Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Worth Fighting For?

It's been a while since I posted here, but I finally found something to blog about. Actually, I've been meaning to review this book for a long time, but I had to buy it first. I bought the softcover edition on standard paper with PDF. There are a couple of options for the print edition, but RPGs are getting more expensive and those kids need to get off my lawn, so I got the least expensive edition that came with a PDF in the package.

Battle for Oz is a setting rather than a core rulebook, requiring the Savage Worlds Deluxe Rulebook to use as written. (If you're curious about the Savage Worlds system, but aren't sure you want to make the commitment, you can get a free sample here). It also includes a Plot Point Campaign, like many other Savage Worlds settings.

The cover depicts Ozymandius the Second, evil ruler of Oz, sitting on his Emerald throne. In front of his throne is a rusted Nick Chopper, frozen into a posture of horror, unable to look away from any atrocity that Ozymandius might commit. In Ozymandius' right hand is an sword made entirely of Emerald. It's a very dramatic piece.

Which then gets undercut when we see an illustration of what Ozymandius looks like under the hood (no pun intended) on page 12. He's a heavyset bearded man with glasses. This is not a joke. As part of the Kickstarter campaign to fund the project, several backer levels were created to allow backers to insert themselves into the project in some way. One backer paid to have his name and face be the secret identity behind the main villain of this version of Oz and that just happened to be what he looks like.

It's a cool marketing idea for getting backers excited about a Kickstarter campaign, but it makes for an uneven final product. It's very easy to tell which illustrations are backers. Most of the submitted photos were clearly headshots, so no matter what pose the body is in, the face is looking straight ahead or just off to the side with either a smile or a neutral expression.

The main area where this is not a drawback is in the bestiary chapter, amusingly titled "Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!" Many backers were allowed to submit monsters, creatures and background characters to fill up this section and many of these entries have more of the Oz magic, whimsy and wonder than the almost boring monsters and opponents cooked up by the designers.

But that's getting ahead of ourselves.

The first thing in the book is a brief history of Oz, which is actually Atlantis. The "sinking of Atlantis" was actually the great Witch Lurline shifting the entire island into another dimension in order to prevent the first Ozymandius (our villain is Ozymandius II, remember) from using the magic of the Emerald City to conquer Earth.

Once this is done, Oz largely settles into the shape we are familiar with. Winkies, Quadlings, Gillikins, and Munchkins rule the edges while the Pastorians live in the Emerald City. Also, those who spent the most time near the Emerald evolved into innately magical fairy-like beings called the Evain (basically elves). And they even have their own "dark elves/Drow" in the Niave.

Then the Wizard and Dorothy show up and largely have the adventures they're recorded as having. Though the Gnome invasions are a bit more serious and violent than Baum's stories and are referred to as the Gnome King Wars. By this time, Dorothy has actually grown up, gotten married and had a daughter. She loses her husband, named Prince Alain, in the last Gnome King War.

That's when the great technomancer Ozymandius II appears and takes over the Emerald City with his dastardly inventions and sets his sights on the rest of Oz. This is where our story begins.

The next chapter details creating characters to play in the setting. The actual rules for character creation are in the Savage Worlds rulebook, so this section provides tweaks and details. First up is a batch of crafting skills, which is weird. Crafting is not often a major adventuring focus. But the Plot Point Campaign starts with your characters being ordinary people getting caught up in events beyond their control, so it's logical that they support more mundane character types as well as heroic adventurers.

There are also a couple of types of magic in the setting that are more about crafting items than casting spells, though spell-slingers are also represented. Technomancers, like Ozymandius II himself, make impossible steampunk machines. Alchemists make various potions and notions. Gem setters craft enchanted jewelry from magical Gems (with the capital letter, just like Wicked and its Animals). The Emerald City is actually a giant magical Emerald, but other Gems exist as well. Due to copyright reasons, they were not able to list Ruby Slippers, but there is a space clearly intended for them.

On the spell-slingers side, there are Witches/Wizards (basically D&D-style wizards), Minstrels (basically D&D bards), Fae Magic (D&D druid magic) and Scar Magic.

The generic D&D fantasy vibe continues in the "Race & Cultures" section. I mentioned the Evain and the Niave earlier being basically elves and Drow. Evain being elves doesn't have to mean generic D&D fantasy. It's actually the Niave clearly being their counterpoint and also clearly being Drow that set that up. The modifiers for residents of the Munchkin country feel rather like halflings. Winkies perhaps get it the worst, since they've been cast as the Asians of the setting. There's nothing that says generic D&D fantasy like having the standard generic D&D fantasy "touch of the exotic" that is the land of ninjas and samurai.

There are also some clearly non-human characters, like the Beast-Men. If you were wondering if the Cowardly Lion in this version of Oz was going to be an actual lion or just a guy in a fursuit, he's clearly a guy in a pretty bad-ass fursuit. To be fair, these guys are actually kinda cool. But they also communicate exactly what version of Oz the setting is trying to invoke. Just like the obvious space set aside for Ruby Slippers, the Beast-Men are intended to invoke the MGM film version, but veering just enough towards the books to stay legal. I understand it, but it annoys me to no end.

The next chapter is a collection of new rules for the game, offering more detail and texture for those who enjoy it. Most of them feel like "house rules" for the designer's home game than anything really intended to create the feeling of Oz. The one tweak that I appreciated was Weapon Proficiencies. Savage Worlds characters can feel "same-y" since many of the skills are so broad. For example, all forms of close combat are covered under the Fighting skill. Weapon Proficiencies offer a little bit more detail and texture to characters that might have a hard time standing out.

Then it's off to the settings gazetteer, describing all of the various places to go and things to do in this gritty action movie version of Oz. Most of Oz's Cruel and Unusual Geography remains in this version of the setting, but there's little evidence of its Queer Denizens. For example, Rigmarole Town exists and is a defensive settlement as described in the Oz novels, but there's no suggestion of the long-windedness that its people are known for. You can also visit Bunburry, which is populated by normal Quadlings rather than animated baked goods.

