December 28, 2015

PC Death in a Role Playing Game

Some GMs call it taboo. Other GMs revel in it. Most players despise it. The death of a player character is often a weird subject in most role playing games, to the point that some don't even acknowledge it. When telling a story that involves living thing, there are often times when that thing may die. What makes a role playing game different than cooperative story telling is uncertainty.  If you are telling the story together (like in straight improv), you and your partners want the outcome of some sort of conflict to be the most meaningful possible to construct a certain story. But in an RPG, there is often a mechanic which will semi-randomly decide the resolution of a conflict. Death in a straight storytelling setting is usually agreed upon during the story's construction. In an RPG, death could happen narratively like this, but more often than not, will happen via the roll of a die. This has led to much discussion over the consequences of killing off a PC. In this article, I will discuss a PC's death via game mechanisms from the eyes of a GM who views it as bad, a GM who views it as good, and the view as a player.

Lately, I've been hearing from multiple podcasts or people that I listen too that player character death via a die roll should never happen. If they're losing a fight, the characters don't perish, yet there is some narrative thing that happens that keeps them from dying. This can be used to keep the game pretty much on track. Introducing new characters into the game isn't easy, and getting them invested in the story is even harder. Most of these GMs will insist that a PC character should never be killed by goblin grunt #4 or Stormtrooper FN-2187, but rather if they are to be killed nonnarratively that the foe has a name. You rarely see in cinema or read in literature about the protagonist killed by a random extra. The PCs are exceptions, heroes, and generally awesome.

During my last D&D 5e game I just ran, I told my player's before we even started that I was not going to stop random monster x from killing them this campaign. My goal was to try and make this system as gritty as possible. In the first few weeks of the campaign, I had killed two of the PCs. When death is on the table for every instance, the game takes on a new dimension. The players now must be much more cautious, not just busting into any room they want and killing everything in it. They lose the sense of security they have when the GM takes death off the table for most encounters. They can make rash decisions with little fear of PC death most of the time. Keeping death on the table reigns this in. They want to avoid more combats now, and ones that are inevitable, they want to have the advantage. The down side to this is what I will call the 10 foot pole problem. The players are now overly cautious, tapping every flagstone and door with a 10 foot pole to check for traps or monsters before continuing. This will slow the game down tremendously. Luckily for myself, this didn't seem to happen during my D&D 5e campaign.

Those views are from the perspective of the GM, which is widely different than what a player sees. A player who's PC has been killed now has real world consequences. They now can not take part in the rest of tonight's game (easily) and now must invest more time into creating another character. Depending on the game system, this could be only a few minutes or a few hours. Nobody wants to sit at the table next to their friend as they play the game and you have to sit there digging through a book, especially if it's a new system. Now, occasionally PC death can be OK for a player. If the scene makes it incredibly cool, a player may make the choice to have a PC die. But it must be incredibly cool. As a player, real life time is usually more valuable than in game themes or story arcs. If a player has to make a choice between sacrificing themselves for an NPC, more often than not they won't do it. The story would be much better with the PC saving the princess in exchange for their life, but the player doesn't want to have to spend the next few hours building a character.

So that's my thoughts on PC death in an RPG. I switch up my GMing style depending on the system I'm running and the themes I want to play with. Currently, I am running a 13th Age game on the rare PC death spectrum. I believe that most systems should be run in this spectrum, because it makes it a hell of a lot easier for me to GM and keeps the game flowing pretty quickly. If my players start making rash and dumb decisions, I will find another way to punish them, which PC death may be delivered for a particularly brash offense.

December 17, 2015

D&D 5e Encounter Building and Campaign Thoughts

While I sit here avoid Twitter and Facebook, I decided to keep myself entertained by composing closing thoughts to my initial thoughts on the encounter building rules for Dungeons and Dragons, 5th Editions. After DMing a campaign that lasted from late June to mid November, running a game nearly once a week, I thing I gathered enough experience building encounters by the book. At the end of this post, I will also briefly discuss my thoughts on running a homebrew game in D&D 5e. But first with the encounter building rules.

In short, they're garbage. Complete trash that has killed off 7 characters over the course of the adventure. It feels like the CR system is flawed, either not fully considering an enemy's special ability or resistance. Half way through the adventure, after the party was decimated by a couple of lava slugs (reskinned fire snakes), I decided to just through out the encounter building rules and just eyeball it. This wasn't as difficult as it may have been for others, since I have become used to running systems that don't even include encounter building rules. Reflecting upon this, I should have reestablished the death ground rules. Originally, death was never off the table because I was stress testing the encounter building rules, but after not using them anymore, I should have reevaluated this clause.

It was too much work to build these fair fight encounters using the rules, and I don't think that you should invest too much time into creating D&D combats by the numbers. A good rule that I ended up using was to build fights with creatures that could be eliminated in 2-3 hits (or more if less creatures). I think the game thrives on many little, one sided fights during a day rather then a few fair fights, though this also depends on the characters in your party. If you have short rest dependent characters, I think that these favor fewer fights, since they always seem to have some amount of power ready to go. In the more weaker fights, the long rest characters don't have as big of hurdles to climb if they've already used up their big powers. So basically, ditch the encounter building rules and find out what works for your party.

Now, my general thoughts on running a nonpublished campaign in the new D&D 5e system. A quick summary of the campaign would be a fetch quest to find a special rock in the desert. There are a few things that stood out as issues, and in the end very little that I can find as enticing. So I'll start with the good first, go onto my issues, and then things that fell flat at the table. The game does a very good job at making "mundane" magically items extremely useful and powerful. A simple +1 sword or resistant cape goes a long way without giving the characters too much crazy power. A +1 "magical" weapon will beat many of the resistance types that a ton of the monsters seem to have (resistance to slashing, piercing and bludgeoning from non-magical weapons).  While I do enjoy the backgrounds and etc. for the characters, player's with poor backgrounds ended up getting hosed.

