Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Rope Trick; A Tale of Epic Skill!

So games have come and gone, and recently I've been running a new campaign.  I was lucky enough to be invited to the D&D NEXT Playtest.  Given the specifics of the non disclosure agreement I agreed to (and respect to the developers of the game I love so much) I won't mention much about the rules set, other then I love them and that there are skills.  I don't think that's too much, as skills have been part of the game since...oh...Advanced D&D?  And to those of you who have not played Dungeons and Dragons (you potential new players, you) skills are abilities that define what your character specializes in doing, be it tracking, swiming, expansive knowledge of the world's history, or the ability to read and write foreign languages, like Goblin, (or as I like to call it Goblinese or Gobbledegook). I believe went a bit into skills in a previous post.
Probably not a written
language though...

Anyway, as the game is currently a "Playtest", parts of the game or constantly being changed to see what works and what doesn't.  This includes the list of skills.  And in one itteration, one of those skills was "Use Rope".  One of my players picked it up and for the past couple games was looking to use it at almost every opportunity.  Now this was part joke, as the Use Rope skill itself is a flaccid one, the kind of skill you'd only see in use by a sailor, circus performer, or cattlehand (which this character is).  Seeing as how a player has so few options for skills to be trained in, trying to make Use Rope viable for situations other then tying up enemies, getting yourself out of being tied up, etc. would be seen as a bit of a joke. Or would it!?

I made a horrible mistake once, not too long ago, my friend, roomate, and six-year hetero-life partner Eric made a character based loosely on one of his favorite television personalities, someone so skilled in perception that they would notice clues that even the most dedicated detective might gloss over, and because of this ability, could make deductions so percise they seemed psychic, prophetic, and almost magical.

Skill Focus Perception and
Knowledge: Pharmaceutical
Of course, being the dream crusher of a GM I was (not wanting players to take advantage of the rules, and afraid admittedly of losing control over the game) I said "No! Just because you're proficiant in a skill doesn't make it a magical power!".  You know what, I was wrong.

Epic Tales are my business (except for the making money off of it part), and my favorite by far is the Albanian telling of The Skillful Brothers (which featured seven brothers instead of four), each endowed with a special skill, some not so far out of the bounds of human accomplishment, some definantly on the the side of "Miraculous Power". In the tale the brothers are asked by a king to save his daughter who has been abducted by the Devil, each must use their trait to save her.  The first can find the location of anyone or thing, and finds the Devil's lair.  The next can open the earth to any depth, and does so to reach the Devil's home.  The third could steal anything without being caught (taking first the girl, then one of the devil's shoes, which must've been quite stylish.), The forth threw the shoe to the end of the earth, as throwing was his strong suit.  The Fifth erected an impregnable tower instantly to protect the group when the Devil arrived to reclaim the girl (winded as he was, having taken the time to retreive his footwear.).

The Devil has had many
Depictions in History. This
is my favorite.
Unfortunatly the brothers were a little too trusting, and when the Devil asked for one last look at the fair maiden before leaving the brothers to their victory, they opened a small hole to allow the Devil a glimpse.  The devil reached through and immediatly pulled the princess out and laughed as he flew away.  Leaving the sixth brother (an expert marksmen) to shoot the Devil with an arrow that struck him with such force that he dropped the princess, leaving the seventh brother to catch her (and only he could, as he could catch anything that fell from any height.  Imagine the games of catch between Four and Seven.  Nike commercial material.)

As a side note, this is my favorite telling because when the brothers return, all are rewarded.  And unlike the four brothers, none bicker over who marries the princess as she is the one who chooses her husband to be (Spolier Alert: She chooses brother Seven, who caught her and was the youngest brother and most handsome, as younger brothers often are.)

Now let's tie it all up.  Skills ARE magical powers! The power to speak, the power to write, the ability to influence others, "THE ABILITY TO READ!". These are things that we take for granted, these are things that ARE magical and miraculous.  I work with a guy who could take my car apart and put it back together and it would run just as well.  And though I know that it is possible and not "extraordinary" in terms of what humanity is capable of, in terms of what I'm capable of my car is made of Glass, Metal, Fire, and Magic, and that man is a Caromancer!  The ability to use a rope though we are disenchanted with it, could be something amazing! Look at what Indiana Jones could do with a whip!

Skill Focus: Use Rope and
Knowledge: Archeology
The point is that as time goes on, and I realize that my struggle to contain and control the confines of what characters are capable has been equal to struggle to remain innovative and inventive in my story because the two are inexorably linked! (I really enjoyed that sentance.)  I've been trying to protect a rules set like it's a sacred text when really it's just a decision system.  When I try to contain the world I've created I've served only as it's opressor and to free it I must face simple facts.  I am not an all powerful being, or omnipotent overseer of an alternate reality!  I am merely a chronicler, a watcher, a simple force with the illusion of control! In truth the rules mean nothing! The players have no limits other then what they can imagine!  My imaginary constructs are alive the moment I share them, they slip away from me and the players can take them to heights I never imagined!

And those my friends, have been my very favorite stories, and my job is the best, because no matter how high they go, I get to be the one that catches them.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Roleplaying, True Character, and Letting Someone else Drive

I have a dream that my player's avatars will play in a game where they will not be judged by the numbers of their stats, but by the content of their character!

I haven't had much time recently to play Dungeons and Dragons with space and time contraints due to moving and work, and so my epic "Albion" campaign which I've plotted and schemed on of months has fallen by the wayside.  Usually I would be disappointed, and even greive the loss of the game (or more to the point, the work I put into the world's development).  But, I believe that I developed Albion to the point that the world itself is now a living thing someplace in my head, all I need is to inject players and change the priorities of the world to involve them.  Though my game has died (or at least lies dormant), a world was born, and I am a proud, proud papi!

