Thursday, July 18, 2013

Pop Princesses and D&D

My Thursday night RPG group would probably be so disappointed in me to find out that all my planning for tonight's Hunter: the Reckoning game was done while cranking 1 2 Step by Ciara.  On repeat.  For three hours.  The disappointment would be tempered by them just saying "well, it's Dave..." in a condescending way that makes it completely obvious that they have no clue why I listen to the music I do, but hey, they'll probably love the session.  A GM's gotta do what a GM's gotta do.  Nothing puts me in the mood to write great stories like a pop princess, a fat beat, and a rap breakdown.

Lady Gaga has inspired more random RPG shit than I feel comfortable admitting.  Also, she is a unicorn centaur in this picture.  I'm jealous.
A lot can be said for music inspiring games.  Most of the kids I played with in high school and college listened to metal and hard rock for inspiration (Dragonforce was a common inspiration).  Film and video game soundtracks provided quite a nice base for many of the games I've participated in, and one group I played with had a soundtrack for our games and played music in the background of every session.  It worked extremely well for that group, but it's fallen flat every other time I've tried it.  I dunno, it must have been the group.  We did use a soundboard to simulate rain and thunder in a recent game session with (I thought) very cool dramatic effect, but we haven't bothered since then.  I may have to try that again.  it made the environment much more realistic.  There was also the time we played Ram Jam's "Black Betty" on repeat for a whole combat.  It worked just that once.

But back to my probably horrible taste in music influencing my games.  I'm one of those people that is always humming or singing or whistling something or at least feeling a beat and half dancing in my chair.  My car is a full on karaoke studio.  So is the shower.  It is natural that music inspires my games.  Some days it's Audiomachine, some days its Nicki Minaj.  When people find out that Britney Spears was the prime inspiration for the combat they almost died in, they're generally shocked.  What most of my gamer friends don't realize though is that if they actually bothered to watch the music videos to songs like Bad Romance or Beyonce's Girls, there is just as much of a fantasy landscape to be found in those than some sweaty metal video or an Enya song.  

The other reason I use those videos for inspiration for my games is the sex.  No matter what I run, I work in elements of horror, mostly because I love horror movies above all other kinds of movie, but also because eliciting an emotional reaction from players is a key way to drag them in, and fear is an easy emotion for me to drag out of them.  Sex is horrifying if used correctly.  Now, I'm not saying have monsters rape your players' characters (don't do that; it gets awkward).  Make something terrifying and primal and overtly sexual and monstrous and watch your players squirm.  One of the recurring characters in my Hunter: the Reckoning game is a demoness with gold skin, no body hair, six breasts, and claws and fangs who is the physical incarnation of the sexual attraction of a lioness. Not something that most people are comfortable having sexual thoughts about, but something that most heterosexual males (aka most of my group) would have awkward sexy thoughts about.  Being horrified at yourself because of something the game is making you think about is a fun GM trick I like employing regularly.  The male characters in my group get very antsy around her, and the players start acting the same way.  I'd have never thought her up without Christina Aguilera's music video for Dirrty.
Don't even get me started on Die Antwoord...  You're fucked if I say this session was inspired by them.
 Rap music brings an animal passion and violence that I find easy to channel into more hateful or warlike cultures, sessions, and characters.  If I'm invoking Tech N9ne this session, there will be unrelenting violence.  If Lady Sovereign gets involved, there's gonna be some attitude problems and major hurdles the group will have to overcome.  I've started listening to more of this music, because I've occasionally (and not recently) been accused of being too lax a GM.  In my Enya and Chronicles of Narnia soundtrack phase, I just wanted lush New Zealand landscapes and pretty cultures and didn't focus on combat or NPCs.  The more personal the music, the more personalized, gritty, and emotionally involved I make the game.  There's something about the intrinsic ego in pop and rap that makes the game come to a personal level when I start using it as background noise during session planning.

