Three Settings I’d Love to See

6

So we’ve all got our favorite settings. Frequent readers know that I’m particularly fond of Deadlands and Urban Arcana. But there is always room for more settings, so here’s three that I’d love to see, along with working titles:

Odysseys

Odysseyeus Blinds PolyphemusBasically, it’s the world of Homer’s The Odyssey and Vergil’s Aeneid as well as other legends like Jason and the Argonauts where mortals must survive perilous journeys. Along the way, they encounter life-threatening hazards, battle fearsome monsters, and deal with the whims of the gods. Rather than having a single hero as these stories, groups with a common goal set out on a ship to reach their destination, and have an incredibly difficult time getting there.

The benefit of this setting is that it’s set up perfectly for episodic game sessions. You arrive an an island of lotus eaters one week and fight Scylla the next. Given the frequent detours, long term planning isn’t necessary and so the GM can easily adjust the scenario given the events of the campaign.

Ancient Greek and Roman history hasn’t seen too much love in roleplaying games, which I find odd given that a number of recent movies have been made in this era and have been very successful (e.g. Troy, Gladiator, Clash of the Titans). The closest roleplaying game I know is Hellas, which presents a space-faring Ancient Greek society. It’s pretty cool to yell out “This! Is! Sparta!!!!” as you kick your enemy off your trireme starship, but I think I’d be more interested in something a little more traditional and less over the top.

Holy Land, Unholy War

The Crusades are a fascinating era in human history. It is true that there was a great deal of bloodshed and misuse of religion in order to gain political power, but it was also an era of heroes from both sides and some incredible moments in military history, as well as some truly surprising moments. There was the surprise upset of the First Crusade, the stupid decisions of the Second Crusade, the glorious military campaigns of the Third Crusade, and the complete bizarreness of the Fourth Crusade (the Platinum Warlock once told me he’d like to write a comedy musical on the Fourth Crusade. Yeah, it’s that bizarre!).

I imagine the best time period for a crusades setting would be the Third Crusade simply because it’s the one that is most recognizable (this is the one in which Richard the Lionheart and Saladin fought) and there were some really great military campaigns. The biggest hurdle in creating such as setting is that it’s not very politically correct to be Christian crusaders fighting Muslim warriors or vice versa, especially given recent conflicts in the Middle East. Personally, I think that the conflict between the two religions, and the often non-religious motivations of many leaders, is an important aspect of the setting, but I think it’s best to have a truly evil faction.

For that, I’d propose adding some fantastic elements to the campaign. Let’s imagine that both factions had splinter groups who were using some dark arts to try and sway their side of the war. It’d probably be the Knights Templar on the Christian side (although in reality they aren’t nearly as mysterious as they’ve been made out to be in fiction) and evl sorcerers reminiscent of Arabian Nights on the Muslim side. Clearly, both of these groups are not aligned with their religious ideals and, especially if they’re summoning creatures of darkness or creating plagues or something, they’d be a group that Christians and Muslims can unite against in order to unite against. Or if the GM wants to blur the lines, perhaps sometimes they might present situations where it’s not clear what the side of righteousness is.

Years ago, Pinnacle Entertainment Group announced that they were working on Weird War: Crusades to join their Weird War II and the upcoming Weird War: Rome. Although it’s on indefinite hiatus and details are scarce, it seems to be exactly the sort of setting that I’d love to see. I hope that Pinnacle does make it some day because I’d love to play it!

Yankee Camelot

Twain's drawing of Lancelot sweeping in upon his bicycle.

Mark Twain’s drawing of Lancelot sweeping in upon his bicycle.

When I take long drives, I like to listen to audio books and have grabbed several free ones from LibriVox.org. This past summer as I was moving to St. Paul, I listened to Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and my mind was spinning with possibilities. For those who aren’t familiar, this is a novel about Hank Morgan, a modern man in the 1880s who suddenly finds himself in the medieval era of King Arthur. His knowledge of science, especially electricity and gunpowder, is mistaken for wizardry and he uses his influence and learning to transform that backwards time into a much more modern era.