With that lapse in time a contender has arisen! And by contender, I mean Storyteller who's been doing this much longer then I have.  There was a old Star Wars D20 game on the horizon, hosted by a man named Ryan.  Ryan is a friend of a brother of a friend of mine, who's actually also a friend, but also kind of a brother because my friends' other brother is married to the sister of my actual brother's wife.  So let's just say Ryan is a friend of a friend, and a veteran storyteller and game master.

I've always been afraid that I take my job as a game master too seriously, between things like probing character development questions, and forcing reources like Obsidian Portal on my players.  But, sitting down with Ryan to go over my character concept I realized I'm not the only one who goes to great lengths for the sake of a campaign.  By the time we had sat down to piece together my character, we had spoken on the phone, exchanged emails, and I had even taken an anonymous survey taken by the players to help shape the campaign (I'll be adopting that one).  I usually fleshing out a character after the player has created them, trying to get a feel for my player's character's backgrounds to make the characters seem more real , and less like a group of stats on a piece of paper.

Ryan's approach got in at the ground level of character creation, instead of saying "make a character and show up" asking "what type of character do you want to be?".  At first I didn't think these two approaches were so different, but it became clear to me given the chance to change perspective.  Instead of getting ready to step into you're character's shoes on game day, each step in character creation IS a step in your character's shoes.  The end result was the game starting with you being told, "this is how you got here" and less of "well you're here, now what" (a simple lesson, but one that took me years to actually learn).

"I don't know guys, I just can't shake this weird feeling,
It's like a blaster, right in my back!"
The differences didn't stop there, during the game play, rules and roles were established in character, and soon were flipped, week 1 started with a Jedi led strike team assaulting a seperatist array at the height of the clone wars, and ended with "order 66".  Blessed as I considered myself for getting to play the sole Jedi player character in game, things quickly turned ugly as the other players turned on me, killing my Jedi Master, and knocking my character unconcious and binding him.

I was pissed! Here I was, helplessly watching the other players beat, hogtie, and rob my character and rules, rolls, and the frail Jedi Sage I had carefully built was not enough to stop them.  I know as well as anyone that it is in fact "just a game" and to let things slide, but in the moment, watching other players grind my poor Jedi Padawan's face into the ground, I couldn't help but wonder, "So I drove acrossed town and used some great ideas the create a character so I can stand here and watch him get his ass kicked and do nothing to stop it?".  To boot, not only is it the person who's running the game making your life hard, but 5 of your friends kind of killing your fun.  It's hard not to get salty, and say "why's everyone picking on me!?".

In the end, after my character was taken out of action, the intruige of the story was more then enough to keep me from collecting my things, yelling "I HATE YOU!" like a burning Anakin Skywalker, and running from the house trying to choke back my angsty tears, (ok it wouldn't have been that bad, but I was pretty frustrated.)
"I rolled a 20 against stun and I STILL drop my lightsaber,

The night ended with my character bound, and the group fleeing the newly formed Galactic Empire.  A week in realtime (and game time) gave me time to reflect.  Walking away from the house, I was threatening player characers and plotting vengeance for my fallen master, but the week between the games gave me an opportunity to do something I haven't been able to do in literal years.  Take time to myself, drop into character, analyze what had happened, plot my next move.  Even better was that my character follows a monastic tradition, so while a week had passed, I read up on the Jedi code, reflected on it's teachings, and returned to the game the following saturday (mostly) free of angry thoughts of vengeance (in character and out).  What's more is that during the course of the evening, there was discussion in character about the current events in the galaxy, what the next step as a group was.  Most of which wasn't moderated by the Storyteller, just a few of us stepped aside, agreed on what our characters knew and didn't know about current events (to avoid "metagaming", I believe I mentioned it in a previous post), and spoke about possible paths and our goals.  For anyone familiar with Star Wars cannon, the conversation between a Jedi padawan and two clone commandos post order 66 was surprisingly respectful, diplomatic, and well played.  I'm not going to say what took place was "LARPing", but actually standing aside with two other people and speaking openly in character, it's the closest I've been.

Got a little side-tracked there.  Long story short, I reached a level of immersion I've been seeking my players to experience for quite a while.  Despite a lot of my experience coming what can be concieved as a negative experience (really frustrated), I was still hooked! Not just because the GM sets a compelling story, but also because those setbacks, both planned and rolled, helped give my character direction and set a challange before me much more exciting and important then target numbers.

So, personal story aside, let's talk a little about character development, more specifically, character development in a tabletop gaming atmosphere.

A character developed in a tabletop gaming session is quite different from a literary character, as they are forced to overcome forces that you can not control.  When writing a book or a short story, you have the liberty of setting challanges before your character that will help shape them into a character you desire, tabletop gaming is quite a bit different.  Your character is forced to weather the crucible of a fiendish DM, and the choices made by other characters (all of whom are every bit as important to the story as yours).  It's easy to forget (especially starting out) that your character is not the main character, that the story revolves around your group, not your persona.  Building a story with multiple main characters is hard on a player who's got a very interesting plot line, and a storyteller who is trying to follow an interesting plot line, but might risk leaving out other characters.  It's alright to play a character who's more of a supporting character then a lead, but even the most avid wallflowers need light, and in leaving someone to take a backseat to the rest of the group langwish you risk at best wasting that person's time and at worst that person becoming disruptive to the rest of the group.

