The game mechanics are fairly simple. The players are racing towards a series of flags, and the first person's robot to touch them all in order wins. Each round, you program your robot with a series of five actions they will take over the course of the next five turns. Then, you watch as they happen to get pushed a square to the left by another player's robot, and continue following your now-deadly orders as they drive over conveyor-belts, industrial lazers, and gaping pit traps. As you take damage, you have increasingly limited movement options to program your hapless robot.

The game doesn't have a lot of deep strategy, but it can be surprisingly difficult and convoluted to maneuver around simple obstacles with limited commands. The wacky dark humor and simple gameplay make RoboRally a very good game for parties, families, and other casual circles.

My biggest complaint about the basic game is that the robot upgrades (things like "Mini-Howitzer" and "Breaks") are one of the more fun and versatile aspects of the game, but are very difficult to acquire in-game. We were very happy playing with the house rule that each robot starts the game with one free upgrade chosen at random.

Verdict: If you're looking for a fun and easy strategy game to play with friends and family, RoboRally is a great option. It's more checkers than chess, though, and not a game for competitive players.

Battlestar Gallactica: The Board Game

I don't normally pay too much attention to tie-in games, but this one seemed thematically appropriate as involves both insane robots and betraying your so-called friends. The game is published by Fantasy Flight Games and is based on the 2003 Battlestar Gallactica tv series.

The game centers around the human side facing various challenges while trying to maintain four gauges - Fuel, Food, Morale, and Population. If any of these fall below zero, they lose the game. Meanwhile, the cylon players try to subvert and sabotage the humans.

The game's most impressive aspect is how well it captures the feel of the series. The humans have to deal with so many different ways to lose, and argue about strategies and acceptable losses even when they actually are on the same side. And then there's the brilliant mechanic where half the loyalty cards are dealt out initially, and then half are dealt out later in the game, meaning that you often don't know how many traitors (if any) are actually among you, and players can turn out to be cylons without initially realizing it.

The sacrifice for this is that the game seems like it would be pretty impenetrable to people unfamiliar with the tv show. The mechanics could be understood, but they wouldn't feel very resonant without the background to understand them. The game also suffers somewhat from overcomplication, with dozens of different mechanics competing for time and attention.

Verdict: A great game for fans of the series which really manages to capture the feel. Other people should probably stick to more other political games.

I'll take a break from reviews for now, but feel free to contact me with your angry rebuttals and fervent disagreements.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Board Game Review Part 1 - Eurogames!

Contemporary board games are not my area of expertise, but I've gotten a lot more familiar with them over the past year. I will share my opinions on several of the games I've played as a relative newcomer to the genre. Today I will be covering several "Eurogames,"
a genre defined by resource-management, indirect competition, and non-elimination gameplay.

Settlers of Catan

Settlers of Catan is a staple of modern board games. It has sold more than 15 million copies and has dozens of spin-offs including expansions, a dice game, and videogames. It has come to define the Eurogame genre in America.

The core game involves players placing cities at the corners of randomized hexes, each of which provides a specific resource with a fixed chance of production each turn. As the game progresses, players use these resources to purchase more roads, settlements, and cities in order to harvest more resources.

Catan's biggest strength is the game's strategic depth despite simple rules - there are a wide variety of valid routes to victory and many economic and tactical mechanics going on at any given time. It is a popular tournament game for competetive players, but is still very accessible for families and casual gamers.

My biggest problem with Catan is the luck factor. Not that it exists, as almost all strategy games involve a large component of luck, but the way it feels. For most games, part of the strategy is figuring out what to do when you're down on your luck. In Catan, you can't do anything when the dice don't go your way. The game is completely out of your control and becomes frustrating and disappointing. There are many games where you can lose to bad luck, but in few does is it feel as unfun as Catan. Added to this is the fact that making comebacks is extremely difficult in economy based games, meaning that a run of bad luck early can leave you boxed in and undeveloped. The game's supporters seem somewhat aware of this, as the Wikipedia page laughably touts, "players who are behind can strive towards goals that are within their reach."

Verdict: Settlers of Catan is a very well-designed game, and can be enjoyed by casual players who don't mind its harsh nature and tournament players who appreciate that harshness. However, if you're a gamer like me who enjoys casual competition with friends, Catan is not your best choice.


Carcassonne is the top-selling franchise for Rio Grande Games, an American company who were founded with the specific goal of developing European style board games. It is a very simple game with a large number of available expansions.

Each turn, a player flips over a landscape tile and uses it to expand the board, then play place a marker to indicate that they are collecting points from one aspect of that tile. For example, a tile might have a segment of road passing by the corner of a city, in which case the player could place a knight in the city, a bandit on the road, or a farmer on the grass. They would eventually receive points based on the number of tiles eventually comprising the completed road, city, or field.

