Monday, February 28, 2022

Thinking about Gamma World again

One of the players in my West Marches has never DMed a game before, and another player has been pushing him to try running something. I've been giving advice to Player 1, including suggesting some game systems that might not be too much of a shock for him. (Player 2 was suggesting things with 200+ page world lore books in addition to the rules themselves...probably not the best thing to have to worry about on a first time as game master.)

After some discussion, Player 1 decided to check out Gamma World. Close enough to Classic D&D, but different enough to make him interested. I suggested he get the 2E PDF from DriveThru, and he did. He's been going over it slowly, and every now and then shooting a question my way. 

I'm not actually an expert on 2E. My cousin had the box set back in the day, but we never really did more than make characters with it. Later, when I was in college, I got 4E and we played that a bit. I like it, but it's a bit crunchier than 1E/2E. It throws in character classes on top of mutations and whatnot, plus there are a lot of derived statistics to juggle. 2E is a lot simpler, and also a bit better organized than 1E. 

So I've been brushing up on the 2E rules as well. I've also been compiling the creature and robot stats from the main rule book and the modules that I have on PDF. There are quite a few interesting ones that didn't make it into the 4E book. 

I mentioned to my sons a while back that we might be playing Gamma World with Player 1 soon, and my younger son got really excited. He has been transitioning from a love of bulldogs to a love of cats (because of some buff cat character on the internet? -- yeah, I'm old, get off my lawn). So of course he wants to play a mutant cat character. 

We looked through the 4E book's creature section together, and for bedtime reading we read through Light on Quest's Mountain, the old Endless Quest book set in Gamma World. He enjoyed it. 

Of course, now my son wants to pick and choose mutations to be catlike: heightened balance, jumping, night vision, claws, and of course chameleon power. :D 

Now I'm considering putting together a GW game for RPoL (a play by post site). Simple sandbox. Home town, different strange regions in each direction, ruins sprinkled here and there. Nothing as grand in concept as GamMarvel World that I tried to run a few years back. That just became a headache trying to work out a bunch of connections to Marvel comics in each ruin and adventure site. KISS Principle this time around, if I pull the trigger.

Also, it'll be fun to play some GW if Player 1 gets his game up and running.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Focus While Designing Games

This is the next post about Richard Rouse's Game Design: Theory & Practice. The first post is here

While Rouse is a computer game designer and that's where his book focuses, I find lots of interesting nuggets that can translate to TTRPG design, or at least provide a slightly different frame of reference to consider what we know about RPGs. 

The previous post delved into the major points of Chapter 1, although I skipped most of the meat of the chapter. I'll be doing the same here with Chapter 5. By the way, the book is written so that ever even numbered chapter is either an interview with a noted game designer or a case study of a popular game. So I'm skipping those chapters in this read through. Chapter 3 is about brainstorming ideas for a game, which is something I feel pretty comfortable skipping for the purposes of these posts. So, to get to business: 

Chapter 5 is about focus. What is it, how to achieve it, and how to maintain it through a long development process. Most of the chapter is focused on stuff not really relevant to RPGs, but early in the chapter, Rouse poses some questions that are designed to help foster focus on the game design project. 

While they're intended for use on the overall design of a video game, I think they could be good questions to ask when designing an entire RPG, a campaign world, or just the next adventure. And if you flounder or get stuck on some element, you can go back to your answers to these questions to help you get back on track.

  • What is it about this game that is most compelling?
  • What is this game trying to accomplish?
  • What type of experience will the players have?
  • What sort of emotions is the game trying to evoke in the players?
  • What should the players take away from the game?
  • How is this game unique? What differentiates it from other games?
  • What sort of control will the player have over the game-world?

In applying these questions to an RPG, not all of them will be relevant to each level of design. For example, when designing an entire game, you probably don't need to worry about evoking specific emotions. That's something for scenario/adventure design level thinking, IMO. Maybe sometimes at the campaign level to help set a mood (heroic, dark & gritty, gonzo, etc.). The opposite is true of the question of control. That's primarily something to decide at the game design level, thinking about mechanics and how players will interact with the game world. The rules should pretty much answer that question, not individual adventures. 

