Non-Linear Narrative

Tell Me a Narrative…

This isn’t the typical ‘your should roleplay more’ or ‘how to get your players involved in the world’ type stuff that you see around the internet. This is using in-game storytelling as a narrative framing device within an established campaign in order to facilitate a deviation from the usual pace or style of play.

Beginning at the End

Why do this? I had this idea while looking at the nascent D&D Beyond forums . Someone was having difficulty getting their PCs to a particular adventure. I suggested that the adventure had already happened. You tell the story in ‘flashback’ – the adventures are in the pub/adventurer base/quest hub after having succeeded at the previously inaccessible quest, and new hopefuls come along looking for tales of adventure. The PCs dispense their wisdom with the DM as the ‘narrator’ or the story.

I suggested this for players who were looking to play a Tales from the Yawning Portal (Dungeons & Dragons) quest that seemed a bit off piste compared to the tone of the rest of their campaign.

I think the flashback/storytelling is a good storytelling device because we’ve already established that the characters are (still) alive so even if they die in the ‘story’ we ‘know’ that they didn’t/got ressurected. This adds a layer of security which means that the players might take risks that they otherwise wouldn’t. Players might not want to risk their precious PCs on a tangential one-shot so by framing it as an in-universe story you can overcome some of those hurdles.

If you’re looking to shake up your campaign and shake up your players you could do worse than get the Tales from the Yawning Portal. (If you buy via Amazon from the link I get a little kickback at no additional cost to you!)

 Conclusion

What i’m trying to get at is that RPGs are about telling stories and, just like stories from books, TV or other media, they do not need to be linearly narrated. You can exploit novel narrative techniques that we see in film or theatre. Although, while these techniques can keep things fresh and are good now and again, you would rapidly get annoyed if your favourite TV serial was always relying on such tricks to make stories work. So use sparingly – when the narrative calls for it!

Nervous System – Choosing an RPG System for hACCESS

Nervous System

So I’ve decided on Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) which is the system behind Blades in the Dark. I figure that the clandestine nature of Blades lends itself towards hACCESS compared to FATE. While FATE is more open ended, it is better for shorter, more hands off type games and Blades borrows enough from FATE to keep that part of me happy. Blades skips over minutia to focus on the dynamic actions that directly effect the outcomes.

That said, I am still extremely inexperienced with Blades so feel unsure if I should be writing a system hack, even though I know that it’s the best system to cover the source material and capture the feel of the game.  Though the reality is that I need a place to start from, if in time I end up revising the main system to a different one or a bespoke one so be it.

Anyway I’ve been looking over the System Reference Document for Blades in the Dark, which itself is using the ‘Powered by the Apocalypse‘ system of mechanics. To utilize the Blades variant of PbtA, the licensing is referred to as ‘Forged in the Dark’. Most of the derivative systems seem to make light of the name such as ‘Glow in the Dark’ (Post Apocalypse) etc.

Mechanics of the System

CHESSEX LUSTROUS DARK BLUE & GREENThey say the best way to understand something is to explain it so here goes: The system is a d6 based dice pool. You roll a number of dice equal to a skill or attribute rating, choosing the highest single outcome. 1-3 is a failure, 4-5 is a partial success and 6 is an outright success.

Depending on the complexity and danger of the task the protagonists may suffer setbacks or take injuries. Any of these can be bought off by paying with stress which can also be spent in advance to gain bonus advantages or rewrite minor details via flashbacks. In this way its quite similar to Fate points.

System Rewrite

So to use this system I need to, at a minimum, reframe the 12 core skills and corresponding attributes (probably into insight, logic & physique). In addition the Playbooks for each ‘class’ and type of crew (working name: collective) need to be run. Then the additional world building aspects such as gear and types of jobs. But that’s par for the course. The main take away point is that I don’t need to reinvent the wheel in order to start fleshing out my RPG and I can build on the mistakes and experiences of others who have made their own hacks via the Forged in the Dark licence.

Even the writeup licence allows one to essentially copy over their core rules and system, and then chop and change it. I have started but the main difficulty is keeping it all organised – it’s about 15,000 words and that’s without any of the worldbuilding, fluff or unique mechanics that I need to tie into the system.

