One thing I noted in the Battlestar Galactica campaign we’ve been running is that the system doesn’t quite allow for the toaster splashing antics of Starbuck and Apollo, nor are the toasters as deadly as they could be. One reason for that is the Cortex Classic mechanic for damage in a fight. As mentioned in the Discussions on Damage post from today, the idea for these possible house rules catalyzed out of a Facebook group post that caught my attention. So without further ado:

Suggestion 1: Tying the damage die to success. You need a 7 to hit the target and get a 12. That’s 5 points basic damage plus the d8W for your rifle (or viper.) At this point, anything under 5…is a 5. That means when you roll the d8W, you get between 5 and 8 as a result, so a 3 stun and 7-10 wound. This makes you a ton more effective against the toasters…and vice versa.

Suggestion 2: A static damage number that is tagged to the basic damage. As per the last example — you’ve done 3 stun and 2 wound basic damage. Now your rifle does 8 wound. This seems a lot more dangerous, and isn’t the one I would recommend.

Suggestion 3: This is one I suggest separate from the above ideas, and is one I use in my Cortex games: characters always roll an Endurance (Vitality+Willpower) versus damage taken. If they succeed, no penalty is rendered; if they fail, they are stunned for the number of rounds they missed by. This can be bought out with a plot point, or if they have Cool under Fire or some such asset. If they are hit with an extraordinary success and the character misses the roll, they suffer the effects as per the normal rules (pg 94 in the Cortex core book.)

Suggestion 4: This has also been one I’ve used in our campaigns — an extraordinary success on an injury leads to some kind of lasting effect — a broken arm, or the like — that gives the character a temporary Chronic Injury complication equal to the wound, round down. So say you take 9 wound and 3 stun, but live…you have a d8 Chronic Injury, Broken Whatever that takes that many weeks of game time to heal.

As usual, feel free to completely ignore any or all of this.

One nice thing about roleplaying is that it is social, it’s a discussion — between GM and players, between the characters, between players in different groups across the interwebz. One discussion that caught my attention was on the subject of damage or injury in a game. The question asked was static or random damage…but is that all the choices you have?

Most Fate variants have the ability to soak injury into complications like “Broken Arm” or some such mechanic that works against the character, but doesn’t take them out of the game. James Bond RPG had an excellent rules set where the quality of the attack dictated how much damage was done based off the Damage Class from A-L (character’s could usually delivery A-C damage in hand to hand; a pistol between E and G), so you might take a Light Wound on an acceptable or good hit, a medium on a very good, or a heavy on a excellent result. Cortex has a similar quality based damage system where basic damage is done by the amount of success on the attack roll. Say you have to hit on a seven, and you roll a 12; that’s 3 stun and 2 wound…but then you add the randomized damage of a dx wound or stun for the weapon. That 5 total damage was pretty good, but Oops! you rolled a one on the damage roll. Kinda sucks, huh? There’s a rule that extraordinary successes do full damage of the weapon (pg 94, Cortex core book) where the target suffers a steady d2 bleed out until they get aid, but does that accurately (or even cinematically/dramatically) represent a great shot?

One way around this is a “mook rule”, if you will. PCs that get extraordinary success or a critical hit, dispatch whatever no name henchman or monster they are dealing with. Only the lead villains or major henchmen get the benefit of damage roll. (Or to quote Nigel Power in Goldmember, “You haven’t even got a nametag! What chance have you got? Why don’t you just…lie down?”)

Another could be to take the weapon and add it to the roll for the attack. Does your sword do a d6 damage, add that to the d20 (if this were D&D, say) and whatever you beat the AC by, that’s your damage.

Another might be to use a variant of the Cortex rules — damage is based on how well you rolled over (or under, depending on the system) the target number with a set damage rating for the weapon. The downside to this is combat gets a lot deadlier for the PCs. Another option is you can’t roll below the amount you succeeded by. So if you beat a target of eight by four — you do four points before the d6 for your weapon.  Anything under 5 is four, so a total of eight or higher. There’s still some chance, but the results take quality of action into effect more.

These are just a few suggestions, but it does break us out of the flatness of a random or static only damage mechanic for a game.

This post is going to have double purpose: To address the issues of player agency and narrative control, and to tie into a short review (as a player) of the new Firefly system.

This weekend, I got a chance to play in a game of Firefly by Margaret Weis Productions run by one of the systems leads, Mark Truman, for the game. I figured it might be interesting to see if the experience of the game would be different, and if my opinions of the game would be changed by it. Along the way, there were some interesting chances to speak with the others at the table.

Mr. Truman had had a chance to peruse the previous review, and we talked about the experience of the game as I (and others) saw it. One of my comments was that the assets and complications mechanic, as in Fate, was overly complex and could lead to some confusion for the players and the GM. The assumption seemed to that I didn’t understand the mechanic, which was incorrect — I did, and even saw use in it — or that my lack of skill with the system was coloring my perception of the game. This response, I thought, harkened back to some of the issues of the Is there a right way to Game? post from a few weeks ago, and brought up some interesting questions for me:

1) Is the skill or familiarity with a system intrinsically linked to perceiving a game as good or bad? Is it a case of “It’s not the game that sucks; you’re playing it wrong”? That was certainly the implication I inferred. (Which means I could have completely misread the statement — so consider that my “I could be full of shit” caveat.) 

2) By this metric, if you are very skilled with a set of rules does that make a game “good?”

 3) Is your skill at pretending to be a character tied to an understanding of the rules? Are are skill, familiarity, and preference linked, or is this a case of correlation not being causation?

4) Is your prefreence for one system over another based on a lack of proficiency with the system?

