George's blog

GM Eye for the Orc Guy

About four weeks ago on the RPG Circus podcast, we kicked off our “favorite monsters” series with musings on orcs. Love them or hate them (or invite them over because mom says you have to), it doesn’t matter; orcs show up in game after game, system after system. I have no problem with that. However, I’d like to take this opportunity to share ideas about how to spruce up those sometimes cliché orc opponents for your next campaign.

Option 1: Make the orcs wicked smart. And by wicked smart, I mean tactically, socially, and strategically. We are so used to orcs being the typical grunts of the world that players believe they can easily outwit or outfight most orc foes. There’s a bit of metagaming going on there, mostly because we all know what orcs are and about how tough they are to fight or fool. But if the GM ups some stats and runs these orcs like badass super commandos, well, the story may change.

Option 2: Give the orcs tuxedos and fancy shoes. This option is a joke…mostly.

Option 3: Deeply consider orc allegiances. This pointer is obviously scenario-driven, but in many situations, the GM might want to specify exactly how and why these orcs are doing what they are doing. Is it for money? If so, can the players buy them off? When two or more orcs go down, will the rest run off when they realize that life is more valuable than gold? Are there other orc factions that can complicate the situation? In short, don’t just plop them into the story because they are “easy” for the campaign; instead, give these orcs reason to participate. Once that reason becomes clear to the players, the orcs ought to have more depth and possibility to them.

Option 4: I know some of you say this in secret, but go on, be loud and proud—more orc women. I’m just guessing, but I would bet that most orc groups as seen in today’s fantasy games are full of angry male orcs of little intellect. Why not throw in some ladies? They may change the dynamic of the situation. Given whatever orc social structure you have in mind, maybe orc ladies are master magicians or dead-eye archers. Maybe they are stronger than the male orcs because they spend less time drinking orc brew and eating fatty humans. I dunno, but I do know that the cliché orc gang is hardly ever female-inclusive. Well, rock the boat, please.

Option 5: Better technology. Many systems set up orcs to be primitive. Their magic is less refined and their arrows are poorly fletched. Maybe, in your next orc encounter, your players should come across a band of orcs that created or stumbled upon a more advanced system of weaponry or a piece of powerful “alien” tech. I once ran a post-apocalyptic adventure in which the players were beset by orcs with machine guns and power armor. The orcs themselves were still savage and straightforward, but their upgraded technology made for some harrowing encounters.

Final option: Don’t tell your players that these beings are orcs! In fact, never supply the name of your monsters. As soon as you supply that name, be it zombie, orc, troll, or basilisk, metagaming and overuse kick in. This goes for any “popular” beast. Instead, describe these creatures regarding their looks, gait, speech, demeanor, and perhaps odor. Leave the rest, including the stats that some players know by heart, to the imagination.

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Shot from the Canon

So you’re a DM, GM, or whatever, and your players are dying to play a long-term Star Wars game. Or maybe they must, must, must trudge through the dangerous territory on the outskirts of Mordor as Frodo, Sam, and Gollum slink toward Mount Doom. Or perhaps they have to play a Buffy game because they totally love Giles. (And really, who doesn’t?) After a little while, I’m guessing that your players will want to show their mettle and screw with canonical characters or events. Maybe they want to shave Chewie or murder the Witch King of Angmar. Perhaps they want to send fake text messages from Xander to Spike so that evil Spike will murder pre-lesbian Willow. I dunno, people are weird.

My advice is—when it comes to messing with canon—withhold.

This advice is not born out of respect for the stories that already exist, though I do respect them a great deal. Well, not the new Star Wars movies, but the rest, sure. I respect the writers, the stories, and the influence they had on me—quite seriously. But that respect is not what drives my warning.

Instead, my prohibition is more practical. Once you’ve taken the ring from Elijah, water-boarded Palpatine, or replaced Buffy as the ultimate slayer, well, there’s every chance that your RPG group will lose interest. Sure you can create other problems—new Dark Lords, more magic items to rule them all, other rebellions—but it is my opinion that players are not likely to push forward once the stories they know and love have been upended. After that, there’s nothing but silliness to come. “My character takes over Middle Earth and opens a Wal-Mart in The Shire.” That may be fun for a week or two, but by then, Middle Earth will lose its luster.

