There’s a backlog of RPG products I’ve meant to comment on for some time now; first in was Grim World, a supplement for both Dungeon World and Fate.
While I missed the Kickstarter, I barely got my order in before the post-Kickstarter gateway closed in December, and ended up with my own personalized copy. If you wanted it, the designers would draw a unique Dungeon World move on the inside cover; I got the Zen Skunk. Probably because I was late. (I’m being sarcastic; it’s pretty awesome.)
What is it?
Grim World is a sourcebook containing material dual-statted for Dungeon World and Fate Core, mainly character classes and ideas designed to evoke a dark fantasy world. It’s more creepy/kooky than pure blood-and-guts, kind of like if Dungeon World had played a lot of Warhammer Fantasy and Dragon Age, but wanted something more epic. Cinematic grittiness, if you will.
What Makes It Awesome?
Let’s start with the design: it’s a full color hardcover, with full-bleed full-page full-color art that is impressive to behold. I’ve seen books from “professional” game companies that don’t look half this good—it’s a thing beauty. The only mild complaint is that the paper is matte instead of high gloss, but given costs that was an understandable choice, and doesn’t change that much.
Anyway, the rules. Grim World is kind of like those 4thcore or OSR games—almost but not to the point of Wicked Fantasy Factory—where the world is brutal and the characters may (will?) eventually die—especially thanks to the new “Death Moves,” in which player death leaves a lasting impact upon the world. (These are very tastefully done: they don’t break the mindset of DW/Fate, and kind of add to the narrative style by making sure death is not ignominious.) It’s a dark and brutal fantasy world, with a lot of inspiration from Lovecraft (e.g., a lot of Lovecraft love in the bestiary chapter). You can tone it down—it’s still Dungeon World, it’s no character-eating Call of Cthulhu or depressing Warhammer or something—but where’s the fun in that?
The meat of the book are the 7 new classes: each have Dungeon World playbooks and Fate Core character building pages. Classes include the tactical genius Battlemaster, spirit binding Shaman, undead-controlling Necromancer, and mobile Skirmisher. The Dungeon World playbooks are slick two-page affairs with new moves customized to the classes; as mentioned, each class gets its own death move that leaves a lasting mark and makes no death in vain. The Fate sections include background ideas and a lot of suggested Aspects and big lists of Stunts to aid in creation. (I kinda love that presentation for Fate; choosing from a predetermined list is a lot more limiting but gives the D&D feeling of character class while still allowing a realm of flexibility.) Also, the death moves make an appearance. Because they are what make Grim World AWESOME.
There’s a lot of supplemental material as well, from the Kickstarter’s stretch goals. The large bestiary includes a ton of new Dungeon World monsters, which is another big draw in my book; these also have some Aspects on the Fate side, as well as the monster’s three peak skills. There’s some artifacts, a bunch of playable races, a really cool GM toolkit to build locations, and even a Dungeon World/Fate hybridization hack. Plus community content, though it’s Dungeon World only. Lots of good stuff in here.
Would I run this?
Hells yeah, kick in the door and start crawling that Dungeon World! I already have tons of ideas for running this. (When I saw the Darkest Dungeons Kickstarter a while back, my first thought was to use Grim World for a pen-and-paper version.) My only problem is finding a local group that’s willing to give Dungeon World a shot, though I feel that is turning around as the *World games gain popularity. More to the point, I think the aesthetic is a bit specific and won’t sell everyone; as much as I love it, not everyone hears “dark fantasy world with death moves” and goes “Huh, that sounds like fun.”
The bigger question is whether to run it in Dungeon World or Fate Core, choosing between my current favorite systems. There’s a lot more content in the book for Dungeon World, so I’d probably go in that direction—to be honest, it gives a lot of monsters, classes, and ideas for the Dungeon World GM, but most of what it’s giving Fate are some sample Stunts/Aspects for specific class ideas, and some vague outlines for monsters and other things. That is my biggest nitpick with it—the Fate content feels a bit slim and tacked-on—but as a fan of both games, the more the merrier. And the writers didn’t just grok the mindset of the two systems, they also came up with an innovative, creative, and balanced product.
If Boldly Games releases any other content for Dungeon World, they have my hard-earned dollars. On time for the Kickstarter this time, I promise.Grim World can be purchased for $15 as a .pdf, or if you act fast, $40 for print + .pdf. (It’s a hardcover with lush production values; if you’re interested, it’s worth it.)
