22 February 2014

Sticking To A System

Not as a rule a habitue of gaming stores -- I've gamed out of my home almost exclusively since the mid-80s -- what I see about how other gamers think comes from a couple of online forums.  One of the common themes you see on such forums is the premise that a Real Gamer Tries Many Games, and threads about diversity in selection are frequent.  In particular, a number of people heavily tout a willingness to try many so-called "indie" games (i.e., self-published games of which 95% of the RPG public have never heard) as a needful virtue.

Being asked my own opinion, I reply that I started GMing The Fantasy Trip in 1983, flipped to its successor system GURPS when it was in playtest a couple years later, and have pretty much GMed nothing else since.  An answer considered unremarkable when the system you solely play is D&D (or, these days, Pathfinder), this bugs a surprising number of people.  What's the point of doing that? I've been asked.

For one thing, I don't dance around genres much. I've done some SF, done some Firefly (not quite the same as space opera), done some French Revolution. Mostly, though, I've been doing the same setting, genre and milieu since 1978.

This has its advantages. I know my gameworld to an eyepopping degree. I have DECADES of prepwork behind me. Detailed realms. MULTIPLE cities with hundreds of businesses apiece. Hundreds of NPCs, many of which have detailed notes. 20 page writeups for religions for the in-depth priest. Etc etc ad nauseam.

So tell me, why would I forfeit the sheer knowledge there to run Some Other Setting? I couldn't possibly do the same job. I don't have the time or the energy to duplicate all that work. I'd have to say "I don't know" a lot more often, and slow up play to think up an answer.  (And I'd sure get caught out a lot, when the players knew I was wrong, and was contradicting myself.)

That's how I feel about switching systems. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that there is a setting I want to run, and that X System is "better" than GURPS for running that setting. (This being an argument made about a hundred times more often than it's been proven, and has always seemed to me an attempt at self-justification, but let's go with it.)

But I understand GURPS. I have long experience in creating characters, and long experience in shepherding others through character creation. I know how the combat system works. I know how the magic system works, and I've created hundreds of new spells to go with it. I don't have to refer to a rulebook very often at all during runs. I know the weaknesses of the system - or at least those elements I feel to be weak - and have come up with variations and houserules to cover the gaps.

So tell me, why would I forfeit the sheer knowledge there to run Some Other Game System? I couldn't possibly do the same job. I don't have the time or the energy to duplicate all that learning. I'd have to say "I don't know" a lot more often, and slow up play to look up the answer.  (And I'd sure get caught out a lot, when the players knew I was wrong, and was contradicting the rulebook.)

I don't have GM ADD, I'm not enough of a moron to feel that a game system which wasn't invented last year is "obsolete," I don't ascribe unique virtues to systems just because they're published by the creator, I'm not rich enough to drop hundreds of dollars on corebooks and splatbooks every switch, and I'm not insane enough to insist my players go through the same relearning process just because I have a short attention span.

There. That's the point.

20 February 2014

Spicier Cities: Stuff You Can Use

There's a set of tables for more interesting cities out there, from a blogger, called "One-Roll Cities" (actually, they're quite a few rolls, with a fistful of dice), fitting with the Reign RPG.  One of the tables lists ten interesting attributes a city might have.  I found the idea good but the execution scanty, and here's the one I did up in response, fifty deep.  Enjoy!

1.  Constantinople: The city has massive defenses of legendary stature, has never fallen to assault, and is considered impregnable.

2.  Akita:  There is a famous monument with miraculous properties.

3.  Baghdad:  A key element of infrastructure has fallen into disrepair from neglect or lack of funds, causing major impairments to business, lifestyle or public order.

4.  Mainz:  The printing press has exploded into consciousness; broadsheets and handbills cover every lamppost and wall, and books in the vernacular are affordable.

5.  Ur:  At least some of the infrastructure predates the known history of the city, and in its durability points to secrets of construction long since lost.

6.  Eburacon: There is a magical icon which awaits the return of a Sacred Ruler, and will only respond to that one.

7.  Paris:  The city is a marvel of planning, and the streets are on the whole well lit and maintained.

8.  Odessa:  The city has an extensive sewer system/catacombs. Huge.  Big enough to hold a city of its own.

9.  Alexandria:  The city has a colossal artifact which has been a landmark for all of history.

10.  Stonehenge:  A major supernatural site is well known, and the subject of much pilgrimage and study.

11.  Avonlea:  There is one outstanding unspoken quirk, such as red-colored roads, for no good or known reason.  Natives are either amazingly proud of it or blandly incurious.

