Sunday, May 26, 2013

PDFs for Everyone? How about Online Access for Everyone?

As Stargazer mentions, the PDF vs printed book conversation comes up every now and then, and there is always a split between electronics junkies and tree killers.  I can agree with both sides of the argument.

PDFs are cheaper and more accessible.  Stick your PDF in DropBox and you can get to it from anywhere you have a screen.  Forgot your laptop?  Grab it on you smartphone, table, or media player.

Paper books, on the other hand, have a feel and access all their own.  Unlike a PDF, where one curses the heavy graphics because of the slow-down, paper books with heavy graphical content are a joy.  I have my big bookshelf of books, old and new.  And there is a special joy when digging through a 20 year old RPG book.

In both cases, however, I find myself fundamentally frustrated.  Let me explain.

In Pathfinder, I've been running gaming groups for a couple of years.  A lot of my players are young and don't have the resources to buy all the books.  I take the time to buy all the hardcover books from Paizo, so I have time browse them and a get a good overview of the content.  Some of us have PDFs.  More importantly, all of them can get access to the free online Pathfinder PRD, which is the rules content from all of the books.  This is such a magical thing.  When we're discussing things in an email, I can drop in a link to the rule in question.  When a new player comes along, they can get access to all the content immediately.  It's true that the content is quite a bit less digestable in this form, but this form is important.  I may read all the books in hardcover, but in play, I want the online system for pulling up content quickly across all of the books.

In contrast, I recently started a Shadowrun game.  Shadowrun is not an OGL style license.  I spent a good bunch of money getting the core hardcover books.  I bought some PDFs.  The problem is, that almost none of my players could afford to the same.  We ended up spending weeks reading the books trying to get some idea of how to play and how to build characters.  Now when new players join, I have to do the same thing again. And, more importantly, I can't really discuss rules and such with the group in emails, because there is no common reference, like the PRD, that I can refer them too.  I can't even use a search engine to search content across books effectively, even in PDF form.  The PDF breaks how I want access to the rules.

What this points to is a fundamentally flawed licensing model.  Let me pay you for books or PDFs if I want them, but give me some flexibility.  Don't kill my online discussions by tying me to discrete "thing" licenses.  Give me, instead, an option for a group license.  Make me a license administrator and let me add access to my gaming groups.  15 or 20 "user access" licenses that allow access to an online version of the material is plenty to get the use that my gamers and I need.  The users, this way, have a pleasant experience, because they get a free login for as long as they are in the game to view the game material online.  As a GM, I don't have to have book reading sessions.  And the publishers make every possible dollar they can by not letting their content out.  Yeah, its not quite as nice as OGL, but I suspect this is a workable compromise.  One could imagine it being even better, if I could give the group access to my custom content through the same online distribution channel.

The bottom line is, PDFs vs books aside, the real impact is online accessible vs non-accessible.  PDFs or hardcover will work, but I'm not running anymore systems where my players and I can't get to an online version of the material that is searchable and linkable.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Upcoming Campaign Hint

Here are a couple of pictures of a project I am building for my next campaign. Can anyone figure out what this piece is?  The one section can swivel inside the other.

Friday, May 24, 2013

That Just About Sums It Up

Tracking Those Pesky NPCs

Tracking NPCs in an adventure can be painful, especially if there are long periods of time between their appearances.  Reality Refracted has a good write-up on some methods for NPC tracking.In my opinion, there is just no module that has a bigger problem of this than The Wormwood Mutiny, the first book in the Skull and Shackles adventure path. (SPOILER ALERT)  In the Wormwood Mutiny, the PCs are shanghaied and put aboard a ship with no less than 23 NPCs.  As the title suggests, the story leads to a mutiny.  NPCs have to decide whether to support or fight against the PCs at the time of the mutiny.  This is determined through the history of the PC's interactions with the crew.

Having a large number of NPCs in a scenario like this has a lot of challenges:

  • Each NPC has a specific relationship to be tracked against each NPC.  With 23 NPCs and a party of 4, that is 92 relationships.
  • Each NPC has different duties giving them different places to be on this ship.
  • Each NPC needs to be memorable that the PCs can remember them.  If they can't remember them, they can't try to interact with them.
  • Eventually all of these NPCs end up in battles, so the GM or player that ends up playing them needs a quick and easy to understand stat block.
In this case, I made NPC cards.  I print NPC cards out on card stock and fold them in half.  The front is a picture of them with their name.  The back is a full stat block.  During interactions, I hang the NPC's card on my monitor, laptop screen, or GM screen.  The players get a memorable picture.  I can take notes on the back.  To "go through" the NPCs to figure out who is doing what, I literally just have to go through a deck of NPCs.  Need a random NPC?  Have a player draw one from the deck.