A while back, I did a post on entry-/beginner-level roleplaying products, based on my enthusiasm for such things (it kind of got sidetracked though, since I didn’t proof before posting and ended up saying some dumb stuff). I like seeing more entry-level products for the hobby, especially kid-friendly ones, because there aren’t that many out there. So I was surprised and delighted to see the Kickstarter for Strays, a kid-friendly RPG powered by Fate Accelerated. Doubly so, because while I don’t have kids, I do have dogs (both “strays” in that they were rescued from puppy mills), so it’s pretty neat to see a pet-themed RPG.
From the Kickstarter:
Strays are Santa’s special pals, semi-magical animals who were once pets or friendly neighborhood critters.
When we were kids, lots of us loved a puppy, kitten, or kit. Eventually, our dog, cat, or rabbit got old, sick, or hurt. They never stopped loving us, though, just like we never stopped loving them.
When the time came, they went to a big farm in the country, where a nice old couple took care of them, and they had plenty of room to play with other animals just like them. Dogs had big fields to sniff and scamper though, rabbits laughed and raced their friends, and cats got to climb all the trees they wanted and hide in cool dark shadows. They were all happy and warm, and they got just a little bit chubby from all the table scraps they got to eat.
Their stories didn’t end there, though. They were just getting started!
Santa Claus himself — the protector of kids and their dreams — needed their help, after they got better. Sent deep undercover, far from their old homes, their mission was simple: live a happy life, love the humans around you, protect the Nice from the Naughty…
…and never, ever, trust a squirrel!
It’s more than a little geared towards kids, as you can see. I think the concept of playing as pets is a great one for that target audience—stat up your dog and take them on miraculous adventures!—and Strays has a lot of heart and charm to back it up. I’m a believer in the concept of getting people into the gaming hobby at any age, and I really dig the idea of playing as animals. FAE is an excellent choice for system as well, since it’s complex yet simple and can let a younger child’s imagination run wild. What a unique and cool game concept.
Strays has already passed its funding, but with less than a week left there’s still a little time to jump onboard. Most of the pledge rewards deal with art—adding your own pet(s) into the game, which is AWESOME. $300 gets your pet iconic character status. Their paw-print dice are pretty snazzy to boot.
One of my friends had a story about a roleplaying game he was beta-testing at a convention, and that some feedback he received—from one of the playtesters, a professional game designer—was he called for too many perception-type checks. It got him thinking about their over-use. It got me thinking as well; back when I was running D&D/Pathfinder campaigns, I knew skill checks were something I relied on as a fallback. Not sure what to do next, have the players roll something. And it can be more of an issue with notice-type checks since they tend to be all-encompassing, covering all visual and auditory information that the characters obtain, meaning they’re rolled more and more often for sometimes incidental details.
It also reminds me of a Serenity game some of my friends played in that sounded quite horrible—the characters were scrimping by with fuel and supply costs, raising chickens in the cargo hold for food. Turning the solid Serenity setting and rules into Adventures in Spreadsheets wasn’t the relevant part; it was the inversion of rolling too often: the characters, especially the pilot, had nothing to do. The pilot’s plight coined a meme for our group: Roll to take off; Roll to land. You’re playing a hotshot ace pilot; now, you get to roll your peak skill for the most banal of actions. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
Or yet another memory: my college roommate’s first Shadowrun campaign, where another player had to roll to use Google Maps. (And, due to the way the GM interpreted Shadowrun 4th, the fourteen-die pool resulted in a glitch/botch.)
In thinking about it, I realized I was calling for a lot more of those fallback crap rolls than was warranted. It’s a problem in a lot of games I played as well. (I’ve been with some GMs who would use rolling as a stall tactic, to figure out what the players were rolling to find.) There’s a lot of times where a character would be able to make certain assumptions or complete certain actions without a roll, particularly if they’re trained and motivated (such as 5th-level D&D characters or starting-level Fate characters). It’s a part of Gumshoe’s design philosophy and an element in how it handles acquisition of clues and knowledge. Also part of why I vaguely dislike Gumshoe as a system—shouldn’t every game already promote, or at least accept, those concepts?
With RPGs, rolling dice is one of the most visceral elements of the game, particuarly in terms of a roleplaying game’s “game” elements. Picking up dice and rolling them is fun. It’s tangible. There’s the thrill of the gamble, relying on luck and fate. You could roll a nat 20; if you roll a 1, well, there’s hope for the future. It’s a level playing field—nobody can out-think, out-roleplay, out-create, out-argue anyone else when it comes to dice results. And there’s a strange love/hate relationship with games that use “funny dice”—those outside the normal geek polyhedrals, like Fudge dice, Ubiquity dice, FFG’s Star Wars Dice, etc.
