Realm Works from Lone Wolf Development

I’m a fan of getting shit together. Judging my my self-assessed performance last session on Hoard of the Dragon Queen, no rx I need to step up my organizational game when it comes to preparedness.

RealmWorksI found Realm Works from Lone Wolf Development (makers of Hero Lab) when I was cruising around the net looking for RPG resources. Now, healingswear by Fantasy Grounds, pharm which is excellent for creating brand new modules and campaigns, but I need something to allow me to just take notes of important aspects of the different sections of each episode in HotDQ. I can get the long winded low-down by reading the book, but sometimes things double back on plot points, so when I reach further in the campaign, I realize I’ve flubbed an important part by not having read ahead, or done some rather slick RP that ends up not fitting into the narrative. So reading ahead and taking notes and organizing plot points so I don’t run over my own foot is something I really need. I could use regular pen and paper, but with the need to cross reference and get speedy access to stats and other characters at the point in time where they’re needed, having a technological method should help a lot.

Realm Works is like a massive wiki, but also not. It’s a three ring binder, but which provides tabbed dividers that you can fill with whatever you need. It’s not really a great campaign creation tool, although with a big shoehorn you could get it done; Fantasy Grounds is far superior in this regard. RW is like a three ring binder of index cards, then: you supply a lot of one-liners that describe what you need: “King Gerald is having an affair with the ambassador from Luretia”, or “The players will be watched as they attend the opera”. Using dedicated, structured sections, a GM can fill out a few lines with shorthand info that makes it good reference tool for quick information.

The UI is pretty daunting, however. While very flexible, it doesn’t allow for custom layouts. Information is presented in a list format, divided by headers and sub-headers. Sometimes labels are present, sometimes they aren’t. Everything is initially entered in a one-line textbox that expands as you need it, unless it’s numeric or special case data. Naturally, there’s integration with Hero Lab (which I don’t own) for NPCs, and you can also “embed” maps, external documents, and even audio and video (I think). The best part is that you can create or modify existing structures as needed. For example, I created a “template” for a D&D 5E monster/NPC which contains all of the info I need. I just fill in the form and save the record, and that creation is available for reference when I need it. The best part is that all I have to do is use the name of a record in the body text of a field, and RW will offer potential matches to other known records, automatically creating hyperlinks between the two.

All of the reference material constantly talks about how RW is a GM tool for creating and managing campaigns, and that a player edition is forthcoming. RW is not a virtual tabletop. However, it does allow a GM to reveal information to players on a record by record basis. For example, amidst everything listed about the King, the line above about him having an affair could be released to the players on it’s own. This way, the GM can push out just what the players learn as opposed to dumping everything at their feet (including maps and such). I have no use for this whatsoever. I can see how a party in agreement might pick up RW and the upcoming player versions ($9.99 per individual license is the current, proposed MSRP for the Player Edition), and how it would work well for folks not needing or wanting a vTable, but I have to circle back to the UI; it’s just not all that appealing. It’s functional, and I cannot think of any way to allow for the flexible management of data that RW is aiming to handle, but…yeesh. The gaming group would need to just spend a few sessions doing dry runs to ensure that everyone knew how to use the software properly. The benefit is that anything shared with the players goes into their personal dossier, so they can refer back to info they learned without actually having to meta-memorize it. That has a lot of merit.

From my perspective, though, as an organizational tool, it works great…when it works. It just completed a KS campaign, and the tool itself is widely available, although admittedly incomplete. There are a few things remaining on their to-do list (which can be found scattered around the forums). One thing that needs some work is their SimCity-esque design choice to authenticate and sync data to “The Cloud”. See, in order to get the data from GM to players, LWD requires that users A) create an account on their server, and B) connect to “the cloud” to create a new campaign (which they call a “realm”). Then, and only then, you can either sync the realm to “the cloud” once changes are made, or work offline and sync when you damn well please. When I bought the software, I couldn’t create an account. I tried several times over two days. I finally uninstalled it and re-installed it to the suggested directory on my PC (I normally put everything on a platter drive to keep my SSD as lean as possible), and I was able to register. That’s correlation and not causation, so do with it as you will. Then, however, I tried to create a new realm — create a new file — and I was denied because of a connection error when trying to sync the new file to their server. While I can see the appeal of having data like this in “the cloud” — it’s actually one of the things that sold me on this product, being able to sync between stations without Dropbox or something similar — LWD’s infrastructure is experiencing some issues that, due to design choices, makes the program a virtual paperweight when it experiences issues (in honesty, only when you sign in, or create a new realm, not if you want to work offline and un-synchronized, which works just fine).

