RPG-ology #7: Playing Fair

This is RPG-ology #7:  Playing Fair, for June 2018.


I was corresponding, electronically, with someone I introduced to role playing games over the Internet, and since I introduced him to them, his first game and still his favorite is my game, Multiverser.  Of course, as all players, he was expressing the opinion that I didn’t run the game the way he would, citing another excellent referee of the game with whom we are both acquainted.  It happens that I have issues with the way he runs the game, but I figure once I hand it to a referee, it’s his game.  Still, I think some of my complaints are valid, and reflected in this discussion.

One of the points my correspondent made was that if a game referee can’t kill any player character he wants whenever he wants, he’s not a very capable referee.  That’s not as vicious a notion in Multiverser as it would be in, say, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons:  as Ron Edwards noted, we have solved the problem of character death by turning it into a means of advancing the story, since the character who is killed immediately finds himself in another universe continuing his adventures.  Further, there is certainly a point there.  The referee has access to characters and monsters with godlike powers (Dungeon Masters use to joke about attacking character parties with three of their tarrasques—a joke, because the books specify that this nearly invulnerable killing machine is unique in the world), along with complete control of the scene such that such adversaries could be found just behind the next door, or could be waiting on the path of retreat—and could be in whichever of those places the player chooses to go.  So indeed, referees have the ability to target and kill player characters on a whim.

I was arguing against that, but I don’t think I was making my point very clearly at the time.  Those social networking message threads have advantages, but they are also very limiting.  So let me take a step back and explain why I think that is not really true.  It has to do with fairness.

Decades ago, before I knew anything about Ed’s work on Multiverser, our small county had few enough Dungeon Masters in it that we usually heard stories about each other.  There was one long-time referee who ran a regular game at the local donut shop (yes, the county was small enough that at that time it had one donut shop, and it was not part of a chain).  It was said that he was a moody sort of fellow, and on nights when he was in a bad mood almost all the characters died and had to be resurrected, but when he was in a good mood they got treasure and magic items and empowerments hand over fist.  It was as if the gods were bipolar.

I perceived even then that this was not the way to run a game; but I’d already been running them for over a decade, and was known as the most by-the-book Dungeon Master in the county.  (Ed was known as the most imaginative.)  What struck me was that the donut shop game was entirely unfair, because the referee abused his power.

In my games, I designed dungeons and encounter situations in advance—usually months and sometimes years in advance, working out the details.  One of the most useful realizations I had was that random encounters were not the less random rolled years beforehand, so I had my wandering monsters pre-made and detailed long before I needed them.  If you walked your character into a room in my game, you knew that whatever was in that room, I was not thinking about your character when I put it there.  I was trying to design a scenario that made some kind of sense from some perspective, hoping that whatever players explored it would be up to the challenges and interested in the discoveries.  Your character might be killed—that was always a risk—but he would never be targeted.  That is still my rule in my OAD&D games.

It has also bled over to my other games.  Multiverser is a special case, because of course worlds are customized for the players, and often created on the fly.  I have on occasion thrown something at a player character which I knew had a very high chance of killing him—such as a rigged grenade trap on a door for a player who never checks for traps.  Yet the sense of fairness remains paramount:  it was never something you could not have anticipated, unless it was something that was an inherent surprise in that world.  That is, you might unexpectedly discover that the annual sacrifices in the mountains are actually being fed to a giant snake, but only because no one had ever seen it and survived so everyone assumed the priests just killed the victim and left the body somewhere to rot.  I didn’t decide abruptly that a giant snake would be the perfect surprise for this situation because it would probably kill you; I decided at some point that a giant snake would be a good “deity” to which the sacrifices would be made, and I foreshadowed it along the way if you were paying attention (see the end of Verse Three, Chapter One for how that played out), and if you were surprised, well, hopefully you were ready to be surprised.

That is why I don’t believe that a good referee can kill any character he wants any time he wants:  I believe that the referee is bound by an unwritten code of fairness, that he has to treat the players, and that means their characters, in a way that always gives them a fair chance to win, to survive, to come through victorious.  They won’t always win; they won’t always survive.  They should always feel that they might have done had they played it a bit differently or had better luck with the dice.

