Monday 29 April 2013

Now In Print.....

Mystic Bull has this puppy in print now at Lulu, and has reduced the pdf at RPGnow.

I have two adventures within, Icon of the Blood Goddess and Mermaids From Yuggoth, all as part of my fiendish plan to have more DCC RPG adventures available by me than by Harley Stroh.

(I kid of course.  The more DCC adventures by Harley Stroh, Joseph Goodman, Michael Curtis, Jon Marr, Paul Wolfe, etc., that are out there, the better it is for us all.)

But I still think you'll like the adventures in this book!

Thursday 25 April 2013

Condolences for John Adams

John Adams of Brave Halfling Publishing and his wife recently lost their baby daughter, who was due in July. As a parent of three, I can only imagine how devastating this must be.

In my contacts with John, he has always impressed me as a genuinely good person, someone who is passionate about what he does, and about the people around him.

I know that it would mean something to me that people cared enough to do something, even if it can't undo a loss.

So, on Sunday, at 9 pm Toronto time, I'm going to send something to John and his family.  The card will just be "We sympathize with your loss, and we want you to know that we are here for you.  From your friends in the DCC community."

Because, really, we are a community.  Or we should be.

If you want to contribute, great.  I'll be using PayPal, and what I send will be based on what I can afford.  You can add to that amount by sending a donation to ravencrowking at hotmail dot com.  Your donation will go to sending condolences, and no other purpose.  Cut-off time is 8 pm Eastern Daylight Time.  Any contribution, small or large, is welcome.  There will be no list of contributors, because it is better if it comes from all of us, even those of us living paycheck to paycheck or who don't use PayPal.

I don't have any better idea.  I feel the need to do something.

Spread the word.  Let's get this done.

Monday 22 April 2013

$1 Off at Purple Duck Games

You can get $1 off on AL4 or AL5 right now, by gaining the secret code from the Purple Duck blog (

Feel free to let others know!

Have You Seen My Children?

Did you like The Thing in the Chimney, my unofficial DCC holiday adventure from last year?  Well, I'm giving away more.

On my birthday, August 4th 2013, I am going to release another free unofficial product that I will email to anyone who posts to a blog, writes a review, or posts on Google+ or similar, about any of the following products:

AL1:  Bone Hoard of the Dancing Horror (Purple Duck Games)
AL3:  Through the Cotillion of Hours (Purple Duck Games)
AL5:  Stars in the Darkness (Purple Duck Games)
CE1:  The Falcate Idol (Purple Duck Games)
CE2:  The Black Goat (Purple Duck Games)
CE3:  The Folk of Osmon (Purple Duck Games)
Mermaids From Yuggoth (from In the Prison of the Squid Sorcerer by Mystic Bull Games)
Icon of the Blood Goddess (from In the Prison of the Squid Sorcerer by Mystic Bull Games)

Tomb of the Squonk (part of Pulp Weird Encounters #1 from Mystic Bull Games)
The Thing in the Chimney
Angels, Daemons, and Beings Between (Dragon’s Hoard Publishing)
The Revelation of Mulmo (Dragon’s Hoard Publishing)
The Imperishable Sorceress (Goodman Games, Free RPG Day)
Well of the Worm (Goodman Games, DCC rules conversion of Harley Stroh's adventure, DCC #76.5)

There will be other adventures published between now and then, and as they are published they will be added to the list.  Be on the lookout for:

The Arwich Grinder (Crawl! Fanzine) - This one keeps getting pushed back, so only Rev Dak and a few playtesters can actually comment on it......
CE4:  The Seven Deadly Skills of Sir Amoral the Bastard (Purple Duck Games)
Gifts of the Only (Brave Halfling Publishing)

Why am I doing this? 

First off, I love DCC and I want you to blog about it, write about it, and otherwise help to keep interest about it circulating in the InterWebs.

Second off, these brave publishers took a chance with my work, and I would really like to help them drum up sales for these products.  There should always be a DCC product in the Top 10 at RPGNow IMHO….whether it is the newest release from Goodman Games (and The Sea Queen Escapes is excellent, by the way!) or Purple Sorcerer (ditto Lair of the Mist Men) or Brave Halfling (ditto The Witch of Wydfield).

Third, writing is a lonely occupation, in which you throw your children out into the world, and they never let you know how they are doing.  If you have seen my children, I’d like to know.

Finally, taking a page from J.R.R. Tolkien’s hobbits, I’ve decided to give presents on my birthday.  If this is successful, I might even make it an annual tradition!