I think that maybe RW is overkill for what I need, or maybe it’s because the unflattering UI makes it seem less worthwhile than Fantasy Grounds, Evernote or OneNote, or just good old Google Docs, but once you get over the learning curve and adapt to the clunky visual representation, Realm Works is a great organizational tool which should help speed up a gaming session for the GM.

Hoard of the Dragon Queen Session 1 #DnD5E #HotDQ #AdventureCo

We had our first night with the new Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition rules last night, web and overall things went well. You can expect a write-up over at West Karana in the near future, but I’d like to numerate the perspective from the DM side here.

Note: This post may contains spoilers for those who haven’t played the Hoard of the Dragon Queen module. I’m only doing recaps to the points we reach during our sessions, so if your party is ahead of ours, read on. If not, then proceed at your own risk.

The Intro

As I wrote earlier, I concocted a story on how the players met up. The HotDQ opened with the caravan cresting the rise outside of Greenest, only to find it on fire, under assault, and under aerial surveillance by a large blue dragon. The caravan opted to beat cheeks in the opposite direction, but the players — in true heroic fashion — opted to run towards danger.

The module is very keen on ensuring that the players understand that the town is pretty much intact, but chock full of kobold and human invaders. The result is supposed to be that the players should exercise caution when moving through the town, as the invaders are everywhere, and the chances of running into an enemy party are pretty high. If players opt to just walk in to town, there’s a higher chance of getting into a fight than there is if they opt to sneak into town.

These players went right down the middle: they didn’t walk down the street, but they didn’t bother to hide. Instead, they crept through the forest. Although using stealth would have made them less likely to be seen, I partly opted to acquiesce to the idea that at night, it’s difficult to see into a heavily wooded area. Even kobolds with darkvision would have problems, since the woods are on the periphery of the town, and the town is alight with burning buildings. The result were fewer chance encounter rolls that were required for the “strolling down Main Street” approach.

Costume Party

While in the forest, the party bard — in what can only be described as the weirdest episode of precognition ever — remembered that she had a “kobold costume” in her pack. Being an entertainer means never having to explain your weird inventory, so she donned the costume and flagged down some passing kobolds while the rest of the party hung back in the woods. This diversion allowed the party ranger to put an arrow through the face of one of the kobolds, and although still far off, the party managed to take out two other kobolds and a human mercenary without issue.

This was a totally ad-hoc encounter, and had a few issues (all my fault). First, the kobold costume should not have worked. Had the encounter been with a group of humans, it would have been excused. But kobolds A) have darkvision, so up-close they could probably have seen something was weird, and B) kobolds are dragon-dog-creature-things; they should have been able to catch the scent of this “kobold” and been on immediate defense. Second, the encounter was way too easy. 3/5 of the party never really made it into the fray: two kobolds were killed at range, the human was cleaved in two with a battleaxe, and the last kobold…he was charmed, and was subsequently gutted without a fight. The problem here was that A) I didn’t play “the situation” properly, because with so many invaders, the kobolds should have detected the ruse, gone defensive, and flagged down more kobolds to reinforce them, and B) the kobolds and their human mercenary flubbed all of their rolls, and went down like a balsa-wood houses in a wind storm. I’m going to chalk this one up to hindsight, but I’m putting myself on notice: think more about reactions of the NPCs, and less about coming to grips with the wacky solutions players are coming up with.

Smooth Get-Away

One of the pivotal encounters the players run into early is a family that’s fleeing a party of eight kobolds. There are three kids, a wounded father, and a mother with a spear. The module says that the mother will stand her ground in sight of the players, as the kobolds close in.

This didn’t go according to any decent plan. The module states that it’s entirely possible (actually, probable) that the kobolds will see the players and assume they’re mercenaries on their side, hence ignoring them. The players can totally bluff the kobolds that this is true, allowing them to close the distance and gain Surprise for their attack. What happened, however, was that the players got trigger-happy and wanted to immediately open fire on the kobold party without taking the opportunity to realize the situation as an opportunity to position themselves for a significantly quicker take-down. I made matters worse by having the kobolds attempt to interact with the players by telling them to get lost. The kobolds were covetous of their potential victory, and didn’t want these mercenaries to interfere. The players shot back with a story about how this woman killed one of their comrades, which gave them the right to the kill. And the kobolds bought that…for some reason.

