Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Learning to DM, Thoughts on Campaigns, House Rules, and Rules as Written. #RPGaDay Megapost 2, Days 13-16.

Overall, I've really been enjoying this year's #RPGaDay question line up and am trying to give each question more than a single sentence answer. I love the RPG hobby and questions like these are a time to share thoughts an memories as well as to answer questions.

That's another way of saying, "give me an inch to talk and I'll take 50 miles."

Day 13 - Describe a game experience that changed how you play.

I imagine that for a lot of gamers, this is the kind of question that evokes a tale of the "best gaming session ever." In such a tale, the author would wax poetic about how having a DM of Matt Mercer quality changed their life forever and made them a better gamer. That is not my tale. Mine is a tale of abject failure and learning from that failure.

I'm at a point in my life where I think I'm a pretty darn good DM. My gaming groups tell me they have a good time and there tends to be great energy at my tables and our stories often go off in wild directions. Heck, my groups have even developed their own sayings over the years. My favorite is the famous Drow saying, "It's as easy as shooting a dwarf in a well." I'm not saying I'm on the same level as a GM as Tom Lommel, Jordan Caves-Callarman, David Crennan (America's DM), or Satine Phoenix, but I am proud of the sessions I run. And the reason I am a good DM today, is that I was once a terrible one.

The interesting thing is that I didn't start terrible. I was inexperienced, sure, but the early games that my friend Sean McPhail and I put together had narrative qualities to them and our characters had personality. In my late Elementary school days, I was heading in the right direction. Then came my first experience being a DM for someone who'd never played. (Dun...dun...dun...)

A friend of mine in Middle School, not the one from the Sweet Pickles Bus Wars, saw me with some of my D&D books on campus and wanted to learn to play. We arranged a sleepover at his house with a couple of friends and we did our best all-nighter Stranger Things impersonation. Except it wasn't that cool at all. I had done ZERO preparation and didn't want to use one of the modules I was familiar with. I wanted to run my own adventure to teach these folks the game. So what was my adventure? I don't remember the particulars, and I'm pretty sure that I've suppressed them because it was so bad, but suffice it to say that it started in a tavern, had a fight with goblins, and ended with the PCs going down to Hell and killing Tiamat. They would have slaughtered all the levels of Hell if we hadn't gotten so tired.

That was all in ONE night. From 1st level to high enough to kill Tiamat. It was awful. I knew it was awful at the time. I was essentially opening to random pages in the Monster Manual and having them fight the monsters on the page.

As bad as it was, and as HORRIBLE as I was, it was still fun. It was at that point that I knew the game was better than I was as a DM and this was a good thing. I wanted to aspire to be a DM who improved the quality of the game instead of one who was "saved" by the quality of the game. That night changed my approach to the hobby and I'm grateful to the friends who endured the evening and were kind enough to wait years before mocking me for it.

Day 14 - Which RPG do you prefer for open ended-campaign play?

For me, the most important quality for open ended play is that the characters start out as great at what they do and stay that way. For a game to be truly open-ended, it cannot have class levels where characters start as inexperienced and work their way up to demi-god status. That makes for a great campaign, but not open-ended gaming that can be picked up at any time and place. In my mind, and this may be different for you, open-ended play is like a never ending soap opera. And I mean that as a complement. Good soap operas tell compelling stories for decades, but they don't tend to have people go from newb to l33t. If someone is l33t, they stay that way.

Games like D&D and with its levels, or Runequest with it's path to Rune Lord, don't fit that bill for me. They are fantastic games, but not open-ended in the way I'm interpreting this question. Surprisingly, Call of Cthulhu isn't either. I've heard too many stories of players with skill ratings in the implausible range, or even with enough power to fight the Elder Gods (can you imagine? That's like my D&D story above), to think that Call of Cthulhu fits the bill.

The best role playing games for open-ended action are super hero role playing games. The characters all start out highly capable, they are super heroes after all, and in most systems the character improvement curve is very shallow depending on how you run the game. In Champions, as Aaron Allston pointed out in Strike Force, characters tend to learn new things rather than get increasingly better at the things they do. This is especially true if you are enforcing campaign wide Damage Class restrictions. Mutants and Masterminds has a similar phenomenon. But the best two games for this kind of action are Marvel Super Heroes (FASERIP) and DC Heroes (MEGS), and of these two I have a deep love of DC's system.