How do you qualify?  Follow these simple steps:

(1)  Write something about one of the above products.  Remember that the list will be updated as new products are released.  Love it, hate it, how it played for you, whatever.  What you say is up to you.
(2)  Comment on this post with a link to your new piece of writing.  If you’ve written on two or more of these adventures in the past – and I am looking at The Iron Tavern and Tenkar’s Tavern here, although there may be others – you can link to those posts.  If you’re using any of these adventures as a DCC World Tour stop, that would be really cool to hear about.

(3)  Send me an email at ravencrowking at hotmail dot com with your email address.

What’s the Prize?

Because of the low turnout, the prize is a single patron, but one which is fully fleshed out:  Hizzzgrad, Daemonic Lord of Crawling Things.

New Adventures!

EDIT:  First review
EDIT:  Second review

AL 5: Stars in the Darkness is now live from Purple Duck Games.  I am very happy with this adventure, and hope you will be too.

In millennia past, the ancestors of the elves protected the stars as they followed their courses, for there are wolves in the outer dark.  Yet what manner of creature would dare to consume stars as though they were sheep in the field?  And what has become of the ancient starherds who once stopped such monsters?  

For such a monster is back - Urstah, the Star-Drinker.  Stars are disappearing from the night sky, and with the loss of those stars, luck is being drained from the world.  Your luck.  

Dare you enter the caverns, face the star-drinker, and release the stars in darkness?

Stars in the Darkness is a DCC adventure designed for four to eight, third level characters, that can easily be dropped into your campaign.  In it, characters seek to stop an ancient evil from arising, with possibly devastating effects should they fail.  

This is an epic adventure where the actions of the PCs affect the very cosmos.  To fail is almost unthinkable.......But can you succeed?

One of the things that I really like about the Dungeon Crawl Classics system is that it encourages adventures which, in other systems, wouldn't occur until characters were very high level indeed.  If I had been writing for other game systems, this module would have been designed for 12-15th level characters!

Although it is not yet out, The Revelation of Mulmo (Dragon's Hoard Publishing) is written, edited, playtested, and is in final art and layout.

This adventure contains 60 encounter areas (!) in and under an "abandoned" elf fortress that may well hold the key to bringing a dead comrade back to life.

Or it may contain grisly death.

This module comes complete with an appendix of extra patrons, completely developed except for patron spells, with which to delight or bedevil your players.

Linking the two modules?  Elves.  If you are tired of seeing elves merely through the lens of J.R.R. Tolkien, then these two modules will give you everything you need to present a race with a higher past and a darker present - and one well in keeping with the literature of Appendix N!

(Not that there are no nods to the Good Professor....but they are twisted nods.)

I worked very hard on writing these, and have had two great teams helping to bring these adventures from concept to (in one case, almost) finished products. 

I really hope you like them.

Wednesday 17 April 2013

Some Basic Notes on Adventure Design

I have been doing this for a long, long time.  I started playing Christmas Day 1979, and developed my own adventures by early 1980.  A lot of the articles I found inspirational come from early Dragon magazine, and those are going to be hard to find.  But, feat not! 'cause the basics are not all that difficult.

(1) Brainstorm.  Take some paper, and write all the cool ideas down.  Find links between them.  Let the main ideas begin to percolate through your subconscious.

(2) Never base your adventure on expectations of what the players will do.  Players always do something else.  Make sure that they have meaningful choices.  Make complex maps, with multiple routes, unless there is some important reason not to.

(3) The goal of players in an adventure is to control the situation.  The more they control the situation, the less risk for their characters.  Also, though, this is boring, so the adventure writer must throw in enough situations where things can get out of control so the adventure is exciting.  That way, the GM never has to cheat.  If the animated wooden statues are defeated easily by wood wyrding, some fool will drink the enchanted wine, or get caught in the burning web of a daemonic spider.

(4) Likewise, it is a truism that, unless the GM cheats, no group of players will ever find everything.  Therefore, feel free to put all kinds of odd treasures in interesting places.  Seed enough potential "Woah! That's cool!" moments so that the players have a chance of stumbling into at least one or two of them.

(5) Be true to the setting, even if it means the PCs get hosed/get a huge reward.  Place what you think makes sense in the location, even if it seems out of keeping with a "level X module".  Allowing the setting to make logical sense, even if the players never discover the logic, is important for two reasons.  One, no matter how detailed your adventure, the GM is going to be forced to make a judgement call sooner or later, and the overarching logic is going to be of help here.  Two, the overarching logic is felt by the players in the presentation, even if they do not understand it.  They need to be able to trust that it is there.

(6) Context, context, context!  Once you know what is going on in the setting, and what creatures you are using, consider the clues and evidence that they leave behind.  The more the players have to guess with, the more engaged they will be.  If these clues make an encounter or two easier, that's okay.  That's great, actually.  That's the reward for paying attention.

