The third act of Andy Slack's gaming blog

Archive for the ‘Reflections’ Category

Ave Atque Vale

Mama put my guns in the ground
I can’t shoot them anymore
That cold black cloud is comin’ down
Feels like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door
– Bob Dylan, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door

Normally, later this year you’d have seen me wax lyrical about a weekend get-together with old college friends, playing OD&D and whatever else had captured my interest at the time.

This year, changes in family circumstances for myself and another of the remaining three players brought this tradition to an end, and with it the CSI: Shadipuur and Rattenbury Ghost campaigns. This was easily the best two days of my gaming year, and was so important to me that I seriously considered hanging up my dice for good when it stopped.

The nameless OD&D campaign which gradually evolved into Shadipuur lasted from 1976 to 2018, 42 years, and taught me a great deal about how to GM, as well as being enormous fun.

I’ll not see its like again.


Forecast for 2019

“Life is what happens while you’re making other plans.” – Allen Saunders

Over the last month or so, I asked my players what they what to do next, and none of them gave the answer I expected. I shall adjust my plans accordingly, as there is no point forcing them into campaigns that don’t interest them. The players fall into three groups which I think of as Reading, VTT, and Wantage.

I expected the Reading group to go for the Dracula Dossier, but actually they asked for more Beasts & Barbarians.

I thought the VTT group would want to continue with Traveller, but when talking about their perfect game, they unknowingly described early-edition D&D.

Finally, I predicted that the Wantage group would prefer Beasts & Barbarians, but what they asked for was more Savage Worlds in a science-fiction setting.

So, despite my intentions, the forecast for 2019 is dense patches of Beasts & Barbarians, with scattered outbreaks of Labyrinth Lord and Savage Traveller.

I did not see that coming.

Lessons from 2018

2018 has been a very instructive year on the gaming front, and this year you’ve already seen several lessons learned…

But wait, there’s more…

  • I’ve realised that I don’t actually need any figures at all… I run face to face games in other peoples’ houses using their figures or none at all; VTT games use tokens; and solitaire games which need figures can also be run on VTT. A small emergency stash of paper minis is more than adequate.
  • I love Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan’s work and have now tried to run four of his campaigns in succession; Eyes of the Stone Thief, Heart of the Fury, the Pirates of Drinax and the Dracula Dossier. All of them have fizzled out after a few sessions at most. So while I will still read his output and be inspired by it, I will stop trying to run it; there’s something about the interaction between his campaigns and my groups that stops them working for us, which is a great pity.
  • Everything is quiet on the gaming front at the moment, but one thing I’ve learned from blogging is that happens every year at about this time; so I’ll kick back, enjoy seeing the family for a while, and see what January brings.

So much for 2018. Have a merry Christmas and a happy New Year, and I’ll see you on the other side, if spared.

A Night at the (Space) Opera

The story goes that Warren Buffet, billionaire investor, gave his personal pilot some advice: Make a list of your top 25 goals, and circle the top five. Where this story diverges from what you might expect is the followup statement that “everything you didn’t circle just became your Avoid-At-All-Costs List”; whatever happens, those 20 items get no attention until the top five are finished. They are distractions; tempting distractions, but distractions nonetheless.

When I tried this at home, it quickly became apparent that although most of my free time and effort goes into gaming, that is not where most of my priority goals are. (There’s also the undeniable fact that I’m not 25 any more, and it’s getting harder to run or even play multiple games in parallel.)

So, I’ve decided to limit myself to one set of rules, running no more than two campaigns at a time (reducing to one within the next two years), and running at most one session per week. Henceforth, all gaming activity and purchases must serve those decisions. (As you’ll see, those campaigns are the Dracula Dossier and the Trojan Reach – I hesitate to call it the Pirates of Drinax now since the PCs have gone off-piste.)

This means one of the regular groups needs to go, and for various reasons I reluctantly decided to drop Team Harrier; but they have started their own Mongoose Traveller campaign on the side now, so they will still get their Traveller fix, thus assuaging my guilt.

Traveller Retrospective

Is Mongoose Traveller 2nd Edition a good game? Yes, absolutely; in my opinion, the best version of Traveller since the original classic edition of 1977, and I like that A LOT. Is it good enough for me to discard Savage Worlds? Not for the kind of games I want to run these days, no.

