Monday, August 31, 2015

#RPGaDay2015: Days 28-31

28th) Favorite game you no longer play
Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I loved the TV series, I loved the RPG, I loved the alt-Buffyverse campaign I played in, and I loved my two main characters in that game. In spite of all the headaches they caused me and my GMs over the years, Baz Olmstead and Trick Tillinghast remain two of my favorites among all the RPG characters I've ever played. (I've blogged in the past about some of the ways that Trick has permanently become a part of my psychic landscape.)

29th) Favorite RPG website/blog
The Piazza. This UK-based forum is dedicated to "old D&D campaign worlds," but has plenty of traffic about new games and sourcebooks, as well as a whole subforum for discussing members' homebrew worlds. I've dipped into larger communities in the past (mainly Steve Jackson Games and EN World) but The Piazza and Ronin Army (Green Ronin's online community) are the only two forums I spend much time at these days. They're a much more comfortable size for me and the amount of time I have free to surf gaming sites, and they're the ones I've made a home and name for myself at.

30th) Favorite RPG playing celebrity
Wil Wheaton. His Tabletop web series is brilliant, and he chose a game by one of my favorite publishers for that show's first foray into RPGs (Dragon Age, by Green Ronin). I've started watching his new show Titansgrave: The Ashes of Valkana, which is designed to show what playing a RPG campaign looks and feels like. From what I've seen so far, Wil has brought together a good mix of system, story, and players to do just that. This project looks like it will be the perfect thing to show non-gamers (read: potential new gamers) who want to know what this gaming thing is all about.

31st) Favorite non-RPG thing to come out of RPGing
"If you would read a mans disposition see him game, you will then learn more of him in one hour, than in seven years conversation, and little wagers will try him as soon as great stakes, for then he is off his Guard.
--“A Letter of Advice to a Young Gentleman Leaveing the University Concerning His Behaviour and Conversation in the World” by Richard Lingard (1670)

The quote properly refers to gambling, but is also quite appropriate for RPGs as well. I have made a large number of friends who I first met through gaming, or whose mutual interest in gaming helped us become better acquainted.

My wife falls into the latter group--we met through the SCA, but around that same time, her college friends were just starting to introduce her to gaming (tabletop RPGs and LARPs). It didn't take long before we were playing in the same games as often as possible. We celebrated our 16th wedding anniversary this past week, and gaming remains one of our greatest shared passions to this day.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

#RPGaDay2015: Days 25-27

25th) Favorite Revolutionary Game Mechanic
The Earthdawn RPG might not have been the first system to include a mechanic for "karma," "fate points," "hero points," or "drama points," but it was definitely the first one that I ever played any significant amount. These points give the players more control over the fate of their characters, which encourages taking bigger risks and thus creating more exciting games. In my experience, the idea works better when the mechanic is a central element of the game, as it is in Earthdawn, as well as Cinematic Unisystem and Cortex-based games.

In contrast, I own sourcebooks with optional rules for action points for D&D v.3.5 and hero points for Pathfinder. I find those rules clunky and awkward to use because they were designed after the fact, rather than as a part of the core game.

26th) Favorite inspiration for your game
For The Kynthiad, I draw inspiration from a wide variety of sources: museum artifacts, collections of Greek myths, historical texts, and "sword & sandals" movies. The last of these is probably the most useful for working out the look I want for a monster or character, because of the wealth of movie stills available online. As I've mentioned in an earlier column, I cast characters using real actors, so finding a good photo of an actor in costume can often suggest an entire character to me. And sometimes I find something that makes me curious enough to track down a new movie or series to watch--and if I'm lucky, enjoy.

27th) Favorite idea for merging two games into one
In one of Kenneth Hite's Suppressed Tranmission columns, he suggested that GMs who needed a quick idea for a new campaign could just pick two random GURPS sourcebooks and mash them together. Many of his columns do exactly that, but "Uncle Ken" has a knack for making such random-seeming hybrids sound far more exciting than you might think. One of my favorites combined supers with the Cthulhu Mythos: contact with eldritch entities and energies provides the origin stories for superhuman heroes. In this world, the line between the heroes and the monsters they fight is far blurrier than in conventional four-color comics.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

#RPGaDay2015: Days 22-24

22nd) Perfect gaming environment
I could rack my brain for what the ideal environment would be, but to be honest, my current set-up (our dining room) fulfills all the basic needs pretty well as it is:

- A table big enough for the gridded easel pad that I use for a battle mat and still have room for everyone (including me) to put their character sheets, notes, and dice. (Our dining table is a bit smaller than we'd really like, but it works.)
- Decent overhead lighting, so everyone can see the map and their own stuff clearly.
- Bookshelves within easy reach for storing my gaming books, dice, notes, and minis. Before game, I'll put out the stuff I need to run that session at my place at the table, or on top of an extra chair beside mine. But I like having the rest of the collection within reach if I need something unexpected, and it's easier to set up and put away everything if it can all just stay in the same room.
- Easy access to snacks, drinks, and a bathroom.