So don't feel like I'm listing these questions as ones that you MUST answer about your game. Instead, they're more like guidelines. Use them as needed to help you focus on what you're doing -- whether that be game design, campaign creation/world building, or adventure/scenario design.

Wednesday, February 16, 2022


Gygax, for all his marketing and conceptual genius when creating D&D, really wasn't very good at creating elegant rule systems. I'm at the stage of Treasures, Serpents, & Ruins (TSR) where I think if I put this out, it will either be a generic rule set or a specifically kitchen sink Asian fantasy inspired rule set. Either way, I'd like a system for multiclassing, but 1E AD&D is just such a mess that I think I need to look elsewhere.

First of all, AD&D has the weirdness of demihumans multiclassing (fairly straightforward, but with lots of corner cases and provisos depending on which two classes are being combined, and limits on what can be combined) PLUS human dual classing (a bit more complex with required ability scores, limits on what powers you can use and when, etc). Why two completely different systems? Obviously Gary wanted distinctions between humans and non-humans. Also, allowing carte blanch demi-human style multiclassing could create some unbalanced nightmares (Paladin/Rangers? Cleric/Fighter/Magic-Users with no level limits on them?).

At first, I was thinking to just allow humans to multiclass, but with level limits. I even considered removing level limits from single-class demi-humans, so level limits are only a check on multiclassed characters. Multiclassing though a bit easier than dual classing, still has some headaches. Especially with energy drain. If you get level drained, which class's level gets drained first? If you maxed out one of the two classes, but have still been accumulating XP in it, and it gets drained, that's a huge chunk of XP removed! Although it probably won't matter much, if you go from Fighter 4/Thief 8 to Fighter 3/Thief 7 with a double energy drain. You'll probably make that Fighter level up pretty quickly. 

But to get to the point. I want a more elegant system for TSR (or TSR-East, whichever). My current version of TSR has premade classes that combine two base classes. A few of them are pretty popular. The Lark (Fighter/Magic-User) has seen a lot of play [four PCs]. Next most seen is the Paladin (Cleric/Fighter) [2 PCs]. Finally, we've had one Warlock (Magic-User/Thief) in the campaign. Assassin (Fighter/Thief), Bard (Cleric/Magic-User) and Darkstalker (Cleric/Thief) have been ignored so far. 

In service of a more elegant rule system than one with 10 character classes, of which 4 of them each come with 4 subclasses for a total of 26 options BEFORE considering character's race, I want to strip things down to the five core classes of my current TSR-East rules: Cleric, Fighter, Magic-User, Thief, Xia. No subclasses. 

Then, with these five classes, we can have 10 multiclass combinations. But these don't need to be separate classes the way they are now in my main TSR rules (the house rules for my West Marches campaign). 

I plan to simply create an XP progression chart and hit die for each combination. I'll have none of this dividing XP in half and leveling up separately of 1E, and halving hit points rolled at each level. Like the Elf of BX and BECMI, it will have all the powers of both classes, which level up at a certain rate. Attacks and saves will be done by whichever class is better. 

For example: A Fighter/Xia (kensei style)

The PC could use any armor (fighter), or go unarmored with level-based dodging (xia). They could use any weapon (both classes), but could also do better unarmed damage (xia). As they level up, they could sweep (1 attack/level vs 1HD opponents), get a combat style, multiple attacks, and a smash maneuver as a Fighter (if they are allowed to get high enough level). They also get all the monk-like abilities of the Xia like improved jumping ability, stunning fist, various resistances, and so on. 

Since the Fighter needs 2000 XP to level 2, and the Xia needs 2200 XP, just add them together. The multiclass Fighter/Xia would gain level 2 when they have 4200 XP. Since I give Fighters a d10 hit die and the Xia has a d8 hit die, I'd give the multiclass the d8. The Xia has slightly better saving throws, so use those. Base attack bonuses are the same. 

Example Number 2: A Cleric/Magic-User

This PC could wear any armor, use blunt weapons plus daggers, cast both Cleric and MU spells, and turn undead.  They would get a d6 hit die (average of Cleric d8 and MU d4), and would need 4000 XP to reach level 2 (1500 XP from Cleric, 2500 XP from MU). Cleric generally has better saving throws, so use them for all categories but Paralysis/Turn to Stone, which would use the MU save until 5th level when the Cleric save gets better. They'd also use the Cleric BAB progression. 