One of the problems I have with D&D 5e is that the monsters seem very boring. Only a few monsters had entertaining mechanics tied to them, while most had a form of multi attack if they needed to be more powerful. Abilities like Pack Tactics were good, but go boring after a while. The best designed monster was probably the Zombie, who felt like an undead force with it's Undead Fortitude ability.

Another issue is that there seemed to be a definite power balance issue. Classes like the ranger and sorcerer seemed out matched by the rogue, fighter and cleric. And because each character's powers function differently on short and long rests, it became difficult to build encounters to the appropriate difficulty for the number they did.

Some of the players had issues with the backgrounds and etc. mechanic. Either forgetting that they had them or trying to stretch to fill odd ones. The worst were players who created their own backgrounds etc. and then found it very difficult to gain advantage from them.

Some of the players seemed to hate the trinkets. Nearly anytime they found some source of treasure, I would have them roll on the trinket table for fun. I figured they would like getting little random items that they could think of using in future predicaments. But it was mostly seen as useless junk, and extremely disliked.

So would I run another 5e game again? Yes, but it would have to be for a certain tone and setting. I think for a gritty fantasy game, I would run this IF the story I wanted to tell couldn't be done in the One Ring. I think everything that I like about D&D 5e comes from its gritty difficulty and feeling, which I can get most of from the One Ring. For more high fantasy, I will stick with 13th Age.

Sorry that this article was so choppy. If I would have written right after finishing the campaign it would have better flow and more links (or any).

December 10, 2015

My Micro Games: Umami Chef and Yamamichi

Very recently, I have become enamored with the idea of self publishing/DIY. I've always enjoyed making things and two years ago, when I decided to print one of my now wife's stories she wrote,  I got flung down this self publishing rabbit hole. I used a site called to create her book into a paperback. Holding a physical copy of a digital document, bound together just like the other books in the bookstore gave me a weird sense of accomplishment. I didn't write the story, yet I learned that in today's digital era it can be super easy to something that could never had been done before.

Shortly after this, my creative switch was hit and the idea of self publishing a game became a reality. For years, I worked on putting together small micro games that I could publish and print through the Game Crafter website. This culminated into a small game we put out this year called Mars to Jupiter.  But it wasn't till recently that I decided I wanted to try and tackle publishing an RPG.

A few months ago, I started learning about zine culture. I remember hearing about them from the Anime FLCL, in which they're described almost like a guerrilla medium. So I started tossing around the idea of publishing a micro zine basically for myself. In it I would talk about my thoughts on gaming along with other articles from my friends and family. I also told myself that I could probably print a small game or system in it. I ran a test run creating a small 8 page booklet zine which featured the Lasers and Feelings game in it and I thought it was great (of course it was, I made it right?). But shortly after, I realized that I had never really created an RPG, and that finding a small enough system that I could print would be nearly impossible after a while.

So I decided to give a shot a creating a micro RPG. My wife and I both submitted entries into the 200 word RPG contest. Neither of these games were elegant or inventive. Shortly after that though, at my Saturday game night, we joked about combat chefs, and I mentioned something about creating that game. After that night, it only took a day or so before I had created a micro game called Umami Chef. And now a week ago, I decided to try my hand at creating another system called Yamamichi, this one tackling the obstacle of trying to feel like a Studio Ghibli movie. While Yamamichi is still being worked on, Umami Chef was done and I pretty much left it on Facebook to stay. But it wasn't till today at lunch that I was reflecting on what I was looking for when building the game.

While the game can thank Lasers and Feelings for being its legged fish to my frog, I had a few core tenants that I wanted to follow and huge pitfalls I wanted to avoid when creating this 1 page document. I wanted there to be some form of normality to the dice. I chose rolling and totaling regular six-sided dice over a roll for successes model, making the game more predictable. A target number system is used with the predictability of normal rolls to create fair challenges to the players. I wanted to prune the advantage and success with style ideas from Fate and FFG's Star Wars RPG and morphed that into the rolling doubles rule, which can happen on a success of failure. I wanted to avoid adding static skill/stat numbers, so I came up with the exploding stat. I really liked the idea of a stat that lowered the number that the dice explode on. Exploding dice are fun, and allow for the stand up and cheer moments, but the stat should also reflect that you can't always pass every challenge. I felt like it was important to feel better at something than other people, and that teamwork will be required to complete the story.

Being a small micro system, Umami Chef really doesn't need any form of advancement. Reflecting on it, I could have used that space to help develop the theme of the game, as it will most likely see play as just a one shot. More examples might also have been helpful, but I really wanted to keep it down to a single page. I plan on reskinning Umami Chef into a game about reporters and press called Scoop, and I think I will make these changes for it. For Yamamichi, I am expanding into a single page, double sided. I am also cribbing some of the ideas I liked from Umami Chef into Yamamichi including the dice normality, target number system and traits adding dice. But for Yamamichi, I am ditching exploding dice and stats for a roll/keep system.

Creating these two games has been a lot of fun. I'm hoping to eventually create a small 8-12 page booklet game, but I'm not sure on what and how I can make the mechanics interesting enough to do so. But for now I'll keep creating the small games until I get a good hang of what I'm doing. I have a list of things that make me like an RPG, and I'm going to try and reflect on those before moving forward. I also don't want to steal concepts and mechanics from other systems that I adore like The One Ring or FFG's Star Wars. I think that will be the hard part...