Firstly, there’s a thematic difference. Traveller is space noir; characters are ordinary people who get caught up in adventures and intrigues almost by accident, and have no mechanical advantage over NPC mooks. Savage Worlds characters are pulp heroes who get drawn into action-adventure movies and gun down mooks by the dozen. At my table, we prefer the latter.

Secondly, we’ve spent years learning Savage Worlds, and there’s no real advantage in switching to another system, so no real reason to change. I can’t see anything in Traveller that I couldn’t do in Savage Worlds faster and with less record-keeping; YMMV of course.

I will continue to use the starships and worlds from Traveller, as I like them better than the Savage Worlds equivalents – this is probably just because I’ve been using them all my adult life and I’m more comfortable with them. If you remember the Little Black Books, essentially I have replaced Book 1 with the Savage Worlds core rulebook.

Enough Figures

Recently, I mentioned idly to my wife that I was thinking of getting some new figures.

“Haven’t you got enough figures?” she said.

Now this is no thing to say to a tabletop gamer, and in the early years of our marriage might well have led to an argument; but this time I thought: “She is very often right. Is it possible that I do, in fact, have enough figures?”

That begs the question, how many figures are enough?

I no longer play tabletop wargames, partly because of scheduling problems (this job thing really gets in the way of my gaming) and partly because I’ve gone off Warhammer, so the driving factor is face to face role-playing sessions. For those, a party of six is about all I can handle, they only need one figure each, and enemy NPCs typically outnumber the party 2:1 in my games. So at any one time, there are only going to be 18 figures on the table. Let’s triple the PCs to give the players some choice; that adds another 12, taking us to 30 total – the major named NPCs can use the spare PC figures.

Like any tabletop gamer, I accept using one figure as a proxy for another, but I draw the line at using fantasy figures to represent science fiction ones. So let’s have 30 fantasy and 30 SF; total, 60. The SF figures can stand in for contemporary figures in my zombie apocalypse solo games, and although the fantasy mooks (skeletons and orcs) could stand in for zombies, I would prefer some proper zeds. Let’s go all out and say another 30 for that genre. Total, 90. Conveniently, that would fit into one of my old Warhammer cases, which have room for 108 figures each, with some room left over for dice and bennies.

I haven’t counted my collection lately, but judging by the number of boxes and cases it occupies, there are somewhere between 400 and 500 of the little devils. (I’ve been gaming a long time now.) So, in terms of raw numbers, I have to admit I do indeed have enough figures, though they may not be the right ones for my current games. I must also admit that they’ve all spent at least the last three years in cupboards, in case they get damaged, like the good china. It does seem pointless to buy more things that sit in cupboards not being used; let’s get them back on the table where they belong.

As Yakko might have said, “I think we’ve all learned a valuable lesson today: Never talk to your wife about buying figures.”

RPG-a-Day 2018

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Good lord, I missed it again. There’s an August every year, you’d think it would have stopped being a surprise by now…

1. What do you love about RPGs?

They’re co-operative, they liberate the imagination, and they allow you to experiment with being different people. What if you were the best – or worst – possible version of yourself? What if you could do whatever you want? What if you were an honest-to-Ghod hero for a change? What would that be like?

2. What do you look for in an RPG?

Simplicity, elegance, completeness. The complexity should come from the story, not the game itself, which should be simple enough not to get in the way; the rules should have elegance in the mathematical sense, and cover everything you need for that genre or style of play.

3. What gives a game staying power?

It must be fun. It must cater for a wide range of play styles. It must liberate the imagination rather than constrain it. It must be simple enough for a casual player, but with enough optional complexity for a grognard. It must be well-supported, with a range of setting and adventure material. A free-to-download quick-start version is a big help, too.

4. Most memorable NPC?

The one I always think of first is Sumil, the thief’s sidekick in our CSI: Shadipuur D&D campaign. Taciturn, loyal, and as a 15th(?) level monk in an OD&D game an absolute combat god.

5. Favourite recurring NPC?

Kumal the Smiling, the PCs’ nemesis for years in Beasts & Barbarians. There was nothing special about that character, and he had no plot immunity at all, but the dice loved him. The players shot him, hit him with axes, set him on fire, threw him down wells, left him to be carried off by giant hawks – none of it worked, he always came back a few sessions later with an even bigger grudge against them. We were all sad when they finally killed him.

6. How can players make a world seem real?

By investing emotion and effort in their PCs’ relationships with NPCs and each other.

7. How can a GM make the stakes important?

Those NPCs the players are invested in? Threaten them.