And yet I think GMs need to step back and evaluating if the roll we’re calling for is necessary as a roll. Rolling for red herrings and less-significant events is still an important part of the game, but I think over-rolling can cheapen the experience and de-value important rolls. It’s also time-consuming, moreo if everyone is making some crap roll, and downright painful if you’re using dice pools.
A big part of understanding Fate is wrapping your head around Aspects—and that Aspects are always true—and how that causes them to act as permissions. If you have an Aspect that says you’re Always Armed, well then, there will always be a time in the narrative where you have a weapon of some kind. Or if you are disarmed, it’s just for a scene, or there’s that one switchblade in your boot that your adversaries missed, allowing you to cut through the ropes binding you or pick the cell’s lock (or whatever). If you have an Aspect of Jedi Warrior, you’re a Jedi warrior; if you have Master of the Mystic Arts, you use magic. If having such powerful Aspects is a problem, the GM should have discussed using Force Sensitive or Apprentice Mage at creation.
(There’s also adhering to your game’s fiction—your setting, tropes, themes, etc.—that Fate is seeming to absorb from Dungeon World. If you’re playing average shmoes in a horror setting, you’ll end up rolling for things your pulp heroes or space pirates or fantasy adventurers could manage without breaking a sweat. It’s part of the reason I dig the idea of campaign/world Aspects, codifying and translating the setting’s concepts into permissions.)
Fate design theory dating back to Spirit of the Century has pushed GMs to call for a roll when there’s meaningful results from both success and failure, pushing to re-interpret what situations require a roll. The example, I think, was a bottomless pit—the traditional call would be for a save-or-die roll, do you make it across the pit or fall to your death. The alternates for a failed roll included things like a) hanging on to the opposite ledge by your fingers, b) realizing the pit was too wide and you’d have to find another way across, c) making it only appear bottomless, and putting something interesting at the bottom, or d) just not calling for a roll in the first place, since if the characters are badasses living their own story, why wouldn’t they make it across?
To circle back to the beginning—to me, a character with an Ace Pilot Aspect has already established themselves as an ace pilot, as the Aspect grants them that status. There’s no reason to make them roll to land or take off (other than for our own sense of inbred, memetic humor); it’s a crap roll that exists to consume time and lose focus. There’s no reason takeoff and landing would be a challenge to an ace pilot with no external complication (sabotage, weather, a compel). Failure would add little to the game. What, are they going to have amazing adventures in red tape as they argue with the bureaucratic air traffic controller for runway privileges? Does failure mean they crashed and died—scrub the game because of one player’s dumb luck?
I’ve already discussed this concept (admittedly less coherent than this post) with a few GM acquaintances in the past few months. One was a GM considering an expanded Pilot skill, and breaking Electronics out of Academics for using computers and sensors and tech. Both were choices for a Fate Core campaign where the players would play hotshot mecha pilots in the farthest-flung future. To me, those sound like prime candidates for things I wouldn’t require players to roll—concepts I’d rather trim than expand.
The reasoning behind Pilot as above, unless there’s a disparity of knowledge between characters… which there shouldn’t be much of, since they’re all ace pilots. (Is it down to “who can out-ace everyone else,” dick-waving with numbers?) For Computers, it’s due to how far advanced the future-tech would be from our already bewilderingly advanced gadgets: when I need something, I pull out my phone and talk at it. It’s a Moto X, so I can just say “Okay, Google Now…” and it will start pouring through the databanks or pulling up an app, even when locked with the screen off. Try to imagine a Moto X with 500 years of technological innovation. Finding information in the 25th Century using a computer isn’t a Computer roll to me, it’s Investigate. In other cases, do you really need your Future Dudes to roll to use Future Google Maps? What is that saying about the setting or the characters?
It’s a tough line to walk—I’m not the “all role, no roll” type of guy, hence why my fallback urge is asking for some random die roll, to make it feel like stuff is happening, to trigger the mechanical parts of the game. But I think when you ask for a die roll, consider whether it’s a valid roll or just rolling dice for the sake of hearing plastic clatter. I think it will lead to the rolls that are asked for having more of an impact.
I have a bundle of monsters I converted to Fate Freeport on a whim, and just haven’t done anything with; I’m not really sure how useful they are since they were for a couple of games I haven’t got around to running yet, and monster stats just don’t carry the same weight in Fate as they do in D&D. Still, this one was my attempt to break the system and come up with a powerful iconic monster to see just how ridiculous the stats could get.
