Posts tagged RPG Reviews

Review of The GM’s Field Guide to Players

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Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this PDF in compensation for this review.

As much as we might not like to admit it, some GMs are better than others. There are a lot of factors that go into this, such as personal charisma and the ability to think on the fly, but there’s also a level of understanding of good principles of GMing. My favorite has been Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering, which I consider to be the definitive guide to what makes a good gamemaster. One recent book (well, PDF book) I’ve discovered has a more specific focus: The GM’s Field Guide to Players.

The GM’s Field Guide to Players ($7, PDF) consists of 3 chapters spanning 54 pages. The table of contents and any references to other parts of the book are hyperlinked within the PDF, allowing for easy access. Everything is black and white, which is fine for an informative book. It’s designed to be systemless, but I think that many of the examples and problems are written with D&D in mind.

This picture was in the Power Gamer section. I have no clue why.

One of the first things I noticed as I was skimming through the book was that the art was rather disjointed and had little to do with the text. Some look like fantasy images out of a medieval manuscript, some are modernist art of people using various technology, and some are of animals. One that confused me especially was of white owls standing on books, circling a bunch of toadstools with a black owl on a book in the center of the ring. This was followed by a man and woman sitting on a rock. I’m afraid that ultimately this gave me a bad first impression of the PDF, as it made it seem like it didn’t have a clear focus.

Player Types and How to Use Them

The first chapter revolves around player types. It describes the differences between the Character Actor, the Combat Monger, the Mechanic, the Power Gamer, the Socialite, the Solver, and the Storyteller. I’ve seen most of these classifications before (sometimes by different names) and I wouldn’t say that any of these classifications are radically different compared to the other classification systems I’ve seen.

Each entry provides a description of the “class,” which I find really best describes the exemplar of a class. This is followed by a paragraph each on their “virtues” and “vices” at the gaming table (i.e. the ways they help and hinder a game) along with a list of ways they can be useful and “things to do and not do.” Several also include a list of “sub-classes” describing more niche types that fall into the category.

I found the descriptions themselves to be pretty helpful and informative, if somewhat meandering and over-general. The virtues and vices, which provide a fairly concise description of how you might expect one to play out at the table. I think that these sections would be pretty helpful for a new GM who has never seen these sorts of classifications before.

However, The “ways a ______ can be useful” offers advice that is probably a bit too idealistic and impractical for most games. For instance, it suggests the Mechanic be assigned to looking up die results and creating cheat sheets while the Storyteller should be used as a backup GM. Many of the class entries also suggest that they be used as mentors for other players. In practice though, I think that delegating duties to players is unlikely to work out as well as the author hopes because players tend not to have as much invested in the game as the GM.

The section on what to do and not to do with each type has a lot of great advice, but I think that in an effort to provide advice tailored to each class that some good gaming advice that would be useful to all players is instead presented specifically to a certain type of player, which means that a GM reading certain sections may miss some very useful advice. For instance, “describe combat vividly” rather than as mere die rolls is great advice that benefits all players. However, it’s buried in the suggestions for Combat Mongers. I would argue that players in general would benefit from this advice, but if you don’t have a Combat Monger in your group, then you’re not going to read the section that contains that advice.

I found the subtypes of the classes to be over-general. For instance, one of the Character Actor’s subtypes is “the Goth” who is described as always wanting to play “the dark, brooding loner.” They also apparently prefer playing World of Darkness, which implies that a great many players of that game would be of this type. I’ve never come across a player described like this and even if I did, I find it hard to believe that they would absolutely be a Character Actor (perhaps they might be a Storyteller or Socialite).

Field Guide to Players does briefly note that actual players may contain traits from multiple character types, but ultimately I feel that because it focuses so much on the exemplar of each character type that it’s difficult to separate out the individual traits that a given player might take from that category. For instance, I would consider myself something of a hybrid of a Storyteller, Solver, and Power Gamer, but the very absolute descriptions and specific suggestions given to each of those three makes it difficult for a new GM to find out how to best incorporate me as a player (not to mention that you’ll have to read 9 pages to figure me out, then repeat the process for any other players).