8. How can we get more people playing?

Word of mouth works best for me. If your players are enthusiastic, they will tell their friends, and your group will grow and eventually fission.

9. How has a game surprised you?

To be honest, this really doesn’t happen much any more, and I rather wish it would.

10. How has gaming changed you?

It has made me a mine of useless information. Want to know where to shoot a BTR-70 to take it out with a rifle? Wonder why you’re supposed to put your mask on before helping other passengers? Want to know what the Old Norse word for wolf is? Just ask.

Also, I credit it with my world view: Friends and family matter; skills matter; wealth and possessions don’t. I learned that from playing D&D.

11. Wildest character name?

Two, both from the same player: Szrbcz, gung ho space marine, and Uptanogud, sorcerous con-man.

12. Wildest character concept?

Two 13th Age characters whose uniques were “everybody forgets me at midnight” and “my memory was erased by one of the Icons, I can’t remember which”. That only scratches the surface of their weirdness. The one with no memory, for example, did everything with turnips.

13. Describe how your play has evolved?

It has become progressively simpler, more straightforward and more improvisational over the decades. Hence the opening quotation. You need an simple plot outline, a few interesting character archetypes, and simple rules for common situations. The rest of the time you can just wing it, either as a player or a GM.

14. Describe a failure that became amazing?

There was a D&D adventure a few years ago which hinged on reuniting star-crossed lovers, who we later discovered had been forced apart by the schemes of the girl’s sister, and doing so by a specific time. After many encounters with brigands and the supernatural, we recovered the young man and got him to the girl’s house with only minutes to spare. The only way to reach her in time was to build a human pyramid and send the boy up it to his girl’s balcony with a rose.

As he neared the top, we saw her sister moving up to push her out of the window – and everything we tried failed; spells, warnings, and you can’t fight well while part of a human pyramid. One quick shove, and out fell the girl. Could her NPC boyfriend catch her, we asked in desperation?

On a natural 20, yes he could, and the crowd went wild as the human pyramid collapsed as gently as we could manage, lowering the couple gently to the ground. It turned out much better than anything we could have planned.

15. Describe a tricky RPG experience that you enjoyed?

My OD&D GM has a real knack for puzzles. The one we never solved was when we had to find a missing painting. We couldn’t find anyone who had ever seen it; we had quite a lengthy description from an old diary – but every noun in the description was the word “cob”, which has multiple meanings in English. There was a cob in the foreground, cobbing another cob, for example. Was it a horse? A swan? A spider? A loaf of bread? We had no idea.

16. Describe your plans for your next game?

In November I hope to start running the Dracula Dossier under Savage Worlds. I plan to shake things up a bit by introducing a variety of indie game techniques – flashbacks, player-facing die rolls, shared responsibility, full-on improvisation and so on. You’ll see how that goes in session writeups.

17. Describe the best compliment you’ve had while gaming?

As I often do, I’ll give you two of those.

“Thanks for the game, I enjoyed it.” This is the one I aim for as a GM.

“You are disturbingly good at being Chaotic Neutral.” I’ll just leave that hanging there, I think.

18. What art inspires your game?

Monocolour Zen drawings, where what is left out – the white space – is almost more important than the lines, which merely suggest what is there. That inspires my approach more than locations or NPCs.

19. What music enhances your game?

Classic rock inspires it, but silence enhances it. You don’t need a soundtrack.

20. Which game mechanic inspires your play the most?

Actually, none of ’em. Mechanics in my games are as unobtrusive as I can make them.

21. Which dice mechanic appeals to you?

Exploding dice; if you roll the maximum possible on a die, you keep that score, roll again, and add the new roll to your total. This generates some truly awesome outcomes in play, and means that low-level monsters remain viable threats even for the most experienced PCs.

22. Which non-dice system appeals to you?

The “Uniques” in 13th Age – each player can state one thing about their PC which is only true for that character, and cannot be true for any other character in the game world, for example “I am the only acrobat ever to escape the Diabolist’s Circus of Pain”.

23. Which game do you hope to play again?

I’m happy with what I’m running as a GM – Traveller and Savage Worlds – but as a player, I miss Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying 2nd Edition.

24. Which RPG do you think deserves greater recognition?

All Things Zombie, although it’s debatable whether it’s an RPG or a skirmish wargame. Try it, you might like it.

