Jan 26, 2012

Prepping for the Con (GenCon 2012 Warmup)

While I was working the company booth at an industry convention, I noticed folks walking this way and that (rarely stopping at our booth), all with the various goodie bags they picked up from the other vendors at the show.

Between failed attempts at using the force to compel folks to visit our station ("This is the booth you're looking for"), I started thinking about GenCon (and how it couldn't get here soon enough!).

Thinking about the con made me realize two important thinks:

  1. Pre-reg starts this weekend! That's right. If you're planning to go, you can pre-reg starting this Sun at noon. Pre-reg saves you a couple of bucks and is of course the first step to booking a room as well as events.
  2. I need to start training! That's also right. If you've been to GC before you know the layout is massive, and the reports are that it will be even more spread out this year, with more nearby hotels serving as the site for various games and seminars.
In order to be up for the challenge, I need to get back to the gym, and get back to a regular routine of weights and cardio. The dealer's room alone can feel like a half marathon if you're not used all that walking. And the weights? You will be amazed at how fast a few purchases can start to weigh down on you.

And, if you're like me, looking to get ready for the con, know that you are not alone. Take a moment and visit (and sign up) at plus5cha.com to read about and hope get inspired by other geeks also looking to get in better shape.

Jan 23, 2012

Listen to Your Characters

As a follow up to my previous post, "Let Your Campaign Talk to You", I've been thinking about new ways to approach developing character backgrounds, and looking at various techniques from literature and television.

Rather than what I suspect is the standard approach, that of drafting the background and incidental details all at once, and typically before even the first game session has taken place, what I'm now envisioning is a process where the character background grows organically over time.

In this new approach, players should at the time of the first game session, know the basics, what's readily apparent from their character sheets, but details beyond that can be left somewhat vague and filled in over time. This could be something as minor as character details, or something as major as character motivations and goals.

In the past I might have a character background that states that "Johnny" is the oldest of 5 siblings. But in this new approach, I might not know for sure if Johnny has has sibs, until a role playing moment comes along where having a sib, or being an only child has some emotional impact. Maybe Johnny did have an older brother who died at a young age, so when Johnny and the group are investigating a series of child murders, the events impact him pretty hard.

Maybe my character at first seems to be adventuring as a way to earn money, but later reveals that he seeks revenge on the man that that killed his parents, who just so happens to be the Big Bad of the current adventure. Plot twists like this are a common staple of literature and TV.

In fact, soap operas offer outrageous examples of "flexible" characters -- where a character is first introduced as a nice quaint doctor, then revealed to be the evil-twin thought to be dead brother who is actually a rogue Soviet assassin. And we think of fantasy literature as highly creative...

By keeping the character background flexible, new plots and dimensions can be added organically from the events in the game so characters and be integrated in ways that can be both interesting for the player as well as the DM.

Now this type of approach does have some caveats. First, all the players and DM have to have a trust one another. It can be easy for some players to monopolize the role playing elements by creating a number of different hooks while other characters don't have much of connection. What you want to avoid is a party where one player is Crocket and everyone else is Tubbs, or worse, a group where one is Drizzt and everyone else is, well, everyone else!

But that said, with the right group of people, this flexible approach can easily open more role playing opportunities,  and provide adventures with more emotional impact.

Jan 10, 2012

"Good Complexity" - Initial Thoughts on the next edition of D&D

In case you missed it, WoTC confirmed Monday one of it's worst kept secrets, that they are hard at work on a new edition of Dungeons and Dragons. Read about it here from CNN, or here from Forbes. The announcement was also carried by the New York Times and EN World.

This new edition, cleverly referred to at the moment as just "D&D Next", seems to have a very daunting mandate, to re-unite the various splinters of the D&D community that have grown out of a dissatisfaction with the 4e rule set. We now have not only groups that still cling to old rule sets (like Basic, 1e, 2e, etc), but also active supporters on emerging edition variants, including Pathfinder and the OSRIC branch of D&D.