Finally, it’s taken a little bit of time to get here and to have the courage and conviction to actually start working on this in an organised fashion. I couldn’t have done it without the encouragement of my good friend Simon, who’s an aspiring author. If you want to read some interesting sci-fi (and other stuff) check out his blog.

RPG Mechanics

By far the most difficult part of attempting to craft an RPG is deciding on the resolution system, aka the ‘mechanics’. I’ve encountered many varieties of systems using different dice, cards or other ways of resolving issues. There are systems which rely on narration and don’t have dice all the way up to massively crunchy systems where there’s a dice and chart for almost everything!

Part of the reason for writing this is to help me flesh out and clarify what makes each system unique, and analyse their strengths.

Dice System

Generally there’s 2 main approaches involving dice in an RPG; a pool or a variable target number. The major approaches are succinctly covered here.

Dice pool methods involve rolling a number of dice depending on the situation and counting some results (say all values over 5) as successes. Depending on the specific system, a player may require as few as one success or perhaps as many as four or five are required to mean total success of a task. Some systems allow for varying the target number -so in a d6 pool 4+ might be a success in a normal task, whereas only 6+ are successes for a very difficult task. Others change the number of successes required to moderate the difficulty but leave the value for success untouched. An example of games that use this are Vampire/WoD (d10), Shadowrun (d6), and Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA – d6).

The other general system, variable target number, is again determined by rolling one or more dice which are (usually) summed along with modifiers and then the total compared to a value. The most well known example is D&D; a player rolls a d20 adds modifiers and the total is compared to a target number (such as armor, or a spell’s save difficulty).  If it equals or beats the target number the sword hits or the action succeeds. This has the advantage that bigger numbers are generally better (a +9 to hit is much better than a +4 to hit) and that modern game theory ensures that sane control is kept over the target numbers. (Bounded accuracy!)

Variations on this method include percentile systems (d10/0) which again are calculated with modifiers and compared to values (often the users abilities), a 3d6 system (Song of Ice & Fire or Dragon Age) where you simply sum the dice and compare to a skill or value as well as the FATE system which uses bespoke dice (+1,+1, +0, +0, -1, -1) known as dF, to give a  nicely bell curved range of results from -4 to +4, with +0 followed by +1 or -1 being the most common occurrence.

There are also hybrid systems – the one that springs to mind is Mophidius’ 2d20 system which combines a pool of d20s (not always 2!) compared to a derived target number. While the system has it’s own issues – it seems to draw a lot from FATE in terms of feeling but implements it with a pool system – it is an example of both a pool based system combined with a variable target system.

Other Bits

However dice alone do not a great game make. Without classes or races or equipment you couldn’t generate the numbers required for D&D to run smoothly. By way of contrast, dice pool systems often tend to lean away from classes and equipment for a less detailed but more fluid skill based narrative system.

My main concern with a d20 or even percentile based system is that there are a lot of details and modifiers which I would not only need to write, test and balance but that players would also need to record and remember. An example that springs to mind Starfinder by Piazo. On the surface is this is another d20 system similar to D&D, but it has an almost impenetrable level of class features, feats, and abilities to the point where I struggle to imagine how I would ever play it, let alone GM a game.

In Starfinder there are a myriad of dense options for each class which make the game quite ‘crunchy’ which I’m sure appeals to some, but makes me concerned because you’re constantly having to reshuffle your numbers every time you get new equipment or abilities. Equipment is also level scaled so it is necessary to be constantly upgrading gear or risk falling behind.

Contrast this approach with 5E D&D where the numbers are more restricted due to ‘bounded accuracy’, where character options are more streamlined (restricted?) and you’ve got a system which is easy to pick up, scales well and doesn’t require massive amounts of bookkeeping.

Because the system is well established the game is easier to run which to me contributes to the most important thing  about any game – playability.

Dice Size

Another question is which dice to use? Rolling dice is a very tactile experience and in a game that occurs ephermally it might be the only physical ‘component’. Certain dice are easier to roll in large numbers (d6, d20s) whereas others are quite difficult to roll en masse or read (d4s, d8s).