(7) If you can, put in an area or two where new PCs can be logically introduced.  The larger the adventure, the more important this is.  Harley Stroh's 0-level DCC funnel adventure, Sailors on the Starless Sea, offers an excellent example of this principle.  Likewise Jon Marr's funnel adventures, Perils of the Sunken City and The Ooze Pits of Jonas Gralk.

(8) Try to remember that two things are happening - the PCs are exploring the adventure area, and the players are around the table playing the game.  If you can bridge the two in some way that makes logical sense, you should consider doing so.  For a really good example of this, see Tales of the Scarecrow from James Raggi.  Likewise, some effects in Death Frost Doom depend upon player seating around the table.  Finally, my own Bone Hoard of the Dancing Horror has a nasty knock-on effect when a PC is felled by the titular horror and the player then engages in table talk.

(9) Develop the material enough that any prospective GM can understand what you are trying to convey.  When writing fiction as a younger man, I produced many an unsaleable story simply because I failed to realize that I could not assume that the reader would "get" what I was trying to say unless I actually said it.  I could not simply assume that the reader knew some specific thing that I knew, and I could not assume that the reader would care enough to find out about it because my story felt unresolved.  That is not a fault in the reader; it was a fault in me as the writer.  When I learned this lesson, I started selling stories.  Adventure writing is not that different in this regard:  Be clear about what you are writing. Say what you are trying to say, and say it clearly.

(10) Finally, have fun!  Let your own unique voice and sense of humour come through.  If that means you disregard any or all of the above, so be it.  You should create adventures that you find satisfying.  If you don't feel satisfied, what are the odds anyone else will be?  And, if they are, what difference does it make?  Better faint praise for something you are proud of than overwhelming acclaim for something you find embarrassing!

Sunday 14 April 2013

The Only Way Out is Through

or, How it Becomes the Players' Game

In a response to a previous post, Vanguard said:
My major objection to all of this is the kind of false choice that the sandbox engenders. The players are thrust into a situation and while the focus of the game does become the thread they follow the most, you're still playing the GMs story, so to speak.
He goes on to say:
I would much rather (for the moment anyway) sit down with the players and talk about what kind of game we want to play and build the world, the setting, and the major conflict together before rolling our characters.
This is interesting, because it seems to suggest that in the first case (the sandbox), the players do not get to play the kind of game that they want.  It also suggests that building the milieu cooperatively results in a fuller experience than exploration of a milieu. That may be true.  Then again, it may not be.

To my mind, no matter what kind of game you are running, player buy-in is mandatory.  Which is another way of saying that, given the freedom to do so, players will always follow the threads that they find interesting, and avoid those they could care less about.  This does not just mean following threads that the GM intends them to follow, it means determining what they would like, determining what they need to do to get it, and laying down threads of their own.  Therefore, I am not at all certain what type of “false choice” Vanguard is referring to. 

Conversely, imagine that you sit down with the players before the game is devised, and discuss it with them thoroughly.  Taking their input into account, you then set to work on the game milieu.  Does this in any way suggest that the game cannot be a sandbox?

Moreover, if the game is intended to be linear, following the “major conflict”, isn’t it still going to be “playing the GM’s story, so to speak” if the GM determines the details and texture of that story?  I.e., if he writes the actual adventures to be used?  This seems to me, therefore, to be a false dilemma.

If the game is linear, and the players become less interested in the “major conflict”, are then given a choice to get off the rails at that point, or do they play through to the grim death?  Is the campaign milieu then still of use to the players and GM?  Or is that work then bundled away and forgotten?  Much of the value of a persistent milieu arises from its very persistence.  The changes wrought on the milieu matter, to a large degree, because they are lasting.

Ultimately, the only way the game ever becomes the players’ game is if they “follow through” – if they decide what they want to wrest from the material presented (at whatever stage of creation it is presented in), and then take charge of their own destinies.  And, no matter how focused a linear model game may seem, ultimately a linear model limits the degree to which you can make meaningful choices in the game.

In games I run, there are three types of adventures that occur:

(1) Persistent Adventure Locations:  Places the players know they can always go to find a little danger, and perhaps a little coin.  The Dungeon of Crows is always a place to go, barring any other pressing business.  Likewise, any old-school campaign megadungeon, such as the ruins of Castle Greyhawk, Barrowmaze, or Undermountain.  Note that wilderness exploration is the same sort of thing.  IMHO, a world cannot have too many persistent adventure locations.

(2) Adventures of Opportunity:  A ship founders on the rocks and is destroyed.  The PCs can attempt to become involved in the salvage, or not, as they desire.  The Ghost Tower of Inverness is making its regular appearance – you can explore it now, or wait another century.  A caravan is looking for guards on its trip to the Eastern Lands.  Princess Zelda was captured by a dragon.  A king offers a prize for the most interesting curiosity presented to his court at midsummer.  Etc.  These are adventures that the players are either interested in, or not, but they don’t get to go back to them if they let them slip by.  The wise GM gives notice for most long in advance, and only fleshes out his notes on these adventures if the players seem interested.