So to my player, and any other player, who thinks that a referee can kill a player character anytime and anywhere, I think you’ve failed to grasp what it is to be a referee—an impartial judge who determines outcomes in the game and applies the rules as he understands them.  Your players should never be able to say, “That’s not fair,” without you being able to explain why it is fair, and that it is not merely because you decided it.


Previous article:  Name Ideas Unlimited.
Next article:  The Illusion of Choice.

House of Sukan (Fire)

Sukan is one of the larger houses but smaller than the other three houses that deal with the primal elements. Despite open flames being dangerous on a planet with gas swells, it’s still a necessity. Their main function is in controlling fire. Many people view them as agents of change, similar to the Ahrumen. They often fill the ranks of fire brigades, service homes and businesses for heating and cooking, among many other roles. There is also the offensive side of their gifts. Many join the Free Marines or even the Dragoons to great effect.

Granted Power: They can heal burns! Once per day they can heal up to their amount of SPIRIT. Additionally any STRESS directly due to burns is removed!

  1. Burning Hands: 1d4/level fire damage (max 5d4).
  2. Produce Flame: 1d6 damage +1/ level, touch or thrown.
  3. Resist Energy*: Ignores 10 (or more) points of damage/attack from specified energy type.
  4. Wall of Fire: Deals 2d4 fire damage out to 10 ft. and 1d4 out to 20 ft. Passing through wall deals 2d6 damage +1/level.
  5. Fire Shield: Creatures attacking you take fire damage; you’re protected from heat or cold.
  6. Fire Seeds: Acorns and berries become grenades and bombs.
  7. Fire Storm: Deals 1d6/level fire damage.
  8. Incendiary Cloud: Cloud deals 4d6 fire damage/round.
  9. Meteor Swarm: Four exploding spheres each deal 6d6 fire damage.

Faith in Play #7: Coincidence

This is Faith in Play #7: Coincidence, for June 2018.


If you follow this series, odds are fairly good that you followed, or at least were aware of, the previous series, Faith and Gaming. It originally ran monthly, as this one is scheduled to do, beginning in April of 2001 and ending in that same month in 2005. The series was always popular, was compiled with several other articles on the subject and released in printed form twice, and then in May of 2016 the Christian Gamers Guild decided to republish it as part of a website overhaul. My contribution to that reposting process amounted to giving permission for it and sometimes finding free artwork that fit with upcoming articles, if I managed to get to that before our efficient webmaster.

I mention this because something happened in that process that got me thinking, and since I had already committed to writing this series I made a note of it for this article. What happened was, in the very literal sense, a co-incidence: two events occurring simultaneously without an identifiable causal connection between them. I mentioned it then, but did not pursue it, and it’s worth taking a moment to discuss it now.

Bryan Ray, our diligent webmaster, had begun posting the Faith and Gaming series, as I mentioned, on May 10th, 2016. It was a Tuesday. At that point he had quite a volume of material to post, given the years for which the Guild had been publishing material and the people willing to contribute, so he was posting material every Tuesday and Thursday, and an installment of Faith and Gaming hit the web every week, on Tuesday. He ran through the first seventeen of the forty-nine original series articles at that rate, along with materials by quite a few other contributors and one other of mine, and then on September 1st realized that he was going to exhaust the stores faster than new material would replace it, so he cut back to posting on Tuesday only. Faith and Gaming appeared every other week thereafter.

The coincidence is that the twenty-ninth article in the series appeared on February 14th, 2017. At the time it was decided to post on Tuesdays and not Thursdays, no one was aware that Valentine’s Day would fall on a Tuesday, nor gave it much thought. Nor did anyone ever count out what article would appear when, other than calculating when the series would end so we could know when to start this one. However, the twenty-ninth article, which by this string of unrelated unconsidered causes happened to fall on that particular romantic holiday, is Faith and Gaming: Sex, discussing the propriety of sexual relationships within our role playing game worlds.

It was unexpectedly appropriate. Yet, as I hope I have persuaded you, none of us took any specific steps to make that happen. I did not realize it was happening until I saw it that morning.

