30 September 2014

Special Snowflake: A Modest Rant

"Special snowflake" is a term in common use on a number of gaming forums.  For those of you unfamiliar, it's a slur hurled at those who stand out among us for being oddballs.  Most often, it's aimed at characters who (theoretically, at least) are disruptive to the milieu.

I've always had a problem with the term, and my dislike for it -- for the syndrome, come to that -- has crystallized over time.

It's meant, considerably more often than otherwise, "someone or something that stands out in a way I don't like." Play a preteen character? "Special snowflake." Play an alignment different from ours? "Special snowflake." Turn in a two-page backstory? "Special snowflake." Fail to march in lockstep with my paradigm? "Special snowflake." Is more flamboyant than the speaker? "Special snowflake."

What especially bothers me is that this comes from this, of all hobbies. For pity's sake, we're all weird. We sit around making pretend that we're wizards and elves and cyberjackers and secret agents and barbarian warriors. We're all aware -- and in many cases, painfully aware -- that we're "special snowflakes" to most mundanes around us, playing that stupid nerd game that loser junior high school boys too scared to come within ten feet of a Gurrrlll played.

Now I can see why, in turn, we seek to find people within our own community whom we can viciously disparage and denigrate, but it doesn't make it right, and it happens quite a bit more often than the "special snowflakes" actually disrupt things.

24 September 2014

... and so are you.

A common slur flung around in gaming debates is “Elitist!” You take pains to design a coherent, sensible setting?  Elitist!  You think people ought to know the milieu they’re GMing?  Elitist!  Heck, you think it should be incumbent on people to bother to learn the rules of the game they’re playing?  Elitist!  At any level and in any aspect of gaming, anywhere someone could make some effort to improve, there’ll be people willing to jeer at you for it, especially if you're silly enough to publicly say that you think everyone can (or should) do the same.

I believe in excellence.  I don’t think there’s anything ennobling about mediocrity, and I don’t find anything about mediocrity worth praising.  I think, in the words of the old Army commercials (before they ditched the tagline as being, well, elitist) that we should all be the best we can be.  Yes, indeed, I’m an elitist.

What’s always amused me, in this anti-intellectual society of ours, is that everyone else is too.  If you’re (say) a football fan, and your team is a basement dweller, I’m sure you wouldn’t be thrilled to hear the players say that, well, they're just in it for the paychecks, so where do the fans get off on dissing their record?  I doubt you’d want your doctor, or your car mechanic, or your kids’ teachers to do any less than their elitist best, or that you’d accept mediocrity and good old college tries in place of the skilled service you believe to be your due.  From the kid who shovels our driveways to bank tellers to insurance adjusters to entertainers, we expect quality work in anything we care about, and we get downright frosty if all we get are people going through the motions.  It’s only when quality is required from us – or if the matter under discussion is something we don’t care one way or another – that we fling “Elitist!” around like a slur.

And gaming’s immune to it?  Please.  There are hundreds of threads on gaming forums, and tens of thousands of posts, about no-good players and no-good GMs and poorly written game systems which somehow didn’t measure up to our expectations. A fundamental element in almost all of our games is experience, which unless you give the same amount each and every time to each and every player, means that you judge the players on their performance.  And that isn’t, by any accepted standard, “elitism?”  I can’t imagine how.

Do I give more experience to some players than to others?  Yes, I do, when I judge their play to be superior in roleplaying, tactical acumen, getting the job done, and the obligatory extra 1 XP per session to the player who most doubles me over in laughter.  Oddly enough, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that either.  In a chess game, someone generally does better than the other.  In a poker game, some players do better than others.  In a hockey game, one team does better than the other, fueled by players that perform better than others. I’d sure bust a gut laughing if someone shouted “Elitist!” at the TV showing a World Series of Poker match.

17 September 2014

Gaming slang

Silly is good, I find, in small doses: it breaks up the mental palate.  Some time ago, I had cause to compile some of the insider slang that's been used over the course of my campaign.  So ... for your psychic sorbet of the evening, here 'tis:

Melonballing: A combat strike which takes out the genitalia. It got to be enough of a cliche that my wife bought a melonballer to hand out to whomever scored the most devastating hit in any given session.

