Posts tagged RPG Theory

Why Every Campaign Should Plan for an End

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In my opinion, no campaign should begin without an end in mind. This may sound somewhat strange to gamers who are accustomed to playing games that continue on and on. But I think that without a planned ending, the campaign itself becomes weaker.

Prevent Jumping the Shark and GM Burnout

Fonzie literally jumps the shark

Fonzie literally jumps the shark

The party of heroes has just saved the world from the evil sorcerer! What’s next? Well, his apprentice, who is also his girlfriend, vows revenge on the player characters and has a plan just as sinister. And after she’s defeated, it turns out they had a son who wants revenge too. And he had an uncle who wants to destroy the entire universe once and for all. But as a consolation, he decided to resurrect the original big bad. And the resurrected big bad…uh…tries going back in time to prevent all of the heroes accomplishments from happening in the first place.

At some point, an extended campaign is going to either:

  • Jump the shark, in which elevating the stakes of the campaign takes a turn for the underwhelming
  • Lead to GM burnout where the GM has run out of interesting ideas and is no longer sure how to make the game interesting

Comparing to TV shows, Heroes had a phenomenal first season. And then a poor second season and a worse third season, then it got better in the fourth and fifth, but by that point, people had long given up. Imagine if Heroes had been a miniseries ending at the first season? The result would have been a much stronger, and much better remembered, show. Or to use a movie example, wouldn’t The Matrix have been a lot better if they’d just stuck to one movie?

Having an ending in mind prevents these fates from happening. The GM isn’t struggling to up the ante and in danger of running out of new ideas.

Players May Not Keep the Same Schedule

People have changing lives. They may be available on Wednesday nights for a while, but once they graduate from college, get a new job, or have a baby, they may no longer be able to maintain their typical roleplaying game time. And if people need to drop out because of life commitments, your campaign might fall apart. It’s hard to recruit players into an extended campaign that they weren’t around for at the beginning.

By saying up front that a campaign will last for so many months or take about so many sessions, you’re making it easier for players to commit to a game. They can decide for themselves if they’ll be available for the time. If things are getting hectic, they may decide to hang out for another few weeks if they know that the ending is drawing near. This also means that, worst case, if your friend is running a campaign that turns out to be terrible, at least you can push forward to the end that’s coming instead of having to slog through for an indefinite time or drop out.

Avoid the Firefly Phenomenon

Sci-fi fans around the world have shed many tears over the fact that Joss Whedon’s Firefly was canceled after 14 episodes, despite being an original and promising show. This has led to what I call the Firefly Phenomenon where fans of the series lament the fact that the show ended far too soon due to external circumstances and left a lot of great stories on the table. There’s been a number of excellent shows that have suffered a similar fate (my personal favorite being Awake), which could have been so much more, but were canceled early for any number of reasons.

You may have a fantastic campaign in mind, but if your “viewers” (i.e. the players) aren’t able to follow through for whatever reason (which might happen, as explained above), your massive, multi-year campaign will fall apart, possibly resulting in the Firefly Phenomenon. Your players, or you yourself, may have been really excited in the campaign, but if external circumstances might prevent the campaign from lasting so long, planning it to be shorter will be better down the road. And in my experience, it’s really hard to restart a campaign that has ended too early.

Create More Satisfying Arcs

Babylon 5 was a sci-fi television series planned from the start to last 5 seasons. There were planned arcs throughout and events that happened early resulted in a payoff much later. Contrast that to Lost or the revived Battlestar Galactica where things just kept going on and on and people were wondering if the writers really had an end in mind (did the Cylons really have a plan?). If you have an ending in mind at the start, you can have a definite beginning, middle, and end and wind up creating a more satisfying series overall. Not a “what direction are the writers taking us next” situation.

Allow for New Ideas

Contrary to what some D&D/Pathfinder players believe, there are a lot more roleplaying games out there than just Fantasy. If a campaign has an ending, it means that the group can move on to one of those other ideas and try something different for variety. After being supers, you change to spies and after spies you change to space marines. With an indefinite end, you’re playing the same type of character, well, indefinitely. With a definite end, there’s the option of trying something new.

