Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Ennui of the Eternal GM

Self-reflection is awful and beautiful. In the time since deciding to step away from D&D 5e and go back to running Savage Worlds, I’ve spent a lot of time navel-gazing, wondering why I’m so eager to just chuck the campaign under a bus, searching for the truth of my own motives. I’ve realized that a big part of it – A HUGE PART OF IT – is simply that I’m depressed about my character.

Anyone who followed this sordid tale from the beginning might remember that this Forgotten Realms campaign originally started with me alternating DM duties with another player. Each of us had a player character we ran when the other person was acting as DM, and whom we shunted to the background as when we ran the game. That plan imploded due to that player’s personal issues, leaving me as the sole DM and my PC as a permanent DMPC, capable of delivering needed exposition and contributing to fights, but unable to really advance his own goals and desires...

Because that would be cheating (and I've got a real problem with cheating in D&D).

And because that is actually really, really boring. 

During a hiatus with the group, I continued running the same campaign as a duet with Robin (the long-term plan was to just make it an alternate universe if we ever got back to the group campaign). I kept my DMPC in as a supporting character, completing by DM fiat some of the character goals I was hoping to achieve in play (like making love to Alustriel). In the end, though, none of it was actually fulfilling.

I wasn’t achieving anything. I was just handing it all to myself. My fantasies weren’t being fulfilled because they were all happening offstage. They weren’t “real.”

I’ve been gaming for over 25 years. My sessions as a player probably average out to once per year. My entire gaming career has been about telling other people’s stories and empowering their characters. 

I’m fine with this most of the time. I like being a GM. I can get pretty antsy when I’m not running the game. It bores me when I play one character for too long because I’ve got a lot of character voices and I like showing them off. World-building and creating mysteries are tons of fun. I am overall very happy with my decades of being a GM.

This time, though… This time I was really invested in my PC. I really enjoyed the sessions I just got to cut loose and play him to the hilt. Relegating him to the role of Basil Exposition, holding him back to let the “real” PCs take center stage, has been really, really depressing.

As in mood swings. As in pervasive sadness for hours on end. As in, “I suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder and sometimes that leads to periods of depression.”

And, as usual, identifying my illness at work and isolating the causes of the attack has helped me conquer it. Writing this probably kind of silly-sounding confession is making me feel better already. I feel a little guilty about letting feelings like this contribute toward ending a campaign other people were enjoying, but it’s not like my depression is the only reason to call quits on the game. And it’s not like my deeply-held dissatisfaction with the whole thing was helping make the campaign good.

In any case, this is the nail in the coffin for A Gleam of Silver. I can’t go back to that campaign and face the specters of lost opportunities. It will be better by far – for everyone – to start a new campaign, one in which I can keep myself solely in the GM role.

Though maybe I should look for a game to join as a player, too.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Super-thieves, low-level parties, and Deadpool.

A trio of reviews

After much trepidation (and a mix-up with Blu-Ray regions), I finally own Lupin III (2014), the latest attempt to bring Japan’s cartoon answer to James Bond to live-action. I put it off for a year and a half because reviews were poisonous, but I’m happy to report that the film far exceeded my expectations.

This is not quite the same as saying it’s a good movie. Like the James Bond films, Lupin III is a franchise that can only be judged in relation to itself. A spy who offers his real name to everyone he meets would be a huge plot hole in a serious espionage film, but it’s par for the course for James Bond. Similarly, the criminal world of Lupin III is flamboyant and gaudy, featuring criminal masterminds who flaunt their schemes in front of paying audiences. It would seem absurd to anyone expecting a modicum of reality in their heist film, but it’s standard operating procedure in a Lupin movie.

Of course, most Lupin III movies are cartoons. The character has starred in five anime television series, seven animated theatrical films, three original video animations, twenty-five anime television specials, and one previous live-action movie (which is, arguably, more cartoony than any of the animation). I’ve seen roughly half of everything, so I feel pretty confident in declaring Lupin III (2014) to be a thoroughly mid-level entry in the Lupin franchise, equal to the better television specials but below the heights achieved by the theatrical films Secret of Mamo (my personal favorite) or Castle of Cagliostro (everyone else’s favorite).