As I was listening to that book, I was fascinated by the merging of two time periods. I think my favorite part was where Hank and King Arthur are rescued by Lancelot and other knights charging into battle on bicycles! Just that image sticks in my mind as something that makes me want to game in that setting!

I imagine that the setting would occur after Hank has been put into a delirious sleep and apparently returns to the modern era. There would be less emphasis on combat and more on social interaction and being able to effectively use and manage new technology in the medieval world. Player characters would be either other individuals who have arrived in the medieval era from the 1880s (or perhaps slightly before) or native medieval folk who were under the tutelage of Hank or one of his institutions (the novel for instance describes how a “West Point” had been founded as a military academy as well as a patent office: “the cornerstone of any civilized society.”) Antagonists would be those who are ignorant or fearful of the advances, especially the Catholic church as it was in the original novel, but I imagine a new faction could emerge who sees the power of inventions like Gatling guns and wishes to use it to overthrow the feudal structure.

All in all, this is a setting I would absolutely love to see. Perhaps someday I’ll actually write it!

Linear Wizards, Quadratic Warriors

5

Nope, the title is not a typo. I’m talking about the problem of linear wizards versus quadratic warriors. Sure, the other way around gets a lot of publicity, especially with Dungeons & Dragons 3.x and Pathfinder. And indeed, it is a problem when high levels warriors stab an enemy and only dealing a quarter damage while wizards conjure a firey malestrom that outright kills all the enemies.

But that pales in comparison to the travesty of linear wizards and quadratic warriors! I mean, what good is it to spend years with your nose in a book studying cantrips if your warrior counterparts are slaying gods? These problems do crop up occasionally in roleplaying games, but they are much more prevalent in other forms of media.

Arnold Schwarzenegger Conan the BarbarianConan the Barbarian for instance has warrior classes being severely overpowered compared to magic users. They have to spend days of preparation and ritual in order to pull of magic (although it can be impressive at times). But in combat, they’re just normal people in a robe that Conan can kill without them so much as get off a magic missile! Apparently in some of the later books, magic is said to be declining due to Conan setting up a kingdom based on logic and reason (or something). So Conan’s power grows while wizards’ power actually shrinks!

Lord of the Rings codifies the problem pretty well. Let’s face it; Gandalf did diddly squat with his magic throughout the series. He starts off by telekinetically shoving Saruman off his feet and using a Light cantrip in Moria. As he levels up in the series, he gains the ability to shine a magic flashlight against the Ringwraith to scare them off. You could blame this on the XP tax of getting resurrected, and in all fairness, he did manage to pull off exorcising Saruman from Theoden who seems considerably more powerful, but even still, Gandalf’s feats of magic are pretty weak.

Compare this to the warriors in the series. Gimli and Legolas start off killing just a few orcs in Moria, then advance to swathing through dozens and dozens of orcs on the battlefield, not to mention taking down an entire oliphaunt. Aragorn levels up to the point where he can take advantage of the Followers provided by AD&D 2nd Edition rules and gains an entire army of soldiers as well as an undead army, not to mention gains a fair amount of prowess in battle on his own. Even Merry managed to level up enough to be able to kill the Witch-King himself (which is even more ironic considering that a scene from the Extended Edition shows that the Witch-King handed it to Gandalf earlier in the film).

In fact, the only way that Gandalf is able to do anything remotely effective is to switch to his sword and become more like a warrior. He fights in battle this way and even kills the Balrog not by using his magic, but by stabbing it repeatedly. Clearly, Lord of the Rings has a problem with Gandalf advancing linearly (or flatlining) and everybody else quadratically outpacing him.

Gandalf decides that the only way to stay competitive is to take the sword and take the Longsword Proficiency feat.

Gandalf decides that the only way to stay competitive is to keep the sword he found as loot and take the Longsword Proficiency feat.

I’m really surprised that this glaring issue hasn’t received more attention. The various Lord of the Rings RPGs figured that nobody would want to play a wizard so they just make everyone the overpowered warriors. Star Wars: Edge of the Empire makes bounty hunters and smugglers pretty effective so I have to as: will they overshadow Jedi? Superheroes games like Mutants & Masterminds or even the Platinum Warlock’s own Cold Steel Wardens falls into this trap with Batman-type martial superheroes being on par with, if not superior to the X-Men?

