Friday, November 25, 2005

RPG Night: An Alternative Campaign Format

My Monday night boardgaming group is a pretty laid back bunch. We get together for maybe four hours and play 2 or 3 different games. We have our favorites such as Ticket to Ride, Bohnanza, Puerto Rico and recently Power Grid. Sometimes people bring a game that they want to play. I've showed up with Carcassonne in hand and Jim breaks out his El Grande set on occassion. Generally there is little controversy as to what we are going to play. If someone really wants to play a particular game, it gets played. And no one minds if someone begs off from playing a certain game, as I did with Santa Fe after several crushing defeats. I just couldn't wrap my head around that game. For a while playing it felt like hard work. Except for a couple of serial games of El Grande, we never have much of a plan as to what we're going to play. I can guess that we're going to play Puerto Rico or Bohnanza next Monday and I'd probably be right. But we might end up playing Texas Hold 'Em or some newly published or something from Bruce's game collection that hasn't seen the light of day since he bought it in '69.

I really like this set-up. We get all the new toy delights we want but also have our comfortable favorites to fall back on. And the possibility of becoming bored with a game is a non-issue. We played a crapload of Ticket to Ride for a while. But then we stopped. No biggie. In all probability we'll come back to Ticket at some future point. Until then, there are plenty of other games to play.

Recently it occurred to me that a similar format might work for RPGs. But before I talk about that, let's take a look at RPG campaigns as I know them. Somewhere along the way everyone I know in the hobby got locked into this One Ongoing Campaign thing. Wednesday night is Jeff's D&D campaign. Friday night is Sue's Champions game. Etc. I think this situation is the logical development from the main thrust of rpg evolution, particularly the 80's increase in mechanical complexity and the 90's increase in setting depth. If it takes you 6 hours to make a character and 300 pages of back story to understand the setting, then by golly you are heavily invested in this game before the first session. You don't want to dick around playing some other thing on Vampire night, you want to play Lord Gloomknickers! After all, there's at least 14 plothooks in the 60-page fanfic you e-mailed the GM last week.

There's nothing wrong with this format. I just think we should consider that other ways of organizing our roleplaying might enable better play for some people. Although I call the present dominant model 'One Ongoing Campaign', this label doesn't mean you only play one game ever. Rather it is acknowledging the fact that when you set up to game with people you say something like "I am going to run Call of Cthulhu and we will be playing every other Saturday". If you come over to my house on Saturday at the appropriate time then everybody is expecting to pick up where they left off two weeks ago. If you also play in someone else's every-Thurday night Ravenstar campaign, that's another 'One Ongoing Campaign' that you participate in.

I call my alternative 'RPG Night'. The main difference is that when you show up you might be playing a different game than last time. The time and place of gathering are fixed, the choice of RPG is not. In my mind each player has a portfolio of characters they keep in a three ring binder on a shelf in my game room. Each portfolio contains three or four Classic Traveller characters, a like number of Basic/Expert D&D adventurers, and one or two people each for several other RPGs. When you get together for RPG night you might spend a little bit of time making a character or two. "I'd like to do a Boot Hill shoot-out next week, so we'll all make some rolls on the chargen charts real quick." You might do some light roleplaying activities. "Hey, can we talk about my wizard making a magic item before the next D&D adventure. And didn't someone else want to look for a henchman?" or "The next Traveller adventure starts at the Glisten asteroid belt. Let's do four or five quick jumps to try to move your Free Trader towards that part of space." Then the group settles down into the meat of the evening. "Break out the Gamma World PCs, please. According to my notes the last time we played Gamma World you mutant freaks had saved a small farming community from a plague of giant radiated beetles. This adventure begins as you are being feted by Baron Ironeyes, the cyborg lord of the region."

Under my proposal you probably couldn't use several different crunchy games. Many people, myself included, aren't prepared to play any one of several different rules-intensive games at the drop of a hat. So for RPG Night you'd do well to stick with a single generic system or use only relatively light and fluffy games. Or you could do both. I could see including Savage Worlds in the mix along with the musty old games I've already mentioned. Slogging through intensive settings would also be a problem. My brain would melt if I went to a session thinking I might be adventuring in either the Forgotten Realms or Tekumel or the old World of Darkness. That means the settings would have to be well-known (generic D&D style, relatively normal modern era, generic supers, Star Trek/Star Wars), easily digestible (Traveller's Charted Space, maybe?), or perhaps just ill-defined (default Gamma World and Star Frontiers).