In James Bond terms, it’s Moonraker quality.

(Oddly, the most damaging thing about Lupin III (2014) is the decision to aim the film at an international audience by making it bilingual. Practically half the dialogue is in English, which is unfortunate because most of the cast cannot emote while speaking English. I generally hate watching dubbed live-action films, but in this case it would actually improve the film.)

The plot reminds me strongly of how the usual TV specials go: Lupin and company run through their usual shenanigans while a disposable cast of allies and antagonists is introduced to supposedly add emotional weight. This time, we’re treated to yet another story of how young Lupin III got his gang together, with several movie-only members not making it out alive. The most inventive part of the film is how faithfully the world of the manga and anime is adapted to live-action. Director Ryuhei Kitamura threatened to significantly update and modernize the characters (even saying in early press that Goemon wouldn’t wear his traditional kimono) but instead he turned in a surprisingly faithful (though not completely faithful) adaptation.

For an inventive, even deconstructive, take on something, I’d have to instead recommend Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash, an anime adaptation of a light novel (AKA young adult) fantasy series. While Grimgar… inititially feels like it falls into same “stuck in a computer RPG” genre as series like the .hack and Sword Art Online franchises , it quickly begins to seem more like a traditional portal fantasy like The Chronicles of Narnia or The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant – or some weighty blend of Lewis and Donaldson.

Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash is set in a fantasy world where amnesiac teenagers suddenly appear through a magical portal and then find themselves forced to make a living as first-level roleplaying game characters defending a keep on the borderlands. While there’s a few JRPG touches to the kids’ character classes, overall it feels like these poor dumb kids just stumbled into a world run by Gary Gygax. In other words, player incompetence is punished by character death, and these teens have no idea what they’re doing.

(I’m probably making Grimgar… sound grimmer than it is. Five episodes in, only one of the party members has died.)

The show is more drama than adventure, an exploration of the traumas and challenges of adapting to a life of killing goblins for copper pieces. There’s a lot of screaming and tears when the cast faces the troubling realization that the goblins they’re hunting share the same simple desire to live that they do (a realization drummed home to the viewer by scenes of goblins hanging out by the campfire, laughing and swapping stories). Add on to that the tribulations of poverty and deeply-buried personal issues from their lives before amnesia (modern lives with subconscious memories of planes and phones), and Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash becomes a compelling dissection of the basic assumptions of a lot of fantasy gaming.

(Though reading some old-school fantasy materials has made me question that myself recently. In “Down-to-earth divinity” in issue #54 of Dragon – the October 1981 issue – Ed Greenwood wrote about imagining the Forgotten Realms as a world of free will, that every sentient being had the option of choosing good or evil. If I ever return to traditional fantasy gaming, I’m definitely going to prompt the players to try reasoning with anything they can talk to.)

Grimgar... made me really question the enjoyment to be found in depictions of violence. Thankfully, Deadpool reassured me that it’s perfectly fine to enjoy a good beheading.

Ah, Deadpool: a gift from Generation X to itself. Stuffed with references to Gen X touchstones like Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Voltron: Defender of the Universe, rated R to keep the gorram kids out, and scored to the most eclectic collection of songs this side of Guardians of the Galaxy, Deadpool proved to be an amazing Valentine’s Day film. Words fail me.

No, they really do. I have no idea how to end this post.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Time to Put the d20s Away...

from d20 Shaming
My enthusiasm for Dungeons and Dragons waxes and wanes. Right now it has waned yet again.

A significant reason for this is simply Robin’s horrible luck with 20-sided dice. It’s epically bad; our last session ended with her rolling nothing but 6s and 7s on five different dice. If this misfortune was more evenly distributed around the table, it might actually be funny (or even fun), but given that some of the other players have suspiciously good luck, it instead becomes frustrating and unfair. I've belatedly realized why so many games utilize dice pools instead.