We as gamers need to fight back! If you’re against linear warriors and quadratic wizards, then be concerned that the pendulum doesn’t swing to far and we wind up with linear wizards and quadratic warriors!

And yes, this is all a parody.

The Seven Deadly Sins of GMing

6

When I play in a roleplaying game, sometimes I come across a bad GM. Sometimes, the GM is bad because they are inexperienced or there are circumstances out of their control. However, there are other times when GMs make mistakes that are, in essence, unforgivable. These mistakes ruin the game and make it no fun at all for a player. I’ve decided to label these “The Seven Deadly Sins of GMing.”

1. Unpreparedness

Not coming to the game ready to play. As a GM, you are the organizer, referee, storyteller, and entertainer. If you’re not prepared to do these jobs when you come to the table, then you and the group will suffer the consequences. Preparedness means something different to each GM (I for one feel like I’m completely prepared if I’ve got a detailed story in my head, while others feel that they must write everything down beforehand). This sin could encompass not bringing needed materials to a game (especially con games), as well as not reading the adventure beforehand, or even worse, not knowing the most basic rules to the system you’re running.

Personal Experience: I played in a con game, run by a member of an otherwise very well-respected gaming group, where the GM seemed to make up his own rules for Savage Worlds. Successful Fighting rolls directly deal damage? Enemies make Dodge Checks? The GM spends Bennies to make the players reroll? I’m convinced he looked at the rules for the first time just 15 minutes before the game.

2. Apathy

Not caring about the game you’re running. This is where the GM has little passion for the game and it shows. His or her excitement isn’t evident and the players have little reason to get excited either. In its most extreme form, the GM would rather do anything besides GMing. Generally this happens if they did not originally plan to GM or there was some incentive to running the game that was more important to them than the personal enjoyment of running the game.

Personal Experience: In my only game of Pathfinder ever, I walked in ready to play (I had heard that it fixed many of the issues in D&D 3.x and was eager to try it to see if it was the game for me). The game had loads of issues, but one of the worst was the GM who brought no enthusiasm to the game. He read the adventure text in a deadpan tone, didn’t bother to explain monster damage (he’d silently move figures, roll some dice, and then say “you take 9 damage”), and didn’t even try to allow for roleplaying. I found out at the end that the only reason he ran the game was to be part of Paizo’s GM rewards program. The game was so horrible for that reason (and many more) that I have never played a Pathfinder game since.

My personal experiences for Apathy and of Unpreparedness are both described further in GMs to Love, GMs to Hate.

3. Railroading

Dictating how the players should play the game. Most commonly, this is done by presenting a situation with a problem and only accepting a single solution, or otherwise failing to give them a choice on how to proceed. I should note that when I talk about it as one of the “seven deadly sins,” I’m talking about the more extreme examples. Sometimes it can be useful in a limited amount, such as in con games where you need to tell a story in a limited time period, but it’s best done if you at least give them other options (or use some techniques to give the illusion of choice). But when you’re running a whole game and dictating how the players should play every step of it, then you’ve gone too far.

Personal Experience: I haven’t experienced this one personally, but I have a friend who played in a game where the GM presented a murder mystery. There was one clue at each site with one way to find it and one interpretation of the clue and one place to go next. Interrogating subjects or trying alternate ways to catch the killer was vetoed, and there was nothing more to be done.

4. Lack of Focus

Not having the game at the center of your attention. This is when the GM is at the table, but their mind is not. They are being distracted by other things in the room, texting, or having personal issues in life that keep their mind off the game. It’s bad enough when a player is not paying attention to the game, it’s worse when the GM, the one coordinating the game, isn’t. Apathy could be the reason for this, although it doesn’t have to be.

Personal Experience: It seems that shortly before a con game of D&D 4e, the GM had some sort of relationship crisis with a girl he’d just received a phone call from. Apparently he didn’t have the willpower to force his issues out of his mind and, despite us telling him that he could cancel the game if he wasn’t up to it, he decided to go ahead and run with it. The GM’s mind clearly wasn’t on the game and there was one or two times when the game stalled because the GM didn’t keep the action moving. The game ended after one encounter of D&D 4e and the four hour game took a grand total of one and a half hours. Not the way I planned my con game to go.