The problem is that this went off totally without verification, and without ramification. No dice were rolled to see if the kobolds believed the players; it made total sense — in some off-the-cuff kobold sociology terms — that there’s some kind of hierarchy in who gets to engage, based on grudges or something. I don’t know if that’s in-line with kobold societal lore, but I guess it is now. In hindsight, the kobolds should have just waved to the players, and then encircled the woman and her family, blatantly ignoring the players in a show of “we think you’re on our side”, allowing players to gain Surprise when they attack.

The result is that the woman and her family now thought the players were actually in league with the kobolds. Since the players didn’t make any actual threatening moves, the family bolted across the field towards the keep. The players followed at a respectable distance, but the “hook” that should have logically allowed them all to travel into the keep under the protection of a known villager turned into an awkward situation where the family ran inside, and the players crept closer, waiting to see if they’d get attacked by the archers on the walls. Because they needed to get into the keep, the archers (silently) made the assessment that this party didn’t look anything like any of the other marauders, so “what could possibly go wrong” by letting them into the keep. Ugh.

What Went Wrong

A few things could have gone better.

  1. It was our initial session, so we spent a lot of time getting a feel for the game, it’s rules, and our decisions. We opted to go with a more “cinematic” combat style over the tactical style, which turned out to be pretty good and well received. But it also resulted in some stumbling as we had to do look-ups and verification for items, spells, and activities. Standard stuff, and we’ll all get better at it
  2. We had a lot of fun playing, but I think we had too much fun. There was a lot of joking and fooling around, and while the point of playing is to have fun, I think the level of comedy was too high to allow the game to move at a pace that would have allowed for more gameplay opportunity.
  3. I made several bad decisions. The kobold costume shouldn’t have worked, and the attack on the family should have presented the players with an opportunity to take out the kobolds quickly, earn the trust of the family, and get them into the keep without the uneasy fudge that was applied.

What Went Well

  1. The 5e rules are a lot more streamlined than the 4e rules. Having a move and an action makes things happen quicker, giving everyone an opportunity to get their turn in before they get to bored.
  2. The party composition seems pretty solid. There haven’t been any opportunities for individuals to really use their characters to their full potential yet, but hopefully once folks settle in a get comfortable with their characters, they’ll find creative ways to express their classes for the good of the party.
  3. I did a little bit of pre-loading — maps into Roll20, index cards for creatures so I didn’t have to flip to pages with stats, notes on certain rolls and situations — which helped a lot, but I realize I’ll need to step up the organization for the next session to help with those on-the-fly situations that I’m not really that good at.

Adventure Co. Rides Again #dnd #dnd5e

The Adventure Co. is proud to announce the release of Adventure Co. Brand Adventure Company, ed Version 2.0 (formerly known by the code name Asbestos).

This season, about it we have a full roster of five intrepid souls who will be gathering before venturing forth for parts unknown, seeking adventure where it hides, and making their own when things are a little slow at the office.

The barreling freight train that is Dungeons & Dragons V, or the “5E” as it’s known on the street, is difficult to avoid. Although I was leaning towards Pathfinder originally, several factors contributed to the fact that we’ll be using the spankin’ new D&D:

  1. It’s new
  2. I bought the PHB, so I need to justify that purchase
  3. Just kidding, because the basic rules are free, and that covers most of the meat of the game, such as how to play, and character creation.
  4. It’s a hell of a lot more streamlined than Pathfinder
  5. I bought the initial adventure module, Hoard of the Dragon Queen, which should take about a year to complete.

In response to my previous post in which I asked a lot of questions (and thanks, folks, for taking the time to answer them here and elsewhere), here’s the game plan going forward:

  1. D&D 5E it is. Although I’d recommend buying the PHB (I found mine at Barnes & Nobel for 20% with their membership card) due to the completeness of it’s material for a player, the quick start rules (linked above) will allow you to create a character and get a general feel for the new systems in the game, like Advantage/Disadvantage and other cool stuff.
  2. We’ll be using the Hoard of the Dragon Queen because it’s designed for levels 1-8, and removes the ramp-up time needed to create something from scratch. It should be well balanced and fun to play, with all the typical D&D-y type stuff we know and love.
  3. Because 5E is decidedly untactical, I believe the only features we need in an online space are voice and a way to share images. That makes Roll20.net the Official Virtual Tabletop of Adventure Co. Brand Adventure Company, Version 2.0 (formerly know by the code name Asbestos). R20 has VoIP and webcam support (cam is really optional, and I think you can turn it off individually) as well as the ability to load in images like maps. The maps will be mostly for informational purposes, and not for tactical gameplay, although there might be times when tokens are used just to provide info.
  4. It seems that weekly, Thursday nights around 9PM Eastern is the best time for folks, so we’ll aim for that. As before, we can close the night by ensuring that the next Thursday is good for everyone, and if not, finding an alternative night for the next week that might work better (Thursday will be the “home” night that we’ll default to, in any case).
  5. I’d like to have an online version of the character sheets, simply because of the way passive abilities work (a flat 10 + applicable bonuses). As the DM would be rolling those passives and handing out info, having people’s sheets handy would be massively beneficial. However, I haven’t found a decent online sheet.
  6. In AC1.0, the group’s scribe (Tipa) kept a log of the adventure on her blog, which was both informative and entertaining. I floated the option of using Obsidian Portal for a similar purpose, as it has space for player logs (recaps), very rudimentary character sheets, document library (for storing images), and also a forum. In order to facilitate between-game communications when necessary, I like the idea of using OP’s forums, although any ideas for alternatives are welcome. We also used G+, but I don’t know if everyone is/willing to be there.

I think that’s it for now. In the meanwhile, study up on the PHB or the basic rules PDF. If desired, we can convene for an initial online meeting on an upcoming Thursday to work on character creation. I’d really like to have people go the distance when creating characters, especially with the new focus on “creating the character” over “assigning numbers”, because the RP elements assigned to the character, and the Inspiration system, will help make the game more personal for each player.

So You Want To RP-A-G? A Few Questions For Those Interested

I’ve been cooking up a small intro adventure that a new group can stumble through. It’s literally a stumble-through adventure: short, cost light on story, order but serves two important purposes. First, see it gets people together to hash out characters and back stories and to learn the ropes of the game system and how to play together. Second, although the adventure isn’t really anything to scribe home about, I’ve got a really decent idea of how it’ll open doors for further adventures.

The Call To Arms

Want to play? Many do! Sadly, I think the limit for participation will have to be capped at 5 people, max. Maybe six, if that was all who expressed interest, but as of right now, I have three pretty sure buy-ins, one fringe interest, and some other rubbernecks who have responded to a general shout-out this afternoon, and that’s only on one social network that’s been kind of slow today.

In the interest of getting on the same page (and helping folks decide, and helping me help you, etc), I wanted to put forth what I have been thinking about, and collect info on what works for people.

1. System

I’ve been leaning towards Pathfinder because A) a lot of people like it, and B) it’s free! But the setting doesn’t really much matter to me, personally. I know some people love/hate D&D 4E. The 5E PHB was just released (don’t have it yet, myself), but lacks DM and monster info.

There are other systems as well. My current idea is rather high-fantasy focused, but if people had a burning desire to really play another system, concessions could be made. It’d have to be back-to-the-drawing-board time, however, to come up with new materials.

If you’re interested in playing, what system would you like to use? Which system would you NOT like to use?

2. Venue

The “how” is probably the second first most important question.

We’ve played with Fantasy Grounds and R0ll20. Both are great tools. FG is normally pay-to-play, but I have the Ultimate License which allows the “demo” version to connect to my server and play like a paid version, so folks would just need to download and install it. Roll20 is, of course, web-based, with built in VoIP and webcam support. Both systems allow for handout sharing and drawing. Roll20 is pretty free-wheeling while FG has some pretty robust tools that help streamline the numbers game.

I personally prefer to play this round as non-tactical as possible, returning to the days of “making shit up” and not worrying so much about drawing out encounters by worrying about where you are exactly on the map. Maps will be used, but primarily to give folks an idea of what a room looks like, or as something that can be pointed to when saying “I move here”, or to give really vague ideas of how many things remain to be killed.

I’m also looking at Obsidian Portal as the “official” record-keeper of the game. Having a player log and an institutionalized recap is pretty new to me, but I’ve looked through stuff that people have done on the site, and it’s pretty intriguing. OP allows players to keep their own notes and recaps, enter their characters, and to have discussions during, before, and after the game. And it allows the DM to load up the wiki with lore and important information that “fleshes out” the game world.

What “venues” would you prefer/be willing to use? Which venues would you like to avoid?

3. Scheduling

Plain and simple: What kind of schedule can people pull off? We had previously played one night per week, but we’re adults and have lives and responsibilities and sometimes even once a week is asking a lot. We should, however, make a decent effort to not commit to a “seat of the pants” style game, in order to maintain momentum and to keep last session’s knowledge somewhat fresh in our minds.

What would work for you in terms of scheduling, days and times?