So yeah, tonight's session is brought to you by Ciara, the letter B, and the number 7.  Hopefully it goes well.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

I'm In Ur Vineyard Stealing Ur Dogs, Dawg

I've been on a kick lately of buying RPGs.  Prior to this year, I had a bunch of Vampire: the Masquerade books, most of the New and Classic World of Darkness core books, a bunch of Pathfinder stuff, over half of the D20 Modern line up, the core books for a couple editions of GURPS, the Castles & Crusades books I was using to run the games with my little siblings, and the results of a few fandom purchases (Buffy and Doctor Who) that I had never touched.  It all started when I got bored as hell with Pathfinder, because that was all my group had played in years.  I wanted something different, they wanted to play Hunter: the Reckoning, and I wanted a follow up that wasn't Pathfinder too.  My group has pretty much vetoed GURPS which was my go to non d20 or d10 system, so I was out of stuff (note: I'm the only Whovian in my group and about half of them won't touch Buffy).

That was when I hit the internet, specifically Amazon, and started an out of control wish list, and, even worse, just started buying indiscriminately.  Books were showing up on my doorstep weekly, and people at work were asking just how many of "those weird game books" did I actually have.  Now, I do have to retract the "indiscriminately" comment.  I was picking the best in genre according to forums and prioritizing based on what cool stuff they offered.  Still, I was just buying stuff in quantities that I would not be able to play any time soon, and that my group would be dubious or unimpressed by.

The first two books to arrive where Burning Wheel: Gold and Savage Worlds Deluxe Edition.  Both completely blew my mind.  Savage Worlds was GURPS with five seconds of character creation, playing cards for initiative, and more minis emphasis than I was comfortable with.  It was cool, but I instantly knew that my group would not dig it.  It lacked the crunch that they enjoy, and all of them expressed dislike the initiative mechanic.  Burning Wheel, on the other hand, was an arcane tome of beautifully sentimentalized roleplaying theory and a character creation process that I am still hesitant to attempt lest I dot one "i" too many and end up accidentally summoning a demon.

This is what character creation in Burning Wheel feels like.
Despite its eldritch (and possibly squamous) character creation process, Burning Wheel is something that I would love to play at some point.  It was cool, different, but there was no clue I was picking it up and running it for a bunch of people who would like to play Pathfinder and were humoring me, because they like me and want to see what I'm so interested in.  It's on the shelf tabbed for re-reading so that I can familiarize myself with it implicitly before loosing it on my friends.  

Plus it looks freaking sweet.
I bought the new edition of Traveler, hoping that the original sci-fi RPG would be the new awesome.  I haven't determined if I even want to try to finish reading the book.  There's a charm to randomly generating your characters, but I am a control freak who wants to play what I fucking want to play, dammit, and if something would bug me if I was a player, I am loathe to do that same thing to players when I GM.  I will say, I prefer it over D20 Future, but that's because I don't like the treatment D20 gives sci fi games, and I really don't like the D20 Modern/Future class systems (I've played it a lot, but dear God it bugs me every time).  GURPS might still win out for sci-fi.  It wins out a lot for me.

Unsatisfied, I started looking into more esoteric games.  There were a few people playing Fiasco out at a local gaming store, and one of my group members and I have had a blast playing with them.  I started looking into story games.  The year I started college, I was without a stable group, and turned heavily to online roleplaying.  I'd messed around with some Vampire: the Masquerade stuff online in high school so I was passingly familiar with play by post and found a play by post forum where people played obscure rpg stuff like Amber.  What had drawn me was a play by post Firefly freeform game (which I joined and met several roleplayers that I kept in touch with to this day), but I was quickly roped into games of The Mountain Witch and Dogs in the Vineyard.  

At that point, both games were new, I had no clue they were anything but random stuff people had made up and put on that site (for the life of me, I wish I could remember the site's name.  I'd like to go back).  I had a lot of fun, especially with The Mountain Witch, and set out to find both.  The Mountain Witch proved impossible to find not in PDF, and I hate PDFs.  If I pay money for something, I want an actual book.  I did, however, find Dogs in the Vineyard.  It was freaking expensive for a tiny digest sized less than two hundred page pamphlet.  I added it to my wishlist on Amazon and moved on.  I started reading about DIY D&D on Playing D&D With Pornstars, and decided to just DIY a game up and go for it. 

Last week I found a used copy of Dogs in the Vineyard for $5.  I bought it.  I got it yesterday, and quickly realized that somehow I'd completely missed the fact that the game was about Mormons with fabulous coats and six shooters.  It was also far more awesome than I'd remembered.  I just finished reading it today, and, if I hadn't already put together so much stuff for a D&D game, I'd just force my group to play Dogs with me and that would be final.  But Mormons?!