(3) Player-Driven Adventures:  The wizard seeks a new spell.  The warrior seeks a weapon-master who can grant him special knowledge.  The cleric wants to quest to cure those suffering from disease in order to undo divine disapproval.  The players set the basic parameters (“I would like to do this”) or even the exacting parameters (“I would like to do this, and I think it might be accomplished by doing that”) and the GM runs with it.

Lots of adventures actually combine these types, of course.  The wizard seeks a spell, thought to be contained in the Ghost Tower, for example.  The warrior seeks a sword thought to be lost in Undermountain.  The Thieves’ Carnival occurs in a persistent city location, but offers unique opportunities for the larcenous at heart.  Etc., etc.

Anyway, that’s how I do it.

Plotlines, Railroading, and Sandbox Games – Part II

The Dreaded Railroad

The problem, in some cases, with attempting to run plots and plotlines in the world is that players feel railroaded.  Fair enough.  There is a positive dearth of advice for GMs on the inclusion of plotlines without railroading players.

In order to offer some advice in this regard, I would like to make use of a well-known example:  The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  Anyone who has read the very funny web comic, DM of the Rings, knows the expected pitfalls of running a game in Middle Earth. 

For the purposes of this discussion, I am going to pretend that these novels are an independent creation of the GM.  This is not because it affects railroading, but because I do not want to deal with the obvious question of the players “gaming the novels”.  I.e., if the players know where Bilbo will be with the Ring on such-and-such a day, they could presumably use that knowledge to kill Bilbo and take the Ring.  Unless you are actually running a game where the fictional timeline can be known to your players ahead of time, this is simply not going to occur.  

Because there are a few circumstances where this might be relevant to the average GM, I will revisit “Gaming the Plotline” below.

Well Met in Bree

Imagine that, as a perspective GM, I have access to The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion, from which I am going to devise the background of a campaign milieu.  Because there is the best information available during the Third Age, I decide to set my campaign during that period.  After all, I have an exacting timeline of events from around the period of The Hobbit to far past the War of the Ring.

The first thing that I want to avoid is having the PCs be anyone depicted in the novels.  Why?  Because plotlines are what happens without the PCs’ actions being taken into account.  The PCs actions cannot and must not be scripted beforehand. 

The second thing I must avoid is believing that anything that occurs in the novels must happen.  The novels are nothing more than a guide as to what may happen if the PCs take no action.  If the PCs act upon the world, even in ways that do not directly impact the events in the novels, things may change.

For instance, imagine what would happen if a dwarf PC became involved in aiding the Elfking of Mirkwood to reclaim a section of the forest from the spiders.  Do the dwarves and Bilbo then receive the same cold welcome they did in The Hobbit?  And, if friendship is fostered here, what happens after the dragon is slain?  Without the “barrel-rider” events and comment, does Smaug even destroy Esgaroth?

Remembering that a role-playing game hinges on a cycle of context-choice-consequence, where the consequences create the new context for further choices, the discerning GM will consider carefully how the PCs’ choices affect the entire milieu.  The goal is not to limit the consequences of those choices, so as to remain true to a predetermined storyline.  Rather, the goal is to highlight the effects that player choices have on the game milieu.  Therefore, nothing in the novels is sacred, and the GM can and should feel free to make any changes that accentuate the PCs’ impact on the setting.

If you recall earlier, how I suggested the GM attempt to gain 2 hours of play out of every hour’s work, it will make sense that you limit how far into the future you extend any plotlines – the odds increase exponentially with time that campaign events will render your work inapplicable.  If there is a choice to be made between that work, though, and allowing the natural consequences of the players’ choices to occur, always go with the natural consequences.  These are fairly easy rules of thumb.

Does this mean that the PCs can try to take the Ring and set themselves up as the new rulers of Middle Earth?  Yes.  Does this mean that they can curry Sauron’s favour by seeking the Ring for him?  Yes.  Does this mean that they can defeat the Necromancer soundly, thus pushing Sauron’s return into the unknown future?  Yes.  Can they kill Aragorn?  Yes.  Can they explore Far Harad?  Yes.  Can they ignore the War of the Ring, and seek to adventure in the North while great events, of which they hear only rumour, occur in the South?  Yes. 

Does this mean that the focus of the game may be completely different than the focus of the novels?  No.  It means that the focus of the game will be completely different.  There is no “may” about it. 

This is a good thing.