In a universe with canon, I suggest, at best, barely meeting a recognized character, and that is all. Leave a sense of awe. Don’t wrinkle the famous story. I recall being a player in a long D&D campaign, and our DM mentioned that Merlin, The Merlin, may have visited the region we were about to enter. That fact alone kept us on our toes, and I then took the game more seriously. Had we met him, shaken hands, and given him a wedgie (or the appropriate combat equivalent), something would have been lost. I was psyched enough just to sense him in my character’s universe. We weren’t playing in a truly Arthurian setting, either—Merlin just happened to be there, rather like Ringo in The Beatles, and that was plenty.

So, if you want to play in an IP universe, as someone running the game, don’t bring in too many famous names. Maybe let your players catch a glimpse of Rhadaghast cataloguing Middle Earth bird migrations, but don’t let them sign up to join The Fellowship. If you want to adventure close to the canonized folk, run a game where your players sneak around The Fellowship to keep wargs at bay. Or maybe it is your players’ job to infiltrate a new vampire lair in San Diego, thus forcing the undead toward Buffy’s hometown. That way, the names are there, but the main line isn’t affected.

Hopefully I’ve made my point. Either way, I do want to reiterate that I’m not suggesting this path out of misplaced obligation to someone else’s printed (or filmed) tale. I am not one of those RPG blokes so overawed by canon that no person shall dare mess with it. If you tell me that in your game, your players walked right up to Gandalf and kicked his ass, thus helping Sauron lord over an age of terror unlike anything known since my awkward teenage years, I say, “As long as you had fun, cool!” If you want to kill Kinkaid before he meets Harry, I don’t care. Newsflash—the stories aren’t real. Even if the source setting is nonfictional—you want to play a Civil War game and murder Jefferson Davis before the secession—go for it. All I’m saying is that when the canon, whatever it may be, is severely disrupted, your players may miss the wonderful stories and characters that they already know so well.

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Why I still love Tunnels and Trolls

When I played my first RPG, Wide World of Sports was still on television and Return of the Jedi had not yet made it to the big screen. Dungeons and Dragons was popular; as with many of you, it was the system that welcomed me into the fold. I was not, however, allowed to play it.

My neighbors, brothers my age, had an early edition. Andy, the older brother, guided the rest of us on our initial adventure. He made it up, in the sense that he took The Hobbit and changed a few names. But we didn’t care, and I couldn’t wait for more.

At the time, though, Dungeons and Dragons had that evil aura laid upon it by religious folk throughout the land. To tell you the truth, I can see how someone on the outside might have been nervous—we were talking about killing things, casting spells, and categorizing monsters and demons. But I was eager to explain my position, to describe the game, and to show that it was no more harmful than writing a story or watching The Bionic Man.

My parents, though, refused when I asked to buy a copy. The Monster Manual contained Asmodeus, among other nefarious entities, and the game inspired witchcraft. That was the party line, anyway. I have to add, as an aside, that I was terrified of demons, and highly unlikely to mention them in a game, let alone incorporate them into my daily life. Hell, I was even afraid of girls and overly aggressive bees back then, so nobody needed to worry. But worry they did, and D&D was forbidden.

Strangely, though D&D was not allowed, I was permitted to play a similar game, Tunnels and Trolls, probably because it did not have the same reputation. And though Tunnels and Trolls is and was less popular, it had a number of fantastic advantages, and I’d like to share some. “Why?” you ask. Because it really is a pretty cool game, and some of you OSR fans might want to get yourself a copy.

So, here's why I still love Tunnels and Trolls:

First off, solo adventures. Yep, when why neighbors got annoying, or when my best friend went on vacation to Texas, Tunnels and Trolls had several solo adventures I could use to challenge my favorite characters. In fact, I believe that Buffalo Castle (initially published in 1976) was the first solo adventure for any pen and paper RPG.

These books were rather like the Choose Your Own Adventure books that were also popular at the time—I loved both Journey Under the Sea and The Cave of Time—but there were monsters to fight, magic items to discover, and occasions to roll dice. Honesty was also required—if you lost the battle, you had to turn to page x. I was 7 or 8, so I may have altered a few outcomes to avoid the agony of defeat, but still, I could always roll up another character and tackle the solo maze once more.

Second, group mechanic. I don’t remember if early D&D had the option, but in T&T, (I still giggle typing that), if heroes worked together, their dice added up. So, if my elf and your human attacked a troll, we’d add our attack dice together and compare them to the troll’s pool. Working together, in combat, made an immediate difference. It made great sense to me then, and it does now. I’m reminded of the bonus you get in Savage Worlds when your numbers, or theirs, start to matter….