12.  Providence:  The city is noted as a refuge for an exiled faction, race or religious group.

13.  Plymouth:  A city with historical significance well beyond its size or geopolitical/economic impact.

14.  New England:  Everything is historical, or is fancied to be.  You can scarcely travel a block before tripping over a commemorative plaque, a monument, a Tree of Liberty or some other historic site.

15.  Appalachia:  The city has unusual folkways distinctive from the regional culture.

16.  Everwood:  Many prominent structures are repurposed older buildings, and obviously so; churches turned into marketplaces, for instance.

17.  Salem:  A tourist center based on terrible events.

18.  Seattle:  A trick of local geography has weather significantly worse than the region’s in one particular fashion: very muggy in summer, rains too much year round, high snowfall in winter, the like.

19.  San Francisco:  The city is built on steep hills; there are many terraces, switchbacks, funiculars and stairs.

20.  Las Vegas:  The city is new, with either little in the way of history or little respect for such history as exists; old buildings are razed for new ones, all architecture is modern, and not much is built to last.

21.  Boston: The city is a trendsetter in a field of arts, culture or literature.

22.  Pleasantville:  Everyone is nice, quiet and traditional, and outsiders or strange ways draw a lot of attention.

23.  Manãna:  There is a strong culture of laissez faire, and stirring people to prompt, decisive action is difficult.

24.  Geneva: This city is well respected for its neutrality, and is frequently used as a meeting ground between warring or contending parties.

25.  La Serenissima: Residents do things the way they have always done, and are staunchly resistant to progress.

26.  Centralia: An ongoing man-made environmental disaster seriously impacts the health of the residents.

27.  New Orleans: The city lives for partying and spectacle, and the festivities go all night long ...

28.  Hong Kong:  Business – and The Deal – is the raison d’etre, and the overwhelming focus of the populace.

29.  Chicago:  The people want to be a major player, and think their home is, but suffer from an inferiority complex where the national/regional capital is concerned.

30.  Compostela:  The city is a major pilgrimage site, above and beyond its normal ecclesiastical footprint.

31.  Jericho: The city is one of the – if not the – oldest cities in the world, and the ruins of older iterations of the city are nearby/underneath.

32.  Los Angeles: Celebrities from the arts/sports are lionized, and their every utterance is on every tongue.

33.  Memphis: A major, international celebrity has a compound here.

34.  Star’s Hollow:  Eclectic, unique festivals are held every month, and it seems that whenever you’re there, there’s yet another offbeat parade or fest, for which much of the city shuts down.

35.  Minas Ithil: There is a spiritual sense to the city; either bright and elating, uplifting to the populace, or a dark miasma, corrupting and darkening every spirit.

36.  Venice: The Golden Age is long past, and people cling to shadows of ancient glories, sure that things will never get better again.  Buildings, dress, trappings are all beautiful and once-costly, but now shabby, faded and worn.

37.  Manhattan:  The residents have a positive, cheerful outlook and are sure Things Are Getting Better in this best of all possible worlds.

38.  St. Petersburg: The glitter and grandeur of the palaces of the aristocracy rub up against desperate slums, and the gulf between the haves and have-nots is unusually wide.

39.  Jakálla: The residents are xenophobic (and violent about it) to a high degree, and obvious foreigners leave their own insular districts at some risk.

40.  Peyton Place:  Everyone’s in everyone else’s business, and the notion of privacy is considered quaint and somewhat suspect.

41.  Gotham City:  The city has seen it all in its day, and attempts to improve its reputation or make cultural improvements are difficult and meet with resistance.

42.  Levittown: Everyone’s more or less of the same socioeconomic strata.  All the buildings are pretty much the same.  Most everyone pretty much acts the same.  Conformity in all things is the chief virtue.

43.  Belfast:  The city's just this side of a war zone, with hostile factions committing frequent depredations upon one another, often in defiance of the law.  Outsiders, based on the color of clothing they wear or a turn of phrase they use, are often assumed to be a member of a faction, and in any event are quizzed as to where they stand.

