Sunday, December 29, 2019

Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker and Mandalorian thoughts

No, this is not a full review of either Episode IX or the first offering from Disney+. And I shouldn't have seen either property yet. Ep IX doesn't come to Korea for another week and a half, and Disney+ won't come for I don't know how long. But through the power of the Force (internet), I've viewed them.

And I WILL got see Rise of Skywalker on the big screen when it finally comes here. That's one reason for this not being a full review. Just a comparison. Will I subscribe to Disney+ when it finally comes to Korea? Based on the strength of The Mandalorian and my enthusiasm for the MCU shows they're gonna put out (especially the What If...? show!), probably.

So, both properties really market in Star Wars nostalgia for us older folks that have grown up with the original trilogy. I'm sure people who grew up on the prequel trilogy also find nostalgic stuff in the new film trilogy and the new show, but it seems to me that a lot of the nostalgia is for US.

Re. Rise of Skywalker: J.J. Abrams is, I think, overrated. He came back to "save Star Wars" from Rian Johnson and give fans what they wanted. And that's pretty much what the movie was. 2 hours of fan service. Was there a lot of cool stuff? Sure. Were there plot holes? Sure. It's Star Wars. It's space wizards doing space wizard stuff. But overall, I felt like the movie was just OK, and it would have been better if it had striven for something better than just fan service.

Looking back to Episode VII, I was just thrilled the first time I saw it in the theater. Star Wars was Star Wars again! Then, watching it again, it seemed just a bit too similar to what had come before. Episode VIII had a lot of problems, but what IMO Rian Johnson did right was set up a new paradigm for the Force. But J.J. did to Rian what Rian did to J.J. Can't say I'm too happy about that.

Re. The Mandalorian: Favreau knows how to tell an entertaining story. Yes, there's a lot of fan service as well. And yes, there were a few filler episodes that had cool stuff but could have been cut and the story would have been the same. But what Favreau is doing right that J.J. is doing wrong (again just my armchair director opinion) is that the fan service and nostalgia are mostly incidental to the story. A mention here. A background character there. A vehicle based on a toy. Occasionally part of a scene. But the story of Mando and The Child is its own thing. It's not stuck in the shadow of the movies.

I hope, in the future, when more Star Wars movies get made, that they take more cues from Favreau and Johnson than from Abrams.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Mini Six and Star Wars d6

I checked out Mini Six. And found a (possibly not legal? If not, sorry!) PDF of Star Wars 2nd Edition. I think Killing Machine and I played 2E WEG Star Wars when we were kids, but maybe it was 1E. I have vague memories of us playing either when we were in high school (in which case it would have been 1E) or my college years (when it could have been 1E or 2E).

Anyway, long story short, Mini Six looks like a good condensation of the d6 System for general usage, but I think I'll stick to actual Star Wars RPG for my future games.

I MAY take the Mini Six idea of static defense scores based on the die codes of the skills. Instead of rolling to dodge/parry an attack, it just figures out the difficulty number based on how many dice a character has in the skill. Similarly, instead of rolling Strength to resist damage, it just uses a flat damage reduction number.

Actually, I may keep the Dodge/Parry rolls, since they are optional and take up actions. But the static damage reduction thing I think I will definitely implement to speed things up.


On a related note, the season finale of The Mandalorian was pretty good. I won't be copying the plot in my games, but it did give me a few ideas I might use for SW RPG.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Muddling through WEG d6 Star Wars

Two days ago, Dean asked who was up for an impromptu game. Jeremy pitched a Marvel Superheroes game based on occult investigations, but it didn't really grab us. So I suggested (being all in on The Mandalorian and having now seen The Rise of Skywalker - review pending) a game of d6 Star Wars.

The rules have had a fan edit/remaster done recently, that includes lots of material from the more modern SW properties. And it's free. It's a long PDF, though, around 500 pages. And it's poorly organized. And I hadn't played WEG Star Wars since around 1990 or so, and we never played it that much back then. And I was never the game master.

But anyway, I gave myself a crash course in the rules, and came up with a scenario. I'd had the idea that the plot of Shaft (1971) would make for a good RPG adventure. And it worked out really well.

