RPG

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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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.

Examples:

“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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