5. Physical Neglect

The term “gamer funk” has been coined to describe the body odor that comes from a stereotypical gamer. This tends to be someone who is so geeky that they neglect personal hygiene and fails to shower or use deodorant. I also broaden the sin of Physical Neglect to include failure to get enough sleep and not eating right because those can have a detrimental effect on how to run the game.

Personal Experience: There was a GM who seemed unable to focus on the game and was somewhat…cranky. After about an hour and a half, his buddy stopped by and gave him a sandwich, which he ate voraciously. Afterwards, he did a lot better and was focused and entertaining. From what I could tell, he hadn’t eaten much at the convention and it was adversely affecting his ability to GM an enjoyable game.

6. Playing Favorites

Favoring one character over another. As a storyteller, there is a temptation to want to make certain characters be the heroes of the story, rather than having six or so characters equally be the heroes. Unfortunately, this results in players not having as much fun, as they are no longer the stars of the adventure. This comes in two flavors: Mary Sue characters where they are an NPC favored over the player charcters, or the Dungeonmaster’s Girlfriend where a certain player is favored over others.

Personal Experience: The worst time I’ve come across this is in the Deadlands Classic adventure Fortress o’ Fear, which is a below average ending to the otherwise phenomenal Heart o’ Darkness trilogy. The adventure is based around Jackie “Mary Sue” Wells, time traveler from the future who has a gun that is powerful enough to kill even Stone. Most of the scenario revolves around her bossing around the posse, then saving the day time and again by being so awesome she can’t be killed and doesn’t need to roll dice. This was perhaps the biggest reason why the adventure failed (although the backstory to the creatures in Devil’s Tower was just as bad). Completely excising her does make the adventure playable though.

7. Absence

Simply not showing up. Obviously, there are understandable circumstances for GM absence, such as personal illness and family emergency and if these are properly communicated, are fully forgiveable. But if the GM fails to show up with no explanation, then I say that they’re committing the worst sin of these seven. I would also include in this category canceling a game on short notice for a non-emergency reason. It’s fine to cancel for non-emergency reasons with enough planning so long as it doesn’t happen too often, but telling us you’re going to be absent mere hours before the next game isn’t.

Personal Experience: One thing I occasionally encountered in college was a GM canceling a game two hours before because they “have too much homework.” This always irked me because 9 times out of 10 the problem could have been avoided with proper planning. Generally I had done my homework ahead of time knowing full well that I’d be busy that evening, and so to suddenly have something I was looking forward to canceled because the GM failed to do the same left a bad taste in my mouth.

An Eighth Sin?

Interestingly, the Orthodox Church recognizes Eight Deadly Sins rather than the Seven that the Catholic Church recognizes (they add Despair). Is there an Eighth Deadly Sin that you think should be added to this list?

Ork! The Roleplaying Game

1

RPG Blog CarnivalThis month’s blog carnival topic is hosted by Arcane Shield. The author’s topic is to Pimp a Game, promoting lesser known RPG games that we adore.

One of the great things about my time in the Wittenberg Role-playing Guild was the fact that I got to try a large variety of lesser known systems. There are several RPGs that I really enjoy that haven’t gotten nearly enough attention. Among them are:

  • Traveller (previously reviewed here and here)
  • Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space
  • Paranoia
  • Star Wars d6

But as I was thinking about which game I wanted to talk about for this blog carnival, I remembered a truly obscure game that I absolutely adore: Ork! The Roleplaying Game.

Ork! The Roleplaying Game was the first product ever produced by Green Ronin, which has since produced many popular products like Mutants & Masterminds, Freeport, True20, A Song of Ice and Fire, and Dragon Age. Ork is only a mere 64 pages, but it’s a whole heck of a lot of fun as a “beer and pretzels” game.

Theme

Ork! The Roleplaying GameThe premise of the game is that you are Orks. Brawny, bloodthirsty, and stupid orks. As the book says, the Orks live by one simple principle: “Me am Ork! Me am kill you now!”