"Trouble" Players are easy to spot, usually they're
holding a rule book, and arguing with the game master.
The key is constant is to be mindful of your surroundings and keep communication between your fellow players and storyteller.  It's easy to start the accept the atmosphere of the game (especialy Dungeons and Dragons, with it's "Adventure Game" roots) as something as more competative, with your Storyteller seen as an adversary and the other player as independant plot lines that speak when you're not speaking, and help keep you alive.  The fact is that like De Niro said in Brazil, "We're all in it together, kid.", that is to say instead of jockying for your turn to talk, you should wait to make sure to wait for others to react and have their say.  Instead of pulling levers in a room you just walked into, make sure the other players have time to check out their surroundings before being "that guy" that says "Hey! What's this do!?".  Sure you could reason "I have an impulsive character! That's just how they are!", but frustrating other player because "that's how my character is" is a slippery slope.  A few slip ups makes for interesting  (and frustrating in a good way) situations, but simply saying "That's how I am, deal with it" is either going to make player characters reconsider inviting your character on future adventures, or make your friends reconsider inviting you to future games.  Your "dark and mysterious" character is interesting, but when their "dark and mysterious" decisions start to step on the liberties of other characters, you've got some explaining to do, opening the way for some great story oriented conflict.  If it doesn't go the way of story oriented conflict (and that which actually reaches a resolution in a timely manner), and you dodge questions and accusations instead of confronting them, prepare to reap the consequences of the wedge you just drove between yourself and your party.

In closing, it's hard being a good game master, but even harder is being a good player, balancing your enthusiasim with patience in a world of adventure and excitment is enough to drive anyone crazy, but remember to share your enthusiasim with the people around you, create bonds with the other characters in the game (and game masters, create situations that force players to work together!  A room full of monsters is not enough to fulfill a team building exercise!).
You could make a thousand characters, and never know adventure
like this heating engineer.
Be prepared to make compromises on how you play your character, to leave room for others.  The only thing worse then a character who doesn't stick to their beliefs, is one too obstinate to make room for the people closest to them, and fictitious or real, people like that don't keep friends for long...ficticious or real.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Triumphant Return, and the Narrative Prerogative

You know I've got like, three or so blogs started and saved for this post.  I feel maybe I need to shift my format a bit.  I wanted this blog to work like a "Do It Yourself" manual on building narrative, especially in a Table-Top gaming format, each post being like a chapter. I realize now that's a little to intensive for me to keep up with (one of the reasons for my sabbatical).  So though I'm going to scale it back a bit, still focusing on Narrative, Storytelling, and Gaming, but breaching every now and again for a few personal bloggy things.

So, let's talk about what I've had the privilege of discovering while I was away!

I was able to attend Colossalcon in June with my friends Kristina Elyse Butke and Dave in June, and it wasn't nearly as "Colossal" as I'd anticipated.  I got the sneaking suspicion that maybe I just wasn't into the "scene" of it (being a bird of many feathers, this feeling of having one foot in the crowd and one foot out was not new to me).  Regardless it was a neat experience, and I was able to attend a panel lead by Uncle Yo, a comedian who's proclaims himself "The Geek Comedian, tackling all things sci-fi, comic books, video games, anime, and all that role-playing in-between.".  He was true to his word telling jokes through-out his panel that apply directly to the "Geek" culture, so directly in fact that some were lost on me (am I the only sci-fi fantasy fan on the planet that isn't apeshit for Dr. Who?).  But more informative by far then his humor was the content of his panel, "Beyond D&D" where he discussed narrative driven games (in story as well as system).

I can't help but applaud the mind
that decided to turn this...
Games like "Dread" a survival Horror game played with a Jenga tower.  Character Creation is, instead of the classic list of numbers detailing your characters abilities and attributes, a number probing questions, where your answer tells more about your character, things such as "In this game you will be a child at slumber party.  What did you do to your little brother that you're afraid your parents will find out about while you are away?"  your storyteller will then use your answers against you through the course of the story.  To test whether you're able to resolve conflict, you make pulls from the tower, but if the tower falls because of you, you're character is removed from the game, usually in a very final and vicious way! The tower is like quicksand, finding may give you incremental chance, but ultimately, the more you struggle, the more peril you put yourself and others in.  
...into this.

Or "Panty Explosion", I'll be honest, since looking this thing up, I've been talking anyone and everyone about it just because I like saying the name.  In this game you are Japanese school girl, dealing with high school life, evil Oni, psychic powers, and possibly (depending on the age disposition of your group) tentacle monsters.  In the game you choose which player is your best friend, and which is your rival.  When you resolve an action (with dice rolls) and are successful at an action, your "bestie" sets the scene boasting about how awesome your action was, but if the dice come up with failure, your rival paints what ever malicious picture they like.  The game pokes fun at teenage cultural norms by asking you to describe your character in terms of their zodiac, their blood type (which apparently at some time in japan was believed to shape your persona not unlike a zodiac sign), and even starting the game (and each subsequent day in "game time) by holding a popularity vote, the most popular girl claiming the best dice as her own and the least popular claiming the worst dice (in essence, the game is a lot harder when you're not popular).

There was a time when someone saying "you want to play a game where you're a Japanese school girl" might make me scoff (as many of the folks I've described it to have), but when Yo mentioned it, the first thing that sprung to mind was this movie, and how could I not be immediately overcome by dark glee!?

There are many other games Yo mentioned, games like "The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen", "Danger Patrol!" and "Mouse Guard" that also are some great looking games and introduce some fantastic narrative concepts.  Now if only I could find someone to play them.

There's also been a number of bands of great bands I've gotten into recently (and some not so recently) that introduce some amazing narrative via their music, or at the very least puts me in a mood to create a story.  Here's the rundown.

The Protomen. If I have not talked to you in person about The Protomen, we probably haven't seen each other in the last five years.  The Protomen takes the story of Megaman (Capcom's flagship blue-clad robo-hero), and turns it into a progressive rock opera.  Starting with their first album (Self-titled) following the creation of Protoman by Dr. Thomas Light, in the attempt to end the rule of Dr. Wiley and his army of evil Robots (don't you dare look down your nose at this, you loved it when The Flaming Lips did it!).  Then on to the creation of Megaman, so that Dr. Light may find companionship via a created robot son.  Megaman catches winds of his brother's exploits and decides (In only the most epic way) to finish his brother's work.
Light up the Night.