D20 – have a wide range of values allowing modifiers to be calculated according to how much impact you want them to have in 5% increments.

d12 – unfortunately there’s very little  that a d12 brings mathematically that a d6 or d20 doesn’t really bring. I guess unless you want to go for a 7/12 ratio for success or something, there’s really very little reason to use a d12. There is a Lord of the Rings system that has a special d12 ranging from 1-10 with an evil and good symbol – presumably some sort of special effect.

d10 – have the advantage of being decimal, being easy to roll in a pool system and by being in 10% increments makes the maths easier to calculate

d6 – easy to roll but with limited outcomes and so needing a number (2d6,3d6) to distribute out but at that point you might as well use a d20? Great for pool systems though where more dice = better.

dF- hard to find (and expensive) but providing a nice distribution of results tending around +/-1 or 0.

Summary

I am strongly leaning to a pool based system since it is less ‘blow by blow’ and can be a slight bit more abstract giving players and GMs room to forge story elements without being too constrained. I do like the FATE system generally since it’s highly narrative although logicistally the bespoke dice can make the game hard to access. A variant D6-D6 system might be an option (ranging from -5 to +5) but the numbers aren’t as good as 4dF.

PbtA systems like Blades in the Dark seem to strike the balance between adding dice and pooling them, but Blade hacks need ‘playbooks’ to be written and defined. While I’m not shying away from work, I’m concerned that it pigeonholes players into stereotypes which defeats the point of being able to ‘hack’ and redefine your character.

To that end I’m leaning towards a classless/skill based system (like Vampire) with narrative elements (like FATE) – so right now a toss up between PbtA (of which I have very little actual play experience) and FATE. The plus side is that these systems are both ‘open source’ which is a great thing in terms of RPG advancement.

Boldly Going…

A bit of context: Since 2009, before I even lived in Southampton, I ran a game of D&D there and made friends with some people, one of whom I consider a close friend and who I still meet with weekly to play RPGs.

Usually we play D&D (4E, now 5E) but after unsuccessfully ending our excursion into Ravenloft in a TPK (Every time he DMs the party dies!) we opted to try out the relatively new Star Trek Adventures by Mophidius.

I must admit that I was slightly offput by the Mophidius affiliation. I used to play Infinity a lot, and saw their alpha/kickstarter preliminary release for that as an RPG. Frankly I thought it sucked. Clunky and generic, it didn’t inspire me to even give it an attempt at playing so I didn’t bother with the kickstarter.

I was also afraid at the rate of which they seemed to be acquiring licences to various IPs and churning out RPGs based on them using their ‘2d20 system’. It’s not that I have anything against them as a company, I just wonder how focused a small company can be when they’re producing new games at a rate of knots! However despite my apprehension the system looked interesting. It seemed to draw on mechanics from FATE and used a d20 pool based system which in itself is a bit novel.

Aside from D20s the game uses special 6 sided effect dice that are marked 1/2/-/-/*/*  You can get a set of 4 of these and 3 d20s for about £18 retail which is about twice what a sensible price point should have been. I made my own using blank dice and a handheld engraving tool. I get that it’s got the Star Trek licence, but at the same time it’s not an excuse to gouge prices.

Additionally despite the sexy LCARS computer style of the layout and design, the game lacks Klingons which is clearly being held for a future splatbook. Considering they are a protagonist race I was surprised. I understand that they’re not in the federation but again they must have realised that players would want to play a Klingon – although it would probably require a lot of exceptions and become the ‘drow’ of the system!

Anyway onto the system – the core mechanic – an attribute + a skill to determine the target number which you have to roll equal to or under is fine. It’s all of the other stuff stapled on – there’s values, momentum, determination, talents and traits. All of these are basically FATE aspects and fatepoints with a different name and made much more confusing. Momentum is something you get by achieving more successes than you need and can be used to buy extra dice or re-roll damage and other effects. Basically FATE points. But they are applied in a very metagaming heavy method.

Case in point are the skill challenges – some of them are literally unachievable unless you have maxed out stats and the corresponding focus and pump a lot of momentum into it. They get easier as you succeed but the odds of succeeding initially are extremely low. Add to that a time factor and if you screw up the first roll you might as well be toast!

Ship to ship combat is a nightmare too. We have been playing pre-written adventures so it’s not a case of a bad GM.

That being said, I really like the setting and it tries to incorporate a lot of Star-Trek like themes. However, we’ve decided to axe the system and use FATE instead because ultimately that is what the system obviously was based on before it got ‘2d20’ stapled to it’s face!