If you’re interested in joining the Adventure Co., Brand Adventuring Company, please shout out in the comments, ping me on Twittah, or leave a comment in the vile cesspool that is Google Plus. Ideally, you’d comment here and answer the above questions, so we can get a good idea of what people are looking for, where, and when we can find it.

Questions For the DM Community #RPG

Some Background

I’m an organization freak when it comes to working on my RPG stuff. As much as I like the old school method of pen and paper, look the convenience of electronic formats really can’t be beat. There’s a few tools out there that I’ve used from a DM perspective, health like Fantasy Grounds and Obsidian Portal, ailment but they were either installable apps or didn’t cater specifically to the DM planning process.

This project is a website which will focus on allowing DMs to plan and write up their campaigns and adventures, to run them from the site, and to share them with the community.

Where It’s At Right Now

I’ve got the user registration/login/logout/profile stuff working, although there’s some gaps. It’s got enough to get people into the system, although it’s not pretty. The next step in this rapid-fire development scheme is to allow users to create their campaigns, modules, and pages so I have more data to work with.

Thing is, I know what I think I should have when working on these elements in a finished product, but that’s not necessarily what others would consider necessary when working with these elements. So I’ve got some questions for the DM community (regardless of whether or not you see value in a project like this) that will help in creating this tool.

Right now, I’m looking for input on defining the campaign, module, and page.

Planned Organization Scheme

The current plan for the tool is to organize data in a Campaign > Module > Page hierarchy. A Campaign is like an overarching event, or even a game world. Modules are individual adventures that take place within that arc or world. Pages are the “scenes” within an adventure (Kobold cave, chase through the market square, etc).

Ancillary to that will be data buckets, created at the campaign level, for Handouts, NPCs, Maps, Treasure Parcels, and Encounters. Once these ancillary items are defined, they can be assigned to the Pages where they are used. They can be re-used on as many pages as needed.

Questions for DMs

Since the idea for this DM tool is to put it out there for people to use, I figure that the best way to pique folk’s interest is to get feedback from folks whom I hope will consider using the tool when it’s launched. If you’re a DM (of any game system), please take a few minutes to drop a line in the comments about these questions:

  1. If you had to summarize an original Campaign you were creating, what info would you expect to provide (Title, synopsis, etc)?
  2. What kind of info would you use to define a Module?
  3. What kind of info would you need when working on a “scene” or “area” Page?

In Other News: Finding a Home

To be honest, I thought the “code name” I’ve been working under would be pretty good for the site, which means I would be almost guaranteed that the domain name would be taken.

Turns out, it’s not! But I’m not going to reveal it until I can get the cash to buy it, so some random jerk doesn’t swoop in an snag it before I get there.

In the meanwhile, I’m considering setting up a dedicated site for this project, since it’s moving at a pace that provides me a lot of things to talk about, and because this is technically a video game blog. If I opt for this route, I’ll register the domain, then create a new site under that URL for the time being, until the site is ready for public testing.

Cartogo…Cargro…Making Maps; GM Tool; Wolves At The Gate

Cartogo…Cargro…Making Maps

I started working on a relatively small, drugs intro adventure for Pathfinder because several folks in the ‘Sphere expressed an interest in possibly doing another online RPG session. This time, sickness the game will be significantly different from our last Adventure Co. excursions. First, it’s a different system. Pathfinder can be had for free, so no one has an excuse not to join (although time is still way overpriced). Second, no fucking tactical crap. Eh…That came out wrong: there will be no tactical combat this time around. It’s not a style from my heritage, and while it’s kind of a breather from having to think on my feet, it’s got a lot of baggage involved that just doesn’t do it for me. Other folks who expressed interest seemed to feel the same.

However, maps still have a place in the game. Maps and handouts are as old as dirt in these games (considering the amount of time the party spends in caves and crypts, that’s saying a lot) and help give the players a sense of perspective and scale. They’re also good reference materials for the players and the GM. Although tactical combat uses maps for things like distance and positioning and cover, some of those things need to be taken into consideration in the more free-flowing conceptual combat style. Cover especially. Knowing where on the map something is to hide behind — or if there’s anything at all — is important. Plus, having overland maps, and maps for exploration and back-tracking purposes is important. Maybe there’s a way I could get players to draw a map on-screen as they progress…Hmmm…It would have to persist through sessions, though. I’ll have to look into that.