I’ve had great results overall with campaigns with a definite end in mind and I think others would too if they tried it. Let me know what you think in the comments!

Coming next week: The Journeyman GM’s 100th blog post!

Thoughts on “Goblin Dice”

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I recently read a fascinating blog entry at Ponderings on Games called Goblin Dice. He sums up the term pretty well:

D&D’s d20 is a prime example of what I’ve taken to calling a “goblin die”. You roll high, a goblin dies. You roll low, a goblin lives. No one doubts the eventual fate of the poor goblin. It doesn’t matter if it’s killed this round or the next. But it’s still fun to roll those dice, just as it is fun to fight the scrambling goblins. Hence, goblin dice: good for determining the fate of goblins. Not so good for determining the fate of heroes, or worlds. They are terrible for anything important.

The author goes on to point out that, because of this binary pass/fail mechanic, a number of problems with this ambiguity occur. This was even parodied here in the web comic DM of the Rings where whether or not Frodo managed to destroy the One Ring came down to a single d20 roll and the DM rolled…a 10. Well, did Frodo destroy the Ring or not?

Part of the problem when interpreted this way is that a d20 roll is often seen as a result on a continuum. A 1 is an absolute failure, a 20 is an absolute success, and everything else is in the middle. I suppose one thing that I like about “cinematic” systems like Savage Worlds and the good ol’ d6 System is that they avoid this problem by having open-ended die mechanics. You can’t judge your dice result of 1 to infinity as a continuum, so you compare the result to the target number and it’s pretty obvious by how close you were how much you succeeded or failed by. Roll 10 under, you definitely failed. Roll 1 under, you barely failed. Roll 20 over, you definitely succeeded and probably won a medal for it. Granted, this can still result in Goblin Dice if you’re not careful, but I think it’s a step in the right direction.

Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space avoids this problem by having different levels of success. Just hit the target number? You get a “Yes, but…” result, meaning you got what you wanted, but it didn’t work as well as you hoped. Get it by a moderate amount? You get a “Yes” result, meaning it happened just as you wanted. Get it by an extreme amount? You get “Yes, and…” meaning it turned out better than you’d hoped. The inverse happens with failure as well.

I encourage gamers to read the whole article at Ponderings on Games, it’s a really a good read. And feel free to share your thoughts, here or on the original article.

Gaming Tips from Lego The Lord of the Rings

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Lego Lord of the Rings Cover ArtWhile at the public library I’m spending my AmeriCorps service year at, I ran into the Lego Lord of the Rings video game. I’d played the first two Lego Star Wars games with my brother years ago and, after getting a chance to play it for just a little bit, decided it was so much fun that I would get the game myself! I destroyed the Ring, got all the mithril bricks, rounded up all the characters, and proudly achieved 100% completion. I’d say it was well worth it!

But that doesn’t explain the offbeat title of this blog post. Can a video game like Lego Lord of the Rings really teach us tips about how to play roleplaying games? Absolutely!

Have Some Fun on a Serious Quest

The Lego series by TT Games is noted for their humorous spin on the movies they represent. Lego Lord of the Rings continues this tradition by throwing in some humor. Sure, part of it is to entertain little kids, but part of it is just to make the game more fun to play.

One of my favorite things is the running gag with Eowyn wanting to fight, but not being allowed to. For instance, when the Wargs attack, Eowyn excitedly pulls out a sword and…

Theoden: You must lead the people to Helm's Deep.

Theoden: You must lead the people to Helm’s Deep. And make haste!

Lego Eowyn Angry

Eowyn: Awww! [Throws down her sword]

Sound like any players you know? A battle comes up, but they don’t get to fight and they get mad.

There was also some outright absurdity. While Boromir is trying to steal the Ring from Frodo at Amon Hen, Frodo builds a catapult in order to fire off a stone and distract him. Eomer’s horsemen do kind of a synchronized dance as they circle around Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas. Lurtz keeps firing arrows at Boromir, but when he runs out and he’s still not dead, he switches to some unorthodox ammo like brooms, bananas, and chickens.