These “coincidences” are interesting because they happen. I worked in Christian radio for a time, and there were stories of “mistakes” that were exactly what was needed. One that came to me was that the disk jockey had started a prerecorded program that came to us on a vinyl disk, and had left the studio to get his lunch; he had half an hour, he figured, so he took his time. A few minutes into the program, the record started skipping. Meanwhile, someone was listening. He was in his car, headed for the Delaware Memorial Bridge with the notion that he would get around the safeguards and jump into the Delaware River below. He flipped the station on his car radio and somehow hit us, where he heard the record skipping—a man saying, “Jesus…Jesus…Jesus…Jesus” for perhaps twenty minutes before the DJ caught it. Once the station identifier played, the man found a phone and called; he did not jump into the river.

I’ve written a book under the title Why I Believe which discusses the evidences for the existence of God and the divinity of Jesus, and one of those evidences is something Carl Jung called synchronicity and Wolfgang Pauli attempted to explain. It is about coincidences that defy the odds to the point that it is thought they must have an “a-causal connection”, that is, that two events regularly occur together without either causing the other or being effects of the same cause. Their occurrence strongly suggests the existence of something like a god, pulling the strings behind the scenes. How many fictional detectives have said, “I don’t believe in coincidences”? Whenever two events seem suspiciously connected, we always assume that someone had a hand in them. I recently heard a quote from Albert Einstein: “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”

It can be argued, but then, in our role playing games we actually have someone like a god pulling the strings behind the screens. In Multiverser we call him the referee, but his original title was Dungeon Master, and he has been called Game Master, Storyteller, and many other titles over the years. That means that those incredible coincidences can happen precisely because someone manipulated events behind the scenes—and if a referee is going to “play god” in his game, what better way to do so than to create exactly the kinds of events that look like someone up there likes someone down here, or conversely does not like them much?

Of course, you couldn’t do it all the time; you couldn’t really do it very often, probably, or it would seem contrived. However, you could do it in critical moments. You probably already do—you fudge dice, decide that the reinforcements for the player characters arrive in the nick of time or those for the villains are too late. You just aren’t sure of the justification for it. In Multiverser we included a “General Effects Roll” system, by which when the referee was not sure what was going to happen a die roll would guide him as to whether the outcome was generally good (from the character’s perspective) or generally bad, and the extreme rolls called for the one-in-a-thousand outcomes, good or bad. That kept it controlled, and balanced—but it doesn’t need to be so rigorous.

The point is, inexplicable coincidences happen, just as if someone were causing them, and there’s no particular reason why you, as referee, can’t be that someone.


Previous article: True Religion.
Next article: Redemption Story.

Monkey Business, a Circuit Breakers adventure

Some time ago, I shared a play report and review for my Primetime Adventures campaign Circuit Breakers. For the purposes of discussing PTA’s mechanics and concepts, I will assume that you’ve already read that article. If something is confusing, I recommend going back to read it again. Or better yet, pick up a copy for yourself. 


Background:

The Circuit Breakers’ headquarters was destroyed in an attack by a mysterious platoon of hostile robots that infiltrated the building, then self-destructed. The protagonists managed to capture one of the bots using an experimental expanding foam substance that Simian has named “Protectium.” (Remember that scene in Ang Lee’s Hulk?) They are using Grey’s penthouse apartment as a temporary new base, but they’ve lost contact with the rest of their secret Agency, and Director Connor is missing.

Earlier, Grey had been injected with some kind of nanotechnology that may have modified his behavior. While he was under its influence, the artificial intelligence ELLA somehow interfaced with it. In the course of chasing down the scientist who created the nanotech, the group encountered another covert organization of some kind. The scientist helped the Circuit Breakers create a cure for the nanotech, but it is uncertain if it or ELLA’s contact with Grey has had a lasting effect.

 

From the Producer:

The player who created the group’s Genius Engineer, Simian, never showed up to actually play the game. Generally when a player doesn’t show up, I run the character as an NPC. PTA’s character arc mechanism made it a little tougher to handle the issue, as I didn’t want to effectively railroad a session by running the character during his spotlight episode, particularly since, with the group’s leader MIA, it meant that Simian was the natural choice to take charge of things. With all that in mind, I temporarily turned the character over to the guy who plays Grey, who had a very low Screen Presence during this episode.