I’ve been trying to create some maps, but if there’s one thing I’m not all that good at, it’s balancing spinning plates. Making maps is a close second. Making maps that look decent and won’t embarrass my lineage for the next thousand years is right up there as well. I’ve joined a map making group on G+ (shut up) and some of the work people can do is absolutely stunning. I could get a five year old a box of crayons and it would probably be better than what I could come up with. I’ve tried using tools like Campaign Cartographer and any number of others that are out there, but stuff usually ends up looking like ass, and I end up fighting the program’s learning curve most of the time. I figured that I could just hand-draw some stuff, scan it, or maybe use my dusty old Wacom Bamboo tablet to create stuff in Photoshop. I’ve got some online resources to help me learn how to make stuff suck less, but I also don’t want this to become a full time job.

GM Tool

Work on my GM tool project is coming along…slowly. I decided to go with a technology that I wasn’t fully familiar with, and that’s proven to be tedious in the face of the ideas that are getting backed up like the line at your local DMV. After some frustration, however, I had an epiphany that allowed me to plow through the difficulty and make decent progress.

Right now, the administration of one’s own profile is complete, with the exception of managing a subscription. This includes viewing your profile, changing the changeable information, and resetting your password (if you opt to use local authentication and not a third party, which isn’t going in any time soon).

The next part is the actual local registration, log-in, and user persistence functionality. The user is the root of the whole process, as campaigns, modules, pages, and all of the little stuff it ultimately tied to individual user records, so being able to get noticed by the site is kind of important.

Wolves at the Gate

In non-gaming news, my daughter is obsessed with wolves. She has it in her head that she wants to run or at least work at a wolf sanctuary when she is old enough. She also wants to be a veterinarian.

This weekend, we went down to Ipswitch, MA to visit the Wolf Hollow Wolf Sanctuary. It’s a small place, run from someone’s home but fully up to code and legal. They have 8.5 wolves on the premises, with the 0.5 wolf being a hybrid wolf-dog that was taken from a three room apartment, and which is illegal to have as a pet in MA. This is not a rehabilitation operation; it’s a non-profit educational and care facility. The presentation that the owner gave was excellent, and focused a lot on conservation and on dispelling the the myths that surround the wolf.

Waving From The Shore #VanguardSoH

I knew it was happening, online but it still managed to silently creep up behind me and wander past in the night, cure board the last ship at the dock, cialis 40mg and sail off into the sunset for the distant shore where MMOs reside when the servers are shut down.

I always counted Vanguard as one of my personal top 10 MMOs. It filled the niche that was left with the closing of Star War Galaxies, with it’s non-instanced housing and in-depth crafting. The diplomacy system was unique and never replicated in another MMO, but which was treated as a first class citizen alongside the RPG staple of combat. The world was beautiful, with realistic weather that you could see coming from a mile away.

Yes, it was always troubled. I played the game in beta, and it was damn near impossible to do anything. Aside from the bugs, the game was just a total pig, even on high end systems, and it never ran smoothly. It earned a bad reputation as a broken piece of junk, and although it improved mightily over the years, it never reached it’s full potential.

It was that never reaching it’s potential which was it’s most damning sin, though. I believe that this game broke Brad McQuaid, forcing him underground for many, many years. His exuberance about the potential of Vanguard was contagious, but problems with the business side of Sigil, and the technology of the times, meant that the game would never realize the promises and promotions that preceded it.

I’ve played a lot of MMOs, some of which I recall, but most of which I’ve long since forgotten. Vanguard has the distinction of being one of the few online games that has provided me with tangible memories, and has helped to change the way I play MMOs. A long time soloist, it wasn’t until Vanguard that I decided to join a guild not of my own retinue. Ascension claimed — as many guilds do — to be a “family”. Most guilds fail horribly at living up to that claim, but Ascension nailed it. From the initial in-character interview, to the group harvesting nights, to the time the guild leaders entrusted me with their phone numbers and log-in information to reclaim housing plots while they were on vacation, the guild changed my perspective on how MMOs could be played, with the right people. Sadly, Ascension disbanded slowly as the principles fell away due to real-life issues, and I was the only one left who logged in regularly, until I stopped.

MMOs are unique in that they keep going and going and we complain about their mechanics and their patches and ongoing design decisions. We argue about play styles and philosophies. We create and consume guides and videos to help us get the most from the game. We do all of this around the game, like the game itself is some kind of fixture that can withstand the elements from now until the sun burns out. We forget — or conveniently ignore — that these are services run by corporations, and even the most successful MMOs have a lifespan, and will some day go dark. Vanguard was a minor player in the MMO revue, but it had gravitas and meaning that’s missing from a lot of cookie-cutter games that get to live on.