This seems like it should work. The only thing I need to consider now would be level limits for the combinations. Would different races get different limits? Would humans also be limited in this way? That would be a pretty big change, but I think in general this is a much more elegant way to handle things. And then I don't need BX-ified versions of the Paladin, Ranger, Illusionist, let alone Sohei, Ninja (1E OA style), or Kensei. 

It also eliminates the need for subclasses which also fill in archetypes like the above. Want healing magic and undead turning but better fighting ability? No need to have Paladin AND Sohei classes. Just play a Cleric/Fighter and style it as one of those...or a Vampire Hunter, Templar Knight, or whatever.

Monday, February 14, 2022

Reaction to The Book of Boba Fett

 My boys and I have watched The Book of Boba Fett, Disney+'s latest Star Wars property. 

There will probably be spoilers in this reaction post (not quite a review) so be warned. I'll try to keep them as light as possible for those that may not have seen it yet. Definite spoilers for the original Star Wars trilogy! And Mandalorian season 2.

The Book of Boba Fett (TBBF) is both a spin-off of The Mandalorian, and also a sequel of sorts to Return of the Jedi. Boba returned in Season 2 of Mando, and this show was teased as the mid-credit scene in Mando season 2's finale. And this leads to several of the problems with the show that I want to talk about. But I'll get into that a bit later.

Boba Fett is/was, for many fans, one of the coolest characters in the original trilogy. I'm one of those fans. In Empire Strikes Back, he barely speaks, but he makes a big impression. Vader singles him out of the bounty hunter line-up to warn him not to disintegrate the target (implying this is something he's either known for, or at least has done to one high-profile target). He's the only bounty hunter not fooled by Han Solo's 'drift away with the garbage' trick, and follows him to Cloud City, alerting Vader. After Solo is frozen in carbonite, Fett manages to get the carbonite slab onto his ship and leave, despite having the main characters shooting at him. He seems like quite the bad-ass, and it's the space given to the audience to fill in just how bad-ass he is (along with the cool armor he wears) that made him so popular, IMO. 

In Return of the Jedi, I don't think he had any lines of dialogue (Wilhelm scream doesn't count). He's more of a threat than the rest of Jabba's goons on the sail barges, and Han Solo and Chewbacca are really worried that he's in the fight, but Luke's Force training and a bit of luck on Han's part take him out pretty quickly, and he ends up in the Sarlacc Pit. Not so bad-ass, but oh well. Dante Hicks was right, Empire is the better movie.

Books, comics, video games in the nearly 40 years since have built on that. 

So, when Boba Fett re-appears 5 years after the Sarlacc Pit in Mando (technically in Season 1 but they only hinted that it was him) looking for his armor, we were left wondering how he escaped, how he lost his armor, why it's taken him 5 years to get it back. And in the Mando S2 mid-credit scene, why he's now trying to take over Jabba's criminal empire.

OK, all that prefaced, on to the show.

I really did enjoy watching it. There was a lot of good action, some interesting politics, and some wrapping up of loose ends. The Star Wars canon universe has been expanded in some cool ways (Mods, more info on Pyke and Hutt criminal syndicates, Tusken culture), and the show, along with The Mandalorian, does a bit of work to tie events in Episodes 7 to 9 more closely to the original trilogy. Or at least make some of the dumb choices of the sequel trilogy a bit less dumb? Trying, anyway. That's a big job, but also off topic. 

But the show fails in a couple of key ways. First, it's trying to tell two stories, then three! We have the story of Boba Fett 'now' (after episodes 6-8 of Mando season 2), except Fett seems like almost a different person from those Mando episodes. We have the story of how he escaped the Sarlacc Pit and eventually gets his armor back. Then (spoiler) we get the narrative interrupted by two episodes of The Mandalorian season 3. Juggling three different narratives is something a 7 episode season of a series could do, but it's just clunky here. 