The book doesn't actually say it's about Mormons until the chapter at the end where in a list of suggested reading  material it lists the Church of Latter Day Saints website, but, as someone who has a few Mormon friends, knows a bit about theology and religious stuff, and has watched every South Park episode, I immediately picked up on it.  That being said, the book handles a real world religious subject manner in a way that is both respectful and makes it cool.  Of course, I like playing characters with religion (or at least faith in something greater), so it clicked quickly with me.  The fabulous coats part didn't hurt.  

For those of you who don't know what Dogs in the Vineyard is, it is about a Mormon wild west where the church sends out ordained young men and women as "Dogs" to deliver the mail and root out sin and corruption in the towns and flock.  The Dogs have complete authority to humiliate, punish, and even kill to deal with wayward folk.  They get to do exorcisms, perform marriages, and basically fuck shit up.  It's really freaking cool.  You're the Spanish Inquisition just in the wild west.  And you're a Mormon.  I had no problem being sold, but I have a sinking feeling that the whole Mormon thing will be a hard pitch for people I want to play with.

Here's the premise in a nutshell except for more demon possessions and illicit sex.
The other thing that I noticed about this book (that I had noticed with Burning Wheel as well) was the idea that there was a "wrong" way to play the game.  Both get a little preachy about being played as a collaborative experience.  Dogs in the Vineyard actually has several sections that suggest the GM should run setting details by the players down to minutiae like if the town should have a mill or not (okay, it doesn't give this specific example or any example, but it's stuff like this).  Evidently, if my players aren't down with the idea that the tavern serves barley beer instead of oat and I declare barley beer is on tap, we are having badwrongfun.  

Now, I get what they're pushing.  I like a collaborative game experience, but I'm the damn GM.  If I decide the final conflict is on a bridge just outside of town, then it's on the damn bridge.  The book counters this with "what if it was reconciled earlier?"  Then it was fucking resolved earlier.  Neat.  But I'm a competent enough GM to stage stuff to my liking while making it natural.  The how to play stuff seems good for people who have never played a RPG before, but it's a bit insulting to a good GM.  Kinda like the disclaimers in the front of White Wolf books that say that vampires aren't real, and you shouldn't kill people because of this product...

I dunno, officer, we were playing Vampire: the Masquerade and shit just got too real.
Still, Dogs in the Vineyard is one game that is at the top of my gaming list.  I can ignore preachy paragraphs, take the setting, the awesome bidding system it uses for dice rolling that feels very poker-ey (and thus very western-ey), and my group of players and have an awesome time.  After I run D&D.  My roommate has informed me he very badly wants to play a Ranger or Barbarian or Samurai or something.  I am nothing if not a roleplaying enabler.  Anyways, the moral of the story is that setting out on the search for a new RPG can involve murder, Mormons, and summoning demons from the pits of Hell.  At least I didn't die in character creation when I was trying to make a character for Traveler.  Because evidently that can happen.  And if you die in the RPG, a piece of you dies in the real world.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

How I Plan On Replacing Fantasy Races

A lot has been written about the roles of races in roleplaying games.  The classic D&D layout of Dwarf, Elf, Gnome, Half-Elf, Half-Orc, Halfling, and Human often comes under a lot of fire for being cookie cutter or too diverse or not diverse enough.  I tend to not use it, because I just don't care for half of the races.  I've read my Tolkien (many times), dislike Tolkien-esque elves used outside of Middle Earth, and, honestly, think it's just over done.  Fantasy worlds already are overwhelmed with "kewl stuff," and your character's race doesn't have to be one of the neat things.

This picture sums up why I hate elves.  Hugo Weaving is just manly enough for me to have conflicting emotions about it though.

Basically, unless you're a really special roleplayer who gets really into the alien mindsets of the Githyawhateverthey'recalled or Baali or whatever, you pretty much just end up playing a human.  The races just end up being excuses to tack personalities onto character or get neat abilities or min max.  Why do you need to have pointy ears and an immunity to magic sleep to play a blonde, anorexic dick in a RPG.  Viserys (Daenerys's brother in Game of Thrones) is a human that acts like pretty much every fantasy elf.  Just play a human like him and take out an unnecessary layer of trying to make a special elf homeland fit in your game.  