These all using the Fate Freeport Companion rules, and were mostly to see how its conversion rules worked, so they’re pretty much direct translations from Pathfinder to Fate Freeport. I may do some stock Fate Core or FAE versions in the future, who knows.
Red Dragon (Great Wyrm) A crown of cruel horns surrounds the head of this mighty dragon. Thick scales the color of molten rock cover its long body. High Concept: Wizened Red Wyrm Trouble: Insatiable Greed; Overconfident Vanity Aspects: Magic In My Veins; Scales Thicker Than Steel; Flying Fiery Death Skills: STR +8, DEX -1, CON +6, INT +5, WIS +5, CHA +5 Melee Attack: Bite (+8 STR) normal damage Ranged Attack: Firebreath (+5 INT), normal damage and target is Burning. Defense: Scales (+6 CON) Mental Stress: OOOO Mental Consequences: Mild (-2): Moderate (-4): Physical Stress: OOOO Physical Consequences: Mild (-2): Mild (-2): Moderate (-4): Stunts: Ancient Wyrm: Gains access to the Evocation and Transmutation schools, and selects two spells from those schools. Incinerate: By spending a Fate Point, the Great Wyrm’s firebreath attack can bypass armor and regular defenses. Magic Sight: The Great Wyrm is treated as if having Detect Magic on at all times; spending a fate point allows True Sight for one scene. Wizened: Pick any four spells from schools you have access to. Spells: Burning Hands, Fireball, Haste, Magic Missile, Minor Telekinesis, Wall of Fire
So, to update from my last post: Next is now going to have a free shareware edition, D&D 5th Basic, that will be a .pdf released for everyone for free come July. It’ll have full 1st-20th level rules for all the basic classes (fighter, wizard, rogue, cleric) and four races (human, elf, halfing, dwarf), and things like monsters and magic items will be added after the books release. It’s meant to evoke ye olde Rules Cyclopedia, and while not unexpected, is a huge step in the right direction toward marketing Next.
I did a quick skim of the comments section and like how the responses fall into three general categories:
- They’re releasing 5th Edition’s core for free! This is the best thing ever!
- They’re releasing 5th Edition’s core for free! This is the worst thing ever!
- Well, they can’t rationally call it BASIC D&D, because in MY Basic D&D, you can’t have races because those are types of classes, and… [AKA: What "Basic D&D" Means To Me]
Good lord. The amount of looking-gift-horses-in-the-mouth…
I think there’s two key things here:
First off, I like the idea of being able to see the rules before you buy them, especially since the system is supposed to be modular as fuck and cater to all styles and types of play (e.g., all D&D flavors)—plus, the playtests had the habit of gaining and losing mechanics with each update, to the point where nobody really knows what made the cut. For me, seeing the rules before I drop $150 is a huge selling point—as in, making a character or two and maybe hosting a one-shot to try the rules, rather than skimming the books at B&N before heading online.
Second, it would not surprise me to learn that Wizards—or at least the executive side—felt they needed to do it to compete in the e-marketplace. Paizo has to release Pathfinder into the open source arena by virtue of using the OGL; they one-upped that by not only releasing their material online in SRD form, much as Wizards did with 3.x D&D, they also added the majority of their staple/hardcover content to it. And Paizo doesn’t have a problem with fans uploading other open game content from the various Pathfinder softcovers onto a fan-run website. Wizards’ prime market competitor already releases their content for free and still makes bank, and that’s not even looking at the non-D&D game systems that have went freemium as a marketing strategy: 13th Age, Eclipse Phase, Fate Core, ICONS, etc., etc.
So, while I still balk at the idea the core rules just to run the damn game costs almost as much as Onyx Path’s premium, limited, gilt-edged, bookmarked, bathed-in-the-blood-of-firstborn-virgins OWoD re-releases, I rest assured that everyone can paw over them for free. It also makes me wonder about an alternate route not travelled—or at least not yet announced—packaging this “D&D Basic game” content as a cheaper all-in-one rulebook to solidify D&D as the entry-drug brand. Sure, it only has five classes, and monsters numbering in the dozens and not hundreds, but at $25-35 you can throw them at your players or grandkids or whatever.
As an aside, there’s also a $20 D&D Next starter kit releasing with the $150 core books this summer that I failed to mention. D&D 4th also had a $20 starter kit, that took a limited spread of characters all the way to 2nd level, using a sliver of the rules and a side of kobolds. I’ll wait and see on that front. Though, who knows, Wizards could make it into a Beginner Box-quality product and eat the costs from their core rules profits. Doubtful, but they’d sell out in minutes.