I've tried to take some time to distill my thoughts on what I think would be needed for a successful next edition of D&D, beyond things like Vancian magic and

  1. Digital Support - WoTC needs a digital publishing plan, and they've needed it for the last few years. PDF support is a no-brainer at this point, with the proliferation of laptop and tablet's at the gaming table, they need to tap in to that user base.
        And don't just provide a flat PDF. Really leverage the electronic format. Provide crosslinks to other sections in the doc, use PDF layers to provide additional information.
  2. Optional Tools - I like the idea of online/offline tools to help Players and DMs, like Character Builder, or Monster Builder, or encounter planners, but what I don't like is when game complexity is so high that use of the tools seems almost mandatory.
         And this isn't just a 4e issue. In my 3.5 game, I found it almost necessary to use online calculators for figuring out experience from an encounter.
  3. Some kind of open license like the OGL - I hope the new edition will include something along these lines. It was a bold move when WoTC did it for 3e, and the watered down version of what was developed for 4e, was never really took off. I think the benefits far outweighed the perceived costs. By allowing all those 3rd party publishers to rally around a common game mechanic, you cross promote the system, allow the 3rd party to publish the niche products you can't, and take their resources away from non D&D Next projects.
  4. Bring back Greyhawk - in some form you need to acknowledge the first setting for what it is. It's as much a part of the history of the game as Magic Missile.
         And also a rule system that doesn't require altering the setting to fit the game principles. The ruleset and the setting should be independent of each other (think HTML and CSS for all you web folk out there).
  5. Faster Combat - The single biggest complaint I read for the longest time was about how long combat took. I seem to recall Chris Perkins admitting that combat can get complex at higher levels (in one of the GenCon podcasts). If it takes me 90 mins to run one combat, and my normal play time for a game session is 3.5 hrs, that doesn't feel like an optimal allocation of time per session, especially if I want to fit in some pesky roleplaying and plot advancement. 
  6. "Good Complexity" - one of my favorite lines from the Forbes article about the playtest the writer took part in concerned how the new rules have a return to "good complexity". I know what it means to me, and I look forward to hearing/playtesting what it means to WoTC in the upcoming months.

Jan 5, 2012

Let Your Campaign Talk to You

My typical progression for a campaign may be little unusual. In the beginning, when the PCs are newly minted 1st level characters that have just been created by their players, I run adventures that don't tie too closely into any character's background.

The reason for this is two fold. At lower levels, simply put, characters may not survive. I never go out of my way to kill a character, but to quote the villainous Leland from Needful Things "these things happen". Secondly, I want to leave things open in case the player decides "this character blows" and wants to play something else.

Replacing characters is much easier to do when said character has no integral connection to the overall campaign. When it's established in the first session that these six noobs are destined to save the world, it's a little hard later on shoehorning in a new character--like the convoluted solution on Charmed when the "Power of Three" needed a new Third after one of the actresses was fired.

I try to avoid this by waiting for the players to see if they like their characters enough to keep them for the long haul, and for the characters to get a few levels under their belt and therefore become more sturdy.

Now the other guiding rule I follow when setting up a campaign is to "let the game talk to you". When I first start a new campaign, I have "notions" of where I would like it to go. But it's important to be flexible with those notions, and let them develop organically from early game sessions into ideas and roadmaps.

For example:

* If the PCs find a particular bad guy troublesome or aggravating, consider upgrading him to BBG status (even if you have to bring him back from the dead). I did this in my first game, when a kidnapper escaped the party, and one of the players frantically searched the area for any trail to follow.

* If you dangle a particularly juicy plot line that the PCs don't follow up on, consider dropping it in favor of something else. In another game I thought the group would research a rare and evil tainted item they had recently acquired. When they left it aside for a foray into a new dungeon, I simply dropped that idea (somewhat).

* If the party shows a preference for dungeon crawls, think about recasting your campaign in way that features more of what the party likes. As I mentioned above, when the group was more interested in a new dungeon rather than hours of library research, I ran a delve, and added some of the same story ideas into that dungeon (through journals and history/religion checks) that would have resulted from the tainted item they possessed.

Every campaign is different, just like every player and every character. You can learn a lot about your own game just by simply listening...