There are only two real drawbacks that I can think of right now:
1) It is our dining room table, so we do have to clear it off regularly. This is a factor for any other games, puzzles. homework, or other projects that take up time and space, too.
2) Our gaming group includes a couple who have a toddler, so right now, we usually play at their house so that the little one can be put to bed while we game. That means I've been getting a lot more practice at packing as lightly as I can and still be fully prepped for a session. (Fortunately, if we ever forget something absolutely essential, home is just a few blocks away.)

23rd) Perfect game for you
I like simple mechanics but I also like crunch, so my favorite RPGs include such dissimilar systems as d20, Unisystem, and BESM.

The d20 System (by which I mostly mean v.3.5 and Pathfinder, which are the versions I've played and enjoyed the most) pretty well defines the upper limit of my comfort zone for complexity and fiddly bits. But even there, I've never tried to acquire and use every splatbook for a given edition--it's just too much information to digest and track. (To give you a sense of what I mean, Pathfinder is my group's go-to "default" system right now, but we're still mastering what's in the Core Rulebook, Advanced Player's Guide and Advanced Race Guide. The only "ultimate" book I've acquired so far is Ultimate Campaign, though I do occasionally look up material from the others in the PRD.)

At the moment, BESM Third Edition is my favorite generic RPG, though I've pretty much only used it for the The Kynthiad so far. It's less gritty than GURPS (my previous favorite generic system), but has a lot of the same flexibility in character creation.

And of course, I'm still exploring new systems, as much as I can find the time. Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition shows promise for a less complicated, but still robust, d20 experience. The upcoming new edition of Blue Rose has made me curious about the AGE system--the setting and the simple rules seem like a good fit for my kids. I also own Fate Core and would love to find the time and opportunity to put that system through its paces--I have at least one campaign idea that I suspect it would be a good match for.

So the short answer? For me, there is no one perfect game. Or at least not yet.

24th) Favorite House Rule
I run most RPGs using the "rules as written," because I prefer to learn and teach how the rules actually are supposed to work before tinkering with them too much. Because of this preference, the "house rules" for most of my campaigns are mostly just a summary of which optional rules are being used, or what sourcebooks are allowed in play, rather than brand-new changes to the rules.

That said, here's one of my favorites for d20 games:

"Half Minus One": Rolling poorly for a new Hit Die can prove deadly, and not much fun. One of my DMs instituted a house rule for minimum hit points at each level. If you rolled below half the maximum, minus one, then you replaced your roll with that number: 5 for a d12, 4 for a d10, 3 for a d8, 2 for a d6. It offset some of the risk of having an overly fragile character without taking away any of the glory of a lucky high roll. This rule doesn't help wizards at all ("half minus one" of d4 is still 1) unless you're playing Pathfinder, but it does help ensure that the warrior-types can take those hits they're meant to soak, and everyone in between doesn't end up too short on HP.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

#RPGaDay2015: Day 21

21st) Favorite RPG Setting
Freeport: The City of Adventure, by Green Ronin Publishing. 

I love world-building, so I tend to prefer running games set in worlds that I've created myself rather than investing the time and money needed to acquire and learn a commercial campaign setting. The one meaningful exception to that general rule is Freeport. 

At the time that I discovered Death in Freeport in my FLGS in late 2000, I was already considering using H.P. Lovecraft's Dreamlands (by Chaosium) as a setting for my first attempt at a D&D Third Edition campaign. Death incorporated pirates, serpent people, and the Yellow Sign, which made it the easiest sell any module has ever been for me. By the time that the rest of the original Freeport Trilogy was published, the city had become a setting that I was dedicated to following. 

As delicious as the Trilogy was, it and the Freeport products that followed did have some niggling issues that prompted me to start producing unofficial fan errata for the line, which I posted to the Green Ronin forums. A few years later. this ongoing labor of love led directly to me making a pitch to Chris Pramas, the company's president and Freeport's creator, to update the Trilogy to the v.3.5 revised rules set. He accepted, and I became an official contributor to the setting. 