Act II: The Father of Death, the seconds album is a prequel, following Dr. Light's fall from grace, and Dr. Wiley's rise to power.  Where the first album was a rough, progressive, rock n' roll narrative extravaganza, The Father of Death combines an "old western" feel with synth rock and classic rock (even with some nods to "The Boss" himself).  I really can say enough about these guys, folks.  Buy their albums, and turn them up to 11.

I meant to talk about many other things, such as bands like "Manchester Orchestra", "The Dear Hunter", and "Ludo" (who brought us "Love me Dead", check out "The Broken Bride", a wonderful concept album), but my time on this post comes to a close.  Check out the games and music I mentioned if you get the chance.

One last thing. The other evening, I had the good fortune of appearing with my friends, Nathan Zoebl, Eric Muller, and Ben Bailey on their podcast "Dirty Sons of Pitches", which is a discussion on movies, a pitches for new films.  We made the "most inappropriate movie pitch", check it out!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Immersion, living the dream, and getting Old

April 6th I turned a year older.  I'm now 29 and a year a way from three decades of life provides a great oppotunity to look back on one's life and accomplishments and say "Who am I now, and how did I get here?"

Instead of doing that I took a week off work to play Assassin's Creed 2, buy a Dremel Tool to modify Nerf guns with my girlfriend, and purchased small bits or wood, fake plastic trees, and modeling clay from hobby shops to contruct sets for my table top gaming sessions.  Do I need fantastic hand scuplted statues and personalized game pieces to get my players involved in the game? Of course not! And it's a good thing too, because my hand has never been the steadiest, my brother's the artist, I am the...well...something else equally creative and amazing I'm sure.  But it did make me think, though I was making these pieces mostly because they were great opportunity to do something with my hands other then typing on a keyboard or clicking a mouse, what was so important about small custom made corridors and wooden hand-painted figures?  The answer is simple.  Immersion.

If your character is here, your mind should be too.
(Link to Original Piece)
Immersion in a table top role playing game comes in many different forms.  In a previous blog I'd mentioned the root of said games being fireside tales of high adventure, providing a great atmosphere with crackling fire wood smoke smells, and (usually) tastey food, players may get the sense that they aren't too much unlike their character counterparts, sitting around a cozy fire between perilous dungeons, regailing eachother with stories of adventure and excitment.  Sadly, fireside adverturing games are hard to come by, given the space needed to both play the game combined to with space needed to safely manage an open flame.  It can be done, in fact there's a hundred things that can be done to make a game more special when you're commited to it, but it gets expensive.  And after so much time your relationship with your players is like your relationship with a significant other, you want to find exciting locals and neat experiences to share together, but as time passes and you're more comfortable with each other, just doing it on the kitchen table is fine...

When your player's characters look
like this, your players should feel
like this.
...Aside from the the obvious memorable experience, immersion serves a very utilitarian purpose.  If your group is at all like mine, they have been friends for years, and their Saturday night game is their night to catch up with said friends, talking about news and goings on throughout the week.  "Non-game related" talk can be disruptive and distracting, and when you only have so much time in an evening to weave a tale of high adventure, all involved can shoot themselves in the feet by taking the time to sing Guy on a Buffalo in four part accapella (Though a resourcful storyteller would capitalize on such events by forcing encounters on players where they have to sing or recite epic tales).  This can be mitigated through time management, and immersion.  An immersed player is focused, in character, and ready to play.  So let's look at some immersion techniques.

Description is the easiest and most basic form of immersion because it's going to happen some way or another.  If you tell your players "The man you are speaking to is middle-aged, just under 6 feet tall,  completely bald and below sparkling dark eyes and a large nose is a thick handlebar moustache and a crooked grin. Broad shoulders and a barrel chest fill his fine silk clothing, which is a deep green simple and elegant in design.  He greets you warmly, introducing himself as Edgar Belmont, the man soon to become Baron of the city of Saxon and it's surrounding lands." you give them a pretty clear picture of what their looking at.

The alternative is to say, "A middle aged man approaches you, you note he is bald and has a large handlebar mustache. "I am Edgar Belmont" he says, the name familiar to you as you know he is soon to be baron of Saxon, a community known for it's export of fine silk. "Allow me to welcome you to Saxon and thank you for attending my coronation.  I understand you're from York?"

Where the second gives less detail of the man, it does hint at enough to let the players for their own picture in their heads, they know he's probably wealthy given his position and are able to come up with their own "look" with limited features and indication of lifestyle, the important part of this description though is the way he speaks.  Folks have a bias when hear about someone, which is different from when they see them, which is different from when they speak to them.  The moment you open your mouth in chracter to your players, they will make their measure of the "person speaking"  and decide whether they are a threat or an asset.  Aside from interaction, very little description is needed for your players to fill in the blanks, and so immerse themselves.

Though this is the easiest way to immerse your players, long bouts of description turn into lecture (and soon to interuption).  Describe away, but be prepared for your players to interupt and interact.  Don't get angry when they interupt you to say "I'll take a closer look at that!" either ask them to let you finish or indulge them.  If their interuption relavent to what you're describing you have them hooked! If not, ask them to save it for later.

If your house looks like this, a little
atmosphere shouldn't be hard to create.
Ambiance is a tricky thing, since most times you're looking at playing at a kitchen table, in a living room, or in a basement.  Depending on what you're trying to convey with the feel of your adventure, you can stick with clever lighting tricks.  A Dungeon crawl of an adventure could take place in a basement with no windows, and candle light.  Stories of court intrigue could be hosted in well lit rooms with plenty of food and drink.  A Kitchen lit (and stocked) properly could have a Taverny feel.  I personally prefer a patio in fair weather.  Fresh air does wonders for a party's ability to think, sounds of bugs and birds does well to lend to a frontier or wilderness motiffs.  The few times I've been able to host on a patio, It's been very well received!