(The fact that I roll my own dice out in the open in order to show I’m unbiased toward my wife winds up biting me in the ass because I can’t just fudge lightly in her favor every once in a while. I’m beginning to understand why DM screens were invented.)

Robin’s terrible luck with d20s does not extend to smaller dice, which is why we settled on Savage Worlds as our default system for duets years ago. The first session of our new swashbuckling duet was blessed with multiple instances of exploding dice and wondrous feats of swordsmanship. It’s almost enough to tempt me to houserule rolling different dice for D&D – 2d10, perhaps, or 3d6 and lowering some difficulty numbers – but there’s a couple of other factors contributing to my fading interest.

One is simply that I’m a nobody in D&D circles and a somebody in Savage Worlds circles. It’s a petty reason, but regretfully true; I get a bigger ego boost out of interacting with the SW Google+ and Facebook communities than with the D&D crowd. Honestly, conversations in the Google+ D&D 5e community tend to feel like we’re shouting towards each other across a howling void.

(They also tend to point out my own failures to correctly parse 5e’s deliberately vague yet annoyingly precise language. I would have never assumed that a Rogue’s Sneak Attack feature is expected to be used every round; my reading of the ability’s description – informed as it was by AD&D 2nd Edition – was that the Rogue had to work to maneuver into advantageous positions before using it, something that is not guaranteed in every round.)

Similarly, I have to admit that I feel underwhelmed by the overwhelming amount of fan-created material popping up on and elsewhere. I feel incredibly snobbish for saying that (and guilty for feeling that way) but a lot of it is just poorly written (by which I mean “amateurish and full of spelling errors,” not “lacking in game balance”). The people posting Star Wars classes or monsters – or that one guy who posted a Gunslinger class and stole artwork from Marvel’s adaptation of Stephen King’s books – offend me more for the way it displays their poor reading comprehension than for their disregard of copyright laws.

There’s very good, almost necessary work being published at the Dungeon Masters Guild, too. The very fact that some of it – like stats for normal, commonly-encountered NPCs or supplemental bestiaries – is almost necessary is pretty annoying. D&D 5e is a little more fast and loose than the previous two editions, but it’s still much more granular than Savage Worlds. I tried tossing some Way of Shadow monks at the party during the last game and I really , really wish I’d taken the time to stat them out well ahead of the game. Making them up on the spot did not work well.

 D&D 5e doesn’t fit my loose, improvisational game mastering style as well as Savage Worlds. It isn’t meant to, so that’s my problem, not the game’s. I haven’t been interested enough in any of the pre-packaged campaigns to run them, so I haven’t been taking advantage of the best tool to run 5e the way it’s meant to be run. It’s a moderate- to high-prep game and I’m a low-prep kind of guy. So be it.

I’ve created other problems for myself, too. I’m a “give them the moon and let them aim for the stars” kind of GM, so I’ve been ludicrously generous with attribute scores and feats (and – sort of – with magical items). Do not – DO NOT – allow your players to take both a feat and an attribute boost at the appropriate levels. I thought it would be fun, but it just leads to overkill (yes, overkill was obviously intended, but this was overkill overkill). Hell, I’ll probably dump feats entirely from future games, and scale back on the attribute spread I give players.

I say “future games” because I know I’ll be back. After I get Ultimate NPCs: Skullduggery – and after Ed Greenwood starts publishing through the Dungeon Masters Guild – I know I’ll start getting nostalgic again. I’ll succumb to the lure of the Forgotten Realms and try to start up that “Scumbags of Waterdeep” campaign that’s been flitting at the edges of my imagination…

But I’ve had enough for now. For now it’s Wild Dice and Action Cards. The Guild of Shadows book should be showing up soon, so maybe I can exorcize my Waterdhavian yearnings in Kurstwahl instead.
Also, Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash is making me question a lot of the basic assumptions of D&D-style fantasy, but that's another post...