Goat! Goat! Goat!:  So the party was in the worst dive on Tortage, the capital of the Pirate Isles, and the crowd was getting weird during the all-too-sexualized floor show. Goat! Goat! Goat! is now used at any time there's an unruly crowd scene or, well, when a goat makes a prominent appearance.

I pity tha fool!: Delivered Mr. T-style, this was used by a player who said, at perhaps a bad time to do it, "I pity tha fool who gives us a wandering encounter now!" I determined on the spot to do exactly that, and it was quite a hair-raising one. The phrase's meaning has morphed, consequentially, to mean a player who's about to do a very dumb thing.

Quail before the might of Larindo the Witherer!: Alright, the player had a reasonable expectation that the mooks would go knock-kneed before a necromancer in full battle array. Unfortunately, they all had stout, manly results on their reaction rolls, and the mook leader shouted, "Damn, dey got a wizard, kill 'im quick!" (Or some such: it was twenty years ago.) Current meaning: your ego is getting the better of you.

Bubble of Improbability: If a player can't make a session, the character just isn't there, and I don't bother parsing the which or the why; I say that the character has entered a "bubble of improbability." Beats the hell out of me why I settled on that turn of phrase, but it's well-understood.

Nike Ninja: Mook NPC fighters. Originally the term for one particular figure in my ninja set of minis, which out of a certain level of perversity I painted in US Army jungle camo pattern.

Nath, Naghan, Larghos and Ortyg: Bunch Of Faceless NPCs. These are four of the most common male names in my gameworld.

(steepling my fingers and touching my index fingers to my lips): This action, sometimes paired with the phrase “Is that what you’re doing?” when the room falls silent, has been a code phrase for “... and what you’re planning on doing is amazingly stupid” in my campaigns for decades.  I am pitiless in dealing with those who blithely ignore the message.

Gritty!:  I strive for a gritty, realistic, middling-level fantasy campaign; not quite Harnworld, but I'm not what you call cinematic or slapstick.  But one of the crosses I bear is that I'm a lifelong insomniac (as witness me posting this at 4:30 AM).  Sometimes I'm working on three hours sleep when the run starts, and I'm punchy from fatigue.  One player would -- if things got too silly -- turn to me and say "Gritty," in a flat voice, deadpan expression.  (He may have the best deadpan I've ever known.)  I would nod, and respond "Gritty," and more often than otherwise would sober up.

Hrm.  He was in my campaign for six years, and do you know, I never did know whether his catchword was subtle admonishment, a gentle reminder for me to get back on track, a moment of humor, or some or all of the above.  I remember it fondly, nonetheless.

15 September 2014

NPC of the Day: Eve

I’ve watched a few war-related series of late: Band of Brothers, The Pacific.  My favorite is Tour of Duty, a critically-acclaimed Vietnam War series focusing on a platoon in the boonies.  I never saw it in first run; my household watched China Beach, its competing ‘Nam TV show.  Beyond that, we were St. Elsewhere fans, where ToD’s star – Terrence Knox – had been a scumbag.  Knox’s Sgt. Zeke Anderson is anything but on ToD, and it gave me some ideas.  (Okay, okay ... “Fantasy Effing Vietnam.”  Sue me.)

One of my two groups is based out of the mighty elven empire, which until recently was isolated in the far northwest of the world.  A few years back, they created a magical Gate on an island just off a whopping trackless jungle – and, not remotely coincidentally, smack in the middle of the world’s chief shipping lane.  For a bunch of reasons, they’re colonizing that jungle, which is pierced by a honking big river and watershed.  That’s where the Imperial Marines come in.  The "Blue Legs" are a riverine force (the empire’s still new to the concept of a deep sea navy), and they’re the grunts on the ground patrolling the interior.  They’re also a very insular, tight-knit bunch, respecting pretty much no one other than themselves ... which, considering that they’re usually unsupported in the middle of nowhere, with no more gear than they can pack on their canoes, makes good sense.  Anyway, that’s where the group came in, in accompanying a squad of Marines into the heart of darkness.