A word about lighting, dice and sheets are hard to read in dim light, make sure your playing space is well lit for players.  Losing pencils, dice, and not reading abilites on a sheet is a problem.  Your ambience should not get in the way of your game.

When it comes to tabletop gaming, your experienced players have obviously taken their love of the game to the next level.  First they did this by purchasing all the suppliment books that their game's publisher released to make money, then they started buying tools.  Gaming tools can actually be split into two catagories, Playing Tools and Props.

The Sultan, Lords and Ladies is it pricey, but if you're serious
about tabletop gaming, there is no finer table, until you go
with a touch screen.
Playing Tools are hardware you may associate more with the storyteller, these are things that help the game at it's most basic levels.  Truthfully, a group of gamers with the proper mental capabilities can run a game without paper, but it makes it easier when you have your character sheet, and some graph paper with a map drawn out, or instead a Vinyl Mat with one inch squaresWet Erase Markers, and Minitures of your specific player's characters.  That second part probably sounds pricey. It is.  But when you start to seriously consider these games as a hobby, spending a money on objects that define your character (as a player) is a personal touch that is worth it.  As a storyteller, being able to use tools to shape a large map is quick, fun, and gives your players a very real image of dangers their facing and the situation their in.  Sure your player's O's can be surround by X's on grid paper, or they could be hand painted figurines, with the likness of each specific character standing in a molded plastic dungeon, surrounded by wicked looking, die-cast lizard people with barbed spears. If you can afford it and you're commited, designing sets can be very rewarding for players and storytellers.   There's also a large amount of free software available to allow you to run a digital game board, most of these are oriented to playing over the internet though, and few port well to a "T.V. based table top map".

Outside and in costume, sure.
But crowded around a table in a kitchen,
foam swords quickly become
why we can't have nice things.
Props are...tricky. Like a personalized figurine, perhaps your player arrives holding something relevent to his character.  This sort of tool is neat because it begins breaching the realms between "gaming experience" and "performance art", unfortunatly it is also very dangerous.  At best case scenario you have people sitting in cloaks with elf ears spirit glued on, worst case scenario one of your players shows up with a freshly sharpened German Bastard Sword. Props to get your players into character are very cool, until your players get bored with sitting and decide to start swinging them at one another.  You can try to tell them "act like adults!", but they did just show up for a glorified playdate.  If you invite props to your game, keep them non-weapon oriented, or have your players sign a waiver.

Again, KEEP IT SIMPLE.  Having extravagent game sets or costumes can be very awesome, but remember that your players are here to play a game.  If set peices and costumes gets in the way of playing, either throw the idea out...or instead of running the game have a costume party!

At it's simplest incarnation, media enters your game as the player character's pictures, but using visuals and sounds can add more ambience to an adventure.  Visual queues such as pictures of exotic locations might do well to put your characters in the mind set of the area their exploring.  Having a slide show running on a near by Television might be a nice touch.

Amazing Lanscapse like this one can not only give you
Players a great image of the lands they roam, but can also
give you inspiration on what sorts of lands to
base your game around (Link to Original Piece)
Sound can also be a huge boon.  Having background music playing can be a nice touch.  Though you want to tailor the music towards the game your playing, don't work too hard to match it.  Background music in my experience has been as much a distraction as anything, prompting players to pull out their smart phones and decide which music they believe is better for the scene.  Sound effects, though they seem like a good idea are just another thing to keep track of and somewhat cheapen the mood.  When a player fails at something really important in game, having the Price is Right buzzer to punctuate it is funny only once.

Music proves for great inspiration outside the game though, I usually put together an unofficial soundtrack when I'm piecing games together, just something to inspire me while I'm creating encounters and story work.  And for players, there's no reason why a character shouldn't have their own theme song!

Again, media like images and sound can be a one of your greatest tools for immersion, but just as easily become your greatest distraction.  External media is also just another thing to keep track of outside the normal details you have to remember for your game (especially if you're the host!)

Ultimatly, immersion comes down to your players.  You can enforce rules and add tools to help get folks into character, but if they feel like chatting about work and topics other then goblin slaying to blow off steam, there's not alot you can do to stop them. Again, the best thing to do is to let them get it out of their system, don't fight them to lead them back to the game.  After a few minutes, everyone will remember what they're there for and want to get rolling.  Frequent breaks and giving your players time to chat before getting started also helps to alleviate non-game related banter.  Listeners recognize a great tale when they are free to, not when it's forced upon them, then it becomes a lecture.

In closing, truely authentic immersion is the greatest gift a storyteller can give to one of their listeners and vice  versa.  Imagine someone telling you the tale of Henry of York, a young Sword for Hire with a shadowy past, or Mika the Bard searching the world for ancient tales and lessons past, or Wren the Sorcerer, seeking fame, fortune, and most of all, a good time.  Imagine being told their tales and when the tale is done you remember them like you were there, "like it was a dream, but it seemed so real".  These memories and the lessons contained within are the gifts we storytellers share with the world.  Humanity's most potent legacy is The Story, and every last man, woman, and child has a tale to tell.

Share your stories, but remember that when others are sharing to listen and let yourself be swept up in it, you might just learn something.

Monday, February 27, 2012

A New System: Numbers, content, and "Hands Off" Story-Telling

So I'm working on a new System.  "What sort of System" you ask? Why a Role playing Game system, of course!  Long have I wanted to breach into writing (as I've mentioned in the past), but I find myself spinning stories in my head then letting them flutter away as I don't seem to have the discipline to commit them to paper.  So I turn to my favorite mode of getting an audience to experience your storytelling.  Gaming.