I’m going to start with the last point first: absolutely. I’ve known plenty of gamers for whom if the rules are not GURPS, OGL d20, or Fate, they’re not playin’. (Says the guy bitterly clinging to a half dozen defunct games…) Most of these guys have also been playing the same games for years. For these people, it is familiarity that produces preference, but what about people who do venture forth and try new games? — which I have advocated in the past.

I would suggest that for these intrepid gamers, preference comes from two factors: ease of play or learning curve, and from how well a game models the genre or the setting. Ease of play usually ties to the simplicity of the core mechanic. The traditional attribute+skill (+asset or other factor) beating a target number has been pretty standard for at least 20 years. Before that, in early D&D, it was as simple as roll a d20 and get under the number for your trait (strength, etc…) The learning curve was relatively slight, with a bit of a rise when you hit combat or magic. Add a ton of math into character creation or into managing modifiers to a roll was a good way to lose a player’s interest — although GURPS and early Champions still had plenty of adherents.

More importantly, especially with the wave of newer system designs in the 1990s, were games tailored more toward role playing rather than tactical gaming with role playing rules tacked onto them (have a look at your favorite game — if the chapter on combat is twice the size as the core mechanics, we’re talking about you…) White Wolf, Call of Chthulu, Castle Falkenstein, Fudge (later Fate) were relatively simple to learn, gave the players more say in character design than race, class, etc; and oriented toward pushing story, rather than wargames with characters. This required the games to also adhere to genre convention well.

What does this have to do with preference? There are games that have lived a long and healthy life after they went out of print. Some of those were settings that would be recreated in newer games. Case in point: Why play Last Unicorm or Decipher Star Trek when FASA already did it in the 1980s. (And there are die-hard FASA fans that will not consider doing that…) LUG Trek managed to do a good job of modeling the universe of the various Star Trek television shows, and was a lot easier to learn than FASA’s version. Decipher took a lot of the LUG ideas, thought about cramming it into OGL d20, then relented and gave a bastardized version of LUG Trek that did a good job of handling all of the series (LUG had series specific core books!), but lost some of the ease of the prior set of rules. Still I jumped to Decipher…why? The core rules were easy and the game captured the feel of Trek pretty well.

Why use Spycraft when there’s Top Secret or James Bond: 007? Why buy Victoriana when there’s Castle Falkenstein? Why buy anything else when there’s GURPS? Because the new game captures the flavor of the genre you are playing in. 

If familiarity or skill with a system were so intrinsic to preference, why would people branch out? Can you look at your favorite game for a certain genre and say “this would be better, but I like this better”? I’ll start it off — Classic Cortex would probably work just as well, if not better, for espionage games such as James Bond. But JB:007 helps emulate the world of the movies better than Cortex’s mechanics would, despite being more complex. Preference here is due to familiarity, but it does not create in me the impression that other systems are not good…for this, JB:007 just does it better. Firefly does a decent job of capturing the show, but would be better at modeling Star Trek. Take that FASA guys!

Which starts to deal with point the third: Is your skill at pretending to be a character tied to an understanding of the rules? Can a player role play well enough that the rules are incidental. After 30+ year of doing this, that’s an unequivocal YES. In other words — there’s no way to play wrong. Your “skill” as a player, nor your enjoyment of a game, is necessarily hinged on the mechanics. However, there is a way to design a game that will not play well for certain expectations. Those expectations are not wrong, nor is a preference for, say, how mechanics divvy up narrative responsibility (for instance, strong v weak GM.) Those expectations can help someone understand if running a certain system or playing with those rules is more preferable than another set of rules. (Again, see A/B test of the Firefly/Serenity rules and the “Is There a Right Way to Game?” posts.)

My response to this is — familiarity or proficiency with a system for a GM or players can make the game easier or more fun — but ultimately, the mechanics rarely make a game more fun…but they can dash it very quickly. A couple of case studies that will also play to point 2: 

Call of Chthulu is a fairly easy set of mechanics to learn, and I understood how they drove the game perfectly well. The guy running the game blew goats, so my opinion of the game has been badly tainted. I understand this preference was based on a single outlier and I have been open to trying it again…but there’s usually something I’d much rather play than a game where the point (seems to be) to see how you go mad and die. That’s not the game’s fault and Truman’s statement about GM skill is spot on here, but it also wasn’t aided by the fact I find Lovecraft-style horror unengaging — that that more taints the perception of the game and has nothing to do with familiarity of the system or the universe; a good GM could make me invest in the universe…but horror is hard to do.

Example 2: I ran Chameleon Eclectic’s version of the Babylon 5 universe for years. It has an easy base mechanic — a minus die and a plus die with the result (anywhere from a -5 to a +5) added to the skill. The combat system was a hot mess, except! I understood what it was modeling, so it made sense to me. It captured how a small injury could be instantly debilitating or not, and how a vicious injury could be leading to your very imminent demise, but not slow you down. Because I got it, I ran it well and the players quickly got a hold of the base mechanic and left the combat stuff to me to adjudicate. The rules set sucked, but because the “skill” of the GM was high, the game ran well and was, in Truman’s terms, a good game. That is wrong, however — the players and GM were good enough to rise above the limitations of a bad rules set.