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Savaging the 7th Sea

Robin and I just pulled the curtain on a particularly trippy duet campaign of 1970s occult phenomena like exorcism, paganism, reincarnation, and Satanism. It was meant to be a two-week mini-campaign concentrating more on early heavy metal and occult rock like Coven, but it metamorphosed into a way-out Age of Aquarius thing where the central characters turned into god-like sorcerers ushering in a new and better future by reuniting the Beatles and things like that. It was fun for a while, but like most of my cosmic, free-form campaigns, it eventually just lost steam.

(And since we'd done flash-forwards, we knew the heroes were successful anyways.)

Even before John Wick launched his amazingly successful Kickstarter campaign to bring back 7th Sea, I'd already begun yearning to run something a bit more down to earth and a lot more swashbuckling. Since I want to swash some bucklers right now and don't want to use Quick Start draft rules (7th Sea 2nd ed.) or learn a new yet already defunct system (classic 7th Sea), I decided I might as well just steal some place and NPC names and run it in Savage Worlds.

I cannot express to you how delightful it was to return to Savage Worlds last night. Hooray for Wild Dice! Hooray for Action Cards! Hooray for on-the-fly NPC creation!

We decided to do something pretty unusual this time. Instead of plodding through character creation, I just wrote down some reasonable-looking stats for Robin's hero and let her make what adjustments she saw fit. The stats are high -- the character would definitely be above Legendary if we actually took the time to build her up from Novice -- but the stats are still low enough that she room to improve as she gains Advances. Here's what I came up with:

Attributes: Agility d10, Smarts d8, Spirit d8, Strength d8, Vigor d8.

Skills: Boating d6, Climbing d6, Driving d4, Fighting d10, Gambling d6, Healing d4, Intimidation d6, Investigation d4 or d8, Lockpicking d6, Notice d8, Persuasion d8, Riding d6, Shooting d8, Stealth d8, Streetwise d8, Survival d4, Swimming d6, Taunt d8, Throwing d8, Tracking d6.

Charisma: +2 or +4; Pace: 6; Parry: 8; Toughness: 6

Hindrances: Code of Honor, Quirk [drinks or flirtatious], Vow [serve whatever government she serves]

Edges: Attractive or Very Attractive (I left it open for Robin to choose), Quick, Combat Reflexes, Elan, Improved Frenzy, Improved Level Headed, Steady Hands, Acrobat, Investigator (?), Danger Sense, Liquid Courage (?), Mighty Blow.

Compared to some of the NPCs in Pirates of the Spanish Main or the official Pinnacle versions of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, she's downright tame.

I also made up some generic swashbuckler stat blocks for the enemies and lovers in her life, building distinctive fighting styles just using the core rules. 

Brawny Swashbuckler

Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d6, Spirit d8, Strength d10, Vigor d10

Skills: Climbing d6, Fighting d8, Gambling d6, Intimidation d8, Notice d6, Persuasion d6, Riding d6, Shooting d6, Stealth d6, Swimming d8, Taunt d4, Throwing d6

Charisma: +2; Pace: 6; Parry: 6; Toughness: 8

Edges: Attractive, Brawler, Brawny, Bruiser, Combat Reflexes, Improved Sweep

Clever Swashbuckler

Attributes: Agility d8, Smarts d10, Spirit d8, Strength d6, Vigor d8

Skills: Climbing d6, Fighting d8, Gambling d8, Intimidation d6, Investigation d8, Lockpicking d6, Notice d10, Persuasion d8, Riding d6, Shooting d6, Stealth d8, Streetwise d8, Swimming d6, Taunt d10

Charisma: +2; Pace: 6; Parry: 8; Toughness: 6

Edges: Attractive or Charismatic, Combat Reflexes, Improved Block, Improved Counterattack, Investigator, Strong Willed