To track relationships, I put a letter or two as initials for each PC on the card as they interact with them.  Then to record how the interaction went, I do a range from ++ to 0 to --.  I total these up over time, so they may become numbers +5 or -12.  In the next interaction, that gives me a feeling for how they are going to react to the PC.  And when the mutiny comes around, all I have to do is look at the attitude numbers versus each PC.  If they have positive connections to the PCs, they side with them.  If they have negative connections, then they don't.  It can get complicated, of course, if they react negatively to one and positively to another, but in these cases, the GM gets to make the call for the NPC.  As a GM, you do that a lot -- get in the NPC's head and figure out what they would do.

Now, during normal intervals in the game where only an NPC or two is interacting with the NPCs, I keep a full character sheet for them.  I can take notes and essentially play them like a PC.  This is good, if the NPC is going to be in regular fights with the PCs.  It also satisfies that urge the GM gets sometimes to play a character.

For lightly interacting NPCs, I use a different approach.  For example, Corrail has a cousin that pops in now and then with information.  For her, I have one image in my mind that defines her.  When I see Ahkra, I see a dark haired woman dressed in dark leather pants, a white poofy dress shirt, and high black boots propped up on a table, drinking an ale.  That one image defines her.  She is social, relaxed, but protected, and slightly dark.  From there, the rest of character follows.  I know how she will interact.  She just seems like a rogue in that picture and that is enough to remind me how to play her.

For armies, I summarize the troops into groups that all have the same stat block (which I usually pull from standard NPCs tables or NPC codex).  For tracking, I have a page with a stat block for each group type and I record notes directly onto the sheet.  I use group damage, which means I use a dice to keep track the number of them left.  Damage is done against one at a time, with the extra flowing to the next one.  So let's say 120 damage is done against a group that has 50 hp each.  I decrement the dice counter by two, since two are killed and I right down 30hp on the character sheet, which is the HP of the one injured member of the group.  Now if another attack does 40 hp, I decrement the dice counter by 1 and right down 40hp.  The damage killed the injured NPC and overflowed into the next one.  To separate groups of the same stat block type, I use different colors of dice for counter so each group has a color.  If the battle has to carry over to the next session, a quick picture with my cell phone records the dice counters and the sheets have the HP states.

All of the methods I mention here are tried and true.  I've been using them for a long time, and though they don't reflect what I started with, they represent the ultimately lazy methods I settled on.  I figure if you can follow the methods even on your most tired burnt-out week, you've got a methods that you can always follow.  And that's not bad.  

A Tale of the Thornhold Guard: Taking on the Old Wizard Pharalyn

In the keep, celebrating the recent victory, the party relaxes, having a drink.  The party consists of:

  • Elven Ranger Corrail
  • Half-elf Druid / Rogue Felix
  • Victaerrus Shieldheart, 16 year old girl fighter
  • Khaleel, human cleric of Desna
  • Halfling Ranger Roderick
  • Pinnacle, a human sorcerer
  • Ali, a catfolk monk
The commanders of the Thornhold's hired army comes to the party asking them for a flag to raise in celebration of their victory over the Chtulian star spawn and evil wizard.  The party, in return for allowing her to stay on as part of the keep's staff, has a beautiful flag sewn by the bard Krisora.  The flag is purple with a griffin and seven gold starts.

The bard returns to the party and says that she wished to record their deeds in song and story of the victory at hand, but she needs a name for the party.  The party names themselves the Thornhold Guards, and Krisora is delighted at the name.

Victaerus's mother arrives at the keep with news.  The army at Neverwinter has broken its siege and is no heading for the gnomish city.  Elminster has requested that the party head for the gnomish city.  Vic's mother also suggests that now would be an opportune time to mop up some stragglers from the battle she has found camped at an old ruins two days out from the keep.

The party prepares to leave, when a woman arrives, Miss Agrivar.  She asks to speak to Corrail alone, though the rest of the party is eavesdropping.  She tells Corrail that the Harpers have gotten word that the army is retreating from the Neverwinter siege and heading straight for the gnome city.  The siege on Neverwinter was a ploy to keep Neverwinter's army from interceding in the real assault on the gnome city.  Now the Harpers was Corrail to make sure the city is not destroyed, or if that fails, ensure that he takes possession of the Mace of the Sun.  Someone will meet him in Waterdeep to take possession of the mace, should the city be destroyed.

The party then got in flight on their way to the ruins to take out the stragglers.  Between brooms of flyings, a griffon, and cloak of the bat, all get airborne.  They land and hike in just after midday.  The party gets into position and attacks.  Unfortunately, the wizard has been scrying and knows they are coming.  There is no surprise, and they find themselves immediately under attack.