Likewise, I ran Space: 1889 for years and was very familiar with it, but the limitations of the mechanics from a probability standpoint were glaringly, painfully obvious. We swapped to the Castle Falkenstein rules despite terrible combat rules (which we figured out were bad even before trying them out, but try we did.several times…) Was this due to a lack of expertise in running it? Perhaps, but they also did not model swashbuckling adventure well. We kit-bashed a version of the Lace & Steel combat rules (also a card-based game) that captured the fun of sword and fisticuffs play so well that, in one of those rare instances, they made play more fun. Players sometimes eschewed the ease gunplay for the fun of clashing blades. The new rules were not “familiar”, either, and evolved a bit over the course of play…but they accelerated the pace of fights and made it more competitive. So yes, the mechanics can aid play…but after 30 years of doing this, I can safely say it’s a rarity. Space: 1889 has a phenomenal setting that is so good game designers have started pasting it into other rules — Savage Worlds and Ubiquity. Castle Falkenstein’s steampunk meets fantasy was equally engaging but the core mechanics could not survive quirky side rules mechanics for sorcery and fighting. Again…great setting, crappy GAME.

At heart, I think the argument is between whether you think rules should help engage the players, or you players should engage with the rules. Newer indie games seem to be trying to find new ways to do the first — having the mechanics engage the players in some way by having them take part in the storytelling process. This, coupled with a recent trend of game designers wanting to view RPGs as “art” (James Franco agrees!) or “socially relevant”, leads to games more interested in the mechanics as art. They absolutely want the people playing the game to have fun, but their perception of what the fun part is, and how it is achieved might not quite jive with what their audience wants.

I would describe it this way: If you know how to tell a story, and the players are invested in theur characters and the setting, the mechanics can only hinder you. Rules light systems can capture that quite well, but in the end, good role playing and understanding the mechanics are mutually exclusive to having fun or good game rules. Familiarity can cause a better perception of the rules, but not all new games we play “suck” until we get better at them. Sometimes the mechanics enhance play, sometimes they simply disappear, and sometimes they curtail play. 

Sometimes, the game does just suck.

While this is not as much an issue with a lot of fantasy games, where the players are off exploring or doing whatever in a wilderness setting, modern and science fiction games — particularly where the players’ characters are part of a larger organization — can have an issue where players are quick to either slough off the danger or responsibility on NPCs.

Having characters tap their contacts, allies, or superiors for help occasionally is a good thing — it gives them a chance to interact with their organization, which makes it more real, but also more comforting; it also gives the GM the opportunity to use a deus ex machina at the behest of the players without it seeming too pat. But once a team starts calling on aid too often, it’s likely to bring their competency into question by the powers that be. Here are a few instances of how calling the office for help can be used, and a few ideas for controlling over-dependence on the NPCs for help:

They’re Turning My Car Into Swiss Cheese! I Need Backup Now! Now, goddammit!

There are times the players are going to be in too deep. That’s part of the challenge. And sometimes, they’re going to need help. If that help is “cinematically appropriate” or something likely to happen, go for it.

David One-Four, officer needs assistance! In a game where the players are a police officer, a federal agent, a soldier on the battlefield, calling for help is sometimes just a radio call away. Say your team walks into the largest drug deal in history (’til the next one), and you are out-gunned and pinned down. Calling for assistance is certainly reasonable, and hopefully will even get there in time.

In a system with rules for contacts, or getting favors, etc. this might help manage response time to a call for help. Otherwise, it’s always good to keep the players right on the edge of their seat, then bail them out at the last minute. This doesn’t mean they don’t have to chase the big bad guy through [appropriate action set piece] to catch him, it just means the mooks that have been making life a bit too hard are distracted or dispatched by the backup.

Longhorn, Devil Niner — I need a fire order at the following grid… In a military-themed game, this might scale to something like calling in a fire order from artillery or an air strike. (Come on…you know you want to…) It’s a way to make things hard enough on the players to be very challenging, yet give them a pathway to success if they can’t handle it on their own.

In a spy game, calling for help is the last thing you want to do unless you have to…

But say they call for help a bit too often, or turn to the NPCs the moment there’s any opposition. How do you handle that?

David One-Four, backup dispatched. Estimate 15 minutes… A good one is time constraints. Backup is too far away, or your division is too jammed up, or maybe that self-righteous spat in the locker room with another detective got you the Serpico treatment. Either way, no one’s showing until the music is long over…

Say again, Devil Niner? Another is comms trouble. How many times has your cell phone dropped a call for no reason at all? Radio frequencies get stepped on by other transmissions, or buildings mask the signal. Maybe that new guy didn’t programs the PLGR for the radio before you left the FOB. Or that planet you landed on plays havoc with your communicator. For whatever reason, you can’t get a call through. You can leave them hanging for longer than they’d like, or leave them to twist. Another good variant is the message is garbled enough that you get a worse result…like when your artillery starts raining fire on you.

For an espionage game, any communication with the home office is a chance for either interception of your calls, the bad guys locating you or sending someone as “help”, but actually to stop you. Worse, your organization could get nervous about the outcome of your little op that wasn’t quite sanctioned in that particular country and your are suddenly deniable. No help. Find your own extraction. Hope to see you again. If they don’t just burn you, or send someone to clean up your mess…including you.

Reduction in rank or responsibility is a very real penalty in all of these situations, especially if it’s obvious that the players were shirking their duties.

…Requesting Further Instruction!

In most game scenarios, we can assume that — unless being in the dark was part of the challenge — the players got some kind of mission briefing, or have some kind of rules of engagement. There’ a goal and parameters to work inside. But sometimes, you get overtaken by events and need some clarification:

Yamato, We’ve encountered a possible new lifeform… Sometimes, you were just to darned clever  for the players (or were unprepared and haven’t explained things particularly well) and they need help. Letting them tap that expert in exobiology, or criminal law, or calling a language expert back in Ft. Meade, or some other subject matter expert can help get a story back on the rails.

Big Bear, Duchess: Flash mission update! Another scenario where calling for further instruction from the hierarchy might be when the players discover some element of the plot that the bosses might need to know, or something has happened that would cause you to exceed your orders. Say that convoy of weapons you were supposed to stop managed to get past you with some super weapon or crossed a border into a country denied to you. Do you go in? Do you call for permission?