Carcassonne is fun and easy to learn, but doesn't have a whole lot of depth. Most of the strategic decisions are fairly simple and the interaction with opponents is fairly minimal. It is also one of the few games I have played which I like better as a two-player game than with three or more players. Multiple players can often cooperate to "share" very large territories, leaving the other players who were unable to get in on the territory extremely far behind.

Verdict: I've enjoyed playing Carcassonne casually and occasionally, but there isn't a lot of meat on those bones. A good game for playing with acquaintances and parents, but probably not the right choice for playing with avid gamers.


Also published by Rio Grande Games, Dominion is a much more complicated game than Carcassonne. There are a number of stand-alone versions available, which can be played on their own or mixed with the basic set.

As the game progresses, each player continually improves their deck by purchasing new cards, which in turn help them purchase even better cards the next time the go through the deck. Eventually, players begin purchasing "Victory" cards, which contribute to final score but do nothing when drawn. At the end of the game, the number and value of each player's Victory cards determine the winner.

Dominion is the best self-contained tabletop game I've played in a long time. I love deckbuilding for games like Magic, so I love the fact that Dominion has deckbuilding as a fundamental part of gameplay. The gameplay is both fast-paced and strategy intensive, with specific options changing each game.

My biggest complaint about the game is a seeming prevalence of "griefer" cards - effects that seem designed more to annoy or upset your opponents than provide actual strategic advantage. Most of the groups I've played with avoid certain cards that have proven particularly annoying.

Verdict: Dominion will almost certainly be the next game I purchase - I love pretty much everything about it. That said, the game is somewhat complicated and highly strategic, so I don't feel that it would be the best choice for playing with children or non-gamers.

Tomorrow in Part 2 - I review RoboRally, Betrayal at House on the Hill, and more!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Starting at "Heroic" - RPG Character Power Level

Many RPG systems have various tiers of character power. D&D 4E has Heroic, Paragon, and Epic levels. Savage Worlds has Novice, Seasoned, Veteran, Heroic, and Legendary characters. Even GURPS suggest starting point values for characters who are Average, Exceptional, or Heroic, all the way up to Godlike.

What power level characters start at is a huge thematic decision for a campaign, and in some cases for the system itself. For example, the original D&D was a much grittier system where a first-level character was basically a commoner with a sword who could easily get killed by a random orc or goblin in a fair fight. However, D&D 4E is explicit about the fact that even first-level characters are the best and brightest of the world, heroes in their own right with skills and powers beyond the ken of common soldiers and guards.

Games vary quite a bit in how powerful starting characters are, but they mostly fall into three categories:
1) Average - Normal people, who will be faced with exceptional circumstances and become special, or even heroic. This is an increasingly-rare starting point in RPG systems, and isn't the default for any system I can think of.
2) Exceptional - The best athletes, warriors, and scientists, but not yet heroes in their own right. Many systems have characters start out this way, including World of Darkness.
3) Heroic - Powerful characters with some adventuring under their belt, but a long way to go. This is the default for D&D, and the suggested starting point for GURPS campaigns.

I vastly preferred D20 Modern's advancement system to that of its partner D&D 3E, and it wasn't until I started playing GURPS that I understood why. D20 Modern starts characters at the "Exceptional" level, as individuals with great potential but no fixed heroic path. Characters take level in basic classes like "Strong Hero" and "Smart Hero" before they can advance in more specific roles like "Martial Artist" or "Mage." This was always much more thematically appealing to me than D&D's system where a level one Wizard was still an established adventurer with battle magic at the ready.

This realization came to me when I started running GURPS games and figured out how much I preferred running 100-point "Exceptional" starting characters to the 150-point "Heroic" suggested level. Personally, I find the story of seasoned cops and novice hedge-mages becoming heroes to be the most compelling starting point for a campaign. Of course, I'm much more likely to change things up in either direction for experiments and one-shot games.

My thesis here is not that some starting power levels are universally better than others, but rather that each has thematic implications that should be taken into consideration. Here are my opinions on what to consider before choosing a system/power level for you next campaign:

For the most part, players don't want to roleplay ordinary people. The only time I would suggest using this power level is for horror games when you really want the characters running scared, normal people in trapped circumstances beyond their control. Otherwise, let your characters be more awesome than this. Few modern systems default to this level, but many have rules for it or can easily be adapted.

This is the place to start if you want to run a long-term campaign with interesting characters and story development. It allows characters to be awesome and grow into heroes in a meaningful manner. On the other hand, it may not be the best choice for many short campaigns or action-centric games where heroes need to hold their own from the very beginning. World of Darkness and Savage Worlds default to this level, and GURPS is well-suited to it.

This is the traditional starting-point for action RPGs and casual games. It allows characters to "get right to the good stuff," using their rise to heroics as backstory rather than gameplay. D&D 4E starts here and GURPS 4E suggests it as the default level.

Personal preferences aside, these are all viable routes - just be sure to pick the right one for your campaign.