The monk turns to his rod of wonder, a magical random effect device that doesn't seem to help half the time. Growing a tree, making sparkly lightshows happen between lucky shots of lightning.  The old wizards starts out easy but quickly is angered by the annoying attackers.  The halfling ranger gets pounded by mages.  A group of rogues follows the party members out into the woods and gets slaughtered by Corrail and Khaleel.  Pinnacle wisely fires off spells while ducking back into to cover, so as to avoid getting hit.

Meanwhile another group of rogues chases down the bear and Yuri, the winter wolf.  Felix flies in to attempt to save them, but gets sliced and diced by rapiers and goes down.  The party anxiously awaits to find out if he will live or die.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Pics and Articles: Merp, Map, and Pay Attention!

Some of you may remember Merp.  He is a creature from the Tentacles and Eyeballs Kickstarter:

My wife was so kind as to make me a Merp plush:

Here's a sneak peak at a calligraphy map for Thursday:

Also check out this random table for "punishment" for players that don't pay attention from Scott Kurtz's Table Titans via d4d6d8d10d12d20.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Saturday Shadowrun: Botching the Take

  • The crew moved in through the junk yard.  
  • Vee took a couple more trashers.
  • Void started hotwiring the crane.
  • Mr. Black crit glitched, misjudging the situation, and ran into the melee near Loomis.
  • The corporate guys take Mr. Black hostage and force the team to back off.
  • Ender is checking out the comm links.
  • Vee still takes out another trasher with knives, nice and quiet like.
  • The team runs for their rides as the corporate guys take Mr. Black and head out.
  • They use Mr. Black to force the team to stop following.
  • Mr. Black gets ejected out of the corporate team's van.
  • The team tries to track down the corporate team.  They find an RFID tag at the scene of the firefight that leads them back to Shangri-La, a division of Horizon Music.
  • The team heads down to the electronics junkyard to try to track down an optical disc reader.
  • Mr. Black gets permission from the Boggard in charge to search for one.  He also finds out that the Cathode glow bar is THE place to find old hardware.
  • A search of the junk turns up nothing.
  • The team heads to Cathode Glow.  Mr. Black gets a line on the reader they're looking for.  It turns out there is a shop in the back.
  • Ender and Mr. Black go in, with Vee on watch with a very big gun.
  • They get in.  For a price they get a line on someone using the reader.  They have 3 hours until the people will show.  For a price they also get a copy of the data.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Thursday Night Pathfinder: Thornhold vs Zelbinion: Fight!!!

The party gathered their armies and placed them around and behind the keep, awaiting the arrival of the Zelbinion.  Barbarians lined the ground behind the keep.  Fighters with bows hid in the treeline overlooking the cliff over the harbor.  Cannons were positioned in and above the cave.  Archers and caster waited on the keep's walls and towers.  Row boats carrying some 50 kegs of black powder were docked all along the harbor.  Barrels above the cliff sat ready to soak the stairs need they require disabling.

The Zelbinion sailed just barely into range when a deep dense fog started pouring from it, filling the ocean within sight up 20, 40, 60, 80 feet, and higher until nearly nothing below the cliff was visible, not even the sails and masts of the great ship.

Casters took orders and sent a gust of wind across the scene, slowly pushing the fog away. The Zelbinion was revealed, perhaps 120 feet out from the keep, broadside toward the harbor.  The wizard, scraggly and white haired appeared on a magic carpet flying about the ship.

Those with good sight could see the teleport circle etched into the main deck of the ship, as two groups of men began appearing in various locations on land every few seconds.  First there were 80 guards on the road above the cliff and harbor.

Barbarians began moving toward the new arrivals.  Archers, buffed by clerics, and fighter went to action.  The battle began.  Archers, casters, fighters, and barbarians pounded at the oncoming troops.  Cannons hit the Zelbinion and blackened its sides.  The old wizard disintegrated a section of wall to form a hole through from the harbor-side.  Spells bounced off his globe of invulnerability.

Melee forces from the keep chewed their way through newly appearing forces.  Lightning bolts exchanged and incoming casters from the ship quickly fell.  Clerics controlling the seas sent the ship spinning.  The ship's blade barrier was activated and some of the ships crew fell into the blades.  Ballistas hammered at the ship's crew as they tried to teleport away.  Rogue enemy troops and casters appeared on the towers and outside the hole in the keep.  Clerics and others decimated their numbers on the ground.