44.  Hershey:  The city has a renowned product or good.  Everything is about that product, every business revolves around it, every bit of architecture or art features or celebrates it, and everyone is either scared to death or provoked to rage at any threat to or disparagement of it.

45.  Dhaka:  A periodic natural hazard -- terrible winters, annual floods -- is a major but predictable problem for the city.  Either locals prepare for some weeks for the event (and risk being wrongfooted if the timing is off) or are dourly fatalistic over its impact.

46.  Juneau:  The city is geographically isolated, and cannot easily be reached by any land route ... if at all.

47.  London:  An integral part of the city's infrastructure -- or the prevailing technology -- is the most advanced in the world by far.  It's a major source of civic pride, and travelers from around the world come to study it.

48.  Jerusalem:  Multiple faiths (or sects of the same faith), hostile to one another, regard the city as a sacred site; at the very least, ill feelings visibly simmer.

49.  Strasbourg:  The city has a strategic location which has caused it to be invaded, and conquered, many times in its history.  Its population is ethnically and/or religiously diverse, with the most recently conquered faction being very unhappy with the reversal of fortune.

50.  Rome:  Once, the known world was ruled from this city.  Though those days are long past, its natives carry themselves with an arrogance born of ancient times, and upstart empires still seek the approval of -- or the rule over -- the imperial capital of old.

07 February 2014

So, backstories ...

"Gamer ADD" in action.
Most of us have run into GMs who’ve asked people to submit a couple biographical pages about their PCs – who they are, where they’ve been, what’s led them to adventuring, what might their motivations be.  Some gung-ho players turn these in to GMs, unasked.

It’s a surprisingly controversial subject, and discussions of it on forums – which invariably start with the topic creator shaking his fists at the notion – explode into many dozens of posts worth of tirade. 

For my part, I love them.  From a new player, it tells me – above all – that he or she is likely to be a strong roleplayer, certain to view the character as more than a piece on a chessboard.  It’s reasonable to assume that the player is going to be unusually interested in setting details, and I’ve got a very dense setting.  They provide plothooks, they provide motivations, they make it easier to introduce NPCs, they're good for getting past the awkward "Why in the heck do these people want to adventure together?" They aid me in helping the players create their characters - certainly even the one-line stories some have mentioned above like "I'm an ex-gladiator who bought his freedom" and "The king ordered the murder of my parents" suggest skill sets, advantages and disadvantages obvious to many of you.

Am I intimidated by them? Certainly not. Some are good, some are crap, some are too long, some don't tell me anything I couldn't have figured out from the character sheet ... yeah, I figure that someone with Farming skill and five weapon skills probably was a farmer who decided to go off to become a warrior, thanks ever so.

Now there are certainly campaigns where backstories are pointless.  High-mortality?  No need to write a background for a PC who’s going to be dead inside of three sessions.  Hack-n-slash?  If the campaign’s not about roleplaying, a roleplaying tool doesn’t make much sense.  But otherwise?  Allow me to dig into my archives and toss out some common complaints:

* So the players gave you different amounts of backstory?  I don't consider this any more of a problem than when Player B goes into extensive RP with the NPCs and the others don't, or when Player A uses sound, well-reasoned tactics and the others don't, or when Player C takes the trouble to learn the rule system and the others can't be bothered.  Yes, there are players who hate to put pen to paper. There are also players who hate to roleplay, players who hate to read so much as a page of rules and players who can't stand plans more complex than "I walk up to the dude I think is the bad guy and hit him with my sword." I don't go out of my way to nerf those who go to some trouble in order to provide lowest common denominator gaming for the lazy or the mediocre.  Players who put time and trouble into the game get more benefits than those who don't.

* So you can’t stand the player who wants to blather about the cool things his character did in the “past?” People do that a lot in real life. But it's not as if we neuter combat because there are players who are combat-obsessed, or eliminate loot because some players go completely over the top in treasure-grubbing, or eliminate character creation because some players get obsessive over that.  A GM who doesn't have "Nice try, but no," in his or her arsenal is hamstrung from Day One.