The map is also marked with concentric rings denoted approximate distance from the magical Emerald that is the Emerald City. Witches/Wizards get bonus Power Points to use for spell-casting depending on how close they are to the Emerald, which is also called out in the location descriptions. Right next to every place name is the amount of Power Points a Witch gets while hanging out there.

We are then treated to a section on the various factions that are participating in the Battle for Oz of the book's title. There are multiple shades of good guys, from the Ozoners, a band of smugglers who would rather be smuggling, but tyranny keeps getting in their way, to the Free Army of Oz led by the Good Witch of the North, here given the name of Skywin Springforth. For those tracking movie references, this is where we meet the Lullaby Guild, an organization of assassins for hire.

The next chapter is another feature of this book that I like: Random encounter tables. Fairly well done random encounter tables, as well. Rather than being a simple list of monsters, there are a variety of things that can happen. Some are simply interesting, while others are helpful. There are monsters and combat encounters here, too, but it's not the only thing. There are separate lists for each of the four countries of Oz.

I also liked that the random encounters are determined by card draw. Savage Worlds uses playing cards to determine combat order, but nowhere else. Giving that card deck a bit more mileage is a nice touch.

And now we get to the Plot Point Campaign section. It's very difficult to review adventures. The closest comparison would be reviewing the instructions of how to do magic tricks. You are seeing what the magicians sees, but you have to be careful not to take away the magic from the audience.

Starting with the high points: Dorothy is not the only person who disappeared from Earth without a trace. A couple of famous missing people are revealed to have made it to Oz, though their existence is an easter egg rather than a plot point (lower case). One adventure features a Groundhog Day-style time loop that is rather cleverly done.

And now for the lows: The first two adventures are the weakest. The Prelude only exists to isolate the PC group and doesn't particularly serve the larger storyline. The first adventure that does introduce the larger storyline largely involves being rescued by others and sidelined from most of the action.

Nearly every adventure suffers from lazy "fail forward" design. Now, I have no problem with "fail forward" as a concept. Nobody likes being unable to proceed in an adventure because somebody failed a die roll. But the way the die rolling parts of the adventures are structured, it's impossible to lose.

The adventures use something they call "dramatic tasks" to represent some activities in the adventures. It basically creates a "progress bar" to some task to add flavor or interest to non-combat activities. These tasks are generally set up so that you have to get a certain amount of successful rolls in a certain period of time or you fail the task. However, these tasks are written so that there's no way to really fail them. It might take some extra rolls to succeed, but the adventures only advance once you do.

The most consistent failure cost in the tasks is extra time taken, which is fairly weak. While how long it takes you to get somewhere or find something might matter in terms of resource management (rations, wound healing, random encounters, and other things that GMs often gloss over), it doesn't matter in terms of the story. Just like in a video game, no matter how long it takes you to get to the quest location, you've always gotten there at just the right time.

Now we come to the bestiary. As someone who has read the Oz books, there was little I recognized here. The biggest omission is the kalidah. It's canon to the novels, but also a perfect monster for gamers to fight. I can't imagine why they would leave it out. As I mentioned earlier, this section is a mix of monsters created by the designers and other content contributed by Kickstarter backers. And most of the stuff the designers put in are monsters. Several varieties of giant, mass produced tin men and scarecrows, and soldiers and fighters from all four edges of Oz. The saving grace of this section really is the stuff submitted by Kickstarter backers. Mechanical dragons, shapeshifting horses, and dogs that grant luck by licking your hand are all things that they came up with.

Then comes the NPC section that really highlights the mixed bag you get when you let your Kickstarter backers dictate so much of your content. There are major NPCs like Ozymandius. Mombi and others that have faces provided by backers, as well as a horde of minor NPCs that are simply backers writing themselves (or an idealized version of themselves) into the setting.

The final section of the book is a brief bonus adventure that I would call a dungeon crawl if it wasn't so linear.

If you are a gamer, the setting is an approachable version of Oz. It fits most of the tropes that you expect from a fantasy setting, but does offer a few unique touches. The Plot Point Campaign is linear, maybe a little railroady, but the story it tells is interesting.

If you are a fan of the Judy Garland Wizard of Oz movie, but want something a little more grown up, this is something you might enjoy. If you saw that gag movie poster for Wizard of Oz 2: She's Off To Off The Wizard and thought it sounded cool, Battle for Oz is probably right up your alley.

If you are a fan of the novels, like I am, I cannot recommend this book. Like a lot of Oz content for the non-Oz market, it borrows as much imagery as it can from the film version while claiming to be based on the novels. Even then, it only borrows the stuff that support the story it's trying to tell, while avoiding the stuff that's too "kiddie", silly or not "adult" enough, leaving the setting rather bland overall.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Which Old Witch? The Wicked Witch!

(This one has been in the hopper since 2012. It was intended as a companion to another couple of blog posts from that time. I really don't know why I didn't publish it at that time. Maybe I was looking for some sort of concluding thought that never came. Even without that, I think this holds up just fine.)

I think this will be the last of the Witch blogs, at least for now. I do have some things related to the IRC chat that I want to expand upon.

Of all the Witch blogs I've done, I think this might be the one that Tim was really waiting for. I've talked about witches as player-characters and as story motivators, but now I'm going to talk about witches as antagonists and villains.

First let me reiterate: Ding, Dong! The Witch is Dead! It's a cliche of Oz fiction by now, so I will not be talking about bringing back the Wicked Witch of the West in any way, shape or form. One thing I particularly liked about The Jaded City of Oz (the sample adventure in the AiO rulebook) is that the Winkie Country scene deals with the legacy of the Wicked Witch of the West without requiring her to be present.

There are other Witches to use in your adventures.