The unit’s commander is Eve, who’s the equivalent of a first sergeant.  She’s a hardbitten, hardcore lifer who’s seen it all, done it all, and takes no guff from anyone who hasn’t.  Like any good lifer non-com, she prefers that the officers tell her what they want done and leave her to handle the details.  She will rap you upside the head if you make any reference to her being stone-gorgeous, and will do the same if you insist on calling her “Dame Anevea” – she couldn’t very well decline being knighted by the Emperor, but she hates the formality, and pretty much no one much lower in rank than the Admiral of the Navy can get away with it.  Like most people of elven blood, she is a latent wizard, but has only recently learned her first spell – Insect Repellent.  She’s extremely experienced, extremely senior, doesn’t want to be an officer ... but the time’s approaching when it’s up or out. 

Eve’s team is a deep penetration unit; they scout, they do their objective, they get out.  She’s positively chary of taking casualties, and won’t do forlorn hopes or suicide missions.  Her move would nominally be good, but the team carries everything on their backs, and that can slow them down.  She prefers hatchets in combat, carries a brace of javelins for throwing, and is quite fond in battle of faking injuries, "accidentally" stumbling, that sort of thing.  One of their quirks, widespread in the Blue Legs in general, is to use a lot of slang taken from the indigs' language.

ST: 12    DX: 13    IQ: 12    HT: 13    Per: 12      Speed: 6     Move: Likely to be 5 or less.  

Advantages:  Ally / Marines, Beautiful, Combat Reflexes, Damage Resistance/2, Fit, High Pain Threshold, Legal Enforcement Powers/1, Magery/0, Rank-2/Ord-Matoc, Social Regard: Respected, Status-2 / Knight of the Sapphire Rose

Perks:  Armor Familiarity/1, Riverine Training, Penetrating Voice, Teamwork

Disadvantages:  Code of Honor (Soldier); Compulsive Behavior/wanderlust; Extra hazardous Duty; Sense of Duty: Marines; Struggling, Workaholic

Skills: Administration-11; Axe/Mace-15; Boating-13; Brawling-15; Brawling-13; Camouflage-13; Carpentry-12; First Aid-12; Knife-13; Leadership-15; Navigation-13; Public Speaking-13; Savoir-Faire (military)-12; Shield-13; Soldier-13; Stealth-14; Survival-13; Swimming-13; Tactics-12; Tarocco-12; Thrown Weapon: Spear-15

Spells: Insect Repellent-11

Quirks:  "Never tell the brass anything;" Collects interesting rocks; Doesn't want to retire; Uses Altanian jargon

By way of explanation, the Legal Enforcement Powers means, in shorthand, that she can hassle civvies, the Altanian outback being a military zone.  "Ord-Matoc" is a first sergeant, more or less.  Riverine Training differs from the Naval Training perk in so far that Eve doesn't really know from the deck of a ship, but she's pretty good at staying stable on a keelboat or a canoe.  In GURPS terms, a Duty is what you *have* to do; a Sense of Duty is something you *want* to do.  Tarocco is a card game; feel free to substitute the gambling game of your choice.

For further explanation of system stats, check this link. 

11 September 2014

Mountain-combing 101: Stuff You Can Use

I'm minded, of a Wednesday, to provide people with some meat they can use in their campaigns, no matter the system.  My current party just got out of a jaunt into the mountains, deep in the backcountry ... a semi-lawless area much like Appalachia, with isolated hamlets, mountain men, beleaguered trading posts, offbeat folkways and haunted ruins.

I don't like "wandering encounters," per se.  What I'd much rather do is compile lists like this one, pick one that suits me to throw in for local color, and then cross it off.  Likely I'll get to the end of the list in a dozen years or so.

Obsidian: An outcropping peeking through a blanket of moss, there are several hundred pounds available, in both glossy black and charcoal grey, with the occasional paler striation.

Old hut: Nobody has lived here for a while, but it has been used as an emergency shelter recently; there are a few logs of firewood, a small cache of a few pounds of smoked meat (only mildly rat-chewed), a bundle of tattered blankets on a wood frame bed, and the place has been swept and tidied.  It’s solid enough for decent shelter in a heavy storm, with a bit of patching up.

Mountain Man: Old as the hills, and his language is riddled with pithy slang.  His weathered packbasket is full of herbal forage and interesting colored stones.  If treated with courtesy – and especially if gifted with wares or foods from the lowlands – he'll be inclined to share his encyclopedic knowledge of the area for miles in every direction, and knowledge of everyone there is to know.