Third, great weapons lists. I have to say, I did not know what a kukri was, or a sax, or a swordbreaker, until T&T showed me the way. Back then, the weapons list was far more extensive than those in the other games I saw, and I loved the variety.

Finally, armor soak. Can you believe it? When D&D creators were struggling to justify AC, Tunnels and Trolls had armor that reduced the amount of damage a character took after being hit. Simple, clear, effective: armor soak. I realize that the previous sentence sounds like dermatological product placement, but the idea holds. Even last night, when I played a great session of Pathfinder, I found myself annoyed at the whole AC setup, as usual….

I could go on, but suffice it to type that Tunnels and Trolls is a cool game, quick to start and deep if you want it to be. As of today, it’s a little tough to find, but I’ve spotted some used copies around the internet. It is worth the look.

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Combat Good, Grammar Bad

Though I am an English teacher by trade, in real life, I don’t drop grammar bombs on my peers. If one of my buddies says “I” when he means “me,” I don’t flinch. When mom talks about how she’s “laying on the couch,” I don’t ask her what she’s putting there. Frankly, I don’t want to know.

But when I am buying print, including RPG books, I expect the text to be well edited. Recently, however, I have been disappointed. I don’t mean that the fluff isn’t good; instead, I am suggesting that the grammar is bad. Sometimes, very bad. Roll for insanity bad, even.

You can come after me for my own sentence-level shortcomings if you like, but I am not getting paid to write this blog. Hell, I’m not even getting free government cheese. Professional writers, though, should be fastidious about their writing, and I’m including RPG authors in that lot. Nevertheless, I keep running into grammar errors and word choice issues that should have been fixed long before I shelled out my $49.95.


“Continue on to page 43.” Just “continue” is fine.

“Often times, two-handed weapon users can do more damage if their attacks are successful.” Well, “often” is a number of times, so “often times” is like “audible noises” or “canine dogs.” Also, duh regarding the extra damage.

“If a barbarian chooses a two-handed weapon, they can wield the weapon in one hand without a penalty.” Who are “they”? A barbarian is a single thug, not a “they.” Pronoun issues and agreement issues abound in recent printings, and I is sick of them. (See?)

I could continue this rant by providing all manner of examples from game books on my shelf. I haven't even mentioned overlong errata lists, yet I am glad they are easily found online. I don’t want to pick on anyone, though, and pointing fingers won’t get me anywhere. Instead, I do want to say that some writers and editors are doing a great job, and I hope they continue. Kenneth Hite, for example, regularly puts out nicely penned games and supplements. He’s a badass writer. Sean Preston tends to impress me as well. In most cases, Paizo products have been carefully edited, too.

Some of the other writers and companies need to be better about their editing. If any of you are reading this (….really…?) feel free to hit me up for some proofreading. I’m not kidding; I’ll do it for nothing or almost nothing.

We gamers are a smart bunch, and we may not want to spend 40 bucks on a rulebook only to find out that it is a half-hearted rush job. For that kind of thing, we just go to the movies.

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Lions and Tigers and Fate Points, Ohhhh My!

Most of you know that games like The Dresden Files and Savage Worlds include bennies or fate points or [insert adventuresome game mechanic title here] to enhance gameplay. In many cases, these points or chips allow players to soak extra damage, reroll a failed attempt, or alter the outcome of a story event. One of my favorite examples comes from Agents of Oblivion, a superb Delta-Greenish supplement for Savage Worlds. In that setting, a bennie can be spent to requisition weapons or equipment from HQ during a mission. Need a nano-tech rocket to blow up the tricked-out Maserati owned by a Cthulhu cultist/Internet billionaire? Just spend a bennie and wait for the ACME box to arrive! The power level of these points depends on the game, the game master, and the situation. A failed roll and subsequent bennie reroll to pick a lock, for example, might not change the world; however, a bennie used in the middle of a key battle may change the face of future. So be it, and let the fun continue!

Recently, though, I have employed bennies in two non-bennie games. And I have to say, I don’t think I will go back to a bennieless universe. Here’s why…

First, even in a gritty game, bennies can be toned down to fit the flavor of the situation. There’s no need to believe that bennies automatically turn every RPG into an 80’s style G.I. Joe cartoon--everything blows up and nobody gets hurt. Bennies can offer small advantages, or they can come at a great price. I recently started a game in which my players each get two bennies, and I, as the GM, get none. But when the players use their chips, they go into a pool for my evil use at any time. As a result, my players are very careful about when they spend.