The characters:
Y'lenik, Caamasi Student of the Force (Dean)
Simon SBD-4, modified superbattle droid (Jeremy)
Oink the Hunter, Gammorean bounty hunter (Claytonian)
Teeto, Ewok (Parker)

On a Hutt planet, the Imperials are encroaching but there's also a Rebel resistance forming. The Hutt's daughter is kidnapped, and he demands/hires the PCs to rescue her.

The game didn't follow exactly along the lines of the plot of Shaft, although in a few ways it did mirror it. By the end of the session, the PCs had the Rebels leading a diversion attack on the Imperial garrison while they broke in the back to rescue the Hutt Princess, while gangsters waited with speeders outside for the getaway. More or less like the final act of Shaft.

For the players, it was pretty easy. The templates allowed them to get into the game quickly. One guy joined the game about 45 minutes in, grabbed the Ewok template, assigned points to skills, and he was in within 10 minutes.

There were only two small skirmishes against stormtroopers at the end during the rescue. Everything else was investigation, negotiation, and scouting. Which is just as well, because when the fights broke out, I realized after the session, I ran the system wrong. It still worked, but it wasn't quite right. None of the players had more experience with the system than I did, so no one noticed.

After the game ended, Jeremy suggested I check out Mini6, which is a cut-down version of the WEG d6 system. I may do that. The SW fan book has, as I said above, too much information. There are a lot of helpful explanations and examples given, and it's got all kinds of reference information. But it's all over the place. The game rules are scattered here and there, you'll read a section on character skills then there's a sample adventure, then back to game mechanics, then fluff about the SW universe, then more game mechanics, then another sample adventure, then...

Anyway, long story short, I'll try to put together another session or three of Star Wars in the coming months. It was a lot of fun.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Does it make the game more fun?

 As a DM, especially one who likes to toy with the game and make it my own, I constantly ask myself this question. If I'm going to add a new class or race, switch from race-as-class to race-and-class (or back again), if I'm going to reskin everything to make it feel like Asian fantasy or Star Wars or whatever, even if I'm just adding in some new monsters, the question that's always on my mind is:

Does this make the game more fun? 

And the question has more than one answer. Who's fun will the change enhance? Whose will it detract from?

In my current state of Treasures, Serpents and Ruins, I added Dragonborn and Changelings (Tiefling/Aasimar) because I started my West Marches game in 5E and those races were popular with my players. I'm not overly fond of either one, but removing them would make the game less fun for my players. So I made simple 1E/BX/BECMI style versions of those races.

Yesterday, a new player came to my game. She thought she'd play a Druid. But the stats she rolled didn't have a high enough Con score (a requirement for Druids in my game). In order to let her have her character which she would have fun playing, I let her change the score to the minimum needed. Problem solved, she had a great time.

The switch from 5E back to Classic (with heavy house ruling) was necessary for ME to have more fun with the game. Yeah, I lost a few players. But the ones that stuck around, and the new players that joined, are having a blast. And I am, too. I'm a lot more confident running the game, and prep for the game is much easier as well.

If a change to the rules, the systems, or the procedures of gaming make the game more fun for one or more participants, and don't significantly reduce the fun for other participants, then that's a good change to make. Even if it doesn't enhance the fun, if it makes things easier for some participants without reducing anyone else's fun, it's probably a good change.

Yes, "fun" is subjective, impossible to quantify and define in a satisfying manner. Yes, what seems fun now may seem less fun in the future. If the "fun" is decreasing over time, that 's just a sign to either go back to the way it was before, or else try something new again.

If you're thinking of making changes to your game, of course you should ask yourself "Is this necessary?"  If the answer is yes, keep going. But don't give up on the idea just because the answer is no. Also ask yourself next if it makes the game more fun. Only if the answer to both is no should you abandon the idea.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Because no one was asking for it...

I made a thing. A gaming jokey thing. Y'all love/hate the woman yelling at cat meme just like me, right? Well, wouldn't you like to have one with the cat as DM?

Blank one included so you can make your own. I made these using and submitted it there, but if you want to DIY or use another meme generator, the blank is available.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Making the Cut -- Monster Selection

I'm just about done adding monsters (stats and descriptions) to my big list for TSR-East.