Gaming the Plotline

In some cases, the PCs may be travelling into a well-known fictional world as a form of planar travel.  In some cases, the PCs may even be aware of this world as fiction.  Anyone familiar with the Harold Shea stories will know what I mean here.  What to do then?

I recommend that you take the Harold Shea stories as your inspiration.  Not only was Harold Shea able to alter events in those stories, but he was able to use his knowledge of the natural progression of events in the story worlds he visited to his advantage.  Side trips like this can be very cool and very fun – but they are probably best in small doses.  Dipping into a fictional world for a single adventure, and then getting out.

Nor do these fictional worlds need to be exactly like their real-world fictional counterparts.  Good examples of “almost” copies are found in Dungeonland and The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror, which are 1st edition AD&D modules loosely based on Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.

Historical Games

Using real historical periods for your games?  I would suggest that the same rules apply.

If the game is not about time travel, then you might as well assume that your milieu occupies a parallel reality from Game Day 1.  From now on, things may or may not proceed according to historical precedent.

If the game is about time travel, then you have two fun options to choose from, both of which are worth using in the same campaign:

(1) History Resists Alteration:  As the PCs deal with known historical events, actually changing history is an adventure in itself, and the players must work through the puzzle of how to overcome this resistance.  It needs to be clear that PC choices matter – the game is about determining which choices allow you to reach a desired goal.

(2) The More Things Change:  Changing known historical events changes the rest of the universe to conform to the new reality.  Only the PCs (and maybe some time-sensitive NPCSs) know both timelines exist.  In some cases, the changes really are for the better.  In other cases, not, and the game may well become about attempts to undo previous changes.

Again, the important thing is to understand the interplay between context, choice, and consequence, and then to allow PC choices to matter.  A PC choice that does not matter has no consequence, and does not impact the context of future choices.  In a word, it is boring.  In two words, it is a false choice. 

Some GMs pride themselves on their ability to present “an illusion of choice” while only presenting false choices.  I think that these illusions are often not as successful as the GM imagines, and that it is only decades of consuming other passive entertainments that make these “games” playable.  But that’s just me.  Your mileage may vary.


Plots and plotlines are important to create a world that seems to live and breathe on its own.  They are important to allow the GM to have information to impart from the world’s innkeepers, barmaids, and enemy prisoners.  They are important to keep the world from feeling static, or driven by the PCs only.  They are part of the context of the game milieu.

On the other hand, there is a limit to their importance.  The interplay of context-choice-consequence trumps the importance of any future events.  The world can turn on a dime.  The world must be able to turn on a dime, or there is no game.

Another way to say this is that plotlines exist to serve the game, not the other way around.  If you ever find yourself limiting the impact of the PCs on the world to preserve a plotline – DragonLance, I am looking you dead in the eye – you are wrong.  Stop what you are doing.  Glory in the PCs’ impact.  Treasure it.  Use it as a springboard to your own imagination, and draw new plotlines that follow rationally from the new context.

It really is that simple.



Thursday 11 April 2013

Plotlines, Railroading, and Sandbox Games – Part I

I have been having some weird conversations lately with a self-imposed Arbiter of the One True WayTM.  I had heard that there were people on the InterWebs whose hubris exceeded my own, but I hadn’t actually expected to meet one.  I mean, really.  What are the odds?

In any event, the discussion raised some interesting points that I decided to expand on here.  If you are interested in how I run a game (as I assure you, it is not the One True Way), then read on.  If not, then not.

When I started this blog, I was careful to note that, while I was not going to write “IMHO” and "YMMV" repeatedly, I expected that the reader would understand that what I was writing was my opinion.  Your mileage may indeed vary.  I can (and do!) make claims about what I have seen work, and what I have seen fail, and how often.  But where my experience is at variance with your experience, you should take whatever I say with a big grain of salt.  It is my expectation that, if you are reading this blog, you are smart enough to “get” what I am saying here.

If not, well, that may be my fault.  I have never been one to use two words where twenty will suffice, but, even so, sometimes I may fail to explain an idea thoroughly enough.

So, here’s the thing.  You’ve decided to run a sandbox game, but you’ve been told that the sandbox should (or must) remain static until the players interact with it.  If you follow my advice, you will disregard any such notion.  IMHO, and IME, a sandbox game is at its best when the game milieu is in constant motion.  This motion affects the context of the players’ decisions, and in turn is affected by the outcome (or consequences) of those decisions. 

Plots and Plotlines

There are two types of plots that are of interest to the GM of a sandbox game.  The first is the machinations of various NPCs as they struggle to achieve their goals.  The second is a sequence of events in the fictional milieu that affects the context of that milieu.  To make things simpler, I am going to call the first a plot, and the second a plotline. 

There is obviously some potential overlap.  I.e., “King Baddaz wants to annex the neighbouring Duchy of Wheatfields, which causes him to hire mercenaries; when the mercenaries are later disbanded, some take to robbery” contains elements of both.