Larcenous Swashbuckler

Attributes: Agility d10, Smarts d8, Spirit d8, Strength d6, Vigor d8

Skills: Climbing d10, Fighting d8, Gambling d8, Intimidation d6, Investigation d6, Lockpicking d8, Notice d8, Persuasion d6, Riding d6, Shooting d6, Stealth d10, Streetwise d10, Swimming d6, Taunt d8, Throwing d6

Charisma: +2; Pace: 8; Parry: 7; Toughness: 6

Edges: Acrobat, Ambidextrous, Assassin, Charismatic, Fleet Footed, Improved Extraction, Thief, Two-Fisted

Ultimate Duelist

Attributes: Agility d10, Smarts d8, Spirit d8, Strength d8, Vigor d8

Skills: Climbing d6, Fighting d12, Gambling d6, Intimidation d8, Notice d8, Persuasion d6, Riding d6, Shooting d6, Stealth d6, Streetwise d8, Swimming d6, Taunt d8, Throwing d6

Charisma: +2; Pace: 6; Parry: 8; Toughness: 6

Edges: Charismatic, Improved First Strike, Improved Frenzy, Improved Level Headed, Improved Trademark Weapon, No Mercy, Quick Draw

I'm not worrying about Hindrances for the NPCs yet; I'll probably reuse the same stats for different characters, and the Hindrances will set them apart. I also didn't calculate in the +1 Parry for rapiers; I think I might rule that the longer, more slashing rapiers of the 17th century function as long swords instead.

If I bother to bring in magic, I'll treat it like Super Powers instead; that seems to fit the Sorcery of 7th Sea a bit better. Otherwise, I'm just happy to be back to Savage Worlds after dallying with D&D 5e; I still like 5e, but SW is so much easier. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Too Many Kickstarters!

I know I’m not alone in feeling this, but there are too many cool Kickstarters out there or about to be out there in the RPGsphere.

As mentioned before, Olympus, Inc. is a Savage Worlds setting of superpowered corporate espionage in a world where the Greek gods and their Titan enemies secretly run the world’s biggest mega-corporations – and the black ops fixers (i.e. the player characters) are all demigods. They recently released a brief preview piece highlighting the Satyr player character race, and you can access it here. I’m a backer, but I’m also an interested party; if they reach one of their higher stretch goals, then I’ll be writing an adventure featuring my favorite god, Dionysus.

At the same time, Pinnacle Entertainment Group just announced that they’ll be running a Kickstarter for their latest setting: Weird War I. I’ll probably skip this one despite having been a fan of the Red Baron when I was a kid. I just can’t see myself ever running a war-based campaign that isn’t about plucky rebels fighting mighty empires, whether in a galaxy far, far away or in an 18th century that never was.

Pinnacle graciously pushed back the campaign for Weird War I in order to give more time to Olympus, Inc. and the other Savage Worlds-affiliated Kickstarters going on right now: Aaron Allston’s Strike Force, Against the Axis, the Hell on Earth issue of The Folio, and High Space. High Space intrigues me because it’s about post-scarcity, transhuman space opera and Philip Sandifer’s reviews of Ian M. Banks’ Culture novels made me curious about that kind of flawed utopia. I’d love to support the Strike Force campaign to help my friends Ross Watson and Sean Patrick Fannon – and I know I’ll eventually donate something – but I just can’t see myself ever using the book. The other two, unfortunately, are just too far outside of my wheelhouse.  

On the other hand, there are some non-Savage Worlds Kickstarters that are very, very much in line with my interests, and I’m going to have to budget carefully for these. In fact, I’m probably going to forgo buying The Curse of Strahd so I can support these instead.

Somewhat at the last minute, I backed Nord Games’ Ultimate NPCs: Skullduggery campaign., choosing the D&D 5e option. As might be deduced from the title, it’s a collection of crime- and espionage-themed NPCs for the usual D&D default fantasy setting. Once my current high-level 5e game ends, I’m going to try to talk the group into doing something a little more swashbuckling, a little more earthy. Ultimate NPCs: Skullduggery would certainly help me flesh out a “Scumbags of Waterdeep” campaign.