Elf substitue!  Now comes in mega dick

What usually ends up happening in Dungeons & Dragons (and similar games) is that the GM eventually feels the need to set aside homelands for all the individual races.  This island is for the elves, the dwarves get these mountains, and this...I don't effing know...gem cavern or something is where gnomes come from or some shit.  Then your world becomes not your world and just an amalgam of trying to do the same thing everyone else does so that your one player can play a Kender* and annoy and rob the party blind.

Give it up.  Take back control of your game.  It took me years to figure that out.  My last Pathfinder game started out with all the standard races (plus Goblin) available for play.  I was annoyed, realized all my NPCs were just humans anyways, and now that I am trying to reforge that world, I completely axed all the races.  You read me right.  All of them.  There are humans.  Period.  Goblinoids exist, but nobody is allowed to play one if I can help it (hint: I can, because I'm the goddamn GM).  Because I like a little variety, however, I am implementing an option for "near human" as well though.  

Near Humans are basically humans that have slight not-human quirks, ticks, and abilities.  Basically, these neat other things are from magic, alternate genetics, and other shit manipulating the bloodline.  Think of it like mutations.  None of the things change the appearance of the character unless the player wants, and the character can pass as human.  Humans in Castles and Crusades (which is the core system I'm going to run my DIY D&D off of) get three primary abilities.  Near Humans get two and then a +2 on rolls with one secondary attribute of their choice plus a randomly rolled ability off of the following table.

Roll 2d12
2: Low-Light Vision
3: Enhanced sense of smell
4: +3 on saves vs Poison, Disease, Sickness, and Nausea
5: +2 on Spot rolls
6: +2 on Listen rolls
7: Rage (+2 on STR for one round once per day per level as a free action)
8: Bite attack for 1D4+ STR damage
9: Cast Influence 1+Cha modifier times a day
10: You are constantly under the effects of the Endure Elements spell.
11: Leave no tracks in one environment of your choice
12: +2 on saves vs. Illusions and Charms
13: Can light small, flammable objects on fire with a touch
14: +1 to attack rolls with thrown weapons
15: +4 on saves vs. Fear
16: Climb speed of 10 feet and +8 to climbing checks
17: +10 feet to base speed
18: Speak with animals once per day per two levels
19: +2 to hiding and move silently rolls
20: Automatically stabilize when you go to negative hit points
21: +1 natural armor bonus to AC
22: +2 on CHA checks for social interactions
23: Know Direction once per day per level
24: Roll twice more

I'm excited to see how this goes.  


*For those of you who don't know what a Kender is, consider yourselves lucky.  They are Halflings/Hobbits who basically are an excuse to be annoying preteen girl random, titter, rob you blind just 'cause, get into trouble, and basically just disrupt the game for no apparent reason other than "it's their culture."  Fuck Kender.  

How My Sexual Orientation Affects My Characters

When people I roleplay with find out I'm gay, one of the first questions they ask is if my characters are as well.  The answer to that is usually no.  In fact, I have never officially played a strictly gay male character in a pen and paper game and have only played a gay female once.  Incidentally, I've played a transsexual character and quite a few bisexual (and a omnisexual) characters, but the queer end of the spectrum is definitely underrepresented in my stack of old character sheets.  Online, however, is a different story, but I play differently online, and play by post roleplay is a far different format than pen and paper.   An overwhelming majority of my characters, though, are heterosexual.  Surprised?  I was too when that trend was pointed out by a friend.  See, when I make characters, two things go through my mind: what role the party needs filled, and what kind of experience I want to have in the world.

Hello, homoerotic imagery.  We could be here all day talking about how gay this picture is.

By role, I mean a few things.  In the classic Fighter/Cleric/Rogue/Wizard party makeup of classic sword and sorcery games like Dungeons and Dragons, I almost always take the Cleric role aka the healer.  If we go with a Five Man Band (my groups usually consist of six people including the GM), I play The Chick in some iteration or another, although not always female.  I like taking care of the party, making sure they survive, and being the band aid and buffer so they can be badasses and shine.  Also, like playing the mediator, voice of reason, moral center, and buffer between the giant egos that tend to rise up in RPGs.  Also, my dice hate me as a general rule, and if I sit back and spam healing spells and buff spells that don't require me to roll, there's less of a chance I will critically fail at an inopportune moment.   