Notice how everything that theorietically works well for RPG Night gaming happens to dovetail nicely with the exact kind of games that I love? RPG Night ought to also help me out in my greatest flaw as a GM: I'm so flightly I tend to burn out before a campaign goes a dozen sessions. Even as a write this I have a Mutants & Masterminds campaign on life support and a D&D campaign that I should be working on. Most of the time my games flounder because something shiney distracts me and I move on to the next product. The RPG Night structure might allow me to turn that weakness into a strength. "Check this out guys! I've got a copy of Hot New RPG. I've photocopied the sample PCs so we could play the starter adventure tonight!" or "I know we ended last session with your dungeoneers captured by the hobgoblins, but I've got this terrible hankering for some Traveller tonight. 'Sides, I need more time to figure out what the hobgoblin king is going to do to you."

I think the right kind of players can get something out of RPG Night as well. If you like to adventure in many different times and places, here's a way to do it without playing Doctor Who or Lords of Creation. If you enjoy trying out lots of different character types, here's a way to make that happen with the disruptive revolving door effect you see in some parties. And if you enjoy the occasional player-on-player conflict but hate what it does to a long-term campaign, there's no reason why it should break the whole operation on RPG Night. Heck, take advantage of the system and play Boot Hill or Gangbusters with PCs on both sides of the law. Or fight each other as pilots/drivers in proto-rpg wargames like BattleTech, Car Wars or Dawn Patrol. RPG Night would probably be a perfect setting for an En Garde! campaign, as it would mostly be playable during the pre-game part of each session.

In the course of the hobby, players from time-to-time find themselves in campaigns that are good but they just don't particularly like the game in question. Like I could probably enjoy playing Vampire, but it's far from my list of top games to try. RPG Night means that even if you don't like tonight's game you won't have to wait too long for something new.

Another advantage is that GMs and players might be more inclined to try a different game or campaign configuration. You probably won't find much support for an all-halfling campaign, but as a companent of a multi-campaign RPG Night the idea becomes just one more item in the gaming buffet line.

Record keeping would probably be crucial for this system to work as anything but a serious of single-night one-shots. I mentioned the player portfolio idea. I think the GM or GMs would also need campaign portfolios and maybe an after-action report for each session, that way no one forgets that the bounty hunters are still looking for Smelly the Dwarf or that Gold Tooth McGee lost the deed to the ranch in a poker game.

As always, feedback on my crazy ideas is always appreciated. Does this sort of campaign sound feasible to anyone else?

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

High ReZolution Images

Work's been supercrazy, but I had to take the time to point my peeps to this gallery for a minis game called Rezolution. This game has everything: cenobites, Japanese schoolgirls, cowboys on Mars, this guy, mutant demons, Neo & Trinity knock-offs, bishis with guns, robots, techno-Egytpians, street samurai.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Thursday, November 17, 2005

3.X NPC Classes

There's a nifty thread over at RPGnet talking about the NPC classes: Warrior, Adept, Aristocrat, Expert, and Commoner. I'm a big fan of these classes as well as the Generic PC classes based upon them that appear in the 3.5 Unearthed Arcana. I think an Adept/Warrior based campaign could be a great way to introduce newbies to modern D&D, if you're the kind of sadistic bastard who would introduce newbies to modern D&D.

The Incomplete Pictorial History of the Bulette

A copy of the original Hong Kong toy "dinosaur" that served as the inspiration for Gary Gygax's bulette or "landshark". Also in this same set were figures that later became the rust monster and carrion crawler. Note that the creature neatly occupies a 2 x 2 area on a standard battlemat. Present to help show scale is Mordenkainen from the D&D collectible miniatures game.

The first documented landshark attacks occurred live from New York on November 8th, 1975.

The frontispiece of the original Monster Manual. In its Manual entry the bulette was noted as being absolutely fearless.

From the bulette entry in the original Monster Manual. The creature up the tree is a halfling. Gygax mentions that bulettes find halflings a particularly tasty treat and are known to dig up into their burrows.

Prototype of an 80's-era plastic bulette for the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons toyline from LJN Toys. Sadly, this toy never entered into production.

The 3.X era bulette. Gone are the references to enjoying halfling meat. The 3E version of the bulette added a rather scary leap attack allowing the creature to use all four claws against a single target. This ability was dropped in 3.5.