Lego Lurtz and Boromir

I say embrace it. Let these things be fun. Sure, the quest can be serious and the stakes be the fate of the world, but ultimately roleplaying games are about having fun. Sure you don’t have to actually let them fire off bananas, but at least let them entertain the idea!

And for added fun, throw in a Mithril Disco Phial!

Non-Combat Diversions are Good

There are some interesting diversions in Lego Lord of the Rings. For instance, the Pass of Caradhras involves causing avalanches in order to clear rocks that block the way. Freeing Theoden from Saruman’s hold requires building traps to catch Grima Wormtongue so he won’t disrupt Gandalf. Camping on Weathertop leads to finding firewood and gathering food so that the Hobbits can cook up something to eat. I’ve actually had some games where what they’re making for dinner (complete with a Cooking roll for the quality) is actually a really fun moment in the session. Let this happen and enjoy it!

Sometimes Not Fighting is Just as Interesting

The second level (after the Prologue level involving Isildur defeating Sauron) features the four Hobbits spending most of the level avoiding the Black Rider on their way to Brandybuck Ferry. This means tossing rocks at branches, stirring up bees, and even lighting a bridge on fire. I found this to be pretty interesting overall. This was an enemy that couldn’t be defeated, so clever methods had to be devised in order to avoid it.

I think we need more of that in roleplaying games. Sometimes I think we get stuck in the D&D mentality of kicking down the door and killing everything inside (while also expecting it to be level-appropriate enemies). But interesting scenarios can happen when you are up against even just one enemy that is way out of your league and you need to think of some creative means of avoiding it.

It’s Okay to Split the Party to Pursue Different Objectvies

After Amon Hen, there are two groups of characters traveling simultaneously: Frodo & Sam and Aragorn, Gimli, & Legolas. You can swap between the two at will and continue with their stories and sometimes this is necessary. Personally, I think that there is no problem at all with separating the party like this if they are working towards a common goal. Indeed, this is most obvious at the end where Aragorn leads an attack on the Black Gate solely for the purpose of aiding Frodo and Sam.

I plan to write about this more at some point in the future (perhaps more officially than in a blog), but I think it would be really interesting to have a campaign where your party splits and then occasionally you swap back and forth between two sets of characters each working towards their own goals. Splitting the party to pursue different objectives can be a very interesting way to have a campaign become a saga.

Large Parties are Lots of Fun!

I think one of my favorite parts of the game was right after Rivendell when you had a grand total of nine in your party. And Lego Lord of the Rings didn’t skimp on that, no you have eight people following the lead character around on the overworld! It was a lot of fun walking around Middle Earth and switching between characters to use their special abilities and grab the goodies scattered all around. And levels like the Mines of Moria were really epic having a group just as large working together to fight off Orcs.

I definitely like having large parties because it makes things seem more epic. Granted, you probably need a system that can support it. I’ve found that Savage Worlds scales pretty well with larger groups, especially if many of the extras are, well, Extras. Dungeons & Dragons is usually okay if you just add one or two (under the players’ control, it’s no fun if the DM is rolling the dice!) but can still be somewhat cumbersome. Still, if you can pull it off, it can make things much more interesting.

Explore!

The final lesson is to allow for lots of exploration! Unlike previous Lego games where you have a central “hub” (such as the Mos Eisley Cantina), Lego Lord of the Rings takes place all over Middle Earth. You start in Hobbiton and throughout the course of the game you travel all the way to Mordor (of course, one does not simply walk into Mordor!). Getting from here to there over a perilous journey can be one of the more interesting parts of a roleplaying game. In fact it’s one thing that I think The One Ring does especially well (as described in my previous review).

So there you have it, several lessons in roleplaying games that a video game taught us. Isn’t that cool?

Lego Lord of the Rings Characters
And yes, I’m fully aware that the title is actually Lego The Lord of the Rings, but I think that the initial “the” sounds redundant and breaks the flow so I drop it.

The Seven Deadly Sins of GMing

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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?

“Having One Eye is Purely Cosmetic”

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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).

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