Religion is very important to Orks, who worship the angry god Krom (played by the GM). They believe that he threw up the world over the course of fourteen thousand days, but threw up the Orks last. When he told the Orks that they were his chosen people, they simply yelled back “You am shut up!” Thus there is always a tenuous relation between Krom and Orks. Sometimes he helps them out in battle and sometimes he gets angry. When he gets really, really angry, he turns them into pinecones.

This basically means that Krom is encouraged to do whatever the heck he wants to. Give high modifiers, give low modifiers, or have them get carried off by flying monkeys, smashed by a troll, or turned into a pinecone, it’s all fair game. The way I play it, this usually winds up turning into a Paranoia-style game where Orks are frequently getting killed, but another one is always back to replace him. The fact that character creation takes about 2 minutes (less if you know what you’re doing) helps a lot with this!

Mechanics

Part of the reason that Ork works so well is the mechanics. Traits are rolled by die pools. Each Skill category has a die type (e.g. d8) and then each skill has a number in it (e.g. 3). When you roll them together, you roll the number of dice as indicated by the skill and roll the related attribute die. If you have a 3 in Eyeball and a d10 in Twitch, youʼd roll 3d10 and add the total together. The result is a pretty chaotic and hard to predict die result, which fits with the theme of the game.

All die rolls are opposed. Most often, it’s between the player and Krom, and Krom is encouraged to make up his die pools as needed (perhaps 5d12 on a task he doesn’t want to happen, and 1d4 on a task he really does). This makes things fairly random and chaotic, and it’s always fun when the player’s 3d6 pool beats the 5d12 that Krom used to stop them (or vice versa). This also means that you can pull of some ridiculous tasks: want to jump over the forest? If your dice get lucky enough, you totally can!

Most enemies go down with one hit, but Orks themselves have different wound rules than enemies and can heal pretty easily. To me, this is a real strength in the game. It allows the Orks to swath through hordes of “squishy men” and also means that PvP combat isn’t very effective. Fighting other Orks is definitely encouraged (with the occasional bonk on the head), but ultimately isn’t very effective, meaning that players won’t resort to it all the time and will focus on more interesting things.

Finally, Krom can hand out Ork Points for things like talking like an Ork, committing wanton violence, drinking anything vaguely alcoholic, or exhibiting some other Orkish behavior. Conversely, Krom can take them away for un-Ork-like behavior, like sitting in a field of flowers and admiring their beauty. These points can be used to add dice when you need it or reroll your die pool. I’m a big fan of systems that allow the GM to hand out some bonus for good roleplaying and Ork totally allows you to do this.

Scenarios

It wouldn’t be a good review of Ork without talking about the scenarios that come with it. Generally it involves a fantasy setting, mixed with some bizarre, anachronistic elements through the use of mysterious time portals that things come out of or the Orks go into. The intro scenario in the book has something like that where they discover that the medieval Squishy Men have obtained (spoiler: a Chevy Malibu) that fell out of the sky.

The official website has two additional scenarios for download: Mister Ork’s Wild Ride! (where they go to an amusement park) and Santa Claus vs. the Orks! (where they go to the North Pole). I once wrote a scenario called “Orks in New York!” where they wind up in the city of “New Ork” and try to steal the golden flame from the green queen and have all sorts of hijinks along the way. I think these scenarios perfectly capture the spirit of Ork and they’re incredibly fun!

Conclusion

Ork is a fantastic roleplaying game for when you just want to leave your intellect out the door and play a roleplaying game with wanton violence and stupidity, while laughing the whole time. It’s definitely a great “beer and pretzels” game for the occasional one-shot.

The game isn’t perfect. I think that early in its development it suffered from not having a clear idea of what type of humor it wanted to embrace. The scenarios and some of the book embraces ridiculous scenarios (which I adore), but sometimes it tries to go for gross out humor or tries to downplay the humor, especially for long-term, more serious game (there are rules for playing a campaign with it, even though I doubt anybody ever tried). There are also some rules quirks, like ranged enemies have to make an opposed roll against Krom, meaning that Krom is rolling dice against himself.