It is important that a plotline be logically connected, cause-to-effect, if the players are to have a chance of unravelling it.  This is especially true of complex plotlines.  Remembering that the more information the players can gain, the more context they have for their choices, the prospective GM will want to make these things possible to unravel. 

Other plotlines might be far simpler:  Princess Zelda is captured by a dragon.  If not rescued by the new moon, the dragon will eat her.

Now, some might object that this is not in strict accordance to   To them I say, “Get a grip on reality.  No one goes to for an in-depth analysis of anything.”  Context is of critical importance when discussing any topic.  The definitions of plot or plotline given in do not take the context of a role-playing game into consideration.  Webster’s Unabridged might; I don’t know.  Frankly, I don’t care.  If you are happier discussing the same using newly minted terms, “buglub” and “buglublines” it changes the conversation not a whit.

Yes, definitions are sometimes important, because they are being used to shift or limit what types of conversations can be had.  Sometimes, though, the point is merely to allow a conversation to be had.  In either event, using terms consistently – even if only for the purpose of a particular argument – makes it possible to render a position clearly.  Were I to use the word “trout” for “plotline”, so long as I define the term, and I do not then conflate it with the fish, it matters not at all.

Finally, anyone interested in the genesis of this usage is directed to the Writer’s Digest website (, where you can find many books which have in-depth discussions of plot.  I am sorry to say, however, that you won’t find anything specific to role-playing games.  You will have to extrapolate.

Similarly, when I refer to a major plotline, it is a plotline that either (1) has a large effect on the context of the setting (i.e., a zombie apocalypse) or (2) is focused on by the players (i.e., if the PC’s favourite innkeep has money troubles, and the players care, it can become a major plotline simply because it influences them in play, and thus has contextual meaning to the players which is much greater than its influence on the game milieu as a whole).

Why Plots and Plotlines?

Because without them, the characters are operating in a vacuum. 

It is possible to imagine a world in which nothing ever happens except that which is initiated by the PCs, but it is difficult, for me at least, to imagine why one would want to engage in such a world.  A living, breathing world – or any world which is to feel like one – requires motion.  And that motion cannot always be the result of player activity, unless the goal is to feel stale and artificial.

To some degree, plots and plotlines are just “what’s going on”.  When the PCs stop at the Green Dragon in Bywater to share a pint with Sam Gamgee and Ted Sandyman, they can hear talk of folk crossing the Shire, of walking trees seen in the Northfarthing, and of elves going West.  Why?  Because it is good for the game.  It gives the players context in which to make decisions.  It increases verisimilitude.

At the same time, Saruman is watching the Shire, as are the Rangers of the North.  Saruman hopes to get the Ring.  He has stationed agents in Bree.  He has begun to establish trade with the South Farthing.  Why is this important?  Because it increases context, and it increases consequences.  It gives the players something to worry about……or to think about if they storm Orthanc before discovering Saruman’s purchase of Longbottom Leaf in any other way.  It increases the feeling that the world is a vibrant place.  Failing to pay attention to what is going on might have consequences….just as it does in the real world.

What if the players capture those goblins instead of slaughtering them all?  Again, if the GM has prepared plots and plotlines, he has at his fingertips all kinds of information to reveal through the captives.  All the GM need determine is what the goblins could reasonably know.

How many times have you heard a GM complain that his players simply wade through the opposition, never bothering to talk or take captives?  That happens because either (1) the cost of taking captives is too high, or (2) the cost of not taking captives is too low (i.e., nothing is lost by not talking to folks).  The median, where a captive might know something of importance, and might not immediately cause terrible woe to the PCs, is far more interesting, as it raises a real choice for the players.

How to Set Up Plots and Plotlines

This is actually pretty simple.  First off, when setting up your NPCs, take a second to think about what they want (or want to avoid) and what steps they are taking to make it so.  Not all of them.  Just some of them.  Bigwigs.  A few non-bigwigs.  Enough to make things interesting.

Remember, for each hour of design, you want a minimum of two hours of play.  If it takes five minutes to figure out what Lord Haggard wants, make sure that you include 10 minutes in play that relate to the same – bar rumours, related encounters, whatever.  Your time is valuable.

Second off, determine some events for your milieu.  If you have access to the 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Oriental Adventures tome, there are some wonderful tables in the back for randomly seeding weekly, monthly, and annual events.  These can be a great spur to your imagination, even if you are not running an Oriental game. 

There is another benefit to using random tables:  You don’t always get the result you would have picked.  Just as it is worthwhile to use other’s maps (so it appears that there is more than one architect in your world) and other’s adventures (to increase the diversity in style and presentation, and by so doing expand the game world), so it is worthwhile to have events occur which surprise even you.