The wizard started a ritual and turned invisible.  The ship morphed sending the last remnants of crew and army into the sea.  The Zelbinion was no more and in its place was a large tentacled, winged creature.  Khaleel identified it as a star-spawn of Cthulu.  Many of those on the closest tower began fleeing in terror.

Corrail blasted the creature with arrows, deeply injuring its head.  The quick thinking monk, Ali, flew a broom from Felix up to the ballistas and got a lift from one ballista bolt out towards the creature.  He leaped and flew and began pounding at it with his bare fists, hurting it more.

The monk pulled back and creature headed for the shore where the keep folks set off the rowboats full of explosives.  The blasts obliterated the creature.  In the chaos, many of the ship's crew, army members,  and the old wizards escaped.

The keep was left with a large hole in the side.  The stairs to the harbor were destroyed by the blast and part of the cliff collapsed into the harbor.  It will need to be cleared for ships to use it again.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Coal GM (or How I Learned to Stop Being a Perfectionist GM)

As Stargazer points out, being a GM can be stressful, but it often is a combination of players wanting to be entertained and a perfectionist GM that brings about this tortured artist syndrome.  There was a time in the beginning of my most recent phase of GMing that I, too, was a perfectionist GM, trying to make sure that every element of the game was perfect, from the detailed description and notes surrounding NPCs to intricate plots to having the perfect miniature for every monster, cyharacter, and NPC.  I even had special props I would bring in.

Then life got busy.  I have 4 daughters and a wife.  I have a full time job.  I have other hobbies.  A week or two came and went with me having no time to prep for a game.  And the world didn't come to an end:  the game was fun, the players enjoyed everything, and I just made up stuff on the fly.  Then I realized all my intricate plots points, clues, detailed NPCs were being lost on players that really didn't pay attention to most of it anyway.  What made the game were the situations -- comical, epic, challenging.  And so my focus changed.  Every week was going to build up.  Every week was a challenge of prep.  Instead in my thinking hours of the day I just had to figure out how to one-up myself.

Then I really started to change my prep.  I didn't need anything detailed.  Copy and print a few stats.  Adapt stats from existing sources like the NPC blocks in the Core Pathfinder Book.  Use the online PRD to pull stat blocks.  Pull standard trap stats and spin them.

The new challenges were different.  How DO you run a battle with 70 goblins?  And now this week, I am running a battle with two armies of over 400.  And prep?  A few stat blocks, some lists, and a few maps, and we are good to go.  It's about the coal, the raw material, and not about polishing and pressuring everything into a diamond.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Thinking of Thursday...

The things that make the game are the twists that are unexpected.  It's practically written into the rules of Shadowrun, but it applies in all good RPGs.  Always, as a GM, have something hidden, the barely relevant just below the surface thing, that spins everything in a different direction at just the right moment.

Friday, May 10, 2013

RPG as a Teaching Tool

A game, in its most basic form, is a model for successes and failures, for incentives and consequences.  The interaction of the player or players within this model generates successes and failures that build the story of play.  This is true for every game from solitaire to D&D to board games to video games.  Specifically in RPGs, where players put themselves into the roles of other people, these models for successes and failures, become a mental model for what the character should or shouldn't do and for how things interact in the game world.

What never ceases to amaze, is that as soon as this model is put in place, the players, without mathematical rigor or even openly stated analysis, begin finding their way to the optimal configurations of characters for the types of interactions they want to focus on.  Give the man some advice, and he'll ignore it.  Give the man a puzzle with some rules, and he'll find the right answer every time.  Struggling to fine the optimum?  Don't worry -- the other players will jump right in and help you.

Given this unique power that puzzles have over people and that people have over puzzles, it seems logical to extend the realm of RPGs into areas where we can use realistic models for real-life.  Take, for example, human health.  Doctors know enough about human health to be able to give advice to people as to what they should and shouldn't do.  The world is filled with articles about how to defeat every disease and health risk that comes along, yet the population continues to battle with these things.  What, if instead of offering advice, we offered a game with a realistic model for human health.

Now the players of this hypothetical game -- let's call it "Live Forever" -- get to make decisions on how to outlive the other players, both by making good decisions themselves and trying to get the other players to make bad decisions.  The human brain builds the model, starts optimizing it, and ultimately incorporates it into their day-to-day thinking patterns.