Another great bulette illustration can be seen here.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

My sister is cool

So Jenn was up for this little elected office, vice president of a county-level civic organization. Like many bodies this size there's usually only one candidate so the nomination and election are virtually one and the same. Well, some fancy pants lawyer decides at the last minute that she needed to be vice president and not my sis. This lady was so classy about it that she nominated herself for the job. Couldn't even find one person to stand up and nominate you, eh? Anyway, lawyer gal must have had some support because the voting turned out to be a dead even tie.

So they game for it. I shit you not, this law-chick agrees to play my sister Rock-Paper-Scissors for the vice presidency and the organization in question goes along with it. Good ol' RPS had a spot among the games we played as kids. I know lots of people disregard RPS as a real game, but cross-my-heart hope-to-die when done properly it can be one of the greatest purely psychological games ever played. And my sister knew the first lesson of serious RPS play: novices go Rock. Try it out sometime. I don't know if it's the agressiveness of the fist you make or the strong name "Rock", but the average person selects rock as their play a helluva lot more than the other two options, especially on the first throw.

So she went Paper, right? WRONG. She was up against a lawyer, a member of a species known for their low cunning. Jenn guessed that the lawyer would also know the Rock trick and would herself go Paper. So Jenn threw Scissors and won. Ain't that awesome?

Monday, November 14, 2005

New Product at Jeff's Junk

Squidward wore a button like this in a Spongebob Squarepants episode and my wife declared that she had to have one.

RIP: Eddie Guerrero

Professional wrestler Eddie Guerrero passed away yesterday in his hotel room in Minneapolis. Cause of death is reported as a heart attack. Although not one of my all-time favorite wrestlers, I became a fan of Eddie's work during the Monday Night Wars, when I was regularly following World Championship Wrestling. He was one of the few wrestlers with enough charisma to win me over on mike-work alone but who could also put on a helluva show in the ring. I enjoyed his lWo (Latino World Order) angle and his feud with his "crazy" nephew Chavo.

Once I had an opportunity to see a live performance by Mr. Guerrero at a house show in Peoria, Illinois. The overall card was great, featuring an Ultimate Dragon/Billy Kidman bout that blew me away and a very decent "Battle of the Big Men" main event involving Kevin Nash and The Giant. If I recall correctly Eddie was about the only performer to pick up the mike that night. Man, he really worked the classic arrogant out-of-towner angle. With a simple sneer and the proper intonation on the phrase "you hicks" he had the audience hating him from the get-go. I don't remember his opponent or the match, but his sheer personal magnetism had the whole house booing him. Eddie Guerrero, I salute you, wherever you are.

Friday, November 11, 2005

The Netherlands?! Crap!

Last month I waxed nostalgic in a three-part series on old game crap that no one else cares about. Part 1 was about Companion Games and their 3rd party Star Fleet Battles materials, which are about as rare as hen's teeth nowadays. Well, three Companion Games products have finally appeared on eBay, but the seller is in the Netherlands. Minimum bid is only a buck apiece, but shipping across the pond is seventeen friggin' bucks. Maybe I could justify that kind of money if I still owned a copy of Star Fleet Battles, but the price is way too high just to adapt this stuff to Starmada.

Stephen Hawking, Game Designer

I kid you not. Professor Hawking is an accomplished man. I'd call him a Renaissance man, but he's more like a transhuman man-mind from some future century. Sure, we all know he's one of the premier minds in physics. And many of you may be aware that he's the only person to ever play themselves on a Star Trek show. Of course we're all familiar with his work as a crime-fighting cyborg. But did you know that in his youth he designed games?
Later on, in my teens, I built model airplanes and boats. I was never very good with my hands, but I did this with my school friend John McClenahan, who was much better and whose father had a workshop in their house. My aim was always to build working models that I could control. I think it was the same drive that led me to invent a series of very complicated games with another school friend, Roger Ferneyhough. There was a manufacturing game, complete with factories in which units of different colors were made, roads and railways on which they were carried, and a stock market. There was a war game, played on a board of four thousand squares, and even a feudal game, in which each player was a whole dynasty, with a family tree.