Superintendent, you won’t believe where the money trail leads to… Maybe that criminal investigation got a lot more interesting than you expected. Following the money, you’ve started turning up people of power — the sort that can shut your op down if they get word, or which you simply won’t be allowed to go after unless you can get cover from the higher-ups. This is an appropriate time to check in with the powers-that-be. Remember that golden rule of politics…don’t surprise your bosses.

Sometimes, however, the players are looking for a gimme…at times like that, it’s time to use the magical power of bureaucratic sloth or expectation against the players:

If you can’t handle it, Lieutenant, I’ll find someone who can! Say your mission was to beam down to a planet and observe a lesser advanced species of aliens without revealing yourself. Calling the ship to ask the science officer or captain for instructions every time you get stumped might see you recalled in favor of a “more competent officer.”

You’re on the ground, Devil Niner, not me! You’ve stumbled onto the enemy in a place they’re not supposed to be and the rest of the force is otherwise engaged…it’s you, or it’s nobody. What’re you going to do, sergeant? Let your force get flanked?

I’m not putting myself on the chopping block… Never underestimate the power of covering your own ass. Maybe your investigation is likely to embarrass someone to powerful to get to. The heat hasn’t even started to come down, but your boss isn’t going to stick his neck out for the chop this close to his pension. All that work — great stuff and you’ll get a commendation, but now it’s over…just let me know where you don’t want to go in the department so I can get you where you (don’t) want to go.

Do you know how expensive it is to retask a satellite!?!  Another given, bureaucracies don’t like to commit resources they don’t have to. Maybe you need a satellite retasked — nope! Maybe you want a mini-sub to infiltrate an area, but the navy isn’t playing along. Oh, you want an Aston Martin, Mr. Bond — you know how many £150,000 automobiles you’ve destroyed this quarter? Here’s a Vauxhall.

This is one of those things where the GM has to be aware of how often and how quickly the players resort to calling for aid or instruction when they are stumped.


One of the things that nearly all role playing games have in common is some form of “advancement” — experience points, advancement points, milestones; a point where the characters’ journeys and experiences lead to them getting better at certain things.

The oldest form of this was “leveling up” in Dungeons & Dragons — you would hit a certain number of experience points and would suddenly be better at fighing, have more spells to cast, gain hit points (get tougher), etc. It happens boop! just like that. You would gain XP for the events of a session based on the monsters opposed and other story aspects. Realistic? No — but it set the stage for RPGs, both tabletop and electronic, to come.

Other games came along that broke the experience/session pattern – James Bond: 007, for instance, gave you experience at the end of a mission, rather than per session. Marvel Heroic Roleplaying has a very nice system based on playing to the milestones you set for your character. As you address them, you gain points, rather than for the villain of the week you beat up. (I have a real soft spot for this mechanic!)

What is the best way to handle experience? This is usually where I should get wishy-washy and say “what works best for your campaign”, but after a few decades of doing this, i feel confident about this one: experience points (or whatever you call them), should be given at the end of a specific adventure or chapter in the same, unless there was some specific thing in the session that would have led to gaining or improving a skill. (Montage!)

Characters shouldn’t just jump in abilities after the equivalent of a day or two wandering in a dungeon, or fighting for a few days on the beach at Normandy. It takes time to process mental skills, it takes longer to hone physical prowess in something, and the better you are, the harder it is to improve that little bit more. (Just ask an Olympian…) I wouldn’t suggest just rolling this out on your game group without talking the reasoning through with them. you might get lynched. But here’s my reasoning:

1) Over the course of a session representing a day or more, a player should be able to learn one new skill at a very basic level. (If you want to give them advancement/session.) Didn’t you just say the very opposite thing a second ago? Not quite…okay, I did,

It’s really easy to learn a new skill at a truly basic level. One trip out to a firing range, and most people can get from not knowing how to work a firearm to being able to hit center mass(ish) most of the time. You can learn to ride a motorcycle or drive stick with a few hours practice. You’re not good at it, but you can do it. You can learn a couple of phrases of a new language, or start to parse bits of a language similar to one you are good with. You might have picked up just enough information to actually be dangerous to yourself, in that you might not be up to the difficulty of an ordinary task with the skill.

2) Most real development for the characters takes place in the spaces between the big moments. Sure, you kicked the snot out of those Imperial TIE fighters…but what did you learn? Most fighter pilots learn from their mistakes and successes during after action reports where they study gunsite footage and analyse what worked and why. This is why I say most points should be given at the end of a major chapter or adventure of a campaign.

3) One way to handle learning basic skills when you don’t have points is to go into “point debt.” I will allow characters who use a new skill well enough to learn the basics to take the skill on loan. s soon as they have the experience to cover it, they pay.

For more advanced skills, suggesting to your world-trotting archeologist could learn the various languages at his Linguistics skill (or whatever) if he has a certain length of time, then give him a discount on the cost of improving the language skill if he waits that length of time to buy it.

But what about…?

The improvement of skills, hit points, and the like is not the only sort of advancement players see. As they move through the game’s campaign, they might see themselves amass power or wealth. These benefits often come with responsibilities or other consequences. If your 20th level fighter has not carved his own petty kingdom, Conan-like, from the power structure of your fantasy world, how much of his time is now taken up with satisfying the needs of his people? What about that aqueduct they need? How about filling that granary for the winter? Whaddya mean my treasurer absconded with the kingdom’s cash? How does he account for justice? If he is a hard tyrant, how long before there is an usurper? Might that be his own friends?

