Shining Dodecahedron

One geek's views on role-playing and games in general.

This place is all about discussing paper-and-pencil roleplaying games. I'm Jay, and I run this joint, but that doesn't make me smarter than you. This will all work best if I say things, and you say what you think about them, lather, rinse, repeat. With luck we can all understand the hobby a little better. If you have a topic that you would like me to start a thread about, post a comment here. If you've got something to say about characters (my ongoing topic du jour), post a comment here.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Fantasy Wargaming

I was at Half Price Books tonight after dinner and I picked up a little casebound digest-sized book called Fantasy Wargaming published in 1981. At first glance (all it took for me to buy it) it looked like a reference book for roleplayers. It has lots of information about medieval Europe and a chapter about GMing. What I didn't realize until I got home is that it is a complete (according to the authors) RPG.

It's a real gem. A reaction to D&D (the author says that D&D is "in many ways...unsatisfactory") with great emphasis on in-game causality and historical authenticity. Yes, historical authenticity. Here's a quote from the Explanation of characteristics section:

Players wishing to play a female character must unfortunately take the penalties of a patriarchal society. Make the following adjustments to diced characteristics: physique and endurance -3, charisma -2, social class -3, bravery -2, greed/selfishness/lust -3. They will be excluded from combat, from all parts of the Church save the nunnery, and expected in most cases to adopt a domestic position as wife, housekeeper and servant. These factors are invariable.
Doesn't that sound like a blast?

Seriously, anybody out there complaining about how lame D20 is, take a look at some of the older games like this one. It'll blow your mind.

I'm going to have fun reading through this beast!

What is a setting?

The Forge's Provisional Glossary says of Setting:

Elements described about a fictitious game world including period, locations, cultures, historical events, and characters, usually at a large scale relative to the presence of the player-characters. A Component of Exploration.

I am not going to dispute that at all. In the context of Exploration, that definition is absolutely correct.
However, for today (and future discussion about the topic) I mean setting in the sense of guidance for play within a particular setting.
The way I see it, a setting has the following purposes:
  • Provide boundaries for character creation (what races, roles, etc. are appropriate? What abilities are available, encouraged, or forbidden?)
  • Provide in-game social context (e.g. the Empire is bad, the rebellion is good, the force is mysterious and powerful)
  • Assist in guiding expectations (e.g. no giant robots will show up in Middle Earth)
  • Provide a shared point of reference for players
Obviously there is some overlap. Am I missing anything? Is there some other important function of pre-exploratory setting?
Anyway, I'll take a close look at each of these purposes in upcoming posts.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

A bit about setting

I used to really enjoy my roleplaying. Back in the late eighties and early nineties, when games were a bit different. For a while I thought that it was the systems that I missed. Then I tried playing in the Hero System again and it kind of hurt. No, it wasn't the systems I missed--it was the settings.

When I was a free-wheeling RPG geek in high school I never (and I mean *never*) used an established setting. If I used a module (and this was extra-rare) I adapted it to fit my own setting. So when I (or someone in my group) wanted to run a new game, a campaign write-up was created. This was usually a document ranging from 1 to 10 pages in length that described the set-up for the game in terms of uber-plot and provided house rule and character limitation information (I was playing GURPS and Hero, so you needed to know how many points and what was and wasn't allowed).

After I left home and went to the Air Force, my gaming changed a bit. It was the early nineties and RPGs were morphing into thick tomes of fiction with some rules thrown in. I started to look at all of the detailed setting information published by the game designers with excitement. I mean, here was a wealth of detail and I didn't have to do any work for it. Joy!

After a while, I got into published setting material. But I found that, when I started a game, nobody else had read the books. So I had to start explaining the setting to people (I thought). I got to the point where I thought everyone needed a firm grounding in the campaign setting before we played. In practice, as I'm sure you can imagine, this blew for me. People want to play the game, not read books. I got frustrated.

Now I'm back to where I started, and more. I want to play with loosely defined setting. During play, the group as a whole can focus the lens on anything that is interesting to them. Whole aspects of the setting can be completely ignored and, since nobody has done a lot of work or research, nobody is pissed at its absence.

The problem with detailed published settings is that players invest in them. They buy books, they read the books, they play the tie-in card games. Then they form expectations. Those expectations are rarely even close to the same as the expectations that another player in the group formed about the exact same stuff. No matter how you slice it, someone isn't happy.

I want to talk about how to make a good setting. But what do you folks reading want to focus on? Do you have strong opinions about what a setting should or should not be? Have others gone through a similar arc of loose through detailed back to loose settings? Has anyone gotten really into a detailed setting and had luck making it work with your group?

Ahoy Mateys!

A while back I talked a little about my designs in progress. Apart from needing to get off my ass and get Gallant out the door imperfect as it is, I've been really dragging my feet about my as-yet-unnamed pirate game. When I started work on it I wanted it to be silly movie pirates--kind of a Yellowbeard the RPG. Then I thought it would be really cool to have it be serious--all about desperation on the high seas. Then I thought action/adventure but not too silly. Lots of round and round.

Well, today's big announcement is my commitment to publish not one, not two, but eight pirate games in a single volume. I'll call it Pieces of Eight, and it will contain games satisfying all of my previous pirate game itches and more.

Here's something cooler. Challenge me! I only have ideas in my head for maybe four of the eight. Let me know in this thread what you'd like to see me cover. What do pirates mean to you? I'd like to cover different styles of play and satisfy different creative agendas in the book, so throw me whatever crazy design curveballs you can come up with.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Poll Time! Your best games

It's been a while since I posted because I've been busy working on and playtesting Gallant. I'll be posting some specifics here soon. In the meantime, here's a little question to chew on:

Think back to your most enjoyable gaming. Really think about what made it enjoyable for you. Was it the system? The GM? The other players? The setting? The plot?

Now check your work. Think about your least enjoyable gaming. What made it bad for you? Was the thing you identified as good from the previous question missing from the bad sessions?

Essentially, think about what your "secret ingredient" for good gaming is.

Then discuss.

I'll start.

My secret ingredient is engagement. Not the same thing as immersion, if we could agree on a definition for that one (which we probably can't). By engagement I mean that all the players are engaged in what's going on in the shared imaginary space. There isn't a lot of table talk (at least not talk unrelated to the game). People are all paying attention, making suggestions, and obviously interested in the proceedings.
It may sound simple, but it takes a special mix of good GMing, good playing, and a system that is either engaging by itself or at least does not bog play down with handling time.