Mombi, the Wicked Witch of the North. Even after she was removed from power in the Gillikin Country by the Good Witch of the North, she still kept the captive Princess Ozma in the body of the boy Tippetarius. Once Ozma was freed and set upon the throne of Oz, Glinda removed Mombi's ability to work magic. This doesn't remove her completely from villainy, however. She may not be able to cast spells, or create magical items, but she can still use magical things that already exist in Oz.

(Mombi does return in the Famous Forty. The Lost King of Oz is her search for Princess Ozma's father, who she had hidden away so the Wizard could rule Oz. Since Ozma orders her melted (I always thought of the Wicked Witch of the West as a special case when it came to water, but Ruth Plumly Thompson apparently thought differently) at the end of that story, you might want to set your Mombi stories in between those two appearances.)

Blinkie, the (presumed) Wicked Witch of the South. Although she is not acknowledged with the full title of Wicked Witch of the South in her appearance in Oz canon, she is referred to as a Wicked Witch. Oz history tells us that Glinda had to unseat a Wicked Witch of the South in order to rule the Quadling Country, so many Oz fans presume Blinkie to be this Witch.

Again, the story ends with Blinkie having her powers removed by Glinda. Though this time, she's also been greatly reduced in size. But she was the leader of a coven, so some of her sister witches might turn up in your stories. They might even be trying to restore Blinkie to her old size and power.

Mrs. Yoop. Technically, she's a Yookoohoo, but she could make for an interesting villainess. Trapped in the form of a Green Monkey since her last appearance in the stories, she may be down, but it's still too early to count her out. I detailed a couple of possible ways she could get back to her old form in the AiO rulebook, but even as a monkey, there are lots of ways for her to get into mischief.

Interestingly enough, Red Reera, the other Yookoohoo to grace the original novels, would probably make a very effective antagonist. She's not evil, but she is powerful and irritable, which is almost the same thing. There must be something about becoming a Yookoohoo that makes a person misanthropic. For the moment, it seems that all she wants is to be left alone. I almost feel bad for anyone who might be foolish enough try to conquer her little cottage. Almost.

Friday, August 31, 2018

RPGaDay 2018 #31 Share Why You Participate in RPGaDay

It's sort of habit by now.

I started out as an eager blogger looking for an opportunity to put out more content. Also, the first few rounds were focused on discussing a variety of games. They were (probably rightly) criticized for favoring the collector over the player, but I seem to fall very neatly in the collector mold.

Since I've fallen away from blogging, it's a reminder that I should be doing more with the blog than I am. Every year, I do my best to complete the month, in the hopes that it will reignite the fire and encourage the habit of blogging. And every year, it doesn't really seem to take.

Maybe this year. If not, I'll see you next year for another round of RPGaDay.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

RPGaDay 2018 #30 Share Something You've Learned About Playing Your Character

Normally, I try to beg off of this sort of question since I spend most of my time as GM. But I've noticed that something that's been tripping me up in my recent opportunities as player is also something that's dogged me throughout my GMing career as well.

My characters (PC or NPC) tend to be pretty flat. In the case of my NPCs as GM, I've made a number of attempts to remedy this, as I've mentioned earlier in the month, trying to make them evocative through image choices or performance. But I've realized that's not the flaw.

Because it's come up in my play opportunities as well. It's been really obvious as I've been playing in my friend Jordan's games, since the rest of the playgroup tends toward very "loud" characters. Among a horde of scene-stealers, milquetoast guy really fades into the background.

The majority of it, I think, boils down to having an agenda as a character. It doesn't even have to be a big agenda. Just so long as the character has something to do in every scene, or even most scenes. One of the stronger characters in Jordan's recent D&D games was Zeta, a warforged (robot/golem) fighter who was actually a revived Japanese weapon from World War II. While he was a very effective fighter and got to show off in that way during fights, he also had robot things and Japanese things to do when the heat was off.

It's something I need to keep in mind as I move forward as a player and as a GM.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

RPGaDay 2018 #29 Share A Friendship You Have Because Of RPGs

As I've said earlier this month, gaming has forced me to be social to a degree that I wouldn't otherwise be. So it's actually fair to say that gaming is the reason I have friends at all.

There's Boots, a former co-worker (she's working someplace much better now), who had an interest in fantasy fiction, but had never played an RPG. She was one of the founding members of my megadungeon campaign and the nickname Boots is actually inspired by her first character in that campaign. That character unfortunately died in my career-first party wipe. I'm very glad she chose to stick around and make a cadre of new characters that kept having adventures in that megadungeon.

Erik is another player from the megadungeon game. He's actually an unreformed first edition player. While I was experimenting with OSR gaming, he was an old hand with the original material. He was also kind enough to invite me to play in his own campaign which is still going on.

Jordan is a story on his own. I first met him probably about 15 years ago when he was a gawky teenager. This was when I was running games at the nearby University's gaming club, even though I wasn't a student. He wasn't either. Nobody minded. The club president was in one of my games for a time.

Like many people I've gamed with, I was Jordan's first GM and introduced him to a variety of RPG systems, including GURPS. After running games for several years, I eventually drifted away from the club, at least partly because it was in another city and I don't drive. It was usually possible to catch a ride with someone else from my city, or make the offer of gas money.

But it also meant that I lost touch with Jordan for a time. I only reconnected with him about a year ago to discover a very different person. He's had quite a life in the years between. One thing that has stayed the same with him however, is that he is still a gamer, running his own GURPS campaigns. It was a fun twist to have the person I introduced to gaming all those years ago now be my GM.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

RPGaDay 2018 #28 Share Who's Inspiring Gaming Excellence You're Grateful For

While I have known many gamers over the course of my gaming career, and many of them have been good people and great fun to play with. But excellence is not something I've seen often.

There have been a couple of GMs at DunDraCon who have been great at one shots. I regret that I can't remember his name, but the GM of the Star Wars Fate game that I played in one year put a lot of effort into that game. There was music and visuals from the movies. And there was even a twist for my character that surprised and effected me as a player.