The first chapter takes 23 pages to cover all of the types. There’s a lot of great advice in it, but it could have been a lot more concise and less focused on describing the exemplar player types.

Dealing with Problem Players

The book’s second chapter begins with five steps for dealing with problem players, which mirrors a lot of general problem-solving steps used in team-building seminars and counseling (including a section about using “I feel” statements, although not described as such). For most game problems, I think such steps are overkill, but Field Guide for Players seems to want to tackle the big problems. After all, a list of “common” problems a GM might have to deal with include “antagonizing other players,” “cheating on die rolls,” “deliberately sabotaging the game”, and “telling other players what their characters do or feel.”

And that’s perhaps the biggest problem I have with this chapter. Like the proceeding one, it’s about extremes. If you have players like that at your table, there are bigger issues that need to be addressed (and as a GM, you probably ought to think about finding a different group of gamers, which surprisingly is never suggested). In fact, I think that the entire list of “the most common behavior problems” (of which the four I listed above are from), could be consolidated into the following, less-extreme categories:

  • The player is bored (e.g. not paying attention, doing other activities)
  • The player is not cooperating with other players (e.g. hogging the spotlight, stealing from the party)
  • The player is breaking the game rules or not playing in an acceptable way (e.g. cheating, metagaming)
  • Issues unrelated to the game itself are having consequences on the game (e.g. bringing personal issues, arriving late or not at all)

It seems to me like describing these types of problems, rather than addressing how to deal with the big problems, would have been more useful to many GMs who are unlikely to have the big problems arise. After all in my four years of GMing, the worst problem I’ve had is chronically late players, which is usually resolved when the player decides they are too busy to continue. In such cases, the five step model is probably overkill.

After listing situations where you would want to go straight to Step 5 and remove the player (you can probably guess figure that out easily enough), there’s a section on “Ideas for Avoiding Player Problems.” It starts off with advice about laying out the expectations for the game (which is great advice) and states that you may need to change the game to be more engaging to each of the players’ playstyles (also great advice). It then suggests that many problems come up because the player types aren’t jiving with the characters they are playing, which I think misses the mark (and why are they playing the character if they aren’t going to like it?).

The chapter follows up with several paragraphs describing an incentive system to discourage problems. For instance, it suggests giving your chronically late player a reward for being on time, which I think can be a bit overkill and doesn’t do much to address the root causes of the problem. It also recommends voting for an MVP, which in my experience works great for convention games in which prizes are awarded, but would just cause contention in a campaign (looks like Mark’s the MVP again).

Types of Problem Players

The final chapter talks about common types of problem players: the Aggressive PC, the Drama Queen, the Flaky Gamer, the Inattentive, the Munchkin, the Persistent Noob, the Rules Lawyer, and the Spotlight Hog. Like the first chapter, it spends 1-2 pages describing each type while giving suggestions about how to deal with them. Again, some of the suggestions are good: like listening to a Rules Lawyer briefly, then making a rules call and sticking with it for the remainder of the game. Others seem a bit childish, notably “pass around a talking stick” (which I’ve seen preschools do). It even recommends solving the Spotlight Hog problem by having a caller (having all players give their suggestions to one player, who then makes a final decision, who relays it to the GM), which I think is a terrible idea because it is unnecessarily complex and will probably kill any fun. All in all, these fourteen pages are a fairly mixed bag.

Conclusion

Don’t get me wrong, for all this book’s faults, it has some good advice, such as the descriptions of the general player types and the suggestions on how to avoid problem players. Perhaps the biggest issue is that it seems excessively wordy and consequently some great gems get buried. Overall, I found The GM’s Field Guide to Players to be a mixed bag that is best for those with very difficult players at their gaming table. If your gaming group is average, there are better books for GM advice out there for about the same price (such as Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering, a $7.99 PDF).