This role is not, I believe, influenced by my sexuality.  It is my play style that is derived from bad luck, nobody wanting to play a cleric, and enjoying exerting subversive control over the party.  Seriously.  The Cleric owns you.  Have you ever seen someone's face when you refused healing?  They are under your thumb, and if you want to, you can make them squirm.  It's magical.  Want to dictate what quest you're picking?  Just let them know that there will be no fat healz if they walk down hallway B, because your god said that hallway A is the right one to go down.  Plus, there's the whole ego boost from being the divine channel of holy power direct from some cosmic force that chooses to work through you.  Basically, I love Clerics (and Oracles in Pathfinder, and Druids, and Paladins, etc...).  But I digress. 

Secondarly, by role, I refer to personality type in the group.  This is best expressed by referencing the classic Dungeons & Dragons alignment system.  I play extremes.  Extreme law, good, evil or chaos.  This means that I generally do not play evil characters (Vampire: the Masquerade is a blissful exception) because I tend to weird people out and make things uncomfortable.  I also tend to veer away from chaos, because I'm a team player, meaning I play usually very good or very lawful characters aka the backbone or heart of the group.  I enjoy the player skill aspect of roleplaying as well, meaning I'll usually play a talker, thinker or both.  I don't like playing completely stupid characters unless they're intuitive or unintuitive characters unless they're smart.  However, I hate playing alpha characters or party leaders.  Being the person who gets blamed for everything is not my bag.  

This is possibly a result of my sexual orientation, or, rather the socialization surrounding being a gay man.  I was bullied, so I dislike being in the spotlight, however, I crave power and control.  The tendency towards extremes and being the heart of the party might be a desperate cry for attention or approval or inclusion or something, and this is pretty much where my pseudo psychological self analysis breaks down, and I start having no clue.  I took more social anthropology than psychology in college anyways.

Pretty much, I'm not a macho, aggressive guy.  I'm not super feminine either, but I have a sassy streak a mile wide.  I'm laid back, collected, introspective, and tend to over think things.  Sassiness and introspection are not gay traits.  Maybe I'd have been more aggressive if I played football instead of D&D, but hey.  My characters carry a bit of my personality like all characters carry the personality of their players, but there's not a definitive answer about whether my personality is what caused me to be gay or if my personality is based around socializing and fear caused by a non-gay friendly society (and the million other issues surrounding how our personalities develop).

This leads me to my next topic of what I want out of my games.  This is generally influenced by my favorite books, which are influenced by what books I was read during my formative years (read: a lot of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis).  My favorite books tend to be influenced by a variety of things including dark fantasy elements, interesting characters, good dialogue, and attractive male characters, so I guess my orientation plays into this aspect of character creation in a way.  It's true that when I play a male character, he tends to have aspects that I find sexy.  Now, I don't usually like pretty, effeminate, hairless men attractive (aka elves, screw elves).  I like men with a little ruggedness, charm, panache, and bravado.  A little chest hair too.  Five o'clock shadow is a must.


Not Hot

Basically, I want a game where we can be heroes.  No rapiers, foppish haircuts, and florid quips for me.  I want a battleaxe, some grit, and a good one liner.  I'm fine with epic romance, but unless the kingdom is in peril, it's not worth it.  And I do want some romance.  Some sort of romance.  Any sort of romance.  A sexless world loses a lot of charm for me.  I don't even care if my character is not involved.  If I get to snark at the happy couple, I'm fine with it.  

Now, what I've wanted out of a game is often not pandered to for a variety of reasons, most of which I'm completely fine with.  This also ties in with the fact that I've made few gay characters.  The first reason is that I play with straight people who have differing views on sexuality than I do.  They are not comfortable nor do they want the same level of sexytime in their games as I do.  They are also not all comfortable with playing or GMing the second half of a homosexual couple.  I am fine with this.  We all make sacrifices, and they make sacrifices to include more of that stuff than they otherwise would for my enjoyment.  We have a happy medium.  There have been a few interesting moments like the Star Wars game where I played an omnisexual male ex-dancer who was formerly a Hutt slave and another player was a race of hermaphroditic alien and...stuff happened.  NSFW stuff.  That weirded the other players out though, so it ended up very off camera after the weird first session where their passions were kindled.  