Last week I heard a number of Pathfinder players talking about D&D Next’s organized play announcement, complaining that it lifts faction-based play from Pathfinder Society. The thing being, Society lifted the idea of organized play from the RPGA, established by TSR and inherited by Wizards of the Coast, who then toyed with faction/regional organization in their Living Greyhawk/Living Realms 3.x campaigns. There’s really no room to bitch there; D&D isn’t ripping off Pathfinder, it’s the same organized play idea they’ve run for decades.
No, the thing to bitch about should be that the cost to get into D&D Next is $150.00 USD. (A fact, I’ll grant, that has been hinted at since Amazon and B&N priced their product listings back in March.)
I’m not complaining about the rising cost of books here, since it’s an established fact that inflation exists, and the $20 you spent on your AD&D books has a purchasing power closer to $50 in 2014 dollars (e.g., real money). The fact that the books are jumping up in price shouldn’t be a surprise, given that the industry is rife with $50 hardcover rulebooks, and while it is a notable increase from the $90 buy-in to get a set of 3.5 D&D books, it’s not economically unexpected.
The thing is, though, the other game books in the industry that cost $50? Those are entire frickin’ games, in one book: Affording $150 isn’t a problem, it’s justifying the higher expenditure compared to every other game system out there.
If I go and spend $60 on Shadowrun 5th, I’ve just bought a complete game; I don’t need to buy another book, though I probably will, because supplemental material rocks. Same for the Song of Ice and Fire RPG, or Eclipse Phase, or the Dresden Files RPG; $50 gets you the core rules that compile everything you need to play. Any other purchases are billed as game enhancements and not requirements. Spend $54 and you can get The One Ring’s slipcase edition, complete with dice and maps, or Mindjammer, which gives me more material than I’ll probably use in a lifetime. Compared to Next, any of those cases leave you with nearly $100 left over you can spend on sourcebooks, adventures, dice, a night on the town, dinner and a movie, student loan payments, you name it.
And Next’s closest competition, Pathfinder, has cut the buy-in down to two books: a $50 core book and a $40 Bestiary, which saves you $60 over Next to spend on accessories and supplements.
To be fair, you don’t need to buy all three books to run a game—it’s more of a perception/psychological thing to me, where most games have one Core Rulebook while D&D needs to mark three books as such. And asking $50 from the player isn’t out of the ordinary for the market today; it’s asking the GM to drop $150 on core material that’s the problem. No other game on the market today is marketing three $50 hardbacks as a basic purchase just so the GM can run the system, they market one $50 hardback that has all the core rules in one place for everyone.
D&D is still clinging to its original model of a three-book buy-in for its core rules: one for players, one for GMs, and another one for GMs full of monsters. I’m still not entirely sure why they can’t slim this down to two: one for players and GMs that takes all the magic item rules and some GM advice to get you going, and another one just for GMs that has more advanced insight into GMing, a sample adventure (and dissection of why it’s built the way it is), and a roster of adversaries and iconic monsters.
I think the deeper problem is that Next hasn’t been all that inspiring, boiling down to “the feel of 2nd ed AD&D with the rules style of 3.5 D&D with a sprinkling of new material,” rather than the unite-the-editions greatness (or the radical new approach) that the brand needs. The release may contain some surprises, but interest in the game floundered during its playtest in comparison to the Pathfinder playtest. I’m still waiting to see if the cool mechanics from the playtest survived, or if they were dropped from the ongoing playtest packets to indicate they didn’t make the cut. (Aside from Dis/Advantage, anything really revolutionary was slowly removed or made commonplace during the beta playtest.) Expectations are that the $150 isn’t giving the most bang for the buck.
D&D has always been the RPG entry drug, the name brand that adults know of and gift to their precocious kids. Since the ’70s the industry has had most of its players start with D&D, who after a while decide whether to buy that Immortals supplement to go with their Red Box, or if they’d rather go off and play pink mohawks or angsty vampires. I’m not seeing $150 facilitating that entry drug status, when the companies dancing near loss-leader status with affordable product are Evil Hat’s $25 Fate Core hardcover and Pinnacle’s $10 Savage Worlds Explorer Editions.