Thoughts on D&D Next

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For those who don’t know (because one should always assume that there is at least one reader who doesn’t), D&D Next is the upcoming version of Dungeons & Dragons, which Wizards of the Coast is currently putting in an open playtest. One of the big design goals is to “unite the editions” by taking the best from each one and hopefully creating an edition that would provide common ground between players who each have a different favorite edition. I imagine that this is why it is called D&D Next and not D&D 5e.

By the way, I made predictions about what “D&D 5e” would be like before D&D Next was announced. It’s not quite time to check off the list, but I’m already getting a good sense of which predictions were right and which ones weren’t. I also had a wish list of changes I wanted to see, but which I was not too confident would actually happen.

The first round of public playtesting showed a version of D&D Next that Wizards has adamantly stated is only about 10-20% complete with future rounds of public playtesting providing more developed and finalized rules. There are no rules for character creation yet and the playtest packet includes a set of pregen characters to take through the included adventure, along with about 30 pages of basic rules. Reaction to the playtest has been varied, from highly positive, to neutral, to scathingly negative, although an informal online poll shows that about 65% of playtesters have positive feelings about it with 20% on the fence.

I downloaded the playtest materials myself and read over them, then participated in a playtest at Origins. I’ve also been keeping an eye on the designer’s commentary in their Legends & Lore column. So what do I think about it?

My biggest issue with the first round of playtesting was a lack of innovation in the rules. It seemed like they reverted back to D&D 3.x as a template, made the characters on a level of OD&D simplicity, and threw in the flexibility in spells from AD&D. Now I don’t have a problem with picking and choosing the best aspects from each edition, but I was getting the impression that the rules mechanics were being chosen not as much to create the best of each edition, but rather to take the sacred cows from each edition and put them into one corral (so to speak).

Combat was at about the same speed as Savage Worlds, which I liked a lot. There were some new rules I liked, like the Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic and the fact that wizards could use basic spells at-will (hopefully alleviating the temptation to create a fifteen minute workday). I also noticed that there is now an “Intoxicated” condition which gives you Disadvantage to all attacks, but lets you reduce damage dealt to you by 1d6, which could potentially result in some “liquid courage” tactics! I’ve always liked Skills and was a bit concerned about the fact that they were reduced to simple +2 bonuses to attribute rolls, but mechanically it seems to work well enough.

Overall, I came to the conclusion that although the first public version of D&D Next worked well enough, it was not very innovative. Although it was a streamlined version of D&D with a few nice additions, I wasn’t very excited about the system. But that all changed when I read the Legends & Lore article called Bounded Accuracy.

First, some background. One of my biggest complaints about D&D over the years is that common threats are “beneath” higher level characters. This is because as they gain levels, their bonuses to skills and attributes constantly escalate to the point where they can meet the DC of common threats even if they totally botch their rolls and their AC is so high that common monsters can’t even hit them. This makes sandbox games problematic, since the level 20 party rolls a 2 and still kicks down the iron door, then laughs at the fact that the swarm of goblins inside can’t even hit him. As a result, the GM has to make up ridiculous situations just to challenge the party with a DC to match their astronomical skill bonuses (no, it’s not an iron door, it’s an triple-reinforced adamantine door!).

But the aforementioned article stated that D&D Next would be using “bounded accuracy” where characters do not gain increased attribute levels simply by leveling up. Thus with all things being equal, an iron-banded door with DC 17 to break down is just as tough for a 1st-level Fighter as a 20th-level Fighter. This also means that AC is more or less static so you won’t have to get a +5 Magic Weapon or the Weapon Expertise feat just to stay competitive in a fight. In fact, the only thing that really increases as you level up is hit points and the amount of damage you can deal. So an angry mob of level 1 characters could still kill a dragon and a swarm of kobolds could still challenge a level 20 fighter. For the first time, you can use the same low-level monsters to challenge a higher level party, especially if they come in greater numbers.