This is a type of advancement that comes from role playing, and which could be tied to “leveling up” (“Hey, you’re a 13th level science officer now — you get your promotion to lieutenant commander!”) or through role playing. Recently, a player character that started as a raw lieutenant junior in our Galactica campaign got a surprise promotion to captain and squadron leader. (Ah…attrition!) We’re only just starting to touch on how this new responsibility is alienating from her old friends…she’s the boss now. She hasn’t found out, yet, that just doing things your own way when you are responsible for 8-10 vipers and pilots isn’t an option. She’s also under more scrutiny from the command, and who wants to lose a promotion? Pressure!

In a police game, maybe you finally get to run an op yourself. All eyes on you, tiger; don’t screw it up, or we’ll ask you where you don’t want to get assigned next. A private eye might have a few high-profile cases, and now has too much work. You hire a few more dicks, but are you pounding the streets or are you supervising Manny, Moe, and Jack half the time..?

By dropping responsibility on top of the characters, as well as position, you can help create challenges they can’t just swing their +5 Vorpal sword through to solve.

Then there’s the ultimate advancement…retirement (or death.) What is the consequence of a hero, king, whatever stepping away from his position? Do they just fade into obscurity, as General MacArthur said? Would it have been more appropriate for James T Kirk to have died ignominiously slipping in the shower? (Bones: “He was right…he did die alone.”) Or is it better to get dragged back into one last mission/case/fight? (“You did not just say that!”)

Advancement can be so much more than just handing out experience points.

This post came about from my thoughts on the graph in Runeslinger’s Spectrum of Play  article, as well as his Right Way to Game posts. The first has been reblogged here on The Black Campbell, but you can pop over to his Casting Shadows page to read more. His YouTube channel is probably even more useful.

There’s a lot of thought and opinion spilled into the series of tubes on how to play role playing games. The main point of contention is between those who like a game with a defined plot versus the “sandbox”, or a style of play in which the environment and the players’ actions (hopefully) give rise to some kind of adventure.

…we each will have our favorite ways to go about [gaming], and among the voices talking about them there may be some strident calls for one way over an other…The next step was to address the nature of the play environment itself with a look at the concepts of the sandbox and the defined narrative

The quote is from Anthony Boyd (or Runeslinger), over at Casting Shadows. He has cobbled together a rather elegant continuum of play styles that address this argument. He separates the issue into matters of player agency — how much effect the player has on the narrative and outcome of a game; and defined story spectrum. I found the chart instructive in that if well describes how the the power  relationships of a role playing game between players and a game master/storyteller/etc.. or between players, is dependent on how well defined the story is. 


I found this chart particularly pertinent after my recent post on a comparison test of the Firefly (Cortex) and Serenity (Cortex Plus) rules from Margaret Weis Production. In that test, we found that aspects of the system designed to spread narrative control, while fun, seemed to hamper the coherency of the story. 

He points out that …we like what we like, and given choice, we tend to pick our favorite options over the rest… Some new game may draw us in with its setting, but push us in a new or formerly avoided direction with its mechanics…” This was certainly part of the issue the gaming group had with Firefly — we’ve run Cortex for quite some time and have found it (mostly) to be an excellent set of rules for creating nuanced characters and handling most scenarios for an adventure. When it falls down, though, it tends to do it hard. One of those genres it did not handle well was superheroes. Marvel Heroic Roleplaying may have been a busy system with a lot of moving parts, but it emulated the flavor of comic books near perfectly. Firefly we all wanted to like…but we like what we like, and in this case, for not over the top science fiction, we like Cortex (the Battlestar Galactica or Cortex 1.1 version.)

But why was that the case? Partly it was a preference in most of the group for stories that have some kind of defined plotline to an episode and the campaign overall, while still allowing for character action to sharply change the outcome of the same. Firefly — like Fate and many of the new wannabe-artsy “indie” games — does that, but the ability of the players to set complications and assets added new visions of the plot that aren’t necessarily well-meshed with what has been ongoing.

To use a cinema or television analogy, you have too many writers in the writers’ room and not a strong enough head writer or executive producer to contain their disparate visions of the story or universe. All those shows that “jumped the shark” by wandering off course badly; nearly ever movie you’ve seen where you leave saying “it was so close to good!” is the result of multiple writing teams working to please a different audience in the production or direction staff of the show or movie. (Case in point: Spaight’s excellent draft for what would be Prometheus versus the disaster of Lindelof’s final script, coupled with Scott’s last minute changes.) Too many cooks, as the expression goes, spoils the soup.

In the chart above are two bands of specific points along a spectrum of implementation options ranging from ‘none’ to ‘total.’ I believe if you let your eyes roam across these bands, it should be pretty easy to spot roughly where your basic preferences lie. With a little effort, it should also be possible to spot where specific games require you to be to run them as intended. This might be useful in assessing if a game will be suitable for your group, or if an idea you have for a game will flow like you want within its confines, but I feel it has better uses yet. From my  perspective, it might offer a hint as to why a given campaign or group is or isn’t working for you, but will really shine when used to help add a new kind of scene, scenario, or mood to your toolbox of techniques.

This point is particularly well thought out. A quick look at the chart puts my gaming style at 3-4 on the player agency and the narrative of the chart. This suggests that the indie, GM-less systems aren’t going to be my cup of tea. The main reason: I really cut my teeth as a GM on espionage games where the villains had a specific plan, the players would investigate to uncover and stop it, and to emulate the spy movies we were aping, I had to design (and still do from time to time) my adventure around specific action set pieces, exposition scenes, and a denouement that was usually quasi-planned out. Player actions might cut some of these scenes, force me to add others, or change the ending, but there was an outline of “things that should happen…”

Think of it as similar to building rooms in a dungeon. The players can choose where to go, in what order and manner, but the very definition of the space and the hazards is essentially a plot based on action set pieces. So despite the appearance of a sandbox-like environment, dungeon crawling is in many ways the most restrctive – story-wise — an RPG can get. Players can have almost total agency in what they do, but ultimately the act of wandering the space of the adventure constructs action.