 

 

Computer RPGs vs Tabletop RPGs

I Never Asked For ThisGame Theory

You might have noticed the slight Deus Ex theme. I recently managed to finish the game on the uber-hard, perma-death, one-save-only mode aka ‘I never asked for this’. So in this post I’m going to discuss the game theory and key differences between computer based RPGs and tabletop RPGs (ttRPGs)

What has this to do with regular RPGs you ask? Unlike tabletop RPGs, video games usually have a save game feature, if you die, make a mistake or regret a choice you can undo it by reloading.

For some, this mentality has carried over to ttRPGs. I can specifically recall a game of Deathwatch where a players reaction on meeting a merchant was to kill him and take his stuff (which was worthless compared to his equipment). As another player it was frustrating for many reasons. Needless to say it didn’t end too well for that character (or game) but wasted a lot of time. This sort of behaviour is generally known as acting like a ‘murderhobo’.

Decisions

Whereas computer games can sometimes render player decisions meaningless, ttRPGs usually result in decisions that are important and have in-game consequences. I’m a firm supporter of the games theory which believes that meaningful choices (that at least give an illusion of choice) are what make players happy. In a tabletop RPG if you kill a dragon in a lucky few hits, it is still dead when you leave and return the the area.

Computer games are riddled with funnels, railroads and invisible walls to force players to be in the right place, which we accept because computers have limited options.  If the game doesn’t want you to kill that dragon yet then you simply won’t be able to. Similarly if that door is unopenable yet there’s almost nothing you can do to open it earlier. If we come up with ingenious solutions (stacking boxes to jump over a wall, or taking massive steps to defeat a much superior foe) then we’re more surprised if they work than if they don’t.

That being said, a poor GM might also heavily fudge things and shift the goalposts behind the scenes to overcome player solutions, although one hopes it’s to keep the game and story fun. We’ve all heard of the ‘DMPC’; author-insertion fantasy style NPCs that are invincible mary-sues which ultimately ruins the fun of the players.  On the other hand a good GM can roll with the punches and use what the players throw back to challenge and change the game for the better.

This all leads me, in my quest for better RPGs, to always consider the choices available and to help players with their decisions. Players by mission of action generally want to influence the world their characters inhabit. Even slaying some goblins is changing the world in a small way, so similarly their bigger decisions should have a bigger and more meaningful impact on the world.

This isn’t to say that every time they hit the tavern post adventure that there needs to be an earth shattering choice, but simply that overall players exert some influence on their situation. Even in dark RPGs like WFRP or Darksun, where things are more ‘grim’, players are special and that should mean something.

I Never Asked For This…

Jensen Meme

SitRep

So despite a plethora of illness* this past year, I’m trying to keep sane by focusing on my 2 main hobbies – Pokémon & RPGs – while I recover. I’ve managed to expand playing RPGs to 2 nights a week which is a major achievement considering health and previous commitments.

Miniature games aren’t really holding my interest due to the time investment required coupled with the sheer lack of local communities that I want to be a part of, (and I really don’t have the stamina to chivvy another community along after the last time). I still enjoy painting and that side of things though.

My lovely other half is quite busy with studies so even playing casual GW stuff at home isn’t really happening though Terraforming Mars is proving to have been worth the investment. (Seriously when it’s back in print, get it if you can!)

Aside from health issues and goals my new year’s aims were mostly Pokémon TCG based, and I’m managing to do pretty well at them too! (You can keep up to date with that journey here: Poké-Post.)

Anyway as mentioned, I’m really digging RPGs at the moment – from the Southampton guild of RPers to my own friend group I’m managing to play in and run some games and also have gotten to try out RPGs that I wouldn’t have otherwise encountered. (Blades in the Dark, Starfinder, Star Trek Adventures to name a few). It’s social and fun and lets me be creative.

Moving Forward

With all of that in mind I’m in the middle of writing 3 short PDFs for 5E D&D to offer variant monsters that are usually encountered at low level (Goblins, Hobgoblins and Bugbears). It’s a small step to break into writing for RPGs but I might as well try to make use of my 20+ years of playing RPGs to help other people while I wait for medical appointments to get sorted out.

