Browsing articles in "RPG"

Instant Gratification: Starting the Game

Dec 16, 2009

Campaign starts can be difficult. Players are looking for a quick start to get involved with the characters and be transported into the magical new setting. Game masters are trying to get the players involved in the storyline as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, the vision of the ideal party by the GM and what the characters bring to the table after character generation can be quite disparate.

Time for the GM to step up and in the words of Greywulf “Have fun and make shit up”. The original vision of a campaign rarely gets played due to the randomness of the character concept. GM’s are stuck with a collective of individual ideas and need to find a mechanism to transform them into a cohesive party and get the play under way.

If the campaign is going to be running for weeks or months, slow starts are easy to overcome. If the game is a one shot session or in a small time window, the game needs to start with a fury. Instant gratification for the players and the GM. Getting a single character engaged at the outset is hard enough but to get the entire group involved instantly seems intractable.

Instant starts are possible but all the players must be interested in the setting and the plot. The GM needs to start the game prior to character generation. The essence of the game has to be explained or be something immediately obvious so the players have a focus during character generation. Most importantly, the players need to generate characters with significant depth and history.

The goals, motivations, and history of the characters provide the necessary hooks for the GM to transform his initial creation into what the player’s want to play. More importantly, character backgrounds provide the GM with the information to exploit psychological triggers.

Triggers are the tripping points in a background to put a character into action. Force the character to react to a situation based on raw emotion, not cognition. Reverse the rule of think before you act. Put them in a situation that invokes an emotional response. To do so, you’ll likely need to know the players well. Great players with good backgrounds will respond even when it isn’t a significant event for the player but is for the character. If you know the players well, you can assume a trigger for the player will spill over into the character more often than not.

The easiest of the emotions to trigger are rage and anger. Violate a character’s sense of love and loyalty. They will respond. Any transgression against a character’s family will be met with a response. Appointed by their local kingdom to overcome something? Kill the king or invade the country. Find and identify the element in a character’s background you can exploit. If the character doesn’t have them, fall back on the player’s motivations.

A singular gut-check, raw, driven response by one character is usually sufficient to get everyone on board. If it isn’t, change it up. Encompass the entire group if you can.

Quick starts are accomplished by the players knowing what the GM has in mind. Then the GM being a prick. He’s not evil, he’s just poking buttons to get you engaged. May an orc eat me if I ever hear “you meet in a tavern” ever again.

Religion in Fantasy Settings

Dec 12, 2009

Religion has been a significant factor within world history. Yet, within the campaigns I have run, it has never played a significant role. Speaking with Kevin, his experiences are the same. Perhaps its the unconscious playing to politically correct times. I’m going to call it a failure on my part to not exploit this obvious gaming opportunity..

Religious aspects are prevalent in most fantasy games. D&D provides a whole host of gods for characters to worship. Yet, you never see that worship carried over into supplements discussing religious differences or wars. Human history is mostly religious wars. Extreme, unconscionable acts have been undertaken in the name of religion. Warranted or not, they transformed us into the society we are today.

Religious differences are taboo. Modern society doesn’t want to consider them, let alone actually discuss them. Putting religion into the forefront of a game is going to be difficult. Yet, it has significant playability.

Consider the Crusades. Consider the American West when religions strove to convert the American Indians. Consider the modern missions to convert tribes in 3rd world countries to a specific religion. I find it all every strange but religious fervor can do that.

It is a Taboo topic. No one one wants to discuss it. Yet, people show up on my doorstep every few weeks trying to ply a variation of religion on me. In a fantasy environment, they would show up and mandate I change. Accept the Lord’s (of the realm) religion or be cast out.

Given the host of gods in most settings, religion is treated as accepting them all. I find that unlikely. Every small village will have a focus on a particular goddess. Expounding her over every other god.

Where are the cults, the religious extremists, the missionaries trying to convert people? How are the Clerics and Paladins of those faiths not trying to do what modern day bicycle riding missionaries doing? Where is the backlash when those gods fail?

As Kevin stated, why are there not lynchings of wizards. If a relatively modern society can lynch people for being suspected of wizardry, medieval ones would jump on it. Crops go wrong? Drought? Whatever it is the local mage or someone passing through would get blamed and probably burned.

I find the topic fascinating because I’ve never considered it within a game. Have you played religion at the extremes?