--from Black Holes and Baby Universes & Other Essays
Don't those games sound nifty? One of the greatest minds in history, designing economic simulations, multigenerational medieval epics, and 4,000 cell wargames! If he wasn't busy unlocking the secrets of the universe I'd start a petition drive to get him designing games again.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

J-Con III: The Revenge

Looks like I'm going to take another stab at a Living Greyhawk event at my place, probably this Friday. The last one didn't go so well, but my sister wants to play some D&D and I got this goofy idea for a half-orc cleric. In medieval times undesired babies were often left at the doorsteps of monasteries and such. This served as a form of birth control and the church got a manpower boost out of the deal. My guy would be a half-orc child left at a temple of Boccob. The poor bastard's mum thought that the church of the Uncaring One would probably have less institutional racism than many of the so-called Good deities. So here he is, this big tough Half-Orc, a cleric of the god of magic. Meanwhile, my sister will be playing an elven sorceress ( i.e. a fairy princess).
So if any locals reading this want to give a Living Greyhawk intro module a try, let me know. Reply here or email me at jrients (at) gmail (dot) com.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Ritualized Openings

It may prove useful to experiment with the idea of an opening invocation, to be recited at the beginning of each session. They can set the tone as well as signal to the players that it's time to cut the chatter and start playing. Consider the following passages, and how they work as opening rituals.
In the year 1994, from out of space, comes a runaway planet, hurtling between the Earth and the moon, unleashing cosmic destruction. Man's civilization is cast in ruin. Two thousand years later, Earth is reborn. A strange new world rises from the old. A world of savagery, super-science, and sorcery. But one man bursts his bonds to fight for justice. With his companions, Ookla the Mok and Princess Ariel, he pits his strength, his courage, and his fabulous sunsword, against the forces of evil. He is Thundarr, the Barbarian!

In the time when the oceans drank Atlantis, and the rise of the sons of Aryus, there was an age undreamed of... and unto this, Conan, destined to wear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow... It is I, his chronicler, who alone can tell thee of his saga... Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!

Space... the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Her five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldy go where no one has gone before!
To any hardy adventurer words such as these ought to act as a clarion call. Combine them with kick-ass opening music and you'll have the players ready to get it on like Diddy Kong.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Quote of the Day

The quote below from the Fat Gregor material in Critical Miss, issue 8 has haunted me since I first read it.

D&D is about quests for glory and riches; WFRP pretends to be the same, but in fact is about the PCs' day-to-day fight for survival in a universe that hates them. If you don't finish each adventure worse off than when you started it, your GM is doing something wrong.

--James Wallis

Saturday, November 05, 2005

3 Little Things

Occasionally I try to convince myself that I can write. Here are the products of one of these feverish periods. The structure I wrote in is called nanofiction. Click here for more information on the form. This first piece was inspired by a throwaway line in one of Ken Hite's Suppressed Transmissions.

A Cockatrice in Shropshire

Three rustics had been petrified and then the old vicar was turned to stone. A passing burger recommended the services of a certain witch. The woman was summoned and charged with disposing of the monster. With a handful of corn and earnest clucking she led the beast into the bog. It was never seen again.

These next two are actually backgrounds for two PCs from a short-lived Palladium Fantasy campaign.

A Young Man Seeks His Fortune

When grandma died the bastard knew he had to leave the farm. He had grown fat and lazy under her wing. Before they finished weeping over her grave he stole what he could and fled. A cruel deed, but he knew they hated him. He and his big belly would take on the world together.

The Sea Puppy

His first voyage turned out to be his last. He did his best to help out around the ship when he was able but proved himself to be useless in a fight. He couldn’t blame the captain when he was discharged once they made it into port. After all, what good is a seasick pirate?

Friday, November 04, 2005


Kate Monk's Onomastikon (dictionary of names)

Atomic Rocketships of the Space Patrol

I'm tempted to put one of these on my car.

Spheres, a sci-fi rpg setting

If you're Senator isn't on this list you should maybe be asking why. Dammit, Obama, where were you?

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Thursday, November 03, 2005

Vintage neckties fashionable again?

Today I stopped by Carrie's, a local retro-retailer, over lunch. One of my personal affectations is an enthusiasm for vintage ties (particularly skinny 50's ties in black, red, or silver) and Carrie's is my principle supplier. When I first started shopping there in the mid-90s a tie cost two bucks. Later the price mushroomed to three dollars american. But this afternoon's visit led to the discovery of a premium vintage tie rack, with prices starting at $10! One tie was listed for 25 dollars! Surely there must be some hipsters out there somewhere with vintage neckties encircling their collars. How dare they bite my styles!