That is innovation right there and that makes me excited for D&D Next. A long-standing rules issue has been resolved using an ingenious new mechanic for the sake of making a better D&D. If Wizards makes more innovations like that, I will be one of the first to buy the new edition when it came out.

Urban Arcana Cover Art

I’d rather use D&D Next for bugbears in the boardroom than any other version of D&D

Also, it’s probably worth noting that I would rather run my favorite setting, Urban Arcana, using D&D Next instead of 3.x or 4e because it is fast-paced and flexible and appears to be easy to customize. Finding a better version of D&D to run my favorite D&D setting is a total win in my book!

Review of Mongoose Traveller, Part 2

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Two weeks ago, I started my review of Mongoose Traveller (i.e. the version of Traveller created by Mongoose Publishing) and talked about the amazing character creation system. Gameplay in Mongoose Traveller is slick, although it’s not quite as stellar as the character creation.

The typical adventuring party in Traveller is a group of people working together on freelance missions. Sometimes they have their own ship, sometimes they’ll have one on loan from a patron. Generally this leads to sort of a Firefly vibe with people from different walks of life all working together.

Because there are so many skills, it’s possible to have missions that don’t have any combat whatsoever. Want to go on a science mission? It’s easy since there are multiple skills that are related to science. Want to have Battlestar Galactica-style drama? You’ll be using skills like Admin, Advocate, Deception, Diplomat, Investigate, Persuade, and even Carouse. And how do you do stuff? Roll 2d6, add your modifier from an appropriate characteristic (such as Intellect, Dexterity, or Education) and add your modifier from an appropriate skill, generally aiming for an 8 or higher. Quick and easy. Because skills just add flat modifiers, this also means that characters still have a shot at doing things that they aren’t well trained for.

But if you do want to do combat, be forewarned that it is lethal. Say you’re on a mission and some goon wants to shoot you. He makes a Gun Combat roll, adds his Dex Modifier, and gets an 8. If you’re not under cover or anything, then you’re shot. The goon rolls for damage and your Endurance characteristic is reduced by the number of points you got hit for. Did it get to 0? Then you reduce either Strength or Dexterity for the remaining number of points, which abstracts the kind of wound that you’re getting. And did either of those get to 0? Then you need immediate medical treatment or you’re dead. Lethal, but really, really fast (faster even than Savage Worlds).

If there’s a weakness to gameplay, it’s that it’s really hard to advance. If you think about it, your character only earned one or two skills over the course of four years during character creation. It takes about as long in gameplay. The official way to do it is that the number of in-game weeks it takes to advance a skill is equal to the number of skill levels you have. Got ten skill levels? It will take you ten in-game weeks to advance. Although realistic, this can be hard to manage if you’re used to a D&D-style power progression. The real reward for completing missions is generally money and contacts, not experience.

Besides those things, there really isn’t anything special about gameplay. There’s a lot of potential for a variety of mission types, combat is lethal, yet really, really fast, and the focus is on getting contacts rather than getting experience. If you don’t like for the system to get in the way of your storytelling, I think you’ll be happy with how Mongoose Traveller feels in game. Still I imagine that there will be some who find gameplay less interesting than the awesomeness of character creation. I can’t think of another system that has that problem.

At any rate, I definitely recommend giving Mongoose Traveller a try at least. It’s a nifty system that is an update to an old classic. Simple, diverse, and fun.

Review of Mongoose Traveller, Part 1

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On Friday night, I got to run a one-shot of one of my favorite systems: Traveller. Or more specifically, the Mongoose Publishing version of Traveller (usually shortened to Mongoose Traveller or MGT). You see, there are quite a few versions of Traveller, the oldest of which was released in 1977. Mongoose Traveller is an updated version of the original Traveller with more modern mechanics. The result: pure awesomeness!

