A Gnome's Ponderings

I'm a gamer. I love me some games and I like to ramble about games and gaming. So, more than anything else, this blog is a place for me to keep track of my ramblings. If anyone finds this helpful or even (good heavens) insightful, so much the better.

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Railroads and Dungeon Crawls

Lowell Kempf
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Now, I don’t mean a dungeon crawl set on a train, although what limited knowledge I have of the cartoon Infinity Train makes me think that might be what that is.

Railroading is when a game master has the game set up so that there’s a preordained set of events with predetermined outcomes. The players effectively become actors in a script that’s already been written, without any acutal agency.

Dungeon Crawls, of course, are adventures that are set in some sort of spatially limited set of areas. Dungeons, castles, temples, caves, ruins, they come in different flavors but they are all a defined set of areas.

Part of me wondered if they were variations on the same idea. After all, there usually is some kind of order in how you go through a dungeon. Then I realized that they weren’t really the same at all.

You see, railroading controls what you can affect, sometimes even what you do. A dungeon crawl just controls where you can go. Maybe. I was once in a party where the party leader specialized in divination. Once he also got access to teleportation spells, he would crack open dungeons like Danny Ocean. (Fortunately, that amused the dungeon master)

The long and short of it is that I don’t like railroading. It turns the game into a movie that the game master is trying to force into existence. It turns the players into being an audience, not participants.

On the other hand, I have both a fondness and appreciation for a dungeon crawl. Yes, it is a controlled and limited environment which leads to controlled and limited choices but everyone knew what they signed up for. It’s transparent and doesn’t have a predetermined outcome.

I have also known plenty of game masters who have suffered from Bruno. Being able to get away from complex politics and elaborate schemes and villages where everyone has detail personalities and just run a dungeon? I am beyond fine with someone needing to just handle some orcs coping with home invaders.

And if someone says why don’t you just play a game like Descent in campaign mode with funny voices, I would say why not?

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Aug 27, 2021 4:45 pm
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Boy, was Grimtooth’s Traps its own thing

Lowell Kempf
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I decided to take a virtual trip back to an earlier age in RPGs and look at the original Grimtooth’s Traps from 1981. It is certainly a look back at a time when RPG philosophy was very different.

Grimtooth’s Traps was the first in a series of game supplements that consisted to literally page after page of traps. There weren’t any game stats for any of them (at least in the original versions of the book) Just diagrams, descriptions and snarky commentary. Lots and lots of snarky commentary.

The most entertaining part of the books and probably a big reason why there ended up being so many volumes is that the narrator is a sarcastic troll named Grimtooth who feels that the deadlier the trap, the better. Since so many RPG books from this time period read like engineering text books, the Grimtooth books have a lot of character.

And as a general rule, the traps involve either a crazy amount of engineering or magic. They are wildly over the top , not even remotely cost effective and often ridiculously deadly.

Honestly, I’m hard-pressed to believe a lot of dungeon masters actually used these traps. Not only would they be potential total party killers, they would slow the game down to a crawl, even if you had a party of nothing but thieves.

That said, I can see making some of the larger traps into the centerpiece of a tomb or ruined temple or a mad wizard’s proving grounds. They don’t necessarily have to violate the part of the Hickman manifesto that says architecture should make sense.

I can’t say that Grimtooth’s Traps and the books that followed it are examples of an era old enough that most Grognards aren’t old enough to remember since they are so atypical. And I think it would take some work to make traps actually useful. But Grimtooth is a fun read.
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Wed Aug 25, 2021 8:00 pm
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Pokethulhu is a cute idea wrapped in a meta package

Lowell Kempf
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After I learned that Pokethulhu was actually a thing, I had to find it and read it. Neither one of those things was that hard once I actually knew it existed.

Anyway, it is an RPG that I _think_ was created as a gag and never intended to be played, although it does have a perfectly functional dice pool system attached to it. Yes, we have reached the point where it’s easy enough to throw in functional mechanics into a joke game.

As the name makes blatantly clear, the game is a mash up of Pokémon and the Cthulhu Mythos. The older you are , the weaker your sanity is, so that’s why it’s kids who go out to become cultists and catch abominations. Which is FAR from the strangest thing I’ve seen done it either franchise.

To be honest, Pokethulhu would be a one-note joke that would be immediately forgettable if it wasn’t for one over-arcing conceit. The idea that the game is based on an existing IP and makes constant references to it. It’s like Norman Sprinrad’s Iron Dream only not nearly as disturbing. It’s a step beyond being based on a fake product. It’s like you are playing a game where you are playing a game in that setting.