Whitney Preston, the GM of the annual Mythos Trek game at DDC is also a joy to play with. He's got props and toys, as well as a strong knowledge of both Mythos and Star Trek lore. The scenarios aren't terribly effective horror, but they are very entertaining.

And where would I be if I didn't mention Kris Newton. I should probably assign him a tag on this blog because of how many stories I've told about my various adventures gaming with him. And even though he no longer lives near me, I still get to hear his wisdom regularly on the Gameable Podcast. I should also mention, since it happened while I wasn't updating as regularly as I should, that I actually got to be a guest on Gameable, talking about Star Trek: The Animated Series.

Monday, August 27, 2018

RPGaDay 2018 #27 Share a Great Stream/Actual Play

I've been a fan of the One Shot Podcast for some time now, because I love the opportunity to see new games in action. But they've got a Patreon and are otherwise big-shots of podcasting. And I always love to mention the Gameable Podcast, but it's not an Actual Play podcast.

But someone who could really use a few new ears would be Doc Wilson, GM of the Shift Quest podcast. He's just getting started, but I am very interested in seeing where he goes. It feels a bit more authentic than something like One Shot, but not too authentic. I've tried listening to actual play podcasts that are the raw audio of someone's campaign and they are generally terrible. The mikes don't always pick up everyone evenly and the sessions are full of digressions and random in-jokes.

In Shift Quest, they sound like real gamers, but you can actually hear everyone equally. It may be that these are very focused gamers, or if Doc is a workhorse of editing, but it was very easy to follow the story and I didn't have to hear about how Dave bought a freakin' speedboat in the middle of a D&D combat.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

RPGaDay 2018 #26 Gaming Ambition For The Next 12 Months

This one's fairly simple: Run a campaign again.

Once I'm moved to the new place, I need to start making connections and making plans to get a new gaming group together and get a campaign going. I've already mentioned some ideas that I wanted to try for long term gaming, but even a group that only wanted to do one shots, short runs and experiments would be awesome. I've still got lots of games to try out.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

RPGaDay 2018 #25 Game That Had An Impact On You Over The Last 12 Months

One of the things that's been going on with me over the last year is that I will be relocating. My landlord is planning to sell the house I'm living in, but since he's my father-in-law, he's offering to relocate me and my wife to the other end of the state. This has been a process that has taken up most of the year and still has a few months yet to go.

So while I've been cautious about starting a new campaign, it has encouraged me to look at games that are more strongly designed for one-shot play and low to no-prep play. Fiasco is great for this, but it was also a good opportunity to expand my horizons. I've mentioned Final Girl within the last day or two, which is also a good one shot game.

InSpectres is actually a low-prep game that works for one-shots, but can be extended into a campaign, long or short, very easily. And like Fiasco, it is very collaborative and all players have share authority over what happens in the story. But it also fits into a fairly traditional mold. While Fiasco and Final Girl do not have a strict GM-type role, InSpectres does. So it's a nice middle-ground sort of game between no-prep once-shots and regular-prep campaigns.

Friday, August 24, 2018

RPGaDay 2018 #24 Which RPG Do You Think Deserves More Recognition?

My own, frankly.

While Adventures is Oz: Fantasy Roleplaying Beyond the Yellow Brick Road is very well reviewed (4+/5 stars on RPGNow and Amazon, Bestseller on RPGNow) by gamers and Oz fans alike, it hasn't quite managed to get on a lot of people's radar.

Another good game that doesn't get enough attention would be Feed by Kris Newton of the Gameable Podcast. It's a love letter to 90's era Vampire the Masquerade, while voiding the trap of being a clone of that game. It gives you a lot of freedom to determine what type of vampire you are and what your powers and weaknesses are. But it's not really about powers. It's about degenerartion. It tracks your loss of humanity not in a numerical stat, but by rewriting your character sheet, replacing human drives and values with vampiric ones.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

RPGaDay 2018 #23 Which Game Do You Hope To Play Again?

While there are tons of games that I would love to play at all, narrowing the list to games I've played previously still leaves things pretty open.

If you want me to narrow it down to one, I would have to say Fate. I've actually gotten to play it a couple of times at DunDraCon, but the ability to go into a campaign would be awesome. I would also like to get back to playing Adventures in Oz: Fantasy Roleplaying Beyond the Yellow Brick Road. Even though I designed it, there's always been something else to try every time an opportunity to run or play a new game comes up.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

RPGaDay 2018 #22 What Non-Dice System Appeals To You?

Golden Sky Stories doesn't use dice, though that's not why it appeals to me. It's interesting to me because it tries to make a genre that would be otherwise untouchable into something gameable.

It's a game about playing supernatural creatures living in rural Japan and helping people in small ways. The closest example of this in other media that I can think of are the Ghibli films My Neighbor Totoro and Pom Poko (though that latter film suggests that not all of the interactions between humans and supernatural beings are necessarily helpful).

There are also games that use playing cards as a randomizer. They're interesting because they add a layer of strategy and planning to task resolution. Rather than rolling the dice and accepting the result, you can choose which actions you want to play your strong cards on and where you can use your weak ones so that they aren't so damaging. I've only played one card-based system, a slasher flick themed game called Final Girl, but I would love to try some of the more elaborate card using games, like Castle Falkenstein or Primetime Adventures.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

RPGaDay 2018 #21 What Dice Mechanic Appeals To You?

I think I like the funky custom dice from the Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars RPGs. When I first tried them out several years ago, it seemed like the dice were giving out too much information. At least for the convention GM, who was likely still learning the rules herself. The advantages and threats that the dice spit out were something that was still pretty new in the game design space at that time.

But I've been listening to the Campaign podcast, where that is their system of choice and they take the time to deal with all of the information that the dice produce and create a very entertaining story from it. It's actually got me excited to try that system in my home games. Maybe one day...