The most ingenious part about Traveller in all its forms is character creation, which is basically a game in and of itself. Most RPGs have you create characters as they are in the present and any thought about their past is usually an afterthought relegated to a character’s backstory. Traveller works the other way. Your character’s statistics are a direct result of their past life events, which are randomly determined to some extent. Although you will likely wind up with a different character than you envisioned, the result is a character with greater depth and history.

The first thing you do is roll 2d6 to determine your six basic characteristics. There’s the standard RPG attributes like Strength, Dexterity, Endurance, and Intellect, but there are also two more: Education and Social Standing. Just like the PSAs tell you, a better education means that you have more career choices. But being famous helps too.

You start your character as a teenager on a planet somewhere out in space. You get a few skills based on your homeworld and upbringing, then you get to apply for your first career. If you make it, then you’re off to good start. If not, you can either let the military draft you or you can become a Drifter (or as we like to call it, a Hobo).

After that, you advance your life in four year stretches of time. You get training in a skill to indicate your learning on the job. Then you have to make a roll to see if you “survive.” In old versions of Traveller, failure meant you died. Time to make a new character! But in Mongoose Traveller, failure just means that you were ejected from your career for some reason. You roll on a mishap table to figure out why. Perhaps your journalist got arrested and sent to prison because of something they wrote. Or your marine led a blunderous assault and was severely wounded, resulting in his discharge. Either way, it’s time to find a new career.

If you succeeded in your survival roll, you get to roll on an events table to determine what notable thing happened to you in the last four years. Perhaps your scout managed to get in contact with a previously undiscovered alien species. Or your noble had some political squabbles and gained an enemy. After this, you roll to see if your character gets a promotion of some sort in their career. Then you can repeat the cycle again for the next four years of life.

If you decide that your character is getting too old, then you can end character creation and decide to start the game at whatever age you stopped at. There is a tradeoff to aging: you become more skilled, but the physical toll of aging starts to catch up to you. I think that this is a really brilliant mechanic because it makes it so a 26 year old and a 62 year old are both on about equal terms in the entourage while still having very different talents.

Another important part about character creation is that you gather contacts, allies, rivals, and enemies. These add more depth to the character (and give lots of great plot hooks to the GM). Contacts and allies can also be another player character, reflecting your shared history. I even had one player made another player character into a contact, then roll a life event saying that their character became romantically involved with one of their contacts. So the characters wound up marrying! I can’t say that I’ve seen that happen in any other system.

To sum it all up, character creation is a blast and is definitely a unique system! Next week, I’ll be reviewing Mongoose Traveller for the actual gameplay.

A Review of Some Christmas Scenarios

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Like it or not, we’re about a week away from Christmas! Many of us celebrate it in real life, so why not also celebrate it in our role-playing games? I’ve found into a few Christmas themed scenarios that I’d like to review (the first two I’ve run as well):

Silent Night, Hungry Night (Deadlands Reloaded)

Ever wonder what Christmas is like in the Weird West? The characters are on a train that breaks down on Christmas Eve, but fortunately there’s a small town nearby that might be willing to put up the passengers for the night. But it turns out that they’re rather hostile towards the newcomers since a group of raiders from a nearby town came by and now they barely have enough food for themselves. If the group is going to have a warm place to sleep tonight and the people are going to have a merry Christmas, then this town is going to need some heroes! But little do they know that there is something far more sinister and stranger going on…

This adventure is a free one-sheet adventure (actually it’s one and a half sheets) published by Pinnacle Entertainment and written by Shane Hensley himself. As Deadlands scenarios go, it’s more of a traditional Western scenario with only a bit of the supernatural included. The focus is mostly investigation, but does have combat at the end. When I ran it last Christmas, I found that it also made a decent scenario for introducing players to Deadlands.