And it even plays into the mechanics. Players can play chaos cards, causing bizarre effects, but only if another player makes specific quotes from the Pokethulhu cartoon. Which, of course, doesn’t exist.

Having to come up with lines from a cartoon that is non-existent is the most compelling reason to play the game in my opinion.

The single funniest thing in the tiny RPG was a listing for a pokethulhu named Skoobai-Thulhu. In the cartoon, a cultist named Shagai has one and has to use Skoobai-snacks to get it to do anything.

I have seen a lot of RPGs that I have looked and said ‘Man, I want to play that.’ Pokethulhu isn’t one of them. BUT man, was it a fun read!

Originally posted over at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Aug 20, 2021 5:22 pm
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Dante reimagined as a R&W

Lowell Kempf
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I recently tried out Nine Circles, which is apparently the first in a trilogy of little Roll and Writes since the second game has also come out. As the title implies, you are going through Dante’s journey through the first part of the Divine Comedy.

Nine Circles is a solitaire from the fifth Roll and Write contest. (I honestly have trouble keeping track of all the Roll and Write contests) It’s one those where you just print off the player sheet, add dice and away you go.

While the game is themes around the nine circles of Dante’s Inferno (which, to be fair, has informed every version of Hell since) and uses some nice woodcut style art (trying to imitate Gustave Dore would be a bit much and make the board too busy), it’s really nine dice challenges ranging between from having a one or three sixes or no fives.

You have nine dice and a checklist of rolls. You get six changes to roll one die and five chances to roll two, three or four dice. And that’s all the rolls you get in the game. You can freeze dice and you can use rolls to reroll dice or add more dice. You also get nine ‘Virgils’ which you can use to flip a die or add/subtract one.

But here’s the bit that makes the game interesting: every die you roll that’s not used to complete a challenge goes away.

So you have to manage your dice and your rolls. Run out of either and you lose.

I have a weak spot for light R&Ws like Nine Circles. They are the opposite end of the spectrum from what got me really into Roll and Write as a medium but they work as a guilty pleasure (Fitting for a game about Hell) Even when you’re exhausted and can’t think straight, they are still easy to learn and play.

In all honesty, I’d call Nine Circles a B game. It is mechanically solid and has good decisions. However, it doesn’t have that elusive sparkle that makes me immediately play it again. I also wonder if each challenge will become formulaic but, so far, the game keeps thwarting my designs to solve it.

And I have played _lots_ of worse R&W games. Nine Circles passes the dreaded Yahtzee test. I’d play it over Yahtzee. Losing dice you don’t use is a good mechanic. You don’t get enough slack to make the game easy.

It’s sequel, Seven Steps, is now on my try next list.

https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/2495658/nine-circles


Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon May 17, 2021 8:02 pm
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Someone has made a Gideon the Ninth RPG

Lowell Kempf
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After reading Gideon the Ninth, I knew someone had to have made an RPG based on it and I was right. Mandy Szewczuk and Linda H. Coders have given the world The Emperor is Undead. I found it on itch.io

And I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a game structure like it.

The basic idea of the game is that you are playing out the situation of Gideon the Ninth, playing necromancers and cavaliers who are trying to achieve Lictorhood in Canaan House, which is like Gormanghast in size and architectural complexity.

Gameplay consists of players taking turns picking one of eleven mini-games and playing them out. There is one that will end the game but you can play the other games I’m any order and (for the most part) as many times as you as want.

I cannot imagine what it must have been like to play test the Emperor is Undead.

I have played enough games, indie and old school and whatever is in between, that I usually have a sense of how a game flows and works. I don’t have that for the Emperor is Undead because of its structure. That isn’t a good or bad thing. It’s just how it is.

The Emperor is Undead isn’t the strangest or most experimental RPG design I’ve ever seen but it is very experimental. On the one hand, it is very much an open improv game. On the other hand, it is also a card game you are playing to win.

That said, creating a story is the most important part. You can still tell a great story while losing while focusing on card play to win would be boring.

Romance is the emotional heart of Gideon the Ninth and I have to note that the Emperor is Undead does give that an option but not a requirement. I feel that it’s a good choice for it to be included but Breaking the Ice is still the best romance RPG I’ve seen.

My biggest nit to pick with The Emperor is Undead is that the tone is very gothic horror but doesn’t touch the snarky tone that was important to the book. In the book, Gideon is a punk rock girl in a gothic horror world and that a big part of what makes the book fantastic.