The thought of building and balancing a complete System can
be a bit overwhelming, even if it is based largely on another system
More specifically, Table Top gaming.  There's something special about sitting around a table with your friends, sharing tales and telling stories, and this is the closest thing to it these days. Not to sound like an "Old fuddy-duddy", but with TV, Video Games, Cinema, etc., there's not much in the way these days of passing on stories like Aesop's Fables, Grimm's Fairy Tales, that isn't covered by Television.  Don't get me wrong, I too, am a child of technology, but I believe there are some important traditions that have shaped mankind as social beings, and sitting around listening to someone like me who has awesome stories to share is one of them.

Jokes aside, the issue that plagues all tabletop games comes to a matter of balance.  Where does the world fueled on the imagination of all involved (Storyteller and Players) stop and the numbers and rules begin? Is the system you use give a lot of leeway for what your capable of?  Or does it paint your Imaginary Avatar into very finite conditions?  Both can be interesting depending on your style of play, so long as you don't rob your players of their most powerful tool, Choice.  On the other hand, coming from a background of working with players who look for loopholes in a system to work in their favor (thereby unbalancing the game, decimating any possible "challenge" you may have set for them, and leaving other "balanced" players far behind) leads to a Storyteller who pours over text, lawyers rules, and enforces interpretation with an iron fist (which doesn't make players happy, even your reformed loophole seekers).  So, let's break down the system.

Your system, the rules and numbers, are very bones of your game.  If your game is a giant fire breathing dragon, this is the massive skeleton on which rests majestic beatings wings to a powerful rending claws to horrible gnashing teeth.  These are the rules and sciences of your world, and how your players interact with it.  Systems are tricky to explain because they are the part of a game you actually have to learn (obviously) to play.
If your familar with Pen and Paper
D20 games, you know what
fickle mistresses these can be.

For our example we're going to use a D20 system, because it's one I'm most familiar with, and one I'm looking at building my game in itself.  So a quick lesson on how it works is in order...

Step 1. Choose an action to perform, if it's something you have a chance to fail at, the storyteller associates a difficulty number to it.

Step 2. Roll a 20 sided dice, add or subtract any appropriate modifiers to the dice roll result

Step 3. Compare the result of your roll to the target number. If it's above, success! If it's below, failure!

And that's it!  Well, aside from calculating what bonuses your character receives and such.  Obviously it's a bit more complicated, but this is what the system is based on. A difficulty 10 is about a 50% chance for anyone to succeed, but when your character is skilled at the action their taking that add to their roll effective making their target number lower or less difficult.  Here's an example, with a little bit of flavor...

"Axton the barbarian is headed to an Tavern with his adventuring party, when he notices a rather comely Barwench standing in front of the establishment.  Between Axton's party and the tavern is a small stream.  A smile splits Axton's rough face, but he then notices Bartleby, his handsome and roguish traveling companion afixed with the same dopish look.  Axton and Bartleby get along quite well, as they share many tastes, which is precisly what puts them at odds in this instance.  Bartelby breaks into a sprint towards a near by bridge, not wanting to risk fording the stream and making a mess of his fine clothing.  Axton decides to take a daring and impressive shortcut, leaping the stream itself."

This Epic party is waiting....
The Storyteller sets the difficulty at 15, a perilous task with about a 25% chance of success for a 20 sided dice. But Axton the Barbarian is no mere schmuck, his raw strength paired with honed athletic ability give him a +10! Making his target number now a 5 instead of a 15.  Axton's player rolls a 20 sided dice and the result is a 7, adding his bonus makes it a 17...

"Axton easily leaps across the stream in an impressive athletic display, leaving Bartleby panting at the bridge and the Barwench all aflutter.  He throws her a heroic smile, she blushes and eagerly awaits a stellar pick up line to sweep her off her feet..."

Axton has no real experience with exercising his charm, and though is decent looking, gets nervous around pretty girls.  His combined natural ability and lack of expertise net him a -2. Let's say his difficulty for whatever reason is again set to a 15, he now has to roll a 17 or better to succeed.  Chances are his roll probably merits failure, and a heroic line like "Your hair is shiny, and I like turtles...".

Have I lost you? I hope not.

..for this epic party to get rolling!
The real complexity comes in details of what you are trying to accomplish and how capable your character is at completing said action. You Jumping a stream is relatively simple as opposed to calculating not only your chances of tackling a dragon, but what do you tell your players when they say "what angle should I hit the Dragon to get the best effect? i.e. a higher bonus to my roll?".  Previous rules sets expand their rules of character development to cover such actions, micromanaging each specific action your character is capable of for the sake of clarity.  This can be good to help define your character's abilities, but it also it gives your character a list of what can and can't be done, a list they have to remember or write down, a list that your character has to reference in rule books, often while playing and thereby slowing play.

My theory is that it's better to give your a handful of skills that can quantify what your character's capable of, and then leave it up to that.  Put less emphasis on "My character has the ability to do this" and more on "My character has the ability to do many things, because of his knowledge and experience in a general area.  Previous editions featured skills such as "Jump, Climb, Swim, etc" all skills associated with your characters Athletic ability, current editions have combined all of these skills into "Athletics".  You can say "Well just because someones a good climber doesn't necessarily mean they know how to swim!"  But in the context of a game, your character is "Heroic", "Special", and cut from a cloth unlike most other people in the world he inhabits (this of course is dependent on your style of game, I'm making a "Fantasy Adventure" game, there are plenty of Modern Horror and Gothic Horror games who's character design is centered around just how insignificant your character is).

Character development is split into two parts at this point, Creation and Progression...and I am suddenly tired of continuing this post.  Character Creation and Character Progression kind of deserve their own pages, so eventually I may get to those.  So let me close with this....

What was your favorite tabletop game!? Clue? D&D? Chess?  What did you love about your game and why? Mechanics from virtually any game can be worked into a Table Top pen and paper game, and I'd love to hear what's popular, especially from people who don't play Pen and Paper Role playing Games!