How many other areas of human knowledge could we reinforce and optimize by simply exposing people to games?  So here is the challenge this week.  Find a topic you care about where people are making poor choices -- global warming, STDs, terrorism, censorship, whatever.  Build a realistic, yet simple model of how the decisions of humans influence the success and failures.  Then build it into a FUN game.  Rinse, lather, repeat, and unleash a plethora of games on the world to do good.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Saturday Shadowrun: Looking for Information, but Finding Trouble

It was a big Shadowrun day with 4 of 5 players in attendance and the run underway.
When last we left off, Felix (aka. formerly Zephyr) had just switched on Nabo's comm link and Ender, the technomancer confirmed it was the right comm link.  Unfortunately, it was in public mode, and all of Nabo's near and dear go-ganger friends that were providing security, also saw it come on.  Two of the security guards burst in to the room with Felix, told him to stop, and opened fire.  He barely was able to dodge the bullets and disappear up the HVAC vent.

Felix warned the rest of the group to stay put and not mind the bullets.  He darted across the roof.

Mr. Black, the new face of the party, took the controls of the van.  Void dove into the passenger's seat.  Vee hopped in the back, and got the window down and her gun in place.  The backdoor guard ran inside and then reemerged with 3 more.  Vee layed down supressive fire and made them all hit the dirt long enough for Felix to rappel down the wall, and run into the van.

The van took off past the porta-potties, dodging concert-goers that were fleeing the warehouse after hearing the gunfire.  The guards jumped in their SUV.  Tires blew, but the guards kept driving on run-flats.  Luckily, Mr. Black was able to lose the pursuers.

The team went to V-Worx to take care of the commlink.  Ender was off on other business, so Felix talked to Eula. For a price of 250 nuyen, she could unlock the comm link that he had "forgotten" the password for.  Once inside they found an email regarding the optical disk they were looking for.

They caught back up with the technomancer and got info on the message.  They tracked it to a hacker named Zipper.  And Zipper hangs out in a hacker bar named Cathode Glow.

The group goes there and finds it to be a run down retro hacker bar.  Within minutes the group's commlinks were mischievously hacked.  Mr. Black found his way in nice and found Zipper.  For 750 nuyen she gave up her contact -- a seller of the optical disk that wanted to remain anonymous and that had already received a couple of messages regarding the sale.  Loomis was his name, and he owned a run-down club called Coda.

Arriving at Coda, the party found an even-more run down bar with BTL addicts in the gutter and vomit in the doorway.  A disturbance next door in a junk yard caught their eye.  A small group of armed guys were overtaking a limping man trying to flee through the junkyard.  The party fell into position to watch, against the will of the pursuers, except for Mr. Black.  He entered the bar to find 5 gangers.  They hassled Mr. Black.  He walked out and they followed.  The took the pursuers of the man as another gang trying to move in on their turf.  Suddenly the party was caught between pursuers and the gangers with impending violence.

Felix got on top the piles of cars.  Void watched behind cover.  Vee threw out a flash grenade as the pursuers caught the limping man, and picked off two of the gangers.  The pursuers stunned the man.  Felix moved in and took a shot at the men trying to carry "Loomis", as they identified him.  He had a bad shot and hit Loomis in the head, killing him.  Gangers returned fire at Vee.  Void moved into position, trying to get to a nearby crane.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Thursday Night Pathfinder: Finishing off the Beholders and Meeting Some Old 'Friends'

The party was facing down one last beholder.  Victaerrus charged and attacked but missed.  Calleel cast a spell and in a moment of great power, killed the beholder outright.  The party went on to loot the beholder caves of many pieces of equipment.  They helped the kobolds and several slaves as they looked for an exit.  Below in the dark throne room they found a quickly fading portal.  It took them back to the surface.

Above ground, they landed on the top of the temple.  There was much rejoicing by the gnomes.  Palarandusk and Elminster appeared, commented a bit on the new party, scared the new 16 year old party member, and took the mace.  Word was that they were to return after a week.  In the meantime they had other troubles.

In the local tavern, they walked past the hundreds of years old painting of the party that entered the temple.  Few were left.  The toll was high.

Ahkra, Corrail's cousin, was there, waiting on them.  She brought word from Sheena.  The mage had picked up an army of 400 in Candlekeep aboard the Zelbinion warship and was headed to the Thornhold.  Sheena was going to try to take control of the Celestial Kyte to help them.

Meanwhile, Victaerus had a tap on her shoulder.  It was her mother.  She had been taken prisoner at Candlekeep.  The dragon's army now had Neverwinter several days under siege.  She managed to escape, but Victaerus's father was still a prisoner.

After cold ale's around the table, Felix focused on gathering items from their excursion and selling them off.  The gnome city was buying up equipment at good prices, so there was good gold to be collected.

For 1000 gp, the party hired the local mage to teleport them back to the Thonhold to begin preparations for the arrival of the Zelbinion.

Over the next week of in-game and out-of-game time, the players are readying their plans and defenses.  In the next session, the Zelbinion warship will arrive at port.