* So most backstories are written like bad fanfics? And I suppose GMs are all a combination of Frank Capra, John Grisham and Spencer Tracy? You're all expert plotters and character actors? I sure like getting a couple of well-written pages over a couple of poorly written pages, but c’mon?

* So you don't like getting a five page backstory? Quite aside from that many GMs have background handouts / webpages that run a hell of a lot more than five pages, and that I have little sympathy for GMs complaining that reading five pages at the start of a campaign will break them -- this while using a stack of 500 pages worth of corebook and splatbook rules -- there's a startlingly simple answer: no one's forcing you to read it.

* So you believe that backstories are stupid and every trait should be developed through play? Great. Don't write one, and develop all your PCs' traits through play. What? Your players might have different play styles and likes and dislikes than you do, and aren't necessarily going to play the exact same characters you would in the exact same way you'd choose?

* So a backstory might clash with your setting?
  Ah, but there's this marvelous invention called a pen. When reading through a backstory, if there's a bit that clashes, take that pen and draw a line through the offending material. Hand it back to the player and tell her about the clash. Why, you've even informed your players more about your setting by doing so! Win-win.

* So you’re secretly worried that your world won’t be as awesome as what the player envisons?   Since when did this become a zero-sum competition, where people are so afraid of the possibility of excellence that it has to be banned?  Are players writing backstories really so self-absorbed that they're ignoring the other players, if not the whole rest of the setting, but at the same time are thinking "Aha! I'm going to stick it to those mediocre bastards, who of course can't possibly be as creative and skilled as I am, and show them who's the real author of the bunch! Take that!"

* So you’re puzzled that a player wants to introduce stuff into the game before play starts? 
So what?  I don’t imagine someone who wants to be engaged with your setting before play won’t care any more thereafter, do you?  I've been creating for over thirty years now, and I'm not remotely close to done. I'm not only quite happy for players to take some of that burden off my hands, but to bring their ideas and concepts – ones I might not have thought up on my own – to the game. I'm also quite happy when they're thought out in more detail than three minutes of bull session around the dice and potato chips, and I'm somewhat at a loss to figure out why such creation taking place outside of game sessions needs to be reflexively disqualified.

* So you don’t like a player developing friends and family outside of play sessions and think that RP should solely be contained around the gaming table?   I'm likely to make a great many other choice that you yourself wouldn't make in my shoes. You might hate playing rogue/mercenary types. I like them. You might hate playing hardbitten survival experts. I like them. You might hate playing characters who fuss over equipment lists. I don't. You might have no use for characters who avoid frontal assaults. I do.  Sorry, but I don't want you choosing the degree I have insta-camaraderie with the group at the expense of the character's life to date, any more than I want you dictating the type of character I play as well as his personality traits. Come to that, I believe I can figure out for myself what constitutes a more enjoyable game experience.  If I believe that involves an elaborate backstory, that's my decision. I won't require my GM read it – at least I won't be any stuffier about it than he'll be about me reading his handouts – but I don't expect guff about the degree to which I pay attention to it and play according to it.

* So you think the character will change far beyond the realm of any backstory?  I agree: the person my character will be a year from now, or five years from now, will surely be different from what it is today. Any long term character of mine – and my two longest duration characters went for fourteen and twenty-three real time years respectively – will be affected by his experiences. No kidding.  But of how many of us can't that be said, in real life? Are none of us changed by our experiences? Does that therefore mean our pasts don't matter at all? If we were to sit down at a coffee house and get to know one another, how many of you would respond with "What I've done, what I've seen, what's happened to me, who I am; none of that matters worth a damn. All any of you need to know about me is what you observe from this moment forward."  To which I'd likely respond with an "Ooookay" and turn to the next guy, hoping he wasn't quite so weird and/or combative as all of that.

* So you resent the time you “waste” reading them?  As a GM, I like to know things about characters. I don't require backstories, but I appreciate them, and backstories engender interesting plot tailored to them.  I don't require that they be expertly written; they're tools, not literary exercises, and I'm not grading on style.  Does that mean I "suffer" through turgid writing every rare once in a while?  I can't say so, because I'm not remotely enough of a whiner to complain about the two and a half minutes "wasted" in going over a four-page backstory (I just timed myself reading an example I'd saved) every year or two.  What was I going to do with those 150 seconds, get into another Internet discussion?