We are going to have to wait until Tamsyn Muir finishes the Locked Tomb trilogy to have an RPG that really explores the setting. However, I feel it’s a testament to her work that the Emperor is Undead exists and it’s an interesting existence.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri May 14, 2021 8:17 pm
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Is GM-lite a thing?

Lowell Kempf
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I’ve written about GM-free systems before (and I will again!) And I’ve written about how there is a lot of responsibility placed on a GM, which is one of the reasons I like GM-free systems.

However, there is a middle ground where players provide a lot of narration and overall story structure. I think of them as GM-Lite. If that’s a real term, grams to liters has kept me from finding it via Google.

The idea of breaking up the GM duties is one that can be found in a lot of games these days. The GM controls the story, the setting and all the NPCs is a paradigm that doesn’t have to be a sacred cow that’s never slaughtered.

One of the earliest examples I’ve found is Trollbabe from 2002. I don’t know if it’s the earliest example (I’m actually sure it’s not) but I understand it was a very influential one. I haven’t played Trollbabe but it is very high on my stack of games I want to play someday. There are a lot of interesting design choices in the system.

It definitely takes an improvisational approach, with the idea that you sit down at the table to collectively tell a story without hours of prep time. The mechanics are simple so everyone can focus on the narrative.

One touch that really stuck with me from the design is that the game master narrates player successes but the players narrate their own failures. Some of the core elements of the traditional, old guard game master are blatantly passed out to the players.

Man, I really need to reread that rule book.

As I have mentioned in the past, I have had game masters who spent hours upon hours working on the game. It was practically their second job. And, quite frankly, that’s a kind of time commitment that I don’t want to ask for anyone. Yes, GM-free systems are clearly a way to avoid that. However, I forgot that there was a middle ground as well. For some groups, that might be the ideal solution.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Tue Mar 16, 2021 3:44 am
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We ask a lot of our GMs

Lowell Kempf
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I think being a game master needs to be a voluntary choice. In an ideal world, game masters need to know the rules better than anyone else. They need to know the setting better than anyone else. They have to play a cast of potentially thousands. And they should know what big picture story is.

Man, that is a LOT of work. Back when I was in a regular campaign, managing one character while living the rest of my work could be tricky. Sometimes, it felt like the game master was spending all their time awake on the game.

AND they were the one who ended up buying all the books. I recently heard someone estimate that someone starting off in fifth edition for the first time would need to spend $450 in books before they could start being a game master. I would like to think there’s some wiggle room in that but that is still a lot to put down before you know if you really want to keep on doing it.

That’s why, more and more, I have become a fan of GM-free games. Everyone gets to be in the hot seat and the prep often comes down to just come to the table.

There are plenty of downsides GM-free lifestyle. For one thing, most GM-free systems are designed for one-shots or very short campaigns. That’s not universal. I know that Ars Magica has long had a troupe mode that doesn’t use a game master. However, I’ve never heard of anyone I actually know using it. It’s not impossible but a long GM-free campaign has an uphill climb. Everyone involved had better being willing to take lots of notes.

The other issue that GM-free has is that everyone has to be willing to step up. The two keys are improvisation and collaboration. It’s going to be harder for the folks who just want to show up and roll dice.

That said, one of the best GM-free systems I’ve experienced is Fiasco, the game of powerful ambition and poor impulse control. It was billed to me as the Coen Brothers RPG. And the game is very intuitive to the point in which I would say that it is one of the perfect entry points into role-playing games for someone who has never played one before.

So clearly there are ways that a system can help players adjust to the world without a game master. It may be through simple or intuitive mechanics. It may be through using tropes and archetypes so they understand the shape of the stories that they are telling. Maybe everyone has to do more lifting but it’s not on one person’s shoulders.

GM-free systems have been around, one way or another, since the 70s. I’ve been looking at them in the interest of pickup games or life without a group. However, now I’m wonder if they can make at least one member of a group’s life easier.

Originally posted over at www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon Mar 8, 2021 7:05 pm
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Let me grumble about Rolemaster some more

Lowell Kempf
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Rolemaster reared it’s head again in a conversation with old buddies. One of the group used to love Rolemaster and the rest of group ranges from apathy to deep loathing.

To be fair, it has been more than twenty-five years since the only time I played Rolemaster. These are my hazy memories: it took at least two hours to create our characters. We only had time to play for maybe a half hour. And one of my friends lost his character in the first round of the only combat.

That was enough to put a lot of us of Rolemaster for life.