Monday, January 30, 2012

Conventions, Validity, and a story of Eldritch Power (a fan-fiction if you will)

Why in Space? So no one can
hear you scream, "what did I pay for!?".
This past weekend myself, my girlfriend Amanda, and my friend Kristina Elyse Butke (I always feel like I'm name dropping when I mention her, maybe it's because I use her full name) attended Ohayocon!  Considering it is a massive collection of fans and artist all in attendance for their love of Anime, Manga, and all things fantasy/sci-fi/asain culture, I found myself wondering why in 28 years I'd never attended.  I have to say after 28 years, I haven't missed much...

Some Cosplay is really hot...
I'd wanted to see a true show of "American adoption/appreciation of Asain Media/Culture", and what I got was a whole slew of people in cosplay (some good, some bad, some...sigh, I won't even get into my issues with cosplay), and a merchandise room full of "fan service".  I know I went in wanting to see what sort of knowledge people picked up from another culture (I think in my age I've started to look deeper at the lessons that can be derived even from animation that was "made for children").  I got the impression that Kristina was looking for some small amount of education on Anime and the culture as a whole.  And I think Amanda had a firmer grasp on anime then either of us, and was looking for specific/hard to find merchandise and to avoid awkward reunion with people she went to school with.  In the end we were all disappointed.  Panels were chalk full of people who were fans with little to no public speaking skills, showing off their obscure knowledge, or severe lack of preperation (this includes some of the voice actors).  The panels that actually did offer some sort of information ended up doing little more then whetting your appetite (albeit were at least a bit informative and interesting to sit through).  And last but not least, not only did the merch room not have a copy of the original anime "Boys over Flowers", but more then a couple times was Amanda stopped for a conversation, smiled and nodded, then turned and walked away face-palming.

...some cosplay is really cute...
All in all it was a good weekend.  The Con wasn't all bad, I did hear about some really great anime I'd never seen, I got to spend the weekend with a good friend, and of course my awesome girlfriend.  There were some low points, like the amount I paid to get into the Con, and on thursday night "After Hours" Shady McTowing company taking my car (I won't go into that any further, that'll be setteled in court), but I feel these were offset by me actually getting out of the house on the weekend, spending some cash frivolously, and getting lost in a crowd did me some good, as well as Amanda and I purchasing some amazing art from artists like Coey and Shy (I'd have linked their gallery sites, but I'm blogging from work).

...most cosplay looked
a little something like this.
SO, I know this is supposed to be a story telling blog and my triumphant return from the Holidays so far has been "so this was my weekend", so let's return to the source.  Not long ago I told you about the work of Kristina's I was privilaged to be able to read and wrote a little story on it myself.  So without further ado (and with Kristina Elyse Butke's permission to post a work containing the semblance of one of her characters) I give you the Tale of Andresh and Kamadeva.

"Many know the story of Andresh the Immortal. Some say he was born of traveling mystics, who cast him out because they feared his power. Some say he was the reincarnation of Aravind the Sorcerer-Prince. Others say that he sprang into being from a bonfire lit in the deepest, darkest forest, in the exact moment that night became day. These matter little, this is not those stories, what I’m about to tell you is the story of Andresh and Kamadeva.

Kamadeva was an eastern god they say, a heathen being of lust and vice.  And Andresh it is said walked all worlds, and so one day arrived in Kamadhatu, the realm of Kamadeva.  Andresh saw many wondrous things, Men and Women, lost souls, great beasts, and things that were none of these but all three at once.  The women and men and beasts and dead of Kamadhatu called to Andresh, begged him to join them in reverie and fornication.  Andresh refused them, saying their acts were perverse and unnatural,  that mankind should keep with mankind, beasts with beasts, and the dead should not linger, but pass on.  In the moment he condemned them, Andresh was set upon by the largest and most terrible of the world’s amalgamations and carried him to the Palace of Kamadeva.

The Citadel was cast in gold and bronze, it’s fountains flowed with wine and honey and blood.  Andresh was taken before Kamadeva himself, an enormous being who looked as a man but had six arms, his countenance handsome and striking, and skin the color of emeralds.  One hand stroked the mane of a great Lion, the second he held flat and upon it stood his human wives, modest in size next to his massive form.  In his third hand he held a white flame, pulsing and burning bright as if alive.  In his forth and fifth hands rested a great bow, made of sugar cane and strung with honey bees.  His sixth hand stroked his chin thoughtfully as he peered down at Andresh.

“You,” Kamadeva’s voice was smooth and soft, like a young boy, but the harshness of his anger apparent, “seek to discourage my people in their reverie? To kill the joy that threads my world is to unweave the world itself. Your condemnation brings destruction to my realm AND I WILL NOT HAVE IT!”

Kamadeva’s voice rang through the palace and all that followed was the growl of the great lion, and silence.  He waited for reply, but Andresh was no fool.  To openly speak against a heathen god in his own realm would mean a quick death.  Andresh would not bend his will to accommodate what he saw as aberrant though, and remained silent in defiance.  Kamadeva read this easily in Andresh’s face and his agitated expression split into a terrible smile.  He lowered a hand and sent forth his wives, they so equipped with instruments (and little else) began to sing and play and dance.  Each of Kamadeva’s wives bid to Andresh, each more beautiful then the last, with skin like honey and earth, lips like wine, hair like curtains of night, and eyes that shone green as the flesh of the lust-god himself.  They called to Andresh to lay with them as they sang and played and danced.

“Yes,” bid Kamadeva sweetly, “Take them Andresh, make them yours and you will have a place here in my kingdom for all time and as will your descendants. Satiate them with your seed and bring sons and daughters of Man to my world!”