Meandering Maps: Software & Simple Places

Dec 6, 2009
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I’m prone to rambling.  For mapping, I’ve chosen instead to partake in meandering.   If I have an artistic bone in my body, I have yet to find it.  Colors, textures, and visual layouts are not my forte but I still like to sketch maps on occasion.   Maps have a way of getting the creative juices flowing.   Each one helps me tie a random thought to something slightly more concrete and possibly organized.

Most of my maps are hand sketches, crudely done with pencil and perhaps a ruler.   Sometimes its nice to have a bit of color and have them natively digital.   So just for a change a pace and to get me back in the spirit of fantasy settings, I’ve been sketching maps, pondering places, and just imagining settings.     On a whim, I went to check out Profantasy’s Campaign Cartographer.   To the best of my recollection, the last time I used it was around the turn of the century.   Same general product but several new plugins are available from when I last looked.   Also, it got a lot cheaper at $45 vs. nearly double that I originally recall.  For the non-UK folks, keep in mind the native transaction is in British pounds so you’ll likely be charged an additional fee by your bank or credit card company for the currency conversion. Continue reading »

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Deadly Systems are Doomed

Sep 15, 2009

As my brain meandered the other day, as it is apt to do, I had a thought about game systems.   A common trait between many unpopular systems is that they possessed combat systems which are very deadly.   A mere chance encounter leads to character death far more often than other systems.

All systems can be deadly but the systems that have not achieved popularity do not possess the ability to mitigate risk.   Other than a GM blatantly fudging rolls, a characters in those combat systems are likely to end up dead. Is a deadly combat system a death knell for a system?  Not necessarily.   However, the odds do not to be in the system’s favor.   Popularity, failure, and deadly are all very subjective.    Definitions are required and because it was my thought, I must define each of them.


If a game system is no longer available at a game store in some resemblance of its current state, especially by name, consider it non-popular.   If the original name is intact and still available, no matter the divergence from its roots, consider it popular if and only if it has been commercially available for a decade or more.


Utter failure would be a rule system that reached publication but failed to garner any support by the publisher in the form of a second edition or by having affiliated materials published.  Many systems fall in the middle between failure and popular.     In the end, those systems that showed up but only lasted fewer than 5 years, should be judged as failures.  Harsh but they failed the test of time.


Deadly is far easier to define.  Should a character step into combat, he has about equal odds of dying or surviving.    Mano a Mano will result in someone dying.   It might be the PC, it might be the other guy.  Equally paired, players with even stats, are evenly matched.  Being outmatched is not deadly, it is being stupid or being forced to engage in combat when you should not.

In the End:

No game system I could recall hit all those factors and still remains.  Kevin offered an exception.  D&D.  In the basic edition,  D&D hit all the deadly requirements but is still popular.  It was very deadly but the system has elements which mitigate death:  Armor and encounter strength.   Killing kobolds at level 3 is not deadly.

Is there any game system, set in relatively modern times, that defies my supposition?   By relatively modern, assume from the time the crossbow made plate armor moot through when kevlar was introduced as a staple of modern warfighting? Are all systems such as Boot Hill, Gang Busters, James Bond, Top Secret, etc.  doomed to failure before they start?

Purity or Density

Mar 31, 2009

There is a famous quote in software engineering or perhaps engineering in general, the gist of it being “the design is complete when nothing can be removed”.    The point is elegance from simplicity and purity.  No diversions from the focus of the effort.  I cannot find the original source tonight but it matters little.

For the record, apparently it is Antoine de Saint Exupéry who is credited as saying, “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. ” -KO

Deviation from the core of a system exposes the writer’s passion.  I feel the wanton need to deviate into topics that are not centric to a rule system.  Yet they are interesting to me and relevant to the genre. Looking through many rule systems, I see that many others have wandered down the same path.

When is it appropriate to sanction these departures?   How far do you allow them to progress?   If the deviation leads to an entry that hooks a novice, is it is truly bad?  Puirty provides elegance and the capability of those capable to expand it into many frontiers.

But… Recall that first system you held in your hands.   Likely, it was rules heavy and relayed something about nearly everything on how to play the game.   Just as likely, you tossed aside nearly everything ephemeral to the core of the system because it was impssible to remember or manage.  Still, fun was had by everyone in that first session.

I love light rule systems these days but I’ve had years to progress to that point.   I can tweak it to fit my needs in a matter of minutes and the experienced group I get a rare chance to play with can do the same.   The running of the system might hook someone but if they pick up the “book” is it enough to hook them?

— Ramblings of Mark –