Monday, August 20, 2018

RPGaDay 2018 #20 Which Game Mechanic Inspires Your Play The Most?

This is going to sound weird. Because as much as I love certain games and certain designs, I haven't gotten to play with them as much as I'd like. But the question wants me to talk about the things that I do in play.

And the thing that has had the biggest impact on my play experience has been calendar keeping and downtime management. I started it with my OSR megadungeon game and using graph paper to track the downtime required to train or recover from grievous wounds. Then I graduated to using timeline software.

"Megadungeon Take 2" used the detailed downtime rules from the Ultimate Campaign rulebook for Pathfinder. None of the downtime activities were really mandatory like they were in the OSR version, but were options to help characters feel like they were part of the world. I generally used them to backfill a character's time when the player didn't show up for a session. "Why didn't you go down into the dungeon with us yesterday?" "I made a scroll/made friends within the community/ran a small XP-bearing errand."

Though that was not as effective as I'd like. Since I was dealing with a lot of new and casual players, it took up a good piece of the actual session instead of being the tiny bit of bookkeeping that I was hoping it would be.

Even so, both of my prospective future campaigns will use my timeline software. I'll use it in my Star Trek campaign to keep track of stardates and warp drive travel times. The kingdom-building campaign will use it not just to track the status of characters, but to track the calendar of the world.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

RPGaDay 2018 #19 Music That Inspires Your Game

If the visual aspect is only a small part of my gaming, music is an even smaller part.

The two GMs that I have played with most recently have played background music during the game session. My old school DM finds fantasy movie or video game music on YouTube, which he plays on his Xbox. Though there are the occasional ads, he keeps the music at a background volume so it isn't too distracting, whether music or ads.

My other GM puts a lot of effort into sound design. Not just music, but sound effects. One adventure he ran involved being on an oil rig in a hurricane, so he had a soundtrack of intense wind and rain playing throughout, with the occasional groaning metal. He's slightly lazier with music, generally starting with a song that fits the mood, but letting YouTube's Mix feature take it from there. Again, the music is fairly low volume, but it can sometimes surprise you how things can change in the time that you're not paying attention.

For my own efforts, I purchased the soundtrack to Transformers: The Movie (The 80's animated movie. You know, the good Transformers movie) to play during my convention scenario "Transformers: Attack of the Retcons." It was a nice touch, but could have gone better in more competent hands. I was playing it on a Discman (Those were the days)  and had to make sure that songs were looping instead of just playing through the album. Which just highlighted how much longer it can take to play through scenes in an RPG compared to a movie.

My next attempt at music was actually impromptu. During my OSR megadungeon game, my players discovered a blue metal box bolted to the floor in one place in the dungeon. (No, it wasn't the TARDIS) It was a magical mailbox that would mail anything you put in it to whatever address you wrote on the package. But my players were good sports and tried to approach it as fantasy adventurers would. One of them told the party druid to polymorph into something that would fit through the mail slot and see what was in it.

Inspiration struck and rather than try to describe the cosmic nexus that was obviously inside, I turned to Behold The Crossing Guard, from Tom Smith's opera The Last Hero On Earth. Once you ignore the dialogue, the song does a better job than I could of conveying cosmic mystery.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

RPGaDay 2018 #18 Art That Inspires Your Game

I wouldn't say that there's art that directly inspires my game. The visual aspect comes very late in the process for me, if at all. Usually, I only get visual if I'm doing a big production, like a convention one-shot.

When I did my "Megadungeon Take 2" Pathfinder game, I wanted to flesh out the city that the characters lived in. While part of that was giving the shopkeepers names and personalities, in at least a few cases it involved giving them faces. I'm sure I tried to find a face for as many as I could, but I was only able to find a few of them that really made me happy.

While Dina Hillchaser probably got the most personality, she never got a face. But Inga Forgeborn, the town's weaponsmith got one of my favorite faces. I had done a Google image search for female dwarves and found a really cool picture of a cosplayer doing a Tolkien-style dwarf look. She even went so far as to have a beard. Not a big, shaggy, Gimli-style beard. Just something that was understated, still very feminine, but still definitely present. The fact that she was also a cosplayer of color helped set the tone for the rest of my searching.

So the rest of my searching tended to focus on non-human fantasy characters who aren't just white people in makeup and/or pointed ears. For the town leatherworker, I found a very cool illustration of an elf with African features, though I had a software glitch and lost the image from my files. I couldn't find that illustration again, though I did manage to find an Asian-looking elf that was very cool as well.

Friday, August 17, 2018

RPGaDay 2018 #17 Describe The Best Compliment That You've Recieved While Gaming

While I've gotten a number of complements over the years, most of them amount to "Good game" either as a player or GM. However, I think the highest complement I've received is the time I became a cautionary tale.

I've mentioned Kris Newton, podcaster and GM extraordinaire, on this blog before, and I think I've linked to this specific article before as well. But I may not have revealed the part I apparently played in the shape that article took.

As he describes Step 3: The Evil Overlord Game, at one point he mentions the possibility of unanticipated morality or immorality on the part of the characters. He then briefly recounts the story of a Lawful Neutral Monk who almost walked away from a dungeon. The guardian at the entrance of the dungeon did this whole "You shall not pass!" thing and my character just said "Okay."

This almost wound up crashing the session then and there, if it weren't for the paladin in the party deciding that ghostly guardians counted as undead and should be destroyed. So the guardian was defeated and the paladin became the most powerful authority and she said "Onward!"

While Kris has a lesson for GMs in there, it should also be a lesson to players. Sometimes, the GM will present your character with a scenario and your first response will be "Not gonna do it." But if your character walks away from the scenario, they've walked away from the adventure and nobody's going to have fun that session, least of all you. That's when you start asking yourself "I know my character wouldn't normally go in for this, but if I walk away from it, I'm walking away from the game. So I'm going to come up with a reason for my character to go on this adventure."