Now, I firmly believe that we have a biased view of Rolemaster and I don’t claim it’s a fair one. I also think that it wasn’t just the high fatality and brutality that alienated us but how muddy and unclear the experience was. It wasn’t just the horrible deaths but the fact that we didn’t really understand why we died horribly.

On the other hand, we had some good times playing Dungeons and Dragons in the Dark Sun setting where everything is trying to kill you. More than that, we all spent years playing Call of Cthulhu where you are a squishy as wet cardboard... wet cardboard going through a wood chipper.

It’s not the deadliness. It’s the ease and transparency of play.

A lot of things have changed in RPGs, RPG design and RPG philosophy. And one of them is accessibility. I think games have become easier to understand. I like that.

I keep a copy of the original version of Name of God in my travel bag. It is the complete opposite end of the spectrum from Rolemaster. The whole thing takes just up four double-sided cards and probably takes less than five minutes to create characters and get going. Now, it’s just designed as a one-shot (albeit with a lot of replay value) not a campaign. But it’s accessible and good for time management. And that’s what works for me right now.

If you are able to get enough game mastery of Rolemaster to get something out of it, you either have a lot more time than me or you are smarter than me. Good for you and I’m jealous.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Feb 26, 2021 2:56 pm
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Oh, that’s where my D&D mimis were hiding

Lowell Kempf
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While looking for our wedding China (which I did find, thank you very much for asking), I found my old D&D minis from back when I played the skirmish game. Now that was a walk down memory lane.

D&D minis is as close as I ever have come to playing Magic the Gathering or any other collectible card game. It probably will remain that way unless our kid decides that he needs to embrace the Pokémon card game. Opening blind box products is fun. Buying blind box products is not

Looking back and knowing that a lot of folks wanted prepainted plastic miniatures for, you know, actually playing Dungeons and Dragons, having them as randomized blind boxes was really evil. And, at the time, your main choices were buying these blind boxes or buying lead miniatures and painting them yourself.

Hey, I remember when Zombies!!! first came out and getting a hundred zombie miniatures that bent if you looked at them funny was AMAZING.

While I didn’t get in on ground floor and the first wave of miniatures (it took friends being into the skirmish game for me to get into the game), I did start early enough to live through a change in the game that now seems amazing to me.

The original maps where blank grids and players would take turns placing large tiles down on the board. You’d still have a decent amount of empty space left on the map when you were done. Then they switched to fully preprinted maps. Those were thematic enough that I knew DM’s that used them for D&D games.

On the one hand, the fully printed maps drastically sped up setup time and guaranteed a balanced map. But setting up the terrain definitely added a layer of gamesmanship to the game. I had a friend who had an opening that required a two specific figures and a promotional tile that let him fireball his opponent’s starting space. A good setup was as important as your warband composition.

At the time, I thought removing a step that could effectively have you lose the game before you actually started playing was a good idea. These days, I think that’s even more true. The D&D minis game was really aimed for more casual play and automatically balanced maps just supported that.

Looking back, I am astonished at how, at least for a while, I spent a lot of time playing this game, including going to tournaments. (Where I did terribly at) I spent a lot of time designing war bands. Occasionally they’d even do well. But I’m okay no longer playing a game where I had to keep track of the special rules for hundreds of different pieces. That’s what actual D&D is for.


Originally posted over at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Feb 19, 2021 6:33 pm
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The difference between rail roading and a geas

Lowell Kempf
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I recently had a conversation about a RPG mechanic that I have almost never seen used: the geas.

For those of you lucky enough to have no idea what a geas is, it’s compulsion that forces the victim to do something regardless of their own agency. It might be a magic curse or a chip in the brain or a jewel in the skull. It can fit into many genres but it does the same thing regardless of its name.

(In fact, I don’t know if there’s a specific term for this mechanic. It might well be geas and that word does work awfully well)

Now, I am not entirely against rail roaring. In some mediums, rail roading borders on a necessary evil like game books and certain formats of video RPGs. (Although the ability to have sandbox open worlds is indeed a triumph of the medium) If you know what you’re getting into, you can have fun while being rail roaded.

But the geas is a different beast. It doesn’t dictate the plot of the game but the actions of the players. And that isn’t fun. I can think of only one game I was where that happened. The GM’s goal was to have everyone try and kill each other. (And, no, we weren’t playing Paranoia. Again, with Paranoia, you know what you’re getting into so it’s cool)

Honestly, the only way a geas works positively is when players are trying to get around it, subvert it. But that requires the GM willing to let folks be clever.

There’s probably a reason that geas stays almost entirely in fiction, not games.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Sat Jan 16, 2021 2:48 am
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