The sandbox gaming style is much more collaborative and reduces the role of the gamemaster or storyteller to an equal, or “but is more equal than others” position wherein they act as referee at most. This certainly has its place, but I have yet to see this style of play hold together a long-term campaign outside of LARP circles, where the gaming environment and the larger number of people require a more cooperative approach to character interaction.

The idea that your play style might dictate the sort of game you will like should seem self-evident, but is it when you are looking over the games in your LGS (or more likely perusing DriveThru these days…)? Firefly is a setting all of our gaming group enjoy, but the mechanics forced us further right on the player agency spectrum that most of us were comfortable with. I found it didn’t so much effect my style of gamemastering, but the complications mechanic forced me into narrative corners I had to duck and weave to get out of.

I’ve played in campaigns — a Shadowrun game leaps to mind from the ‘90s — where it was mostly sandbox. We were nearly all the way right on the narrative — there was a proposal put before the group we could take or leave (but wanting to do more than hang out at the bar and trade quips, we took the job) and we had to plan and execute the job with no GM input. The GM style was so hands off that the guy disappeared for about an hour and we found him working under his old project Porsche 911… Not the sort of engagement that brings folks together. The players were fully in control of the narrative for the session, and what happened is one or two of the people at the table naturally took on the “leader” role from the GM so that when he came back to the table and tried to referee the big action scene, he discovered we had managed to plan it out well enough to overcome the opposition with ease, and he obviously started moving the goal posts. It was frustrating for everyone — too many cooks in the kitchen. A modern GM might have allowed the success to happen and tried to set something up to go wrong later, or with a system like Fate tossed a complication in that would bite the players later.

In the end, is there a right way to game? No…but there is a right way for you and/or your group to game. It’s worth venturing out of your confort zone from time to time to see if you like something that isn’t quite what you are used to. I’ve been on a mission to try and like Fate, of late — both Atomic Robo and Mindjammer use it, and I like the settings…but the mechanics just don’t jive with how I or my group tend to play.

And that’s alright.

I’ve been pretty lucky to have adult — psychologically, if not physiologically — at my gaming table for the last thirty years or so (Am I really that old!?!), so this hasn’t been much of an issue for my games, but judging from some of the gaming boards and Facef#$% — I mean Facebook — discussions this is not the case for others.

That most cootie-rific of issues: romance!

I’ve covered a lot of the issues connected to romance at the game table in a few posts from the past –

1) This was a response to Dom Mappin’s piece on Gnome Stew in which I discuss the issue of romance between players. While the piece still has some good thought and advice, my opinion on it has matured to a 1) It’s none of your business what the players are doing together, and b) It’s none of your damned business what the players are doing together…but it can still screw up a group’s dynamics.

2) As to romance between characters: Just do it. Especially if you are looking for good motivations for characters, or for a more realistic world for the players to game in. Which naturally leads to sex and romance — where do you draw the line? G? PG? R? NC-17? That depends on the players and the nature of the game.

As with anything, romance in-game means you have to know your audience — who are the players and what do they want or abhor? As to romance between players? It’s going to happen, and it’s none of your damned business.

Last week I finally got my new 1930s pulp game fired up. It’s been a few months coming, but the momentum in the Battlestar Galactica game was such that i wanted to push through to the “season finale” which allowed me to write a major character out as the player was leaving for San Francisco. I chose to use Hollow Earth Expedition again, although I was sorely tempted to use Cortex or the old James Bond: 007 RPG for the rules set.

One of the issues was trying to get the characters to mesh well. I’m the only person with a strong grasp of the period, so I did most of the heavy lifting on character creation for the players, weaving the history of the preceding years into the characters — two served in WWI together, the aristocrat character spent a lot of time in Africa with the “Happy Valley Set” — known for their promiscuous sex life, rampant drug use, and other scandals; and tying how the Great Depression affected them or their families. With the characters well established came the hard part…how to get them together?

There’s a few ways to do this — I like teasers that introduce the players to their characters in little vignettes that showcase their strengths, weaknesses, and basic schtick. (A classic one is the teaser in Raiders of the Lost Ark.) That seemed like it would suck up too much time in this instance, and several initial ideas fell flat. Another good way is to start in media res — where the story is already under way. Open with either an action sequence or some aspect of the story. The basic mission is either revealed during play, or the players were prepped for it before play. Most teasers start in media res, but usually don’t have a direct connection to the main story. I decided for the later, with the characters meeting at the Travellers’ Club in London after the “lead” — a tomb raider named Tom Steele — had already retrieved the item central to the plot.

This brings up the last point…what brings the group together? For a military or espionage setting, you can make that easy: they are assigned to a mission together. For a superhero game, maybe they’re part of the same team. What kind of mission would get an aristocratic occultist/pornographer, his two-fisted manservant, and an slick-dressing and talking American tomb raider who was tossed from Oxford together, then get them out to China? I tried a few different ideas, but they all fell flat. What I needed was what Alfred Hitchcock called ‘a McGuffin.”

What’s a McGuffin? This is the thing that brings everyone together for an adventure, and the characters can have different reasons for engaging with the object. The most famous is probably the Maltese Falcon. In the book and the 1941 film, the Maltese Falcon is supposed to be a gold falcon that has been painted black. All the characters get roped into the action because they want the falcon, or in the case of Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart in the film), he’s a private dick hired for a case that starts playing all sides off each other. Rosebud, the sled from Citizen Kane, is another: “Rosebud” is the last word spoken by the lead character and a reporter tries to track down what it pertains to. The Death Star plans, the Lost Ark — these are McGuffins. They might be central to the action, a red herring, or something that is, ultimately, unimportant beyond being the impetus for the story (think the briefcase in the trunk in Repo Men, or the diamond from Titanic.)