Spoilers, but we only see the events pre-Mando season 2 as flashbacks when Boba's taking bacta baths. Not only is the pacing of these two narratives uneven and clunky, but while I understand someone thought it would be a cool framing device, having Boba in bacta all the time really makes "present" Boba seem weak. If he's so weakened by his return to the Sarlacc pit, how did he kick so much stormtrooper ass on planet Tython? Not only that, but as the formerly most competent bounty hunter in the galaxy who apparently worked often for Jabba the Hutt, he sure knows little about Tattooine or Hutt politics. Why is Fennec Shand suddenly Basil Exposition? The info dumps Ming-Na Wen had to deliver are painful. 

THEN we get an entire very cool episode centered on Din Djarin, The Mandalorian. We get a lot more info about the darksaber. About the Children of the Watch. About what's probably going to be the main plotline of Mando season 3. And THEN we get another episode where we continue to set up Mando season 3 for most of the run time. 

The split nature of the narrative surrounding Boba Fett was already sort of off-putting. The stuff filling in the missing pieces (Boba with Sand People, mostly) was really cool, but didn't seem to directly tie into the stuff happening "now" in Mos Espa. The Mos Espa crime drama was fairly interesting, as well, but so broken up by the flashbacks that it was hard to keep up the interest. And really, the stuff with the Tuskens was more interesting. But just when the Mos Espa storyline was getting good, it breaks off for two episodes of Mando. 

I think the series needs a good fan edit. Some people online have suggested giving us two or three episodes of just the backstory stuff, then transition to the "present" Mos Espa stuff. That might work, but I think just a re-balancing of the two narratives would be better. Also, I think all of episode 5 should be cut up into chunks and delivered as a side story throughout the season. That way, we're mostly seeing Boba's story (stories really) but getting bits of Mando teaser each episode. Then when episode 6 focuses on Mando & Grogu, it serves as both anticipation builder for the climactic showdown, and to tie the two threads together. 

So that's the big structural weakness of the narrative. But there's a bigger problem with the show. 

Boba Fett is passive, and his motives are unclear. 

He's trying to take over Jabba's empire for reasons that aren't clear. He seems to know next to nothing about what he's trying to accomplish -- yet Fennec Shand, who doesn't as far as we know have as close ties to Tattooine as we know Boba Fett does, has to constantly give him info dumps. 

Enemies threaten him, he ignores them. They attack him, he negotiates. He dithers. He waits for others to take action on his behalf. I realize that the writers wanted to show that Boba's time post Sarlacc Pit had changed him. But is this really changing him for the better? He's less ruthless, but also less cunning. He has a noble goal, but we don't really understand why (even after the flashbacks have played out). 

There are hints of angst about his father Jango. There are hints of regret for his former ruthless bounty hunting. But they are only hints. We never really see Boba's thoughts or feelings expressed. We're finally seeing the man behind the mask, but he seems even more shallow with the mask off. 

So I was entertained by the show, and found a lot of fun stuff that I can crib for my d6 Star Wars game, but I was let down by the writing and the editing of the series. It was garbled, incoherent, and seemed to miss at what it was shooting for, which was Boba Fett's Unforgiven. What we got was Boba Fett Dazed and Confused.

Friday, February 11, 2022

What Do Players Want in RPGs?

Many years ago, way back in 2016, I read a book on (primarily video) game design called Game Design: Theory & Practice, 2nd Edition by Richard Rouse III. It was a good read, and I had a lot of insight into RPG design and play from it, not only that of computer based games. I even mentioned wanting to blog about it in this post. But with academics, family life, actual gaming, designing Chanbara, and what not, I never got to it. At the time, I only had an ebook copy, but I ordered a hardcopy either last year or the year before. It's been sitting on my shelf waiting for a reread (or for my son, who is getting into coding and thinking of computer game design, to read). 

Then JB at BX Blackrazor wrote this post, in response to Adam of Barking Alien. And the conversation is relevant to another post I've barely started writing in response to Alexis's recent world building posts (which I'm enjoying quite a bit, although I'm a little behind on reading them). 