Going through some of the books, especially the original OA, there are quite a few monsters of a similar type -- small, humanoid spirits dwelling on the fringes of society, and kept happy through offerings by the common folk. The Bajang, Nat, P'oh, and Shan Sao are all fairly similar. Sure, there are differences in MO and in abilities. But I don't think I need this many Asian versions of the Fair Folk. I've got plenty of other monsters. Two of these four is probably enough. Now I need to decide which two...

Being based primarily on the BX/BECMI monster lists, I have djinn and efreet. While mostly associated with Arabian Nights/Al Qadim, if you read the original version of Aladdin, it does take place in China, not Baghdad. And then I thought, why not add the Marid and Dao from MMII? But then decided not to. I can always use them if I want, but they don't need to be iconic members of the lineup.

As mentioned in my last post, I repurposed the rust monster for the Korean legendary bulgasari. That's not the only monster. A few I'd cut, like the harpy and minotaur, got put back in, but as the (again Korean) inmyeonjo [human-face bird] and yakman (not Korean), respectively. And the Korean bulgae (fire-dog, an eclipse explaining monster in the myths) gave hellhounds stats a new purpose.

Right now, I've got 348 stat blocks in the document or being prepared for insertion. I guess I should add two more to get it to an even 350. Maybe the Marid and Dao will make it after all, or one or two of the creatures from the Creature Catalog that almost got chosen.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

A Tale of Three Bulgasari

So I spent a bit of time refreshing myself on Korean mythical creatures. Most are pretty much the same as Chinese/Japanese ones, just with different names.

One that came up today (I went looking for it, actually, and learned something new) is the Bulgasari (also spelled Pulgasari depending on your Romanization system).

Now, in modern Korean, bulgasari 불가사리 means starfish. Just the aquatic animal.

But there was also a North Korean giant monster movie commissioned by Kim Jong-il in 1985 called Pulgasari (same spelling in Hangeul as the starfish). I was thinking I'd read up on the NorKo kaiju to include it in my game.

But then I discovered there is a mythical creature called the bulgasari 불가살이. Same pronunciation, but different spelling (and different Chinese characters if you look them up). This one means undying beast.

I found this wonderful little blog that stopped updating after only a few months. It tells of the mythical creature. It looks like the baku or shirokinukatsukami -- a bear's body covered in scales, an elephant-like head, a cow's tail, and tiger paws. It was immortal and ate metal.

Well, immortal is no fun for D&D, but eating metal? Guess how I'm reskinning the rust monster for TSR-East!

Thursday, December 12, 2019

What does a GM Guide Need?

I've completed my "players book" for Treasures, Serpents, and Ruins - East (and I really need a new name, unless I want to release regular TSR which is just another vanilla D&D retroclone which no one wants or needs...or just call this TSR when I release it). It's 32 pages with absolutely no fluff. I figure with fluff (class descriptions, descriptions of how to make a character, examples of play) it will be in the 42 to 48 page range. For my current purposes, this is enough.

Now I'm putting together a monster book. I've got my monsters from BECMI (minus some that don't seem to fit, modified others - chimera and griffons are part tiger instead of part lion, for example). I've got monsters from Chanbara. I've got monsters from Flying Swordsmen. I've got monsters from OA (minus the overlap among these three sources). I've got monsters that I wanted to add to Chanbara but didn't for space concerns. Not sure how many of this last group I'll actually add, because it's already an awful lot of monsters! BECMI has the Gargantua template, but I'll probably at least want to add a Kaiju template as well. And for eventual release, I'll want to add some introductory text to explain the entries, hit bonuses, calculating XP awards for modified monsters, saving throws, etc.

While I edit together the monster book I'm thinking of what goes in the GM's Guide.

And I had the realization today that I'm a lot like Gygax back at the beginning of the hobby. OD&D didn't have a lot of explanations or contextualization of the rules, because Gygax knew his audience. They were tabletop wargamers like him. They could contextualize just fine. It was only once D&D started to spread out beyond the wargamer market that things like the Basic Sets and AD&D became necessary to spell all this stuff out.