Thursday, August 16, 2018

RPGaDay 2018 #16 Your Plans For Your Next Game

As of now, I'm looking forward to a First Edition D&D session tomorrow, playing through the Slavers adventure arc with my 5th level wizard. We're on our way to their stronghold and don't really know what to expect once we get there. Should be exciting.

My Sunday game has been 5e D&D, which we just wrapped up. I think the GM was looking towards running a GURPS game in his custom superhero universe this week. I have a couple of characters that I could bring to this, but I think I'm going to go with Fishman Bob.

This GM has something of a tradition that if someone forgets their character sheet for a session, they have to play the back up character. This character is built before the game begins and they are designed to be terrible. For the supers game, this was Fishman Bob. He had the ability to make fish psychic. Basically, he could use a variety of psychic powers, but he had to channel them through various fish.

It's been long enough that I don't recall the specific circumstances, but I opted to switch out my character so that I could play Fishman Bob. It was a choice on my part and not one that the GM expected. So I played through that story arc as Fishman Bob and had a lot of fun. His powers were useful and entertaining in use. Plus, my in-character voice was basically a Latka impression.

For games that I would like to run in the future, I have some big plans that I'm waiting on. I'm planning on moving over the next few months, so anything particularly ambitious would have to wait.

I've got some ideas for a sandbox style Star Trek campaign that I've taken to calling "Deep Space Nine on a ship." The setting is persistent and actions that you take to solve one problem could wind up causing trouble later.

Another idea I had was an OSR kingdom building game. It really comes out of two things that I have come to learn. First of all, I'm not creative. If you need a big, cool, original idea, don't come to me. I'm not going to have it. Much of my "creative" work is actually more analysis and conjecture.

Secondly, the key to running a long term campaign is actually to run several campaigns. If you've ever met a grognard who claims to be running the same campaign for the last 10 or 20 years, they're lying to you. At least a little bit. It's far more likely that they've gone through the same vagaries of play time and keeping people together that every group has. But what they have done is kept notes and details and let each group and each session inform the setting and narrative as a whole. So even if they've gone for periods without running their campaign, once they start again, it's pulling from the same maps and notes that they've used and kept for the last decade and that's what gives them their claim to continuity.

So my plan is to run a game where my players build my campaign world for me. But rather than do it in a modern indie-style, with each player building out their home kingdom and adding details to the setting on their whim, I'm going OSR. Once an OSR character gets high enough level, they get the opportunity to build a keep or a wizard's tower or similar that they can rule from.

There will likely be some degree of boot-strapping to get the whole thing started, but once it happens, I could be running a campaign where the party is based out of a city built and named by another character from a session I ran years ago.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

RPGaDay 2018 #15 Describe A Tricky RPG Experience That You Enjoyed

The top thing on my mind would be something that happened a few months ago in my 1st edition D&D game. My character is a wizard and had used most of my prepared spells throughout the course of the adventure. The only one I had left was a single casting of detect magic. There were a couple of scrolls in my pack, including one of darkness.

At the end of the session, the party all falls down a sliding ramp into a round platform in the middle of a large circular chamber. A squad of orcs and a couple of humans (the bosses of the dungeon) were on the perimeter of the chamber. We were basically in the middle of a circular shooting gallery.

The DM ended the session at that moment, giving us a week to think about our options and make plans. And so I came up with something.

The next week, we got together and as soon as my turn came around, I used my darkness scroll to cover the party in darkness. On the upside, that meant that the enemies couldn't see us to attack us, so it was less of a turkey shoot than it was a second ago. The downside was that we couldn't see anything either, and had to be very careful moving around.

Then came Phase 2 of my brilliant plan. I then cast detect magic. Which meant that, even though I couldn't see, I could detect magical auras like the ones radiating from any magic items that a boss might have on hand which could be enough to let me target them. It was an unorthodox plan, so I had to get the DM on board. Thankfully, he accepted my argument and allowed me to attack. Unfortunately, all I had to weapons were daggers and as a wizard, my attack rolls were terrible, so I missed my shot.

The darkness spell is probably what saved our bacon that session, but I'm most proud of being allowed to target someone using detect magic.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

RPGaDay 2018 #14 Describe A Failure That Became Amazing

While I might have some stories of dice rolls that really changed the game, again the GM perspective rears its head.

This was a campaign that nearly ended not long after it began. I had started a new campaign to try out the D6 System. I had gotten the books at DunDraCon and was interested in giving it a go. Since it was just a rule set, it didn't have a setting tied to it. I had to come up with that myself. It was actually my first serious try at that, and I think things were pretty good on that front. (I had a pretty good premise, anyway, with a ways to go for it to be an actual setting. But that's a separate story.)

But during the first couple of sessions, one or two of the players got very vocal about their dislike of the rules. It's been so long, I can't remember what the complaints were, but we were spending more time arguing about the rules than playing the game. It wasn't particularly heated, but it was persistent.

Looking over my options and trying to decide what would be the most painless option to switch the campaign to midstream, I wound up converting the campaign to Cartoon Action Hour. And once I did, everyone started playing the game and having fun. It actually wound up having some of my favorite gaming moments.

Monday, August 13, 2018

RPGaDay 2018 #13 Describe How Your Play Has Evolved

Unfortunately, I've spent too much time as a GM that I can't really speak to my play experience. Yes I've mentioned that I've had some experience as a player lately, but I haven't done it long enough to have the practice to be considered good at it. So this is going to be me talking about my evolution as a Game Master.

One thing that has been consistently important to me as a GM is that the story that comes out of my game sessions is more important than the story that goes in. There are GMs that go in to a session with a fairly strict script, railroading their players on a guided tour of their story. I have no interest in that. Even before I had managed to express it, this is something that I very strongly supported.