25. Name a game that had an impact on you in the last year?

Mongoose Traveller 2. Now that I’ve been persuaded to use it, I find it very clean and elegant in play. I especially like the way character generation sets up relationships between the PCs and with NPCs they encountered during their careers – as my son said at the end of chargen, “I feel like we’ve already played a campaign with these characters.”

26. Your gaming ambition for the next year?

Finding the inspiration and energy to excite and inspire my players as we step into the Dracula Dossier and the Pirates of Drinax. I hope I can do them justice.

27. Share a great stream/actual play?

Tinker Tailor Vampire Die on ENWorld – Night’s Black Agents session writeups. I hope I can do as well when I come to run the Dracula Dossier.

28. Share whose inspiring gaming excellence you’re grateful for?

In alphabetical order: Ken Hite, Umberto Pignatelli, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan. There are many others whose writing I admire and enjoy, but those are the three who inspire me to run games.

29. Share a friendship you have because of RPGs?

All of ’em, most importantly my best friend – my wife. She doesn’t play, but I met her through friends who do.

30. Share something you learned about playing your character?

All my PCs develop their personalities in reaction to the dice rolls and interactions at the table; you start off with an idea, but that emergent behaviour in play changes them.

Most recently, Fullangr Brimison, revenge-driven dwarf vampire hunter, has started to focus on rebuilding his decimated clan more than killing the vampires responsible. Because there’s always another vampire.

31. Share why you take part in RPG-a-Day?

The questions make me think, and remind me of good times gone by. Hopefully the answers make you think too, or at least amuse you.

Crossing the Irrawaddy

“Or there is Appendix 20, an account of Deception Plan “Cloak”, whereby General Slim deceived the Japanese by a fake crossing of the Irrawaddy. He confused Nine Section, too; we dug in at no fewer than three different positions in as many hours, Grandarse lost his upper dentures on a sandbank, little Nixon disturbed a nest of black scorpions in the dark, we dug in hurriedly in a fourth position, and the general feeling was that the blame for the whole operation lay at the door of, first, Winston Churchill, secondly, the royal family, and thirdly (for some unimaginable reason), Vera Lynn. It should be understood that we did not know that “Cloak” had worked brilliantly; we were footsore, hungry, forbidden to light fires, and on hundred per cent stand-to – even though, as Grandarse, articulating with difficulty, pointed out, there wasn’t a Jap within miles.” – George MacDonald Fraser, Quartered Safe Out Here

I promised to explain why the Aslan Border Wars thread has been cancelled… it’s like this…

Since 1977 I have been enamoured of the idea of running a campaign at multiple levels simultaneously; a game of grand strategy at a high level, generating events and missions for a roleplaying game at a lower level. It has never worked, for several reasons.

Disparity between timescales is a problem. Roleplaying campaigns run much closer to real time, with (say) a session every other real-world week in which the PCs’ timeline advances a few game weeks. Strategic wargames usually have turns that represent months to years of game time, and even if you play them by email they rapidly outpace the RPG campaign – with some boardgames, you can easily get 20 years ahead of the RPG in an afternoon. You then have a choice of either slowing down the strategic game to a few turns each real-time year, or accepting that the PCs have no real impact on events at the strategic level. In the former case the players wander off to do something more interesting, and in the latter case you are essentially saying the strategic game doesn’t matter – the PCs can’t affect it, and it won’t react to anything they do, so why bother?

Even if you can make it work, you’re ensuring that those with a role in the strategic game learn things that should surprise their roleplaying PCs, and increasing GM workload by running two parallel campaigns.

It’s arguably not realistic either. The PCs in an RPG typically form an elite squad, usually some sort of mercenary black ops team, or the crew of a small ship. If you read memoirs by people operating at that level – George MacDonald Fraser, say, or Eugene Sledge – you discover that they frequently have no idea where they are or why. Part of this is the natural chaos of such events, and part of it is operational security, but the upshot of it is that the visible events driven by high-level strategy should realistically be perceived by the PCs as unexpected and apparently random, things which they avoid or take advantage of; and that means the GM doesn’t need to plan those events out in detail, Old School random encounters are a perfectly reasonable way to simulate them.

So much for the theory. In practice, this means I’m mothballing the Aslan Border Wars thread. I will move it into the GM Notes category as part of the historical record, but expect no further updates. The implication of this is that the official Traveller timeline no longer applies to the Dark Nebula campaigns, but this is not something I generally take into account.

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