While doing some reading, I came across an interesting bit of old Chinese culture — the “death jade”, usually a small carving of a cicada, which is supposed to take ones spirit to its final resting place (or close enough.) Some were alleged to be used to store the spirit until resurrection. I took this idea, fused it with another idea concerning the Huangdi, the First Sovereign Emperor, and his quest for the Elixir of Immortality. What if the Huangdi’s death jade held his spirit? What happens if it’s used in a summoning?

And there was the first night. Pull the characters together for a summoning at a common friend’s house in Hampstead Heath. The summoning, rather than being the usual excuse for drink and debauchery turns out to work, with the acquaintance being possessed by the spirit of the emperor. Before people can react to the glowing eyed possessed man, enter the competition — in this case a bunch of black outfitted wushu-fighting types. the resulting fight in the library of the country house was classic Hong Kong chop socky meets Indiana Jones. Of course the bad guys get the death jade, meaning the tomb raider (who has not gotten his full pay yet) has to go after it. The occultist wants it for the obvious power.

The fight led outside to a car chase with a bunch of the bad guys on “hoopcycles” — a one-wheeled “motorcycle” — through the streets of London, and down into the Underground. This long action set piece took most of the night and was a blast.

Who are the bad guys? I had a vague idea. Why do they want it? They can guess. This week, i get to fill out the particulars and get them started on their way to China.

A last minute cancellation put me in a rough place this week. I had a new pulp game all set to go and one of the “leads” — who was necessary for the beginning of the game texted out after we were due to start. At first, I thought, “Great! Board game night!” but the last board game night revealed that one of the players is not the sort with which you want to have any kind of game that involves competition. Plan C — fire up the Battlestar Galactica “new season” on the fly.

I didn’t have much to work with ready, so instead thought about what kind of impact losing two of the major characters would have on the NPCs and the players, and ran with that. In this episode…we talked about our feelings. I pieced together how the president — who had thought himself inured to loss after the Fall of the Colonies — is beginning to fall apart with the death of his son in law. Now, all he has is his son, and the fear of losing the man (the commander on Galactica) hasn’t paralysed him, but he no longer feels empowered. The commander lost his best friend, the other PC was a trusted colleague, and his burgeoning love affair with another officer has been interrupted by her reassignment to Pegasus. He’s alone. Another character had been the dead pilot/oracle’s lover — she’s crushed, and has had to take over his duties as a squadron leader. How can she command her friends, knowing she might have to send them to their deaths…and can she do it?

Another aspect of the night was the goings on aboard Pegasus. ADM Cain is a constant presence in the background, but was never encountered. Instead, the pilot now squadron leader found herself touring the flight deck of the flagship. She noted immediately that everyone was locked down tight — humorless or at least very restrained, with a strong undercurrent of fear or anxiety. She was approached by some of the crew who were curious about Galactica, including a couple of enlisted men who were interested in the “robot girl” they had in custody. It was creep, and made moreso by one of the female officers telling her to be careful where she went alone on the ship.

They heard about Cain’s “razor” speech — that they had to be a weapon, until they couldn’t fight anymore, or until they won. The idea that, being alone and having no real hope, the ship has been on a mission of vengeance is palpable. Now the trick is to bring Cain around to her new mission, that of guardian. (It’s a similar character arc that the one player’s commander had to go through early on.)

So there’s a prime example of how my slightly tongue-in-cheek post from a few days ago can be put into use.

Most game designers are very concerned with the notion of “balance” in the games they make. Systems that use a point-based creation mechanic for character creation often have levels of generation points that allow a player to customize their character, yet are all bought for the same “level” — being it novice or beginner, experienced/whatever, or expert/master, etc. In Dungeons & Dragons, characters used to start at 1st level and work their way up, but later iterations allowed for starting at higher levels…but you still had the same approximate range of abilities.

Until you hit the min/maxers and rules lawyers that can manipulate the system to build a character more effectively than other players. (I have a mathematician in the group right now who is an expert at this…)

The point to this notion of “balance” is “fairness”. Young players, players that use gaming to vicariously experience success or greatness, often don’t like the notion of having a player be weaker or stronger than others in a campaign. Everyone wants to be the hero, and balance is supposed to push the players toward a more ensemble model, where everyone is equally important to the game. It’s a nice ideal — and one that I subscribed to for a long time — but it’s not really achievable.

Problem, the first: All players are not created equal. Maybe your characters were all created for X number of points, but you have a rules lawyer that has made a character perfectly tailored to the sorts of adventures you will encounter, making them the “go to guy” all the time. It’s great for that player; they’re almost always now the center of attention. Even if, somehow, you managed to have characters that were all highly specialized and had their particular spotlight moments in a game session, some players are more passive, and others more active — one guy may spend all his time in his room inventing things, and only becomes a factor in play when the fight is on. Maybe a player is particularly clever at using a “weak” character to achieve greatness. Maybe one of them is just too funny to reign in and makes the game enjoyable. These players are going to capture most of the airtime.