Shortly after the announcement that Vanguard would be shutting down, I found that Amazon had copies of the collector’s edition for sale. It sits on my shelf with my other CE’s, front and center, where it should be, among the other games that I’ve played. I’ll probably steal more glances towards it now that the game has been shut down.

RPG Rules: Guidelines or Roadmap?

Tabletop RPGs have been having a kind of renaissance over the past few years for some reason or another. Maybe it’s the growing pervasiveness of geek culture, buy or a backlash against all things digital. As much as I write about tabletop RPGing, this I don’t really immerse myself in the culture as much as I do with video games simply because you can’t effectively solo tabletop games, and without a regular group it’s kind of difficult to get traction, so I’m only guessing that we’re seeing a resurgence.

But the internet can be leveraged to bring people together to talk about and even to play tabletop RPGs (I’m just calling em “RPGs” from here on in), and that’s where I’m getting my vibe from. I don’t know if it’s just me or what, but I’ve seen a lot of people talking about a “right” way to play these games, and a “not quite right” way to play these games, centered around the rules and what it means for mechanical execution.

I’m using the Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition versus the Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition as the whipping boys because the D&D franchise is probably the best know, and the two editions offer the most stark difference, it seems, in perception. For those who don’t keep up, the 4E rules changed pretty significantly from their popular 3.5E predecessor. The biggest change seemed to be a relentless focus on an almost board-game-like tactical presentation for combat. Previous editions were all about the “theater of the mind” game play, which relied on each player’s imagination to envision the action based on what the DM was telling them. 4E’s rule book goes to great lengths to lay down the rules for distance, line of sight, marching order, and all kinds of things that are far more relevant to playing the game with a map and minis. 5E seems to me moving away from the minis and back to the old school method of pure imagination, but the 5E rules have been promoted as  being “modular” by allowing players and the DM to pick and choose which sub-systems they want to use in their campaign, and that includes using or discarding tactical game play.

So a lot of people seem really hung up on the notion that if you’re playing 4E, you must be playing it like a war game, and that there’s no possible way it can be played otherwise. I’ve heard of people who refuse to look at 4E because they’re not interested in tactical game play, and are therefor looking forward to 5e (or have jumped to Pathfinder or the more loosely coupled FATE system).

When I was younger, my friends and I played a lot of RPGs. I fondly remember playing the Ravenloft modules for D&DGhostbusters, and Call of Cthulhu, among other titles. When we ran out of money to buy new systems, we created our own. It wasn’t all that difficult, and we didn’t need a Kickstarter to do it. Most of the time, we played over the phone, which obviously precluded the option to play with minis (this was in the late 80’s, way before the Internet). The point, of course, is that we were pretty loose with how we applied rules, even with games that had large core rule books.

The underlying purpose of tabletop RPGs is to present a collaborative and dynamic story. The rules, in my opinion, are there to keep people inside the game world and to model the aspects of real life that govern chance and outcome. Anything beyond that that tells you what you can and cannot do is pretty much fluff, and it should be decided by the group which of those fluff aspects to include, not what to jettison. Take Pathfinder: the core rule book has almost 600 pages of tables, stats, and rules, rules, rules. No one should have to memorize that many pages of information about things like the chance that a crossbow will malfunction in a sandstorm. And no one wants to slow the game down by having to “rules lawyer” every question from a thick tome of small fonts. It just really brings down the whole atmosphere.

If a game system offers tactical combat, and the group doesn’t want to use the system because it talks about tactical combat, then throw out the tactical combat. If the rules focus only on how to resolve combat in tactical terms, then fudge it, or come up with alternate rules. RPG systems are designed around core concepts, and deeper systems are built on top of those core concepts. That means that almost anything can be handled by simply knowing the most basic how-tos and adding a little house-rules spin to it if the specific rules are confusing, too cumbersome, or undesirable.

RPGs are about imagination, and there’s no “right way” to play any of them, even if the rule books dedicate a lot of ink to nudging players in a specific direction. I really think the 4E tactical combat aspects were only designed to sell maps and minis, but in a far less cynical vein, there’s no reason why they have to be used at all.

To Use Or Not To Use (Minis in RPGs)

On Wednesday, thumb a friend put forth a general question, re: Pathfinder and minis. Was it required? He claimed that a lot of the presentation of the Pathfinder material was leading him to believe that the game was intended to be played with minis.