And while it’s a slightly separate issue, I’m not seeing a lot in Next to get invested in other than “It’s D&D!” And today, don’t we have more than enough flavors of D&D to choose from already: Pathfinder, 13th Age, True20, Dungeon Crawl Classics, Swords & Wizardry, Dungeon World, Monsters & Magic, Fate Freeport, not to mention those older versions of A/D&D that didn’t spontaneously combust simply because of edition change…
We’ll see later this year when Next get released. With luck, the Dungeon Master’s Guide may be more like the Paizo Gamemastery Guide, full of additional rules and “getting started” help that isn’t necessary for every GM. Maybe the three books will come packaged with bonuses, like each Player’s Handbook having a set of dice, and each Monster Manual having a handful of miniatures—that would be a logistical nightmare to package and warehouse, but could be pretty rad. And in our digital future, they really ought to come with free digital downloads (.pdf or .epub or something) which would help smooth over pricing woes.
Regardless, Next’s price tag is not doing it any favors.
I have a love-hate relationship with adventure modules due to the often strict plotting—railroading, in gaming parlance. At its worst, it feels restrictive and takes away the benefits a pen-and-paper game has over other media like video games, film, and books: the ability to go wherever you want and (try to) do whatever you like. The old White Wolf ones were far better at advancing the metaplot than being good entertainment for the players, forced to sit there and watch important NPCs do everything. Same goes for many of the TORG modules, though at least several of them were good enough to consider running. And not only did CthulhuTech learn from the White Wolf school of adventure design, it also railroaded such great sequences like the one time players all get raped by bio-engineered anthropomorphic humanoids.
But at their best, a pre-packaged/canned adventure has numerous advantages. In the case of a GM just getting started or with limited free time, picking up a canned adventure may be the way to go. In many cases I’ve found skimming adventure material is a great way to understand how the developers intended the game to be run. There’s also a lot of solid adventure books out there. D&D is rife with classic adventures, but there are many in print today. Fantasy Flight does a ton for its Warhammer and Star Wars lines; Savage Worlds slaps a plot point campaign in each hardcover; and Paizo’s Adventure Paths are legendary. Some of the most fun I’ve had gaming involved taking modules from old TSR games—AD&D and Top Secret—and playing them using a modern system everyone was familiar with.
The thing is, modules require a certain mindset and buy-in. There’s a certain expectation that players will follow-up on plot hooks and adventure seeds more than in a freewheelin’ homebrew game, since the GM went out of their way to buy the module itself. Sure, you can do other stuff in a module, but if you paid $120 for all six Adventure Path issues, it’s kind of a burn to jump the rails. A big draw to using a module is that the GM doesn’t have to overly plan the plot, just tailor it to fit the group, which is great for GMs on a time-crunch or who need to run a side-game.
Therein lies the rub: you’re buying an adventure to run the story it contains, losing some freedoms in exchange for a plot and NPC stats presented to you in a neat and colorful way. Adventures need to straddle the line between allowing every gaming group’s party free will while still telling that same prepackaged story. Every now and then you can end up with a point where the plot and characters are ready to jump off those rails, and either go full-bore over the edge, or hesitantly back off of what the characters want to do to follow what the players want to do—or, at least to follow the expectations they had to continue the adventure plot.
The big example that jumps out at me was in running Legacy of Fire for Pathfinder, about halfway through the campaign arc (the third book, I believe). By this point, the three characters—a druid/ranger, a paladin, and a cleric, all of Sarenrae—had realized that the druid/ranger hosted the incarnation of a fallen champion of Saranrae. They’d also figured out that the magical scroll they’d unearthed in the bowels of an evil ruined temple turned gnoll lair was the prison that held one of that champion’s greatest foes, an evil Efreeti prince. Their natural instinct was to guard the scroll with their lives, spending every coin from adventuring to build some kind of deathtrap dungeon or something (what else?) to safeguard it, in case somebody used it to release the Efreet back into the wilds.
That would have made for a fascinating campaign; they already had freed a trade-town from gnoll occupation and restored an ancient monastery, and I can see building a game around their efforts to strengthen the region, using their accumulated wealth to build their own deathtrap-dungeon (or fortify and renovate one of the existing dungeons in the region) to house the scroll in. There’s plenty of source material and inspiration in them there hills, and having spend all that time to liberate that town, they had plenty of investment in the area.
However, the plot had a wildly different angle; the next module required the scroll must be read so that they’d be sucked into a pocket-plane, which lead to the next module, a jaunt to the City of Brass, which was one of the selling points for the players. Literally, the pitch to me was “buy this, you should run it, I was reading the back and we go to the City of Brass.” (My response was something like “It’s an Arabesque adventure that’s almost a homage to the Al-Qadim setting of yore? Sold!”) And speaking of expectations, I’d once had plans of using it to segue into the Necromancer Games City of Brass box set as a follow-up.