Fortunately the ties on the little carousel rack still only cost 3 smackers and I found a trio of likely suspects to bring home.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Con Game: Dragons of Ancient Days

This is my OD&D project. The basic idea is that the deeper one goes into the adventure, the further you travel along the OD&D publishing timeline. Encounters in the wilderness surrounding the dungeon will use the original Chainmail rules. Exploration of the ruins above the dungeon (an ancient, crumbling castle on a hill, of course) will use the 1974 boxed set. The first dungeon level will use Supplement I: Greyhawk. The next level will use Blackmoor, and the third level will use Eldritch Wizardry. I don't think I'll need more than three levels, but one could add the Arduin Grimoire material for the 4th level and the later Arduin trilogy books for levels 5 and 6.

Adding monsters and magic items the deeper one goes ought to be a cinch. The real tricks here are that the rules change. Blackmoor has hit location tables, for example. And Eldritch Wizardry has an inexplicable alternate initiative system. And the players will find that their characters change, too. The strange either/or multiclass system of OD&D gives way to the more recognizable format still largely used today. Wizards will find their spell lists very short initially. Thieves won't even exist until level one of the dungeon! It will be an odd play experience, to say the least.

"Okay, you descend the stairs into the dungeon. Here are your new character sheets."

"Hey, my hobbit fighting man is now a halfing thief!"

The Venturi Cluster

Regular readers may recall my post last month regarding the deep fantasy/eclectic fantasy spectrum. Since writing that piece I have begun to suspect that science fiction games have a similar dimension. On the ecletic end is Star Wars (with its cantinas full of rubbery aliens) and Star Trek (with its spatial anomaly of the week), while on the deep end might be found more staid sci-fi like Classic Traveller's 3rd Imperium setting. I don't think the distinction here is as great as the difference between Harn and Eberron, but I hope you can still see what I'm talking about.

The Venturi Cluster is the name of my new foray into a space opera setting of my own. My intention is to lean closer to the 3rd Imperium side, but to not go quite so far. I need some rubber suited aliens and planetcrushing superweapons to make a sci-fi setting really sing to me. Rather than start a new blog doomed to inactivity (cough, 6 Islands, cough) I figured I could just work out some of the details here. Basically, the V Cluster is meant to be a space setting roughly on the order of magnitude of the Spinward Marches, but with the following differences:

  • Although meant to be compatible with Classic Traveller (especially Books 1-3), it owes no particular allegiance to the 3rd Imperium setting.
  • The setting should also be largely compatible with Savage Worlds, SpaceMaster, and Mekton Zeta. Some functional compatibility with Star Frontiers would be nice as well.
  • Instead of Traveller's 'mainworld' approach to stellar mapping, I am interested in spacemaps with actual stars and such on them.
  • GURPS Aliens is to serve as my primary resource for the major races of the Cluster.
  • Unlike the Spinward Marches, the Cluster will be largely isolated from the rest of space, at least for the historical eras in which actual play would occur (see below).
  • The basic shape of the Cluster is taken from the old Avalon Hill boardgame Amoeba Wars, allowing Cluster-wide wars to be fought on that mapboard.
  • Other board wargaming would be supported, particularly Starmada and non-canonical BattleTech.
  • Different eras for the Cluster would be outlined for different uses. For example, full on Mekton Zeta robot throwdowns would be reserved for a single period in history. That way adventures could be run without giant mecha. Similarly, psionics could be a Big Deal in one or more periods, but be unknown or supressed as 'mind wizardry' in others.
  • Star systems will have a Z coordinate. The basic shape of the cluster will be a flat disc, but it won't be perfectly flat. Stars in the center of the Cluster can have a Z rating of up to +5 or -5 lightyears from the Cluster baseplane. At the edges the variance drops off to +1 to -1.
  • For the most part, FTL travel and communication will be as described in Traveller, but hexes on the subsector maps will be one light-year apart. This means that travel in the Cluster will be 3.25 easier because Traveller hexes are measured in parsecs. A jump-6 drive can take you 19 hexes! I'm considering introducing a "jump-1/2" drive that allows travel to adjacent hexes.

That's a quick rundown of the basics of the Venturi Cluster. Next time I'll talk more about my approach for building the stellar cartography using a "from the ground up" approach.