Originally, tabletop RPGs weren’t so designed. They were all played in the “theater of the mind”, where players were expected to visualize the action. I remember Back in My Day(tm), we didn’t even care for distance or movement rules, except where it would really screw us up or provided noticeable benefit. The GM would simply keep track of rough estimates of who’s in range of whom and if a player wanted to hide, they’d ask if there was something to hide behind. The GM decided that there was or there wasn’t, and if the player said that they were hiding behind that object, it was so. Otherwise, they were out in the open. It was a lot more cinematic in that regard, because each player had a vision of his or her own scenario in mind, and the game was more personal.

Minis were in the realm of wargaming, where position and quantity are everything. But then computer games showed up, and suddenly everyone wanted visuals. Taking a cue from both wargmaing and video games, RPGs started pumping out official minis because people seemed to like the idea of replicating the idea of known space and relation in their tabletop games. This lead to an industry where mini creators were producing not only characters, but obstacles and terrain and accouterments meant to litter the field with everything that players used to simply imagine.

Are we poorer for using minis? Yes and no. Minis make the game literal. There’s no ambiguity to what we see, and while that’s great for cleaving to the rules, it also limits us in what we can accomplish in a game that’s really about the “suspension of disbelief”. Minis also make things difficult for the GM. He needs to come up with maps that are to-scale, and not only needs to keep track of where the players are, but where the NPCs are. If the game uses minis only for combat (no one can sanely use minis in an entire city, for example), then the immersion comes to a screeching halt when the game transitions from an RP situation to a combat situation, notifying the players that there’s a fight coming up. On the other hand, minis bring tactical elements to the game. It lets players know their limits and exploit their strengths, and to use the unambiguous terrain to their advantage. When using a virtual tabletop software solution to play over the Internet, a lot of the burden placed on the GM is alleviated by the software itself. Playing with minis gives players something to look at other than each other.

Minis are a matter of choice. The purpose of an RPG is to engage the imagination, and the decision to use minis or not is merely a matter of where you want to put the needle along that scale. If you want to have the visual aides, to adhere to the rules as faithfully as possible, then minis might be the best option. If you want to be able to improvise or not be bound or limited by the materials you’ve bought or made, then relying on imaginative description is the best option.

The one thing that I think any new GMs need to understand is that no RPG system is absolute or complete. You pay big bucks for a thick and glossy rule book, but the game is ultimately played with a sheet of paper, a pencil, and some dice. Much hay has been made about the “modularity” of the new D&D 5E system which will allow you to pick and choose the rules you want to use in your game. That’s pretty fantastic, but it’s nothing new; with an RPG, you’re always free to pick and choose the rules you want to use or not use, to follow the rules to the letter, or fudge them for convenience. How you play is totally up to you, the players and the GM in agreement, and there’s no “right way” to play.

Dungeons And Dragons 5th Edition

I went through the D&D Starter Kit, information pills  5th Edition over the weekend. The boxed set comes with a generic “instruction book”, sick a larger-than-the-instruction-book pre-made adventure, five pre-made character sheets, and a bag of dice. When they say “starter kit”, they mean it in the most unambiguous way possible. You can hit the ground running with this thing in about 30 minutes; less if you have a history with D&D.

I have to say, I am exceedingly pleased with the tack that Wizards has taken in their presentation of the material this time around. I’m not talking about the rules (I will later, though), but their instructional leaflet uses very straightforward language, copious examples, and writes the document in plain English.

One of the issues I’ve always had with RPGs, and D&D in particular, is that they seem to be written for people who already know how to play. They make a lot of assumptions, although they also spend a lot of time explaining how the dice work and such. But character creation always seemed like one aspect that was way more dense than it ever needed to be. As a reference book, neither the DMs Guide nor the Player’s Handbook were organized well enough to let a DM or player find info quickly.

The starter kit’s intro guide doesn’t really cover character creation (it’s a starter kit, and the official guides are coming in a few months), but it does a stellar job of explaining the core of the game in a way that easy to understand. Part of that, I’m sure, is the streamlining of the rules. Obviously, with fewer and less complex rules, explaining things is going to be a breeze. A good 1/5th of the starter guide is spells, 1/5th is gear and equipment, and the other 3/5ths is the meat and potatoes of the experience.

5E seems to be the bridge between the 3.5E and the dreaded 4E that was always missing. It’s more modular, and less about “The Rules” than it is about getting back to the roots of the genre. Unfortunately, I doubt I’ll get to play it, but I’m very happy with I’ve seen in the starter kit and look forward to the official release of the DM’s Guide, Players Handbook, and the Monster Manual.