The events listed in Oriental Adventures are rather vague, and need to be adjusted to meet the needs of your campaign milieu.  I strongly urge you to consider using random events to confound (or make difficult) NPC plots, because doing so gives more opportunity for the players to get involved.  If the Lord of Swamp Castle wants to gain more land by marrying his son to Princess Lucky, and you roll “Death of an Important Person”, consider having either the prince or the princess be the person who dies.

Likewise, while “Princess Zelda is captured by a dragon.  If not rescued by the new moon, the dragon will eat her.” is a good example of a simple plotline, it is by no means the only plotline that can occur starting with Princess Zelda being captured by a dragon. 

Why can’t the dragon fall in love with the princess, or the princess escape, or another band of NPC adventurers swoop in to rescue her at the last moment?  Well, obviously, all of those things can occur.  The GM controls the world.  The plotlines that the GM sets, barring PC involvement, resolve themselves as the GM dictates.  The GM may dictate how they are resolved ahead of time, during game play, by GM fiat, or by random methods. 

Does it matter?

Well, it might.  If the GM consistently resolves matters in the same way, or consistently chooses resolutions that screw the PCs, either verisimilitude or player confidence in the GM might be damaged.  If the GM attempts to extrapolate reasonably from the set-up of the game milieu, though, it doesn’t really matter.  If the GM also takes into account how PC activity might have altered planned developments, then it really does not matter.

Either way the GM is making decisions for the NPCs, and/or further developing the web of context, choice, and consequence which is the game milieu.  A self-imposed Arbiter of the One True WayTM may indeed “rail” at the observation, but it is no more possible for the GM to railroad his NPCs than it is for a player to railroad his character.

Which brings us to railroading, which is the subject of Part II.

Monday 8 April 2013

Don't Be a Weed Part II

For the first time, I have decided to remove comments from this blog that had nothing to do with a bank manager in Nigeria or enlarging body parts.

Regardless of what some may wish to believe, a blog is a moderated forum.  I strongly encourage responses and reasoned debate.  I strongly encourage differing points of view.  But this is not a forum for poor behaviour.  A diatribe of fallacy and invective is not reasoned argument.  If you want to engage in that sort of thing, please do so in your own home, on your own time.

If I would remove you from my gaming table, or from my home, for your behaviour  you may be absolutely certain that I will also remove you here.

Don't be a weed.  It applies to most of life's little problems.

Further Further Thoughts.....

"I submit that the founders of the hobby, when determining the definition of what a rpg is, and what the term means, have more authority than you. "
So now I should just shut up because I don't have the "authority"? How about you don't have the authority to claim that Gygax had the authority?
Not at all....that is merely an estoppal to fallacious appeal to authority.
"An rpg has a definition and it doesn't change based on your own whims or emotions. When Gary Gygax ran Steading at GenCon, he was running an rpg, even if he picked the scenario."
You're right, it certainly doesn't change. Your idol, Gygax, sure changed that definition a lot though over the years though. But let's all bow down and worship "Gary Gygax's Steading game at GenCon" because ravencrowking says so.
Lol.  Not sure if the goal here is ad hominem or a good old-fashioned straw man.   In case it is unclear to anyone, although I doubt it would be, saying that any working definition of a role-playing game cannot exclude Gary Gygax running a module at a convention does not constitute idolatry or worship of Gary Gygax, the module in question, or the convention.
"In case you forgot: A role-playing game is a game... Because of this (1) rules that are dissociative (and thereby force the player to make choices from outside the stance of the characters) and (2) rules or set-ups that are railroady (and thereby force players to make decisions that the characters would not make, in some cases quite literally being forced to reverse decisions made from the character's stance because the GM does not like the outcome on "his story") damage the degree to which any game is a role-playing game."
You're the one calling for "plot-lines" and defining "best game" as whatever is "most fun", my friend. You break your own definition with almost every post.
(1) A plotline is a series of events occurring in fiction, which proceed from cause to effect.  Predetermining the resolution of a plotline does indeed cause a railroad.  Determining a series of events, following cause to effect, does not....even if that series of events includes future events, so long as the PCs actions can change those events.

I.e., "a princess was kidnapped by a dragon, who will eat her if she is not rescued by the new moon" is a plotline.  This does not presuppose any action on the part of the PCs, nor does it presuppose the degree of success of any particular action the players should choose to undertake.

Contrast with "the PCs go to rescue a princess who was...." and you will immediately see, I hope, the difference.

(2) Continuing to conflate "the best game you can run" with "the best game anyone can run" continues a critical error.  This is like conflating "the best singing I can do" with "the best singing" - I guarantee you that if the best singing possible was the best singing I can do, no one would listen to any music that wasn't purely instrumental.