Ultimately though, I think that the three published scenarios perfectly capture the tone and the rules quirks are easy enough to avoid because Krom gets to bend the rules anyway. This game is an incredibly entertaining and, if you can find a copy, it’s definitely worth it. Green Ronin has said they’d like to make a new edition someday and I’d love to see it happen!

“Having One Eye is Purely Cosmetic”

1
Long hair, fancy clothes, one eye. All a matter of style.

Long hair, fancy clothes, one eye. All a matter of style.

I realized something: in Dungeons & Dragons and its derivatives like Pathfinder, having one eye is purely cosmetic. There are no effects, positive or negative, that come from making a character have only one eye. They can spot enemies, shoot a bow, and jump over chasms just as well as their two-eyed counterparts. If their eye gets gouged out by a monster (or heaven forbid, they plan to use the Eye of Vecna), there are no lasting side effects. At the end of the day, having one eye is just as important as having blonde hair; it’s a purely cosmetic choice.

I’ve thought a bit about the reasons for it and here’s what I’ve come to the conclusion of:

No Way to Voluntarily Lose an Eye

I imagine that part of the reason for this is that, unlike other roleplaying games, Dungeons & Dragons does not have a set of rules for Hindrances or Drawbacks. During character creation, players don’t choose any flaws for their character, physical or otherwise. Without a way for a player to voluntarily make their character have a physical defect, one impetus for including such rules is lost. I’d hope that D&D Next would include a system like this, but alas it doesn’t seem likely.

Granted, you can gouge out your eye voluntarily to use the Eye of Vecna, but if you actually go through with it, you’re back to full sight (plus all the fun stuff that comes with it).

Death Has Historically Been Cheap

I imagine that the lack of such rules is largely because Dungeons & Dragons began as Chainmail, a wargame. In that game, you’re dealing with armies of soldiers who are all fighting fit because they would be discharged from service if they had only one eye or another hindrance that prevented them from effectively fighting. Furthermore, in the early days of D&D when death was cheap (and many low-level characters died from a single unnoticed trap), there wasn’t really any point to noting when they suffered a grave injury; you’re concerned largely about if they’re alive or dead, not about if they’ve lost an eye.

I think that this legacy has still continued to the day, even though the initial reasoning has largely gone. Even in Dungeons & Dragons 4e where characters are pretty hard to kill, a character can’t get their eye gouged out as an injury or lose a limb.

Hit Points Make it Tough

Back in the wargaming days, units were either alive or dead, and one hit took them down. When Gygax and Arneson created Dungeons & Dragons based on Chainmail, they decided that characters needed to be a bit more hardy to survive. Instead of taking one hit to go down, some unitswould take two or three hits to go down. They called the system “hit points.” Since then, the hit point mechanic has evolved into the system it is today (and pretty much every game and video game that uses hit points is indebted to this mechanic).

Over time, hit points became greater and characters became even hardier with changes to the rules on death. But the basic concept has stayed to the same. One side effect of this development is that your character can get all the way down to 1 HP and still fight just as well as they were at full health, and make a full recovery without even a scar.

HP. I still have one left.

Interestingly, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons did try rules like this with their Unearthed Arcana book, which added optional rules for severe injuries, such as a broken arm. The implementation though was…poor. Basically your arm is a “bag of hit points” and if your arm gets to 0, it’s broken or worse. Most people found it too complicated and not really worth the called shot penalties it incurred, so those rules didn’t make an appearance in later versions.

A Possible Solution: Injury on Incapacitation

Yup, it’s totally ripped off from Savage Worlds, but it works. Why not just have this: whenever a character becomes incapacitated, they roll on a table for random injuries, indicating the damage they got from their last few attacks. The severity can be modified by the results of a Constitution roll (or Fortitude Saving Throw for 3.x systems). Then they’re stuck with the injury until they get fully healed, or permanently if it’s severe.

Injuries by default would add a penalty to some characteristic. A limp penalizes Pace and Agility, a gouged out eye penalizes Perception and Ranged attacks. And this solution works even with the current hit point system.

Ultimately though, I guess it all comes down to a matter of preference. Some people are totally fine with the fact that one eye is cosmetic. I on the other hand want things to be a bit more realistic in my games. Or at least let characters have flaws (which is a much bigger topic).

Go to Top