Children: Here for the fun of it, collecting nuts or rocks, scavenging herbs, or just playing; their holding or hamlet is within a mile. Whatever they're doing, they'll be annoying to the PCs.  If they're molested outright, they'll scream, scatter ... and the PCs will find out that at least one of them has a sling that very much is NOT a toy.

Hawk: The hawk seems to follow the party, and occasionally makes diving runs at them, without quite striking home.

Campsite:  The area has a number of campfire beds and a lot of trash, as if a hundred people had camped here, and only a day or two ago; the ashes are still warm.  They seem lavishly equipped, from the debris around, and are very careless with fire setting, sanitation and the concept of living lightly on the land.  The trail they took is thataway ...

Bearhunter: A man snores inside a decrepit lean-to, not willing to be awoken.  If he is rousted -- which he'll do if anyone approaches too closely -- he’s irascible, unwilling to deal with the party, and a vicious, deadly, veteran fighter.

Amphorae:  Four large capacity (30+ gallon) stone jars are half-buried in a gully. They look old and worn, and weigh over 50 lbs apiece.

Waterlogged saddlebag: This heavy 60-lb saddlebag has broken (or severed!) straps.  It contains sodden tradegoods -- with current tax and tariff seals -- some waterlogged clothing, and water-damaged letters.

Odd dirt:  The soil along this stretch is colored differently, strikingly so, than the prevailing soil in the region.

Serpents: Three large snakes sun themselves on a large, flat rock that’s underneath a break in the canopy.  While they’re venomous, they’re not aggressive, and will flee into the underbrush if approached.

Pillar: On a rocky outcropping is a tall, weathered marble pillar, 30' tall and with a flaring pedestal at the pinnacle.  It is carved in runes from a dead language, in the style of a bygone age.  Just getting out to the base, on the outcropping, is a technical climb of moderate difficulty, and it’s exposed to the weather.

Statue:  A weathered stone statue is set in a dell on the hillside.  The statue is well preserved considering its antiquity, but is greenish from the moss and algae in the area.  Locals like to leave flowers and gifts of fruits and nuts on it, believe it to depict a regionally worshiped deity, and will freak out if it's molested or in any way disrespected.

Sorrow: The still figure of a beautiful, auburn-haired woman, freshly killed by a deadfall that broke her back, is fallen couple dozen yards upstream from which the party was drinking, bathing or fording, just moments before – the water pooling around her.

Skinning knife:
  An uncommon knife made by local hunters, sporting a twelve-inch blade (which seems to have been salvaged from long-ago blademasters’ work), of fine craftsmanship, the haft and sheath made of polished bear bone.  It can't have been lost long; the edge is keen enough for shaving.

Leviathan:  The skeleton of an unidentifiable creature of impressive size is calcifying, stretched across the mountainside.  Its fangs alone are the length of swordblades.

Bathers: Near a calm mountain pool, a group of naked bathers either wave, and invite the PCs to swim with them with suggestive comments ... or stare and cover themselves in embarrassment, whatever the opposite of the party’s prevailing mores suggest.  (The water, if PCs indulge, is icy cold; the locals are used to it.)

Forester: A woman appointed by the Crown to patrol for poachers and enforce the Game Laws; the territory is either beyond the scope of the local noble, or the noble is opposed to her actions, and eager for her to be taken down a peg.  She is an expert in the ways of the high reaches, and greatly knowledgeable – if not “book smart” – about natural philosophy.  That being said, the locals have no use for her, and will give the cold shoulder to PCs obviously friendly to her.

Black pool: A natural crude oil release leaves a sticky, warm, viscous residue.

Shield: This steel shield (fashioned in the style of a bygone age) is weathered, but the heraldry is still visible – though even a trained lowland herald couldn’t recognize it.  It's tarnished, but not rusty, which given the environment is flatly impossible.

Will O’The Wisp:  Just after sunset, the PCs see dancing lights on a misted ridgeline.

Cultists: A clutch of Shub-Niggurath cultists pray in the thicket. They do not take kindly to having their ritual interrupted.  Before turning irrevocably and implacably hostile, the cultists will demand (once only) that the party convert to their ways, and allow the Dark Deity’s holy soil to cover their bodies, in submission to the will of the earth.