My most recent evolution in an increased appreciation for players as content. I've been experimenting with lighter games that require less preparation and are therefore easier to pick up and play (and also play in a coffee shop, which was my gaming venue for a while). And a number of those games manage it by sharing or even off-loading GM authority through the playgroup. While I've understood that players are there to entertain the GM as much as the GM was there to entertain the players, having explicit mechanical support for the approach was very eye-opening.

In a game of InSpectres I ran once, the scenario I had prepared involved a haunted zoo. I went in with a description of weird noises and as things progressed, things were going to get spookier as they player characters investigated the problem. However, since the players had a fairly strong amount of input (players are allowed to describe the results of their successful rolls, while the GM describes their failures), they were able to create clues that led to them discovering animal zombies instead of animal ghosts. If it was a more conventional game, I don't know how doggedly I would have stuck with ghosts or how readily I would have moved it to zombies, but because the players had the authority to insert their own ideas, that's how it came out.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

RPGaDay 2018 #12 What Is Your Wildest Character Concept?

The wildest character concept I've played recently would have to be in a superhero game that a friend of mine is running. He's a fairly normal guy who has a phobia of dirt, but also mud powers. He can throw sticky mud balls at people and encase himself with mud armor. He just has to make a fear check every time he does.

So when a fight breaks out and he has to use his powers, there's a chance that he'll be having a panic attack for the rest of the battle. If he can help it, he prefers to fight with a gun or his unarmed combat skills. He saves the mud powers for when things get serious.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

RPGaDay 2018 #11 What Is Your Wildest Character Name?

I can't say I've had any wild character names. Not that naming characters isn't fun, but my joke names tend to be more subtle and clever.

My most overtly silly name would have to be B'lijo Gymbaub (for those who take the time to sound it out, it's actually just Billy Joe Jim Bob with fancy spelling). He's a human thief I'm currently playing in an AD&D game. When my prior character died in the middle of the adventure, someone made a crack about how we would have to go back to the small rural village we were trying to save and pick up "Billy Joe Jim Bob" to round out the party. I was about to go with just "Billy Joe Jim Bob" for my character's name, but decided to make it fit into a fantasy setting just a bit more.

I'm also playing a cleric sent from the Vatican (The DM is at least drawing from the real world. Long story.) who is named Antonio Benandanti. If you want to read about something very interesting and cool, Google "Benandanti" one of these days.

I have already mentioned on my blog that I once named a character Ted, Avenger of Kord since the DM was a comic book nerd and I wanted to score brownie points by naming him after the Blue Beetle.

Friday, August 10, 2018

RPGaDay 2018 #10 How Has Gaming Changed You?

The big change in me is that it has forced me to be more social. I was shy and awkward as a kid and kept to myself a lot. I read a lot of books. (In school, I had a tendency to read and walk at the same time.)

As a gamer, I've had to push myself out of that bubble. Gaming is a social activity, so it's not something that can be done by yourself. I've had to connect with other people in order to participate. Also, with the lack of GMs around and my preference for less known games, I've often found myself not only having to interact with people, but also to lead them. Sometimes simply leading them to a new game I want to try, but more often leading and organizing a game as a GM.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

RPGaDay 2018 #9 How Has A Game Surprised You?

I would say that 2 games have really surprised me over the years.

Despite the buzz of it being based on a popular teen drama, I expected Smallville to be just another variation on the supers genre. No matter how coarse or fine the power scaling was, I expected powers to be rated on fairly objective measures. If you're super strong, here's the chart that shows how many tons you can lift based on your Super Strength rating. Super speed means you can move this many times in a turn and run at so many miles per hour.

But once I got it and started reading it (I have yet to actually play), it was unlike any superhero game I had read before. Because the challenge wasn't making sure that Superman and Batman were balanced against each other, but making sure that Superman and Lois Lane could share a playing field. Powers were just one resource a character could have and the focus was more on story impact than quantification.

Another surprise came from a game called Diaspora. A pre-Fate Core FATE game of fairly gritty space adventure. They specifically said they were going for a Traveler feel while taking advantage of FATE's narrative tools. And that's what the majority of the game is. The big surprise was the social combat system.

"Social combat" was a fairly new idea at the time. Most implementations were just revisions or expansions of the traditional combat system, because that's how social interactions works, right? But Diaspora created a system of maneuvering and positioning, where putting yourself closer (ideologically) to someone increases your ability to change their (rhetorical) position. You can still do typical "social attacks" to remove someone from the map, but rather than being the standard action, it's one of several options, and not always the best one.

Both of these things surprised me, not strictly by their quality, but also because they stood out from what surrounded them. Smallville should just be another licensed game with a recycled house system, but it really had a new way to play bundled in there. Diaspora should have been full of dry technical rules, but those rules contained a much more realistic way to handle social conflict than I had seen before.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

RPGaDay 2018 #8 How Can We Get More People Playing?

The real challenge is not necessarily getting more people playing, but more people running. We need more GMs.

With all the interest in geek media these days, it really feels like RPGs should be riding high. And we kind of are. But only kind of. Because everyone who watches Tabletop or Critical Role or any of these Actual Play shows may be ready, in their own mind, to be a player, but only a small portion of gamers embrace the role of Game Master. I've actually seen social media posts from people saying "Me and my squad all have the books and want to play D&D so bad, but we just need a Dungeon Master. DMs hollaback!" (Not an exact quote. If that reference is goofy or dated, that is 100% my fault.)

Generally, we assume that the typical GM is someone who has been playing for a while, but who has "leveled up" into their position. They know the rules that they'll be running and know what players expect because they've been a player. But what if the entire group is full of newbies? That's the situation I found myself in nearly 20 years ago in the mythic year 2000. I muddled along and have been muddling ever since.

So as important as it is to have your GM advice also be for total newbs rather than people who have played the game for a minute, we also need to reinforce that muddling along is okay. Nobody expects you to be Matt Mercer on Day 1.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

RPGaDay 2018 #7 How Can A GM Make The Stakes Important?

How can a GM make the stakes important? By making failure possible.