And I'm in a similar situation. I doubt anyone who's purchased Chanbara wasn't already an experienced gamer. Likewise, anyone who would purchase TSR-East from me is also likely to be an experienced gamer. They've got the context. Do I really need to spell it all out for them?

Sure, it can give some insight into how I run my games, and how I expect the moving parts to work together. But if I released a bare-bones GM's Guide, would it be a problem? Do I need to tell you how to create a dungeon or a wilderness? How to prepare interesting NPCs for encounters? Or do I just need to give you the systems, algorithms, and processes you need to run the game all on your own?

Bare Bones: 
Running the Game:
Exploration Turns
  • movement
  • searching/detection
  • adjudicating traps/hazards
  • encounters
  • reaction table
  • morale
  • interactions
  • chases/evasions
  • adjudicating special abilities/spells/etc.
  • combat round sequence
  • initiative
  • morale checks
  • adjudicating special attacks/spells/etc.
  • death and dying
  • healing
Wandering Monster Tables (dungeon/wilderness)
Hirelings and Specialists
Strongholds for High Level Characters
  • coins
  • gems/jewelry/special
  • magic items 
That's about all that's really needed, right? I could add more, of course, but that's IMO the bare minimum needed. Anything I'm forgetting that's absolutely vital? Anything above you think I could safely leave out and assume the players will just import systems/procedures from D&D?

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Beyond the Secret Door - Rolling Protocols

So I've been in a drawn out conversation with Alexis of The Tao about whether or not all DM rolls should be in the open or not. The most recent exchange in the comments of my previous post.

One of the original examples I gave of why sometimes it's better for the game to keep some rolls secret is in the case of secret doors in an old school game.

The way I see it, there's a better choice analysis/trade off in old school D&D. Searching takes time, 1 Turn per 10' searched. And every Turn (or two Turns, depending on the rules used) the DM makes a wandering monster check. So every time players make a choice to search an area for secret doors is them gambling on facing the next low payoff random encounter.

Random encounters provide some monster XP, but rarely have any treasure worth scooping up. And they risk losing hit points, spells, flasks of oil, potions, magic item charges, etc. to deal with.

So that's the situation. Players suspect an area might (or even must) have a secret door. Do they want to spend time searching for it, possibly failing, and risk more wandering monsters? Or do they want to just move on to the next area? If they can see the results of the search roll (d20+ style player Perception skill rolls, or old school style DM rolls made in the open) they have less uncertainty. If they roll well but find nothing, the question is answered. If they roll poorly, they are in the dark. By keeping the roll secret, the players are always in the dark if no door is found, and the choice remains on the table.

Alexis pointed out that the DM rolling in secret was functionally identical to the DM rolling in advance to see if the secret door would even be found. And if so, why wouldn't the DM save themselves some effort and roll in advance, and if negative, not even draw/stock/create the contents beyond the door?

Now, I have been formulating ideas in my head for the greater question - should some rolls be kept secret from the players? But Alexis wanted this specific question addressed. And when he repeated the question in the comments yesterday, he actually gave me the answer I was looking for.

He further specified a situation in which a dungeon would be visited once and then forgotten (like in a lot of modern adventure path gaming). And I have to say, in that specific situation, he's not wrong.

For example, back in October/November of 2007 (or maybe it was 2006, after I got married but before my first son was born and we were still living in Japan, pretty sure it was 2007 though), I intended to run Ravenloft as a one-shot. It turned into a 3 or 4 shot. Before running it, to speed things along, I made a time chart and rolled all the random encounters and their reaction rolls in advance. Partly this was because according to the module, at certain times, Strahd will be aware of the PCs and attack or send minions to attack. But I also wanted to just save a bit of time in the session.

This resulted in a few interesting encounters. For one, I'd rolled spectres, but friendly reactions! And when that encounter came up, the party were resting for the night in the chapel (which they incorrectly thought was still hallowed ground and safe). Thinking on the spot, it's the chapel, the middle of the night, spectres, but not hostile. It was a ghostly Black Mass being celebrated. Creeped the players out, built up the proper Gothic mood, but also allowed them to avoid what could have been an adventure ending encounter if it had devolved into combat.