One thing about the scenario is that players will eventually discover that they are in a twist of another Christmas story that they’ll recognize (I won’t say which one!). It’s a great moment when they finally realize it, especially seeing how it’s been twisted into Deadlands. If the GM isn’t careful, it could come across as cheesy, but the reveal happens when the players are in a really bad situation, so hopefully the players won’t be inclined to poke holes at it.

If you’d like a bit of Christmassy Deadlands this scenario is definitely worth running. It’s strongly tied to the feel of the setting though, so if you’re just looking for a Christmas scenario for the sake of Christmas, you might be more interested in one of the other scenarios.

Santa Claus vs. The Orks! (Ork! The Roleplaying Game)

First off, this is a scenario for Ork! The Roleplaying Game from Green Ronin. It’s a fairly obscure system, but it’s an absolutely hilarious “beer & pretzels” game. Each of the players is a brawny, stupid Ork who is typically out to do some crazy quest that the Ork Shaman has sent you on. Usually it involves wanton violence and the killing of as many “Squishy Men” as they can find. It’s pretty easy to learn and is a lot of fun for one-shots.

In this free scenario, the Ork Shaman has sent the Orks on a mission to steal the heart of the “Crumpet Man Shaman” who he says “am jolly, fat person who am rule over Crumpet Men” who make toys. Not long after, they jump through a magic portal and arrive at the North Pole. There’s terrifying singing (Fa la la la la, la la la la!), a factory of terror (Santa’s toy factory), a stable of flying reindeer (which the Orks can try to ride), and the jolly Crumpet Man Shaman himself who declares that the Orks are very, very naughty!

With a creative group, this one is a riot and in some ways is stronger because it plays off the fact that it’s so cheesy. If you can get your hands on a copy of Ork! The Roleplaying Game (which unfortunately has been out of print for some time), this is definitely worth running!

A Kringle in Time (Risus)

Risus is an ingenious (and free!) RPG where characters don’t have stats, they have clichés which they use to solve their problems. Any sort of hero you can think of will work with this system. There is a $15 scenario named “A Kringle in Time” which throws in just about everything into it. Perhaps it’s best if I just give the description of the scenario:

This is an adventure about saving Christmas from an ancient evil. This is an adventure about murdering Santa Claus for his own good (seven times). This is an adventure about shopping, and family, and eggnog, and Jesus Christ, who appears here courtesy of the Almighty God, along with his robot duplicate. This is an adventure about the stress of fast-food employment, the grandeur of world-domination plans, the difficulty of pronouncing things in Welsh, and about toys nobody wants.

I haven’t run (or played it) it before, but it certainly sounds like it could make a riotous adventure with the right GM.

The Battle of Christmas Eve (Savage Worlds)

This is a really creative scenario in which you are all Toy Story-like toys who wake up at night when nobody is around. The Battle of Christmas Eve is a free scenario written by Paul “Wiggy” Wade Williams, author of many Savage Worlds scenarios as well as All for One: Régime Diabolique. In this one, it’s Christmas Eve and a group of rogue toys are threatening to ruin Emily’s Christmas. It’s your job to go in and save the day while fighting the rogue toys and avoiding Mittens the cat.

Aside from being a rather adorable concept, it’s actually a very well written scenario with a lot of variety. There’s combat (GI Joe guns are deadly to toys!) and also recruitment of other toys and the need to accomplish strategic objectives. And it even takes advantage of some of the Savage Worlds subsystems by including a chase and a Mass Battle showdown underneath the Christmas tree. There’s also a note that 1 game inch represents 1 real world inch in this scenario, so you could even use your own toys to travel around your house instead of using a battle mat!

Although this would be a lot of fun with adults, I have to say I really wish that I had a group of little kids to play this with, probably using a simplified version of Savage Worlds. It’s really a brilliant scenario and of all the ones on this list is probably my favorite.

So that’s four great Christmas scenarios to add some holiday cheer to your gaming. Are there any others out there that I don’t know about?

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