The central premise of the show is that in order to prevent a near-omniscient artificial intelligence, the Machine, from accurately predicting threats to its own existence, the people chosen to oppose it must be irrational to some significant degree. There was certainly some metagaming on my part when pitching the show, since PCs/Protagonists are by their very nature impossible to predict.

I promise that none of us had seen Person of Interest prior to developing this story. It was pretty amusing when I started watching that show and realized how closely it paralleled our game. Read more

Bandits Rock

We return to the Winchester Family’s adventures in Northumbria!


Background:

Sir Garrett of House Winchester and his retinue are in the small village of Lakesend at the southern tip of Blackwater Lake.  Having recently explored Wycliffe Island twice, they fought a number of desperate battles against creatures that they called goblyns, but these looked little like the creatures of myth that they were expecting. The nearby keep, under the command of Lord Balin Blackwater, is preparing for a massive goblyn assault, though the enemy army keeps vanishing in the rugged hills. For the moment, the Winchester retinue has decided to rest and refit for a number of days, and some members are also training. Ninth Moon is ending, with autumn hard on its heels. At the end of our last session, the companions were outside the Welcome Wench Inn at night, talking cheerfully when someone spotted what seemed like a human silhouette, peering at them from behind a copse of trees.

From the DM:

This was the session that almost wasn’t. Everyone has probably had a time when half the group is missing and you have to decide whether or not to play. We eventually decided to play, and it was a good time. The three players are strong role-players, which helped. Yet, I knew we needed some action (the last two sessions had been pretty cerebral). The players threw me a curve ball by deciding to investigate an area that I had not yet fleshed out. I had to come up with something quickly. We were glad to have played for another reason too. Two of our players were moving out west for college so this would be our last session with them until they return. I had to come up with a satisfying way for their characters to leave. Read more

RPG-ology #6: Name Ideas Unlimited

This is RPG-ology #6:  Name Ideas Unlimited, for May 2018.


If you’re going to run a game, if you’re going to write a book, if you’re going to tell a story, you quickly find that your characters need names.

There are a lot of ways around this.  Sometimes a character can exist with only a title—Lieutenant, Reverend, bartender—and not merely incidental characters.  No one knows the name of The Doctor.  E. R. Jones used stock names for essential peripheral characters—that is, all his stablehands were named “Bob”, and he has other names for innkeepers and petty thieves and the wealth of unimportant minor characters populating the world.  When player characters would ask for the name of an incidental character they might never see again, I would often reply, “He tells you his name,” and it was thereafter agreed that if the incidental character’s name ever mattered, the character knew what it was, even though none of us ever did.  However, even with all of these tricks, players are going to need names for their characters, and referees are going to need a lot of names. Read more

Cultures of Northumbria: Varangians

In this series of articles, Michael Garcia shares various custom rules and handouts related to his worldbuilding for his ongoing Northumbria campaign. 


Varangian legends, recorded in the skaldic eddas, tell that a dozen Varangian adventurer-kings of old, in response to a challenge, crossed the Great Sea and settled in Northumbria about five centuries ago, as early as 128 FR. The eddas recount how these kings successfully fought the natives and even fought one another for dominance, until a new savage people emerged from the northern forests—the Picts. Then the Varangians banded together, even allying with Northumbrian natives, to resist the fury of the demon-worshipping Picts.

The primary Varangian history, the Royal Edda, tells that in 206 FR, the great King Jorn Ironhand united the eleven other petty kings and formed a great Northern Kingdom in Northumbria, centered on the fertile valley of the Blackrun River. The kingdom enjoyed a century of prosperity and reached its zenith under King Hakkon the Just, but his queen’s infidelity led to the downfall of his house. Subsequent kings were weak, and the emergence of goblyn hordes from the mountains caught the royal army unprepared. King Ragnar tried to rally the kingdom, and his calls were answered by the Dwarven King of the Mountains, Kroin son of Kror. Together they made their stand and won many battles, but their defeat at the Battle of Bloodeagle Pass in 499 FR spelled doom for the Northern Kingdom. Goblyn hordes overran the northern valleys, massacring tens of thousands of innocents, razing hundreds of hamlets and villages, and burning the royal capital to the ground.