All told, the issue led to the awkward situation where everyone went along with the unveiling and reading of the scroll, even though it went against all of their characters’ motivations and best interests. While the following modules were a lot of fun, I have to wonder if following the characters instead of the plot would have made for a better game. On the flipside, since this was when I was driving three hours to my Alma Mater and running marathon weekend sessions every few months, I probably would have just burned myself out trying to work on a plot. There’s a reason I was running a canned adventure rather than a homebrew one, yo.
Here’s one that should sound pretty standard. A group of adventurers are sitting around in a bar, when someone comes up to them spinning tales of peasantry in need of heroes, foul beasts in need of slaying, and ruins packed with untold riches awaiting plunder. All it requires is a simple voyage northward to the glacial tundra for this campaign to begin.
“No thanks,” say the adventurers.
The quest-giver’s jaw slacks in surprise. Whyever not? Surely you’re brave souls, in need of experience and coin? Adventure awaits!
“Well, because he’s a desert nomad not used to cold, he’s an ice wizard who hunts fire creatures, and having grown up in that wretched place, I’m thankful that—for the first time in my life—I’m warm!”
And with that, the game has stalled at Clichesville before starting. Sure, the GM can come up with more plot hooks, or change all the background visuals for the campaign from Ice Stage to Fire Stage and run it that way. Or if they want to be that guy they can just railroad the players into going there—kidnapped relatives, antitoxin for the plague they’re infected with, evil wizard who hates the players just found a teleport scroll.
This kind of thing doesn’t show up that often in campaigns, which is probably a good thing for the GM. After all, they either invested money in a pre-packaged campaign, or spent the time and effort planning out some grand enterprise for the players. Which brings us to the buy-in.
To me, every game has a buy-in that begins from the moment you make a game pitch. If you say to me, “I want to run this game set on the moon, where all the players are high society who solve mysteries,” I start thinking of character ideas for some science-fiction universe on the moon. It’s one of the big unspoken social contracts, but when you’re pitched the great moon-based game of far-future intrigue and diplomacy amongst the stars, I don’t show up and immediately jump in a rocket and drag the other PCs (and plot) off to Borneo, never to return. (Same goes for the GM; you don’t leave the moon forever in session one of what you sold as a moon-based game, that’s a bait and switch.)
The buy-in is a player accepting the pitch, thinking it’s interesting enough of a premise to play in it, or even if they’re not that sold on the concept, shrugging and seeing where it goes. It’s an admittance that the game’s premise and the plot, as explained from GM to you, is something you’re willing to play: you joined up for the moon game knowing it a sci-fi drama, not because you wanted to play a two-fisted martial arts game, or had this totally sick barbarian build you wanted to try. Especially since that’s not the bill of goods the GM and other players sold.
I don’t think there should be 100% rigid adherence to the original game idea, especially as in-game events change things so much that it’s quite conceivable that the players may leave the moon, never to return, because of something they did. This is also over-simplifying the game pitch down to a flimsy one-sentence idea to get the point across, since I would totally run/play a game of barbarians on the moon. But, you know what I mean.
For the GM: Know What You’re Selling
I mentioned above that it works both ways, and it’s a fine line the GM needs to walk if they have some grand surprise they don’t want to ruin.
For example, I played in one Savage Worlds game where the pitch was “You’re Confederate cavalry raiders in the Civil War,” but the first session revolved around some random demon-thing (?!) showing up and sending us to Barsoom, which was what the GM really wanted to run. In another, we were told we’d be playing Shadowrun 5th high-society in utopian Detroit, which sounded pretty badass. You always see Shadowrun from the gritty streets, what’s it like living at the pinnacle of power? Ten minutes into the game we realized we were playing Mad Max: Cyberware Edition as the apocalypse struck and the matrix crashed.
There’s a couple things that could have been done in these situations:
- Do the bait-and-switch: pitch one thing, run another. I’ve never seen this pulled off, though, since players have built characters expecting the game to go in one direction and instead see it go in another. They may end up stuck playing a campaign, genre, or theme that didn’t interest them to begin with. You’ve sold them on one idea, only to shoot it in the head and bring out something else. Some groups and players will roll with that. For me, I just get pissed off.
- Just be honest: tell your players that you want to run a Barsoom game and that you’d like to start out with them on Earth, before they planeshift to Mars. Done. It ruins your big first-session reveal, but you don’t end up with pissed-off players. Besides, if you’re going to play that surprise in session one, it’s probably not that great a surprise—it was only a surprise once and under specific circumstances. Think up some real ways to surprise them once they get to Barsoom.