Finally I’m managing to get some Deus Ex: Mankind Divided in, including the eponymous 1 save only perma-death ‘I never asked for this’ mode. I’m claiming it as research for a cyberpunk, conspiracy, non-magic (sorry Shadowrun!) post-human RPG that I want to write. Right now I’m thinking of basing it on Blades in the Dark / PbtA since the system is great and captures the nuances of the feelings I’d like to convey. However this is still early days.

*Seriously, at this point I’m expecting it to actually be lupus!

The Black Vise

Biblical quotes always seem relevant to depression for me!

Where then is my hope– who can see any hope for me? – Job 17:15

Depression is a funny thing. Funny as in queer (in the traditional, Tolkienesque sense). It is an emotional, spiritual illness as well as a mental one, and often a physical one. To this end there isn’t a medical-only cure. Unlike ‘the diabetes’ where you take insulin and it has a physical, biochemical effect on the body, depression medication doesn’t ‘fix’ the problem. It can help, like how clean water and bandages can help a deep wound, but without eventual stitches and antiseptics you will keep bleeding and get infection. Indeed many essays, poems, art and all sorts of creativity have been expressed to try to explain or at least convey the feeling. Churchill called it his ‘Black Dog’, something that would hound him and kept lingering, coming back to drag him away.

This is how I would describe depression using pictures from a popular collectable card game. In this instance the depressed person is the cute little doll thing:

blackvise

Basically you’re stuck. You can’t escape. You move and pointy things poke you, you don’t move you get squished by pointy things. You need external help to free yourself.

It’s dark all around and seems hopeless. You’re tired from struggling, struggling hurts and makes you more tired and more weary of the world since it’s dark all around anyway. Even with help escaping the Black Vise is hard.

When you wiggle free you are crushed, battered and hurt and reduced to your core self. It’s still dark around but it’s not as oppressive. It’s like being that little match in the darkness. Finite, but not being extinguished just yet as it falls to the ground below the darkness.

To regrow you need to fall onto fertile soil, like family, friends, medication, counselling, love, comfort, reassurance. Something that keeps the ember of that match warm while it germinates in the darkness, while your inner fire gathers itself.

Let him sit alone in silence for the Lord has laid it on him. Let him bury his face in the dust—there may yet be hope – Lamentations 3 28/29

Then with a bit of light, you poke out a root, re-embedding yourself in Life. Anchoring might take time for not all seeds grow at the same rate. Some need more water than sunlight , some need more warmth than light – we are all different. But eventually you can extend a shoot with a little leaf and absorb all of that goodness that exists in life. Yes nighttime comes once a day, and some days are cloudier than others, but with all that nourishment you brush it off until you regrow and hopefully flower once more.

New Name? D&D&D

The new title was for Dungeons & Dragons & Diabetes. Kind of makes sense in an odd sort of way! I’m not sure if I’ll change it!

Anyway I don’t really have much to add in terms of D&D knowledge as the internet is full of interesting stuff. I often feel that I don’t particularly innovate anything other than my own plots or ideas and any ‘hacks’ or slight modifications other than the Action Point and no XP thing are shamelessly inspired stolen from the interwebs. That being said I’m a cynical sort and see a lot of material out there as being untested and severely wanting.

I’ve also managed to finish pokemon gold with mostly an unevolved Spinarak. There were HM slaves and a lvl 30 Gliscor for double battles but all the rest were filler. He was level 79 when he finished (Moves = poison jab, bug bite, shadow sneak and psychic)
Interestingly I thought being a bug/poison he’d take 100% damage from psychic, turns out bug is +50% vs psychic (+100% since he has STAB too) but confers no resistance, but the poison confers +50% weakness. Similarly with the orginal ghost (Gengar/Haunter/Ghastly) who are Ghost (+50 vs Psychic +100 if STAB) but have the poison secondary giving them weakness to psychic instead. Thankfully against the E4 after weathering the first attack if they were faster my little spider managed to bug bite any psychic attacks. The only other problem was some fire attacks (houndoor and a couple of Bruno’s fighters) and Kogas flipping minimizing, regerating Muk… his attacks were useless against me but I couldn’t hit him by the time I got eastablished. Eventually I got 2 hits close enough together to KO it but it was tough.

Fingers Crossed

So I submitted 4 pitches to Wizards of the Coast for Dungeon/Dragon articles.