What both of these systems share is that they use experience as an expendable resource. In Marvel it's Karma and in DC it's Hero Points. In both cases, the points can be spent to have an effect on outcomes. Why is Spider-Man able to hang out with Thor in fights? Because he spends a lot of Karma in those battles. Why doesn't Thor get even more Godlike? Because increases at his capabilities are super expensive and it's easier to learn to do new tricks with your powers. Why is Batman able to hang with the Justice League, I mean seriously? Because he blows through Hero Points like nobody's business. He's constantly going for "Devastating Blows" and Pushing attacks all day. Sure, his devastating blows are in the form of "exploiting the weaknesses of his opponents" rather than haymakers, but that's the mechanic.

Batman and Spider-Man's player can play for years and only increase in power by an increment, or choose to get better at a lot of things. The stories though, never get stale. This is because the challenges are at a fixed level an stay there.

I imagine that D&D could work that way if you started at 5th level or so and just told stories at that challenge rating, but that fails to take advantage of the "I'm getting better calculus" that underlies the game. The calculus underlying Marvel and DC is "I just did something normally not possible at my power level" and that's why it feels satisfying for very long periods of time.

Your mileage may very, but that's the kind of gaming I like for open-ended campaigns.

Day 15 -- Which RPG do you enjoy adapting the most?

Image by Andrew Asplund
Given my love of the Savage Worlds gaming system, one might expect that I'd drop that one down right here. Nope. Not that I run it "as is," though I mostly do, but it's not the one I'm always wondering what I could do with it. Though to be honest, I have yet to see anything it can't do with a little tweaking. The game I enjoy adapting the most is 4th Edition D&D, in particular it's Gamma World variation.

Shocking! I know.

It's just that the game can do pretty much EVERYTHING. It makes the basis of a very good super hero game. It's easy as pie to make Rocket Raccoon using the rules. You can be the characters from freakin' Phoenix Wright!

For what it's worth, I find that the Gamma World iteration and Essentials are all you really need. Once you realize that the game is really an effects based game and that you can rename powers whatever you want, it opens up endless possibilities. Coming from a super hero background, as I do, reskinning powers has never been an issue for me and I think this game can do least in a one shot setting.

Day 16 - Which RPG do you enjoy using as is?

Truth be told, I play most games "as is." I don't have a lot of time to spend creating house rules for games I'm playing and changing them up. I'd rather write adventures than tweaks to a magic system. This isn't to say that I don't do any house ruling, but I do tend to try to give the designers respect when I sit down to play. For example, a lot of people feel uncomfortable with Savage Worlds' initiative system when they first read about it. "You mean it uses CARDS? And you reshuffle a lot?" But the fact is that it's a fast, furious, and fun way of handling initiative that has a lot more give and take that it might seem just reading the rules.
Clearly from my previous statement about reskinning 4e like crazy, 4e isn't the game I play "as is." No, that honor goes to Champions 4th Edition...still the best edition in my mind. The fact is that Champions is extremely well designed and well balanced and any tinkering I want to do is filled up with making characters and not house rules. The 4th edition of the game stretched the rules to as granular a level as I like to play. 5th edition got a little too "engineering" based for me and the players I gamed with started to fall too much into the "if it's not on your page and paid for, you can't do it" camp for my liking and that seemed to be a trend with 5th edition. The 4th edition started down that path, but was only beginning. Like GURPS and 3.x/Pathfinder, this is a rules set that tries to have a rule for everything to ensure that you have a fair and consistent answer for every question. The underlying math is sound in the game, though Wayne Shaw did make an argument for a change in the skill system on my Geekerati podcast that I agree with.

If only I had 4 weeks to teach people how to play and make characters before starting up a campaign. I really miss playing this game, but it's not one that's easy for players to pick up and play. There is an initial learning curve, particularly if you are making your own characters. But God is it a great game.

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