Problem, the second: It’s not the way good storytelling works. In books, movies, and television — even with ensemble casts — there’s normally a lead or two that the stories focus on. For example, let’s take any of the Star Trek series from The Next Generation on…there’s an ensemble that sees the whole cast get some screen time, but normally, the focus is on one or two of the characters per episode, and often over the course of the series. Let’s look at The Lord of the Rings (books and movies) — Frodo is the main protagonist on the quest to destroy the Ring, with Sam as his sidekick, but arguably just as important. But Aragorn is the lead for the portions involving the return of the king and opposing the forces of Mordor. Frodo is in no way Aragorn’s equal (and arguably not up to that of Sam, either…) But he is the lead and the lead not need be the biggest bad ass of the bunch. Even Merri and Pippin are stuffed into the middle of great conflicts, and probably couldn’t resist a late-night mugging in any modern city. It’s not about being bad ass; the interesting part of characters is their weaknesses and how they overcome obstacles. Simply hacking your way through a problem like Schwarzenegger might have a certain appeal, but it’s not especially memorable after the first hundred kobolds, is it?

Problem, the third: Not everyone wants to be the bas ass. I have a player whose real interest is in the politics and social machinations in nearly every game we play. He often winds up being the politician, ship captain, leader because that’s the sort of thing he likes. Even when he had action star-type characters, he would often use other characters as proxies in fights. Some guys thrive on being the ass-kicker and trying to suss their way through a mystery is either boring or taxing…they like to sit and wait until it’s time to break the “in case of emergency” glass on their barbarian and let the carnage begin.

So what’s the point of attempting game balance, other than an attempt to preserve some sense of Harrison Bergeron-esque enforced equality? I’d submit none.

Here’s an idea — when in the planning stages of a campaign, there are a few things the GM and players can do to create engaging characters that are appropriate to the sorts of adventures in store for them. On the players’ side is arguably the harder job — letting go of the ego long enough to create characters that have a reason to be together, more than focusing solely on your cool concept.

Example 1: I had a player that had his high concept character — a Starfleet engineer who was super-talented, so that he didn’t have to play by the rules and regulations. Great idea, save for a few points: 1) everyone in friggin’ Starfleet is smart, educated, and competent, 2) the character’s purpose is to spotlight hog and create artificial conflict (specifically with the GM and the adventure itself, I suspect), 3) he’s got no logical reason to be there, other than to annoy everyone else at the table.

Example 2: In a short-lived Supernatural game, one of the players decided to play the overweight, stereotypical hacker/geek that ran a supernatural conspiracy website. He was the outsider of the group, but was useful (and played very amusingly) enough that he was essential in the investigation portions of the adventures, but was completely out of his element once they found the creature of the week. The spotlight then shifted to the other characters. They meshed, even with the built in conflict between the characters because they needed each other, and — after a few encounters – wanted to work together.

The first example was built to the same number of creation points as the other characters, but was specialized in away that, while it could have been highly useful, was mitigated by the assholish persona of the character. No one went to him for help. The players and characters hated the character in question.

The second example created highly memorable moments in the game that were fun enough that the other players gladly gave up their moment just to watch the hacker have his long-winded, hysterically-funny meltdowns. The characters might have hated the guys (and there was one in particular) but the players loved him. He fit. He was built for less points than the bad-ass exorcist priests that were the “leads” of the game.

A last example might bring this home: Most of the players in my last pulp game were built by the GM (me), based on character concepts the players had and I fleshed out to make work better. (This was more a function of my knowledge of the period and the manner of game I was planning.) They were all customized to play to the concept. The brick was a combat monster and utterly useless in other venues…yet was played with such joyful idiocy that he rapidly became our “Jack Burton” of the game — in the center of things, but clueless. The archeologist lead was built for more points and was talented in almost everything, but tended to use the first character to get the action bits done because a) it gave the other players stuff to do, and b) the player is risk aversive and uses the others as meat shields in almost every game.

It was the character of an 11 year old street urchin, however, that was the surprise. Built to be much less experienced, talented, and having a lot of the social and physical downsides to being a small Chinese girl in 1936 Shanghai, she was nevertheless highly effective outside of her niche of thief because of out-of-the-box thinking by the player as well as an obvious delight at playing a unique character. Everyone had their niche, got their airtime, but also frequently worked together in ways that were memorable and unexpected.

So…what’s your point?

Build to a character concept and their role in the game and to hell with stat and/or skill advancement (except where applicable to the story), and focus on how these characters interact.

For instance, our current Battlestar Galactica game saw characters generally built at “veteran” level — the median for stats and skills, then given assets and complications that made them unique. But the commander was built to a slightly higher level — somewhere between the veteran and seasoned veteran. It made sense for the commander to be more experienced and talented…his role of leader might put him in a position of power over the other characters, but also limits his ability to participate in some of the action. Unlike the captains of Star Trek, BSG captains (andreal military leaders) tend to have to stand powerlessly in their CIC while they listen to their subordinates succeed or fail based on their mission plan. One of the lead characters in the ensemble is a viper pilot. She’s great at flying and fighting in the cockpit. She’s also a gullible prat who acts before engaging brain. It’s appropriate to the character. She was built with less points than the commander, but her role is such she sees much more of the action. She’s just not in on the big decision-making…that’s not her role.

By building characters and playing them to the role and concept envisioned, you can craft a group that all work together and enjoy the story, even if one of the characters is more of a lead that others. I frequently see one of the players’ characters as the “lead”, with the others as the main supporting cast, and try to rotate that central role between the players per campaign. But if you play one game (looking at you Pathfinder folks!) for thirty years, rotate who is the lead in a particular adventure — maybe Bumbo the Barbarian was the lead in the last couple of sessions, seeking revenge on the man that killed his family and burned his childhood village, but for the next few, he’s helping his thief friend Sticky Fingers snatch a valuable McGuffin. He’s the sidekick for this one.

For players, this means giving up the spotlight and being the sidekick from time to time. For the GM, it means making sure everyone gets to be the hero every once in a while.


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