But there is nothing new in this post.  It's rather a time waster that one hopes will clarify some issues that, I would have thought, were clear in the first place.

Wednesday 3 April 2013

Too Long for a Comment....What is a Role-Playing Game

"RPG" isn't just some ubiquitous word we throw around to mean anything we want like "free love" ("If it's fun just do it!"). It has a distinct meaning, changing that meaning to "FUN!" or something else changes the word. People sitting around eating pizza and drinking beer while improving elves doesn't mean they're playing D&D even if it's a good time.

Hrm.  A role-playing game is a game in which the (or a) primary purpose of the game is to undertake the role of one or more characters within the game milieu, and to make decisions from the perspective of the character(s) so undertaken.  Because of this (1) rules that are dissociative (and thereby force the player to make choices from outside the stance of the characters) and (2) rules or set-ups that are railroady (and thereby force players to make decisions that the characters would not make, in some cases quite literally being forced to reverse decisions made from the character's stance because the GM does not like the outcome on "his story") damage the degree to which any game is a role-playing game.

But I am not about to say that, when Gary Gygax ran Steading of the Hill Giant Chief at GenCon, that he was not running a role-playing game, or that the players were not playing D&D.

2. "NPC" is only a word just like "dungeon" or "castle" or "monster". They are just props in a world. They don't create a story or a narrative on their own. They are only there because the players are interacting with them even if the DM controls their responses.


They are there because the dictates of the fictional milieu require them to be there.  I am not engaging in games, like some computer games, where "NPCs" only exist to interact with the PCs.  In my games, NPCs have their own plans and motives, introduce their own threads, and change the milieu thereby.

Because I am attempting to simulate a "breathing world", I don't want the PCs to be the only, or in some cases not even the primary, movers for all that happens.  The world is not a vacuum, existing merely to cater to their whims.  I would find such a set-up boring at best.

If the DM decides to write a back-story for his game and decides to tell his players about it, there is no RPG narrative happening. There is one-sided narrative, but unless the players are driving that narrative into something by their interaction, it is not an RPG.

So, if the PCs decide to seek rumours, while the GM is telling them what they learn, it is not an RPG?  Sorry, but no.

Narrative driven by anything but the players is not an RPG. If they're not driving it, who is? The DM or a rule-book. Neither of which constitute the requirements for an RPG.

I call bullshit.  Sorry, but no.

OC:  "Sure!" says the player of the cleric character, "I'm moving over to the sacks now, sticking close to the lefthand wall."

DM:  "Just as the three are about in position to look down the passages, and while the cleric is heading for the rotting bags, the magic-user cries out, and you see something black and nasty looking upon her shoulder!"

LC:  "Hold on, Gary.  Are you trying to drive the narrative here, by introducing some kind of monster!?!  If you do that, this isn't a role-playing game!"

Absolutely not.  And this is more than "given them (the players) some props" - it is setting the context and consequences of choices.  And both context and perceived consequence drive the narrative as much as choices.  They are only "some props" if the players get told "There is a spider here" and then get to decide what it does (setting the context) and what happens as a result (determining the consequence).

Role-playing game narrative is driven by the mutual interaction of the players and the game milieu as devised by the GM.

And, yes, an RPG run without NPCs and without a DM is absolutely possible. It may not be a table-top RPG like D&D that requires a DM. But it qualifies as an RPG nonetheless.

A "storytelling" game maybe, but not a role-playing game.  You say,

The key is who is "driving" narrative? The players must do this and this alone for it to be an RPG.

I say, bullshit.  The qualifying element for a role-playing game is a primary purpose of the players to undertake roles, and to make decisions within the framework of the game from the stance of those roles.  Doing so requires context, and it requires consequence.  It requires, in fact, a volleying of narrative control from player (narrative control over character's choices) to GM (narrative control over the context in which those choices occur, and the outcome/consequences thereof).

Without those elements of GM narrative control, there is no PC "stance" that has any meaning - the players are simply writing a collaborative story.

There are storytelling games.  There are linear games.  There are role-playing games.  Too much loss of player agency creates a linear game.  Too much loss of GM agency creates a storytelling game.  The golden region between - where Player and GM agency volley and build off of each other - is where the role-playing game can be found.

And, certainly, that means that there is a border area where a game can be both a storytelling game and a role-playing game, or a linear game and a role-playing game.  But, in neither case would I make the claim that the game was a good role-playing game.

In conclusion, I agree with GaelicVigil that "RPG" isn't just some ubiquitous word we throw around to mean anything we want" but I disagree entirely that it means what GaelicVigil seems to think it means.  If it did, sitting around making up a story would be a "role-playing game", but playing D&D as described or played by Gary Gygax would not be.