There's more than just Europe this time.

Of course, I might be tempted to ask them to switch systems entirely, because a new version of 7th Sea is coming from John Wick. I never played the original 7th Sea – I got out of RPGs just before it came out and came back just as the line began dying – but I’ve read a lot of its material and it is definitely my kind of setting. (Newer readers should check out the blog archives from the first year; I was all swashbuckling all the time.) I just hope Wick changed one irritating thing.

The original 7th Sea suffers from one of my absolutely least favorite tropes: a secret known only to the GM that damns the players without their knowledge. One example of this is found in the original Rippers; quite a ways into the campaign, the players learn that anybody who has Rippertech has damned themselves to Hell. In the original 7th Sea, the secret was that using magic actually invited Lovecraftian outsiders into the world. I can almost forgive Rippers for that twist, but I’m totally baffled by the twist in 7th Sea – particularly since the setting as a whole fits more into the lighthearted, black-and-white morality a comrade of mine once called “the pernicious influence of The Princess Bride.”

I expect there will be quite a few changes between AEG’s releases and Wick’s; for one thing, the setting will no longer be tied to the meta-plot of a collectible card game. Wick has already mentioned changes to the setting – new nations, a fuller globe – that make me believe I’ll actually want to play in this version of the setting. I suppose, at worst, I can always house rule away the monsters behind the magic.

Speaking of monsters, the last campaign on my list of tempting Kickstarters is Mysteries of the Yōkai, a small press RPG that’s very much something I wish I’d written. It looks to have more of a Sengoku Era-style setting than the Heian Era that I prefer, but the idea of a game that’s more about negotiating the conflicts between man and monsters rather than just hacking away at them is definitely something I can get behind. And I will get behind it; I just haven’t figured out how much to contribute…

This makes me realize I seriously need to start planning the campaign for The King is Dead. I’m going to need stretch goals and backer rewards and all of that. Some thoughts I’ve had are:

Stretch Goals
  • Additional Art – I just don’t think I’m going to be able to illustrate the setting with the fake movie stills I originally planned. I just don’t have the time to write and play in Photoshop, so I’m going to need to commission art. Hell, I need to start those commissions now and then hopefully raise more money for more art.
  • Expanded Setting Information – The book as planned will provide a broad overview of the islands of Malleus with more detailed information about two settings: the capital city of Hammerstadt and the county of Thornmark. I could offer to include more information about the neighboring lands of Malleus’ version of Europe or about the equivalent of the North American colonies.
  • More Villains – I could make Dracula and Bathory stretch goals, I suppose. They’re sort of outside the main narrative anyway. Hmm… I suppose I could even reveal the location and history of Salome, the first vampire, if we hit a high enough goal.
  • Crossover Adventures – I wonder if I could talk John and Ross into an Accursed/The King is Dead crossover adventure like they have for Shaintar?

Backer Rewards
  • Create a Secret Society – Just as Accursed offered top backers the chance to create their own Witchbreeds, so I could offer backers the chance to create new secret societies. There are an odd number of societies as is, so if I want GMs to be able to randomly roll encounters with other cabals, I need to either add or subtract some societies anyway.
  • Create an Iconic CharacterThe King is Dead doesn’t have any Elminsters or Drizzts. It doesn’t have any notable NPC allies, any “higher-level “ characters the players can turn to as mentors and inspiration. I might as well let contributors create some of those.  

That’s a good place to start. It’s also a good reminder to myself that I can’t spend all the money I earn freelancing on other people’s projects. I mean, I want to support some of them just out of enlightened self-interest (if I support their games, they might support mine) but there are others that just look fun. Dang it, why are there so many cool Kickstarters these days?!

Wine and Savages Team Now Co-Lead Developers for Savage Rifts®

While most interested parties already know this, Robin English-Bircher and I have combined forces with Sean Roberson as Lead Developers...