One of the ironies of gaming is that when the world (or the universe) is about to be destroyed is actually when it's the safest. The GM cannot actually pull the trigger on that threat because that means the end of the campaign. Even if the party just dropped the MaGuffin down the Swampton sewers rather than Doom Mountain like they were supposed to. (I sometimes think it would be funny to have a story, whether a game or just non-interactive fiction, where the fate of the world is in the hands of a Chosen One who is actively fighting his Destiny but it keeps happening. Every time he goes in to a tavern, there are hordes of hooded old men and everywhere they sit becomes a dark secluded corner, so he eventually avoids taverns altogether. One day while sleeping in a rabbit hole, a rabbit who happens to be the greatest wizard in the world gives him the Golden Carrot that he needs to defeat the Dark Lord who always winds up in his path no matter how far or in which direction he runs.)

So the GM should only make threats that they are willing to make good on. Stakes then become important because they're something that can actually be lost. Care should be taken that following through on the threat doesn't undermine the campaign. Get too happy killing favored or important NPCs and players will regret getting attached to them. And threats that stop short of ending the world but change it radically can leave your players in the lurch.

Monday, August 6, 2018

RPGaDay 2018 #6 How Can Players Make The World Seem Real?

How can players make the world seem real? By pulling at it.

You see, gaming is really a process of push and pull. The GM pushes information to the players, descriptions, reactions, the results of the players actions, and so on.

But when players aren't responding to what the GM pushes at them, they have the opportunity to pull. To make their own decisions and move in their own directions. And that's how you can tell when you've got your players hooked. What do they do when they have the chance to pull? Will they simply "vendor" their stuff or do they remember that Qasun the Merchant deals in fine rugs like the one they just looted from the last dungeon? When they need to dig into the criminal underworld, do they make Gather Information checks or do they know a guy who knows a guy?

RPGaDay 2018 #5 What Is Your Favorite Recurring NPC?

I spent my last entry discussing my own lackluster NPCs, so I was tempted to bring out stories of NPCs from other campaigns. But I've already told most of the good ones. So I'm calling this one a mulligan. Hopefully, my next entry is more fun.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

RPGaDay 2018 #4 What Is Your Most Memorable NPC?

One of my biggest weaknesses as a GM has been NPCs. They're functional for my plots, but don't have a lot going on for themselves. And it's something that I've constantly worked to remedy, with only limited success.

In one campaign, my idea was to have one NPC that was well done. Everything and everyone else can be shoddy, but one NPC was going to work, dammit! This was Babs, a minotaur woman who ran a boarding house where the party lived. She was a caring, motherly figure, but she didn't have much beyond that. As much fun as players had interacting with her, she was only tangential to most plots.

Then I ran my super-long megadungeon campaign which didn't have many NPCs, mostly just monsters. Eventually I realized that the PCs were significantly powerful to the point that I couldn't begin forcing plot and NPC interaction on them without some pretty heavy railroading and shoehorning. When that group eventually fell apart, I decided that it was probably for the best.

It did lead to a short-lived reboot of the campaign, so I took the opportunity to flesh out the "town level" at least a little. I came up with the main vendors that the party would be interacting with. The only one that stuck in any real way was Dina Hillchaser, a halfling baker/alchemist. The party went to her when they needed healing potions and such, which came in the form of baked goods. Her healing potions were cupcakes. There were a couple of other neat things she could make, but I don't think we explored that much. She was also useful in that the party wizard could help her clear out her spice cupboard and get a deal on magical components for her own projects.

Friday, August 3, 2018

RPGaDay 2018 #3 What Gives A Game Staying Power?

This question has a lot of answers, but also only one answer.

The one answer is: Discovery. What keeps us playing is the ability to discover something new.

One of the reasons that I keep bringing Fiasco everywhere is not just because it's an easy pick-up game (though it is that) but also because every session is guaranteed to be different. Playsets can easily be switched out, altering the setting and the possible relationships of the characters. And even if you get the same results from a given setup, there's no guarantee or requirement that you're playing that with the same playgroup, so the playthrough can wind up very different.

Discovery also propped up my excessively long megadungeon campaign. There was always a new level to discover, a new door to kick down, a new puzzle to solve. And they still had about 3 or 4 levels to go after 5-6 years of fairly regular play. (This was with me failing to restock the dungeon or find much in the way of out-of-dungeon activities, too.)

RPGaDay 2018 #2 What Do You Look For In An RPG?

There was a time that I would buy nearly anything and everything RPG. I was hungry for new ideas, new possibilities. But my tastes, and my budget, have tamed over the years.

These days, I put a little more thought into what I buy. I'm still interested in new ideas, but my exposure to all the old "new" ideas means that I'm just a little bit jaded. Have you found a new way to tell a story or just a new way to roll dice?

The other thing I look for is coherence. Does the designer understand the rules they've written? Do the rules succeed in creating the sort of game that the designer says it will? Does it fail because it's incoherent or because the designer couldn't effectively communicate what they were trying to do?

RPGaDay 2018 # 1 What do you love about RPGs?

The posting schedule has been slow to non-existent, I know. And I've gotten a late start this year. But let's see if I can do this.

What do I love about RPGs?

I was not allowed to get away with much when I was a kid. But if I was, I imagine I would be the sort of kid who took apart old clocks to see how all the gears fit together. What I did do was read a lot of science fiction. Especially the stories that were focused on working through the logic of scientific extrapolation or even just the logic of their own premise.

I love RPGs because they present a logical world. The good ones do, anyway. And it's not always the same logic. Action movie logic. Fantasy magical realism. Comic book logic. Gritty realism. It's always a treat seeing what new sorts of narrative and character frameworks people come up with. Watching as stories I loved but never thought were gameable suddenly become so.

It's also comforting that, when the world seems complicated and out of control, there is a world waiting for me at the gaming table where I have agency and control over my destiny.
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