I remain a vocal Freeport fan boy, and am currently running my third Freeport campaign. Not too long into this latest campaign, Green Ronin announced a Kickstarter for a new city book using the Pathfinder rules, which led to me converting my game to Pathfinder a few months before that sourcebook finally came out (around the beginning of this year). This new Freeport: The City of Adventure is easily one of my favorite RPG products--it's a shiny and massive new version of a dearly beloved old friend.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

#RPGaDay2015: Days 18-20

18th) Favorite SF RPG
Serenity RPG. Despite being a huge fan of SF fiction and film, I've played and run very few SF games. But the most fun I've had in this genre was in my friend Mike's Serenity game, playing my daredevil pilot Zefira.

19th) Favorite Supers RPG
I play even less supers than I do SF, so I don't really have any favorites here (for campaign or system).

20th) Favorite Horror RPG
Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I mentioned a few days ago that one of the longest campaigns I've played in used this system and setting. Also, the rulebooks are entertaining to read--which is a challenge when writing RPG rules. The Cinematic Unisystem rules this game is built upon was also used for Angel, Ghosts of Albion, and Army of Darkness, and my group stole shamelessly from all three for our "Grey Angels" game.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

#RPGaDay2015: Days 16-17

16th) Longest game session played
If you count LARPs, I've played in at least a couple that had 8-hour sessions. I honestly can't remember if I've ever played for that long at a single stretch for a tabletop game.

17th) Favorite Fantasy RPG
Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. It used to be D&D v.3.5 for over a decade (I never liked 4E enough to leave 3.5 entirely), but then my group decided to try Pathfinder a couple years ago, and we're solidly hooked. 

Saturday, August 15, 2015

#RPGaDay2015: Days 14-15

14th) Favorite RPG Accessory
This is a hard call, because I tend not to use a lot of accessories beyond the basics of dice and minis. I prefer to invest in more gaming sourcebooks instead. But the most consistently used accessory I have isn't a product from any game company--it's the 1" gridded easel pads that I use to draw out the battle maps.

I used to be able to find them at just about any office supply store, and they were reasonably priced. But sadly, but in the past year or so (at least around here, in Lexington, KY), they seem to be disappearing in favor of Post-It Note versions, which are much more expensive and have far fewer sheets per pad. Boo.

15th) Longest campaign played
"The Kynthiad," the solo BESM 3E campaign that I've been running for my wife since 2007. We've had some periods where the game was on hold for a few months, but it's still going strong, and we've racked up over 200 sessions so far.

If you limit this question to games with a more traditionally sized group, then the longest one I've played was "Grey Angels," an alternate-Buffyverse series by Autumn Riordan and Katie Hallahan. I was an active player for 3-1/2 years (and it had been going for a season or so before I joined in). It was later revived as a forum-based game for a couple more years, but then it was shelved for good.

The longest non-solo campaign that I've GMed was "Adventures in Arcadayn," a medieval fantasy GURPS campaign that lasted just over 3 years (late 1998 to early 2002). And I'm still gaming regularly with two of those players--my wife (who I married during that time) and her best friend since college.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

#RPGaDay2015: Days 12-13

12th) Favorite RPG illustration
There are far too many to choose from here! But my favorite new illustration from the past couple years is probably Wayne Reynolds's cover for Freeport: The City of Adventure.

13th) Favorite RPG podcast
I don't listen to any, so I'll have to pass on this one. (But one of these days, I really should try listening to Robin and Ken Talk About Stuff. See my answer to Day 11...)

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

#RPGaDay2015: Days 1-11

I've been introduced to Dave Chapman's #RPGaDay2015 prompts through Timothy Brannon (of Buffy/Ghosts of Albion fame) and decided I'd join in, even though the month is a third over already.

1st) Forthcoming game you're most looking forward to
Blue Rose AGE Edition, by Green Ronin Publishing. I loved the original Blue Rose game, though I never did actually play it much beyond a few brief one-shots. The True20 System was an intriguing variant of d20, the setting provided a refreshing difference from typical D&D fare, and the artwork (particularly that of Stephanie Pui-Mun Law) was simply gorgeous. The new game will use the AGE system first created for the Dragon Age RPG, and will expand the amount of setting material and artwork.

2nd) Kickstarted game most pleased you backed
To limit the answer to products I've already received, that would have to be either Fate Core or Earthdawn Fourth Edition. I'm going to give it to the latter because I know that I'll get to play that one when my wife is finally able to resume running her Earthdawn campaign.

3rd) Favorite New Game of the last 12 months
Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. I've been playing D&D since 1981 or '82, and 4th edition was the first new edition that I didn't like better than the previous one. I've only played in one short 5E campaign so far, but it is a welcome return to D&D that actually feels like D&D.

In addition, 5E provided an excellent opportunity for one of my younger gaming buddies to run his first RPG campaign. I played a big part in getting him hooked on tabletop RPGs in the first place, so it's been rather gratifying seeing him embrace the role of GM, too.