Second, in most games, bennies encourage players to take risks. Whether you’re playing a heroic game or a simulationist one, it can be just as entertaining to fail as to succeed. Both may further the story and present opportunities for role or roll playing. Bennies tend to encourage players to take more risks, and thus reach success or failure more often. Not to be overly proud of metagaming moments, but I have, in the past, tempted players with bennie rewards for taking dangerous chances. I watched a player waffle over his character’s decision to try a bizarre combat maneuver, and only my wicked bennie offer pushed him to go for it. Result: successful dwarf summersault attack, laughter, and further complications requiring more strategy. Everyone wins.

Finally, for now anyway, another cool aspect of such fate points in nearly any game is that the GM can find or craft cool objects to employ as bennies. I’ve used everything from rusty old keys to bullet shells, and I’m always on the lookout for new possibilities.

I’m starting a modern spy game this week, and I plan to shop for something cheap but James Bond-like after work today. Any ideas?

If I don’t find anything, I can always spend a bennie and search again….

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We Know What They Are Already....

The other day I purchased a new game for my PS3. I grabbed a pocket knife, cut the plastic, and eventually, like an otter shucking an oyster, opened the jewel case. Inside the glossy booklet that came with the game, 10 point font provided a wealth of uninspiring information: control scheme, seizure warnings, etc. I noticed, however, that the booklet did not contain an explanation about what a video game is. I did NOT see “This is a game of video enjoyment, wherein you hold a controller and manipulate on-screen events. The powers and abilities referenced in this video game are not real. Therefore, do not go outside and attempt to cast fireballs, sneak by awkwardly squatting, or sprint for an excessive amount of time. You are a human player enjoying the challenges of a programmed digital adventure.” In other words, there was no “What is a video game?” introduction. There was an in-game, tutorial, of course, but that’s a different animal.

Similarly, I recently played Last Night on Earth, the excellent zombie-survival board game, and I did not see an obligatory “What is a board game?” passage in the game’s rules. Go ahead, look for yourself. Crack open Monopoly and see if there’s an explanation of what board games are and how the miniature metal dog is not a real dog and as such does not need a tiny bowl of food or a leash. There are rules, of course, but not much more.

So, why is it that role-playing games always include the “What is a role-playing game?” chapter close to the front of the rulebook? What is so confusing about the setup that an explanation is required? Frankly, I don’t think we need these awkward dissertations any longer. In most cases, with decent writing, the playing process is clear. Either the rules are sufficient or the person buying the book already knows what an RPG is. In addition, some rulebooks contain nicely written “example of play” passages that are much less cloying than the “What is an RPG?” chapters that I rarely, if ever, manage to get through. These “example of play” sections are often clear, fun to read, and can be threaded throughout a rulebook to include other helpful examples. Boo-yah.

I do understand that in some corners of the world, there are people buying GURPS or Savage Worlds or D&D having never heard of pen and paper RPGs. I also get that in some cases, a person might be new to the hobby, and the lovely little explanation could make all the difference between utter confusion and profound understanding. Fine: 1 in 100 RPG purchases, maybe. But for the most part, the RPG self-definition isn’t needed. It’s even demeaning, sometimes, because it seems as though the hobby needs to explain itself too much. I’d rather read an intro to the world and the mechanics, followed by a sample of play, and leave the “If you’ve never played a role-playing game” explanation buried in the appendix next to “What are dice?” and “There will be expansions, so start saving your money!”

Not to get too snarky, but I can’t imagine someone reading through a typical RPG book and simply waiting for dice to roll themselves or characters to materialize on the dining-room table. It’s just not that confusing. There are tons of subtleties and variations, of course, but the basic principle is clear. And when it isn’t, when someone has no clue what an RPG is, I doubt that most of the current “What is this that you are holding?” confessionals are going to make a big difference.

These days, it is very easy to listen to live play podcasts, to read descriptions online, or to simply communicate with friends. So, I don’t think the “What is an RPG?” passage makes sense any more. I’m not against them, of course, and when I run for RPG President that will not be my platform. However, I don’t think they are necessary, either. There are far better ways to introduce our excellent hobby to new players.

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