Waves of Varangians migrated south into central Northumbria. In many places, they mingled peacefully with native Kenienka and Wendat tribes, though there were occasional battles. The Varangians later mixed even more easily with the newly arrived Frangians and Zeelanders.

Many Varangians yearn for the return of their great Northern Kingdom, but none see any hope of its return, and it has become more of an ideal. Read more

Faith in Play #6: True Religion

This is Faith in Play #6:  True Religion, for May 2018.


In the earliest versions of Dungeons & Dragons™, the original role playing game from which all others (including those electronic games that call themselves “RPGs”) are descended, there was a rules section known as alignment.  Many players did not understand it; many gamers did not use it; it was often badly abused.  However, I think it was one of the best and most important parts of the game, and I often defended and explained it.

I am going to make the perhaps rather absurd claim that I am a recognized authority on the subject of alignment in original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons™.  I know, that’s ridiculous.  However, I am also going to prove it.  When Gary Gygax was promoting his Lejendary Journeys role playing game, he placed on his web site exactly two links to pages related to Dungeons & Dragons™  One was to my Alignment Quiz, which had already been coded into an automated version by a Cal Tech computer student and translated into German.  The other was my page on choosing character alignment in my Dungeons & Dragons™ character creation web site.  He apparently believed I had a solid understanding of the issues.

So big deal.  I’m an expert in a game mechanic concept that isn’t even used by most of the few people who still play that game.  However, even if you don’t use it, don’t play that game, I think alignment is important to understand, because ultimately the character alignment was the real religious beliefs of the characters in the game world.  Read more

Treasure Identification

 This piece follows ‘Ants in the Darkness,’ a Beckett adventure of the Northumbria Campaign. 


BACKGROUND:

The session began with the PCs in an underground tunnel on Wycliffe Island, located on Blackwater Lake. After stumbling into a nest of giant ants, the party desperately fought its way out. A few caverns away, as they recovered, they had a stroke of luck and found a calcified chest containing many gems. Exhausted and wounded, they returned to the surface and sailed back to the small village of Lakesend. There they planned to rest, heal, and divide their loot.

FROM THE DM:

I found this session, which lacked any real combat, memorable because of the role-playing and the dialogue between players. You know that you have a good group when they can find great amusement and engagement without rolling dice. I just sat back and watched the how, taking notes. In addition, I had recently asked each player to cast his character with some famous person or Hollywood actor. I think this helped each player really visualize his character, and the dialogue seemed to come easy. This session also served one additional purpose for me as DM. The party had been unwittingly abusing the identify spell, forgetting that it requires a pearl each time. The write up helped to make this clear. Read more

RPG-ology #5: Country Roads

This is RPG-ology #5: Country Roads, for April 2018.


Of course, role playing game referees almost always have maps, and many of us make most of our own maps. The fact is that you don’t really necessarily need maps, and we’ll probably eventually talk about running games without them, but for most of the kinds of games most of us play, maps are an important part. I even belong to a Facebook group dedicated entirely to game referees making and sharing their maps. Honestly some of them look more like aerial photography, but that’s useful too. Questions often arise about how to make maps, and having been a Boy Scout and having taught Cub Scouts a few Scout skills over the years, I’m pretty good at maps. So we’ll probably return to them from time to time. One of the questions I often hear, though, is how do you design the roads on your maps. If you don’t understand how roads work, you can do some pretty silly things with them.

This article is going to talk about what we’re dubbing “country roads”, with apologies to John Denver, but we’re including wilderness roads, desert roads, pretty much any road that is outside the confines of a city—the long roads that take you from one major place to another in your adventure setting, the road on which your adventurers set out when they began that took them somewhere else. Some of what we’ll talk about applies to city streets as well, but they have their own complications and issues, so maybe we’ll come back to them in another article. Read more