The wives of Kamadeva danced provocativly, pressing their bodies close to Andresh, their dark hair surrounding him like campfire smoke.  Any man would’ve broken, given himself over willingly to Kamadeva’s wives and stood at Kamadeva’s side for all time.  Andresh though, as you know, is The Immortal, The Magician, The Alchemist.  His will was strong as Damascus steel.  He raised his hands above his head and his feet began to move.  Kamadeva and his wives watched with delight as Andresh began to dance.  Enthralled with the speed of his feet and the movement of his hands, Kamadeva and his wives failed to notice the palace’s fire, leaving their braziers and sliding like serpents along the shining floor.  Before the Lust-God or his harem could react the fire had consumed the demon guards and combined creating a spiralling funnel around Andresh.  

The women scattered at the sorcery as Andresh began to dance faster and faster and the fire built and built until the palace walls began to glow with heat.  Kamadeva was unphased and pressed forward with his third hand, which held the white flame, the fire of creation to which all gods are entitled.  The flame leapt from Kamadeva’s hand like a hungry beast and began to over come the fire now under Andresh’s control.  Kamadeva laughed as the palace flames and Andresh himself became consumed in the eternal fire.  Kamadeva’s laughter sputtered out as the white fire ceased to consume, but began to twin and embrace the palace flame, and soon the white and orange began their own dance, spiralling away to reveal Andresh poised with his hands held high above his head, unscathed, before flourishing back into his dance.

Kamadeva’s smile became a bewildered grimace.  Never had, never could, a mortal stand against the fire of creation.  None had weathered the temptation of his mistresses.  But Kamadeva wasn’t finished yet, he nocked his bow of cane and bee, and loosed an arrow, an arrow not meant to kill but to subdue.  An arrow made of spring wind and sweet scent, an arrow to calm the heart to direct it to love, not unlike the bolts of Eros .  Once pierced, Andresh would be under Kamadeva’s power.  But the arrow met shining floor and shattered as Andresh, still dancing, stepped away.  Andresh was now a dervish of fire and spirit, and arrow after arrow splintered as he danced across the throne room, determination and focus creasing his brow.  

Kamadeva threw back his head and roared in frustration, a cruel snarl marring his handsome face.  Kamadeva balled his remaining hand into a fist, bringing it high above his head.  Andresh knowing what was to come, reached inside himself to his secret knowledge, opened the gate that allowed him to traverse worlds, and stepped through just as Kamadeva’s hand came crashing down.  

Kamadeva opened his palm to see his work, to see the mortal sorcerer undone, but found no blood or bits of bone, only a black mark in his emerald palm.  His lips curled back with rage and he shouted “Agni! Brother! I invoke you! Spare my palace and I will repay your favor with the blood of those who defy me!” Closing his hand on the black mark, Kamadeva raised his fist to the air, “I OFFER SACRIFICE!”.

The twin fire syphoned from the walls of the palace and wrapped themselves into a sphere before Kamadeva.  The fires split to reveal a man who matched Kamadeva in size, in one of his many hands he held the palace fire, in the other the fire of creation. The former he dropped into a brazier as he approched Kamadeva, offering the latter. “There is unrest in your house, my Brother.” His voice like the roar of a furnace, but bared no inflection.  Crimson skin sunk into coal eyes, staring darkly at Kamadeva,  “Why have you called upon me with such a tone?”.

Kamadeva subdued his rage in the presence of the heathen god of fire and acceptor of sacrifice. Meekly he accepted the white fire, then replied, “A Mortal challenged me in my own realm, as good as spat in my face, and narrowly evaded my grasp.”, Kamadeva raised his fist between them, “How do I make him pay!?”

Agni grabbed Kamadeva’s wrist, and as Kamadeva released the fist in suprise, Agni plucked the black mark from his hand.  Raising his pinched fingers to his eyes, Agni smiled in recognition, “Not so narrow, my brother. You have caught his shadow”.

“What of it!?” Kamadeva replied haughtily, “What is the worth of a man’s shadow?”.  Agni grasped the dark form tightly “A man’s shadow walks through life with him, lives as he lives, and is as much a part of him as any limb, any thought...” Kamadeva’s gaze turned from anger to confusion, confusion tinged with fear in the face of his brother’s terrible knowledge.  “And so?”

“And so there will be sacrifice, debt will be paid”, Kamadeva turning his gaze from the dark thing to Kamadeva, meeting his eyes only for a moment.  Kamadeva nodded, “see that it is done”.

“And when it is?” Agni enquired. Kamadeva turned to leave his brother to his savage work, waving his hand dismissively he replied “Feed the Lion.”

Agni enacted ancient rites of sacrifice on Andresh’s shadow, rites so brutal that the shadow cried out as if it were a man itself.  Pain you see is meant to be shared, even for a shadow, and when you put pain one would bestow upon a whole thing on to one small piece, it’s pain multiplied for that one small piece.  In this case, it was enough to break Andresh’s shadow, and as instructed, Agni left the remains of the shadow to the Lion.  

The Lion savored the meal but in the night something strange happened.  The Lion cried out as though ill, and began to change.  Andresh’s Shadow was as stubborn as the man himself you see, though the torture had driven to the brink of madness.  The Lion began to manifest strange forms.  A head broke from the lion’s right shoulder, a ram’s head baying and angry, and from it’s left shoulder a serpent,  a wyrm that spit flame.  A Chimera was born, each head signifying some part of the Sorcerer gone wrong, the Ram a testament to his tenacity, the Dragon a sign of his arcane might, the Lion’s head remained, embodying his determination.  This thing though was not an elegant mix of the traits that made Andresh who he was, it was a dark and twisted reflection, a nightmare given shape.  This is what his shadow had become and the creature roared.  Tearing a hole in reality, calling upon it’s dark inner gate, just as Andresh had, The Beast set out to find it’s master, to reunite, and to share with it’s whole the unspeakable horrors that had been inflicted upon it.

This is his curse, some say even now he runs to escape the bloody retribution for his crimes against a god, to deny the agony that builds the longer he is in pieces.  They say this is the reason Andresh is immortal, not because of his power, but because his natural form is broken, and death can not catch a man who has the power to step ahead of his Fate."