4th) Most Surprising Game
I'm going to say BESM Third Edition. Not because the game itself is overly surprisingly--though it is a lovely system--but because it's a miracle that it ever got published at all. Guardians of Order ceased to exist as a business before this much-anticipated book saw press, but fortunately a deal was struck to have it published by Arthaus, Inc,, an imprint of White Wolf. Sadly, Arthaus never offered any further support for the game (but at least you can still buy it through DriveThruRPG).

5th) Most recent RPG purchase
Not counting Kickstarters (which lack the instant gratification of having a new toy in your hands as soon as you pay for it), my most recent purchase was Monster Codex, for Pathfinder.

6th) Most recent RPG played
Pathfinder RPG. I ran a session of my Freeport campaign the previous weekend.

7th) Favorite Free RPG
GURPS Lite. A brilliant piece of marketing, and a surprisingly good distillation of the game's core mechanics and character creation options into an easily digestible size for new players. This is what quick-start rules should be, but with pretty much just this one exception, never are.

8th) Favorite appearance of RPGs in the Media
Somewhere I still have clippings of the Indianapolis Star's coverage of GenCon from the year that I attended (2011). I was visiting my mother (who lives in the next county) at the same time, and she saved them for me.

9th) Favorite media you wish was an RPG
Harry Potter. My kids would eat this up in a heartbeat.

10th) Favorite RPG Publisher
Green Ronin Publishing. Their Freeport Trilogy is the reason I started my fan errata pages, which directly led to a number of writing and editing gigs for the Ronins. This small company knows how to make make consistently good games, which is why they're still around--and thriving--after 15 years.

11th) Favorite RPG Writer
Since I just gushed over Green Ronin, I'm going to go elsewhere and choose Kenneth Hite for this one. I was introduced to his work primarily through his Suppressed Transmission columns and his GURPS sourcebooks. "Uncle Ken" is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in Lovecraft, alternate history, high weirdness, and making your players squirm in combined horror and glee.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Kynthiad: The borders of the world

Over several years of game play, Kynthia has visited the far extremes of the known world, in all four cardinal directions--and even found a new home (and started a family) in one of those exotic lands.

For this campaign, the world's borders are roughly those known to Herodotus (from whose Histories I've drawn a great deal of detail and inspiration about exotic and/or legendary places and cultures), and includes all of Europe except Scandinavia, Africa as far south as the Congo, and Asia as far east as the Caspian Sea and Mesopotamia. The following legendary lands also exist:
  • Cimmeria, the westernmost region of the world, located in Iberia. The isle of the Hesperides lies off its coast. 
  • Colchis, the home of King Aeetes and Medea, at the foot of the Caucasus. The palace of Helios lies to the east of those mountains. 
  • Ethiopia, at the far southern edge of Africa, beyond Nubia and the land of the Pygmies (the latter also being legendary). 
  • Hyperborea, at the far north of the world, approximately where Scandinavia would be. 
  • The River Oceanus, which surrounds the entire world (and thus touches Hyperborea, Cimmeria, and Ethiopia). 

As a side note, I've been casting NPCs as real-world actors, so that we have an easy visual reference for each character. (This is a trick I picked up from a long-running Buffy game I played in years ago.) Hyperboreans are almost all white, apart from a handful of characters who immigrated from elsewhere (or whose ancestors did). Cimmerians are a mixture of blacks, whites, and mixed heritage (much as Moorish Spain was). And because I've cut most of Asia off the map, I'm using Indians to cast Ethiopians, and East Asians for Scythians. For most "real world" locations, I've been trying to keep my casting close to what the people there should look like, though that's often pretty loose (ala Xena or Hercules).

Kynthia is originally from Colophon, in Lydia (on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor). During her travels, she fell in love with Anahodios, a winged demigod from Hyperborea. She made several visits to his homeland between other quests, and that part of the setting definitely took on a life of its own. Hyperborea became a permanent focus of the game once she married her beloved and made it her home as well. 

Besides Herodotus, I've used ideas teased from the (often eccentric) footnotes in Robert Graves' The Greek Myths to flesh out Hyperborea. His notes point out connections between stories and themes, and often elaborate on alternate versions of stories mentioned in the main text. While Hyperborea rarely features prominently in the best-known Greek myths, there are connections to that fabulous land through many of the stories. (For example, Perseus and Heracles both visited it, or lands near it.) Hyperborea filled much the same niche for the ancient Greeks that Atlantis did for everyone after Plato: it was a distant paradise blessed by the gods, from which came many of the secrets of early civilization. This is one of the chief reasons that I decided against including Atlantis in the Kynthiad.