Gravesite: A rotting plank, crudely carved, lists the names – so far as the locals knew – of a caravan slain to the last man near here.  It rests on a large barrow under which the victims were buried, and exhorts passersby to pray for their souls.  (PCs seen by the locals not to do so are treated as godless, and with suspicion.)

Look sharp!  A strong brisk wind coming in off the mountains. The clouds overhead are moving fast, but you can see bad weather on its way ... rolling in like an avalanche.

Fossils:  Fossilized stones and shells of common sea creatures, as well as ancient imprints of fabulous creatures long extinct.

Cache: A smuggler’s cache, marked by a strip of colored cloth (or a hatchet blaze) tied to a tree, allowing the smuggler to retrieve the goods at some later date.  These are either illicit, or subject to taxes the smuggler is dodging.

07 September 2014

Why Play Tabletop RPGs At All?

It's a valid question, and one I've fielded more than once.  Even discounting the teeth-grating bastardization of the honorable term "roleplaying game" by computer companies wanting to make their console shoot-em-ups sound cooler, I've played most of the variants: MMORPGs, LARPs, storygames, free form, what have you.  I've played them a LOT: I played the same MMORPG character through various iterations for twenty-one years (seriously) and the same LARP character for fourteen.

My take is that no one style is "better" than the others: they're just different.  But since this is a tabletop blog, I'll post the comparison I did on a board some years ago:

1) Tabletop is nimble: If I need to clarify a rule, I can do it. If I need to invent detail, I can invent it. If I need to change anything I please, I can do that too. And I do all of that in moments. I don't have to have a team of coders spend six months on it and have the proposed changes pass QC and a dozen sticky hands, and I don't have to pass the changes through a LARP organization's headquarters, annual rules review or a consensus of a half-dozen GMs.

2) Tabletop is responsive: The GM-to-player ratio is far higher in tabletop than with LARPs, and infinitely higher than it is with MMORPGs. I have just a few players in my group, and I not only can give a great deal of relative attention to individuals, I'm not restricted to doing so on game days. Want to work out some details or interactions in e-mail or in IMs? Sure. Want to have personalized items? Sheesh, then hit up your local craftsman and place the order ... you don't have to wait for three-times annual merchant festivals and hope against hope you get a place in line, or reach Xth level and get the predetermined Xth Level bennie.

3) Tabletop can be broad-based: In a MMORPG, and to a lesser extent in a LARP, the milieu is fixed in granite: you're playing in the Preset World, in the Preset Area, and it's damnably difficult to change any of that, if it can be done at all. In tabletop, if my players want to shake off the dust of Warwik City, buy a ship and take up privateering, they can do that. (In fact, a group did that.)

4) Tabletop can be more freeform: Most MMORPGs work on a D&D-ish system with a limited palette of character classes and races. While a lot of tabletop campaigns work the same way, point-buy systems are out there where you can pick what you want and negotiate options and exceptions, things that are impossible to do in MMORPGs and often provoke screams of "special treatment!" in LARPs.

5) Tabletop can be less competitive: This might seem counterintuitive, but LARPs and MMORPGs are generally free-for-all PvP environments where the principal threat comes from other players, bragging rights over level and Kewl Itemz is immense, character advancement is often a zero-sum business where another player's gain only establishes him as a greater potential threat to you, and the role of a GM is more traffic cop and enforcer than game-enabler. Tabletop parties are also usually much closer together in power level, so a latecomer isn't automatically the punching bag of any powerful oldbie who wants to slap him around.

6) Tabletop is richer: It's very difficult in LARPs, and impossible in MMORPGs, for detail to be created in the same ballpark as in tabletop. I can make my descriptions for sites, NPCs, objects and events as lavish as I please, and since I'm not working with a visual medium, I don't have to back those descriptions up with the art or prop departments.

7) Tabletop can be crunchier: Complex, intricate, detailed rules are the death of LARPs, which function best lean and mean (and which far more than with other RPGs depend on all of the players knowing all of the rules), and don't work well in MMORPGs, where they require exponentially more coding time. 

8) Tabletop is cheaper!  Almost any MMORPG worth playing is fee-based or requires a buy-in of software.  The LARPs I've been in had at-the-door fees to defray the costs of props and land rental.  You don't need to buy anything in order to play tabletop.

There are a few more, but that'll do for openers.