Here’s hoping they are interesting and good enough to be considered – it would be a dream come true to write D&D related stuff for WOTC!

Also I had a look at their novel writing guidelines and this tickled me:

 ‘Avoid the following character archetypes: alchemists, any other author’s signature characters (Drizzt, Elminster, and so on), anyone who fights with two swords, apprentice/inexperienced wizards, drow of any kind for any reason, even in “cameos,” dwarves or gnomes for comedic effect, sorcerers, Asian/Oriental Adventures/Kara-Turan characters. Note: If you use one of the “iconic” characters that have game stats in the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, they cannot be killed or permanently altered.

Basically saying idiot dwarves / gnomes, ANY DROW EVER, Bilbo-style dropped in it, dual wielders and famous characters are off limits.

It reminds me of this guy from Order of the Stick:

Totally not  Drizzt…

Wrath of Ashardalon

I like games. I’m a bit of a gaming geek – Boardgames, chess, RPGs and wargames are all of interest. It’s a consistent thing ever since I was small and started with Hero Quest. (The gateway drug to Warhammer/Games Workshop for so many people!)

Anyway today I decided to play some Wrath of Ashardalon – which is a great Wizards of the Coast (WotC / Whot-See) D&D based boardgame. It uses a D20 and takes place in the D&D ‘multiverse’ – that’s about as similar to D&D as it is, since it’s more like old out of production Heroquest or infact Warhammer Quest due to the exploration factor in a boardgame.

Anyway the game runs itself via exploration and various decks of cards (monsters, treasures and random encounters like traps, cave-ins, curses, extra monsters and so on) Due to this it is possible to play it solo.

So I hit up the ranger who’s model is cool and who has an auto-hit but low damage power. Also good at exploring. She died after a troll, owlbear and orc chief decided to show themselves. RIP Ranger 🙁

So I decided to go to my go-to character – the Elf Paladin who fared a lot better. I managed to do 3 quests in a row with her. Firstly stomp an evil dwarf barracks which was fine (krumping an ogre and orc chief on the get-go and levelling up in the process!). Then the 2nd quest was to loot the eponymous’ dragons horde. Said dragon can arrive when you reach the horde after 1-4 encounters. (Encounters: AKA bad-stuff, which happens if you don’t explore or if you do and the dungeon decided to hate you anyway) It arrived straight away. Oh poo.

Then my mind wondered to thoughts of suitable paladin-y glory – what happens if I kill the dragon straight off? Is he merely ‘wounded’ or does he die thus rendering the whole point of the campaign pointless at this stage? Mentally I’m sure the paladin yelled the equivalent of ‘Deus Vult’ and charged to put the hurt on the dragon. The whole question of ‘what if..’ turned out to be a bit moot as although I got him down to 6hp (from 12), when I got to 2hp I thought it was worth fleeing escaping tactically withdrawing with my loot (discretion being the better part of valour and all that).

I drew well for the available loot at the dwarven traders (vorporal sword, flying shield and something else – yes please to the sword and shield for an AC of 20 and snicker-snack-abilitiy.

The 3rd quest was to use my newly stolen shinies to vanquish the leader of Ashardalon’s Orc minions – the orc shaman. I was feeling confident with AC20 and a vorporal sword and sped though. However it seemed as though this was where my luck would run out as I ‘pulled a Dave*’ -and chain-pulled a kobold and duregar – the kobold proceeded to explore into a snake, and the duregar explored into long corridor with (they basically ‘explore’ themselves o.O) with a Grell and then another Duregar who then chained more stuff :

Rolling wasn’t great and one of the encounters was to let a monster (the Orc Chief who turned up again) … explore… to a troll …. in a long corridor…. to an orc druid.

Thankfully despite needing to spend both of my healing surges I managed to defeat the shaman. Technically I won but I was surrounded. I decided to see if I could escape and then throwing shielded the kobold in the face before running like a goblin tactically retreating again. Thankfully I managed to speed away although the speedy boar managed to get a few licks in before I got to the exit tile. Phew! Money was scarce but I managed to buy 2 healing potions which might keep me alive for the next round!

*Dave being a member of Southampton Sluggaz who managed to chain TEN monsters together with a combination of enconuters, monster cards, duregar and kobolds and during a game of WoA at the club