- Start the game as pitched, but slowly incorporate elements into the plot that showcase there’s something greater at play, foreshadowing the big reveal that will happen some sessions down the line. This takes a lot of time and effort to pull off, eating up a few months of gaming or more, but when it works it’s amazing. One of my GM friends was a master at this, and even though we could suspect any game he ran had underlying secrets to discover that would change everything, we still had to discover what those secrets were.
- Drop some hints that there’s an entry-level surprise waiting to happen in session one, so that the specifics are a surprise, but the fact there’s a surprise is an open secret. One 3.5 D&D game I played in had the open secret that the players would be shipwrecked on an island, and we were told not to bother worrying about things like equipment or companions. I tried to do the same kind of thing when I was running my Dresden/Deadlands hack; when they’d bring up equipment, I’d recommend they not worry about it too much, that it’d make sense after the first session, and comparing the game to Momento. (The plot involved them waking up in a barn, and trying to piece together their recent past.)
I’ve had a few instances where what the players wanted to do and what the plot demanded conflicted; most times I split the middle, following the players but adapting the plots and intrigues I’d worked on. (Case in point, my long-running Dynastic Exalted game.) And usually it was due to not pitching the desired plot in enough depth—trying to keep it a surprise, but without giving enough direction to begin with, such as when my ex-roommate tried to run Victorian Age Vampire without explaining more than “I’m running Victorian Age Vampire.” At which point our group, brave souls that they are, grew bored and would make their own damn direction.
Got to love proactive players, yo.
I’ve noticed that ideas and concepts tend to trend together; maybe it’s just disparate game publishers all seeing a potential market at the same time, maybe it’s just sheer dumb luck. Whatever the case, there’s been a sudden influx in superheroes rolepalying for some of my systems of choice, and that’s lead to backing a whole lot of Kickstarters on my end.
Most supers games come with their own settings, but you can never really have enough of those. And while there’s a number of RPG systems in print these days have rules for supers, not every one has built out their own extensive universe. Extreme Earth is all about setting: a dark and gritty Iron Age world inspired by Heroes and 24, a dystopian future of superheroes, paranoia, and corruption. It’s a dangerous world where heroes are hounded for their talents, where governments, corporations, and terrorist groups hope to gain control over these powers for their own uses. Think of it as if SHIELD won Marvel’s Civil War, only turn the Orwellian dial to eleven.
The unique thing is that it’s one world, published simultaneously for seven popular supers RPG systems: BASH!, Bulletproof Blues, Fate Accelerated Edition, ICONS, Mutants and Masterminds, Savage Worlds, and SUPERS!. That pretty much covers all the major superheroic game systems in print today, with the exception of Hero 6th. And it’s done by Fainting Goat Games, who’ve already produced an extensive line of ICONS supplements, and thus have a bit of experience in both the publishing and superheroes fields.
It’s tough for me choose only one print edition between all those game lines; I’m torn between ICONS and Fate Accelerated to be honest. Luckily most of the pledge levels have rewards giving you .pdf copies of all the rules editions, which is a great touch for those of us using multiple game systems. I also find it ironically sad that the two game systems I’d most like to see Extreme Earth editions for are the two other Kickstarters I recently blogged about. Hopefully they’ll be popular enough that Fainting Goat brings out rules for them as well in the future.
Following up on my last post, yet another supers RPG Kickstarter that I think looks pretty rad. The Apocalypse World engine is one that really struck a cord with me, particularly in its Dungeon World form, and I’ve kept an eye on the many Kickstarters for the system. Worlds in Peril is the first (and currently only) supers game to use its system. One of its authors is Kyle Simons, who Kickstarted a fantastic little RPG wherein you learn Korean while playing, a game brought to my attention by a friend who used to teach English to Korean schoolkids.
Like the rest of the *World line, the emphasis is on descriptive and flexible powers and their role in a game’s narrative structure. It’ll end up being at least 120 pages in graphic novel size, and there’s a lot of sample characters on the Kickstarter page showing off the various moves and powers for the characters. Plus, some good input on their Critique This Kickstarter thread on RPG.net.
I think a supers game is an ideal fit for the *World engine, given its flexibility and focus on how you use things and not what you’re using. Using it, you can replicate a ton of powers and abilities without needing several hundred pages describing a zillion static powers. The Kickstarter has almost met its first stretch goal, adding in more art, and the second sounds even more awesome: an introductory comic that teaches you how to play the game. It’s got about a month to go, so we’ll see how many more stretch goals it hits. I’m hoping… lots.