I mention that to point out that I'm not against the idea of the DM making some rolls in advance. There's a time and place for that.

But back to the secret door thing. In my answer to Alexis, I pointed out to him that in my current West Marches campaign (actually also true for my play-by-post megadungeon game on RPOL), players often decide to return to partially explored dungeons. And as players come and go, and characters die and get replaced, it's not always the same party exploring.

In a game like mine, players knowing there definitely ISN'T a secret door at a certain location becomes a form of metagaming. But if the players themselves aren't sure, then their characters are also unsure. And they remain with the trade-off of searching for the secret door and risking wandering monsters, or not.

Now, it should go without saying that whatever is behind the door shouldn't be vital to the success or failure of the adventure. If the only way to get to the BBEG or rescue the prisoners or escape the fiendish Bond villain deathtrap is to find the secret door, don't roll. If the players search, they find it.

But if the secret door is just a shortcut from A to B, or has some extra loot or nonessential but helpful clues or strangeness that would just make for a cool moment, whether they find the door or not is irrelevant. It's an Easter Egg. In that case, why should the roll be in the open? Perceived fairness of the DM is the only reason why someone would argue that it should.

I'd argue that DM fairness will be known by other things than by whether the results of some rolls are kept secret or not.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Skill Resolution

End of semester grading and some personal stuff have taken up a lot of my time. So not much blogging lately. And no real time to put together my final response to Alexis on why it's good to have some results of rolls secret from the players. It'll come eventually.

In the meantime, Jeremy was wanting to try a different game tonight -- Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells, but everyone was busy or not enthused. No offense intended to the game designer, who is a cool dude. I, at least, am feeling mentally drained from wading through the research papers of ESL learners and didn't feel like trying to learn a new system tonight.

Jeremy shared a Questing Beast video review of SS&SS, and he mentioned that there is a "background" option to let you flesh out the three character classes more. Of course 5E also has that. And maybe some other game Jeremy was pushing recently (or he just bolted that on from SS&SS into something else maybe).

It got me thinking about how skills have been handled over the years. OD&D through the RC has set abilities for some classes (dwarf detection, elf secret door finding, halfling hiding) that is usually X on d6, where the default is either "can't do it" or 1 in 6 chance of success. Then there are Thieves with their % skill system completely unlike any other. And later, other things not covered by the rules were usually suggested to be done by a roll under an appropriate ability score (on a d20, 2d8, 3d6, 2d12, or whatever). With the exception of Thief skills that improved every level, these skills also didn't change over time (unless you found some way to raise/lower ability scores).

Of course, the ideal of unified mechanics (a bad idea for many games IMO) in 3E meant that skills needed to be handled with the same swinginess of combat, that flat d20 distribution plus modifiers. This was, IMO, a bad move. Unless you really focused your character build (ability score boosts, feats, magic items), your skill use was really unreliable. Especially since the DCs for skill checks tended to go up along with your skill levels.

But all this thinking (on my bus ride home this evening) reminded me of something I've been wanting to dust off and implement for TSR and TSR-East. AD&D's Secondary Skills table.
It seems, from the Questing Beast video review, that SS&SS does something similar to this, although a bit more free-form. You get to pick a background and whatever it is, if you're trying something related to that background, you succeed (or get a good chance to succeed on a roll).

When I was a kid, looking at AD&D for the first time, I thought this Secondary Skills system was too generic. I wanted discrete skills that could be applied, with defined mechanics for how to use them. After all, BECMI demi-humans and Thieves had that, in different ways.

But these days, I think the freedom to just negotiate what your character can do with the DM based on a descriptor like this is a good way to handle these things. We kind of did that when we were kids anyway without having a chart to roll on. It was often impromptu, and something that we just made up about our characters on the spot if it ever came up.

I had a Fighter named Falcon, and somewhere along the way his father's profession became important. I said he was a blacksmith. No reason, I just thought it sounded cool to have a blacksmith for a dad. From that point forward, Falcon was assumed to know a thing or two about smithing, including weapon/armor repair.

I really like that, and I think it's a much simpler way to add some flavor to the characters in an RPG than having to pour over skill lists and micromanage skill points or whatever. Complete 180 from when I was young.