The question Adam raised was, why world-build when character backstories aren't encouraged? And JB, instead of answering directly, started off by musing on why bother playing D&D at all? And that reminded me of Rouse. So I grabbed my copy off the shelf, and re-read his first chapter, where he talks about what players of (video) games want, and what they expect. Rouse makes the strong assertion that interactivity is what sets games apart from other forms of entertainment, and that computer games have the most interactivity. I disagree. An RPG has much more interactivity than even the most carefully crafted computer offerings. So his points on what players want and expect do seem to have transferability to RPGs.

According to Rouse, players want the following in their games: 

1. Challenge

2. Socializing

3. Dynamic Solitary Experiences

4. Bragging Rights

5. Emotional Experiences

6. To Explore

7. To Fantasize

8. To Interact

He of course elaborates on all of these things. And of course not every player is equally desiring of each of these elements. But if you think about the people in your play group, I bet you can pick out two or three of these that fit each person in your group. 

According to Rouse, players expect the following in their games: 

1. A Consistent World

2. To Understand the Game World's Bounds

3. For Reasonable Solutions to Work

4. Direction

5. To Accomplish Tasks Incrementally

6. Immersion

7. Some Setbacks

8. A Fair Chance

9. Not to Need to Repeat Themselves

10. Not to Get Hopelessly Stuck

11. To Do, Not to Watch

Again, Rouse of course elaborates on these points. Most of them are pretty self-explanatory, I think, but Expectation 4. Direction might need a bit more explanation. Even though most computer games are railroads that take you along a linear story (I recently started replaying Final Fantasy VII on my emulator box, and so much of the beginning is just a linear story without any real choice in where to go or what to do), Rouse isn't saying players expect to be railroaded. 

He means that players expect the goals of the game to be obvious. And players need some clues about how they might achieve those goals. When he talks about the goals of the game, he doesn't mean completing the story. He means playing the game. 

Translated into D&D terms, it doesn't matter if it's a megadungeon, a hexcrawl, the GDQ series, or even the railroady Dragonlance modules. It doesn't matter if the BBEG is a dragon, a lich, a vampire, or the gods themselves. It doesn't matter whether or not there is even a BBEG. That's all window dressing. 

What is the mechanical goal of the game? In D&D, it's (like it or not) gaining levels. Possibly becoming a ruler or even an epic hero or immortal (depending on edition). How do you achieve that goal? Fighting monsters and accumulating treasure. 

This, I think, is why so many players prefer D&D over other game systems. And why it's often easier for DMs to create a satisfying long-term D&D campaign when they struggle in other systems. Some people, like Adam D. have no problem creating satisfying games with other systems. And there are other systems in which the mechanics lead naturally to the in-game story the way D&D's do. But for most people, D&D is just much clearer, EVEN if there isn't a lot of world building done in the campaign (yet). Is there a dungeon full of monsters and challenges and treasure? Great, we can explore it and if successful, gain levels. 

Writing this post has helped me to clear up in my mind exactly why I'm dragging my feet preparing for my next Star Wars d6 game. I'm having fun running the game. The players are having fun playing the campaign. But the mechanical goals of the game (increase your skills) don't necessarily lead to specific in-game fictional goals the way D&D easily does. Should I just focus on combat with the Empire or criminal elements? Should I have exploration or social adventures? How does a desire to improve Technical skills, for example, translate to in-game goals that are challenging and exciting? 

It's not as clear as in D&D. And games like Star Wars or White Wolf's Vampire or what have you require a bit more world building up front than D&D. Granted, well-known IP like Star Wars take some of the heavy lifting from you, but they also come with baggage that may not always suit the style of games you want to run. With D&D, the goal is to get treasure to level up. I'm a Fighter. He's a Thief. She's a Magic-User. They're a Cleric. The dungeon is over there. The treasure is in the dungeon. Let's go!

My Star Wars group include (current and former members): a Camaasi Force Adept seeking knowledge, a Smuggler trying to earn enough to improve his ship, a Mandalorian looking to improve his beskar armor, a Minor Jedi seeking training, a Young Jedi looking for romance (go figure!), a Duros Pilot who likes to instigate trouble, a Failed Jedi seeking redemption, a sentient Battle Droid (not a Separatist model) looking for bigger guns and explosives... No where near as cut and dry as with D&D.