I'm also not pandered to because of the types of games my group likes to run.  We have a GM who likes very over the top high magic fantasy dungeon crazy monster games.  We have a GM who likes low magic, gritty, medieval wilderness games.  We have a GM who just likes to drive home how horrible the world around us is.  None of those are generally conducive to meaningful relationships with NPCs, and most of the other players aren't too keen on character relationships.  We have a blast, but I haven't explored many characters I still want to play due to the comfort level of my group.  When I GM, I pander the game to the players and enjoy the other aspects of the game world that I like such as sandsharks, clever traps, and labyrinthine social systems.
Heck yeah, Sandsharks!

Honestly, though, I don't mind.  Roleplaying is about telling a collaborative story with friends, and my friends are great at it.  Collaborative stories have elements of multiple storytellers' creative processes, and mine just so happens to be different and gets drown out by other voices.  My mark is made in different ways, and I enjoy playing characters who don't have their own honey back home.  Another of the reasons I seldom play gay characters is because it never matters whether my character's sexuality is defined or not.  It doesn't matter the character's orientation when they have to hack through a goblin horde to save the world.  

Friday, July 12, 2013

Plugging Play By Post

Due to doing this thing called "growing up," I have less and less free time for tabletop roleplaying.  Back in high school and early college, I was playing sometimes up to five nights a week either at various kitchen tables or at the local comic shop.  Now, I have a group that plays on Thursday nights with decent reliability and occasionally find a Fiasco group on Tuesday evenings at a local gaming store.  However, just because I have had to cut back on my roleplaying evenings, it does not mean that my urge to roleplay has dwindled.  Quite the opposite.  As the years have passed, my craving for RPGs has grown into a steady hunger that refuses to be sated.

Enter the internet.  Now, if I could figure out the webcam on my laptop (and if it wasn't a piece of crap), I might venture to strange new vistas like Skype and Google Hangout (and I still may).  Currently (actually, on and off since I was about 16), I have been roleplaying via forum.  By roleplaying, I mean mostly freeform stuff on fandom boards like Firefly, Heroes, The Dragonriders of Pern, and even a dark and weird foray into a Sailor Moon site.  My current poison is The Hunger Games.  As I write this, I just finished posting in the bloodbath of my fifth games.

A lot of bad can be said about forum roleplay.  The rules often consist of "be nice to each other out of character" and "don't be a forum troll," and few players actually end up following them at all.  Roleplay sites often become incestuous hotbeds of Mary Sue cliques and stagnant plots.  Since writing is the key element of that medium, they are often riddled with illiterate teens who angst worse than a Twilight novel.  Finally, having to wait possibly days to get the reply in a simple conversation drives many away from Play By Post.

All of those reasons are reasons I hate the medium.  I would rather sit across a kitchen table with some plastic polyhedrals than in front of a computer screen any day of the week, but the great part about forums is that I can do it on my time.  It's a placebo, albeit a crappy one to get me from Thursday to Thursday.  However, there are the rare few play by post sites that transcend just being roleplaying sites and become actual communities, and that is where they become awesome.

I have been a part of a few communities.  The Hunger Games site I'm on now is one*.  The players there are awesome writers, funny as hell in the chat, and generally great people many of whom I've communicated, vented at, laughed with, and even shared deep fears and secrets and damages with outside of the game.  I talk to some of them more often than I do my own family, as sad as that is.  Most of the players on that site and I have developed a rapport and trust that lends itself to creating great stories.  Some of those stories even rival the best that I have participated in during pen and paper RPGs.  I've been writing there for almost a year and have had more in character heartbreak, adventure, and drama than I've actually had with my face to face group in the past year.

Basically, the merits of play by post are simple:
1) They require far less time and player coordination than face to face games.
2) Writing out character thoughts and actions means that character motivation is clear from a storyline perspective
3) You get to use pretty pictures for your characters.
4) You can participate in multiple timelines and with multiple characters at the same time.
5) Certain fandoms like The Hunger Games and Harry Potter which do not lend themselves well to pen and paper games work brilliantly in this format.

So, if you find yourself with a yearning to roleplay and a lack of a group, wander over to sites like and find a game.  It might tide you over. You might hate it.  But you might just find a new outlet for your creativity that might provide a rich experience that you've never had before.


Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A Rant And Ramble About Rules

 Rules suck.  There we go, I've said it.  I hate roleplaying systems.  Now, it's a love/hate.  I love game design.  I love seeing cool mechanics.  I love neat dice tricks and bell curves and character balance and generation.  What I hate is the effect rules have on the actual roleplay.  Too often, I've been on the receiving end of rules lawyering where the game stopped mid scene, because someone "needed to know" exactly how X worked mechanically so that they could use X kewl power to defeat X baddie.  The rules should play a second fiddle to the story, but often they overshadow it completely.

Rules influence how we talk about the games.  People say "I play AD&D" or "I play Burning Wheel" or "I play GURPS."  What they should be saying is something along the lines of "I play a young wizard and we're on a quest to bring down this evil empire..."  Screw what system you're running.  What was your game?  I tend to dislike playing D20 Modern, but one of the best games I ever participated in was a space opera using D20 Modern/Future rules.  It was a formative game of my experience as a roleplayer.  It (usually) transcended a deeply flawed system.  When I talk about the game, I talk about the characters (I was a plucky, quirky young mechanic who fell in love with the robot girl who was our computer's AI), not my feats and stats.

The rules cause schisms in the community.  At the comic shop I played at during high school and college, there was a deep enmity between the old timers who played AD&D 2E in the back room and the younger kids who played D&D 3.5 in the front.  There were one or two people who crossed over, but most of the people I play with even to this day won't touch a 2E book.  Heck, I even felt that way for a long time, although that was mostly over the fact that I couldn't figure out THAC0 (which I recently remedied).  With the right players and GM, roleplaying is roleplaying.  The story can be the same in Traveler or D20 Future as long as you let it.

Now, some games are best served by certain rules sets.  I would hate to run or play Vampire: the Masquerade with a D20 system.  I would play as long as the game was good enough, but it would be hard to not just say "guys, let's just switch.  I have V20, and I'll do all the conversions for you."  White Wolf is one of the prime examples of this.  I've messed around with the GURPS versions, and they really don't feel the same, but again, as long as the game was good enough, I'd play.  Conversely, sword and sorcery is served equally well by D&D and say Burning Wheel.  The more specialized the world, the better it's served by a system created specifically for it, but if you're playing a more generic game like "space opera" or "horror" or "sword and sorcery," don't get too hung up on which rules set you're using.

I'm trying to drive this home to my current group.  We played D&D 3.5 almost exclusively for years, only switching to Pathfinder under much protest.  When I tried to get some GURPS 4E thrown into the mix, I met with highly mixed reviews, a few outright refusals, and I eventually just gave up.  To their credit, we've moved away from D20 based systems a bit lately.  I've been running a Hunter: the Reckoning game with quite a bit of success, and my roommate is hopefully going to run the D6 A Song of Ice and Fire RPG for us in the near future.  They've been receptive to me mentioning running both Savage Worlds and Burning Wheel as well.  It's exciting.

However, I haven't run those games yet for one distinct reason: I don't have a story I'd like to run that jives with either of those systems.  Heck, my biggest hang up with my Hunter game is that the World of Darkness's rules and lore are bogging down my current game.  One of my players played quite a bit of White Wolf back in the day, and he knows what I'm pitting them against within usually a few minutes.  I've been stifled creatively, because out of laziness, I'm falling back on pre-scripted monsters outlined in my large World of Darkness collection instead of running them as I would.  I only became aware of this when I tried to make some slightly Chtulonic beings and just gave up and used Demon: the Fallen, because I had the book on my shelf.  I've loved those NPCs (and more importantly, the players have too), but I feel guilty, because I let the pre-scripted plot and rules write the game and not me.  More than once, I've wished I ran the game with GURPS or Savage Worlds so that we didn't have the World of Darkness to contend with, and I could make the shadows unknown and thus more frightening.

In a way, rules are important, because they do shape the game.  From what I've read, I'm glad my roommate is running the Green Ronin D6 version of the Song of Ice and Fire RPG rather than the D20 version published by White Wolf.  I appreciate the difference, mostly because we're probably going to be playing with some new people who have played D&D before, and I think the different system will help break them of a hack and slash mentality.  I'm also glad he's using the actual ASoIaF book over say, GURPS, so that we have world specific options, as I've only watched through season two of the TV show and haven't read the books, and one of the guys hasn't even watched the show.  It'll help us get into the world since we're picking from options that are already there.

What I'm afraid of though is that we are going to get hung up on the rules.  I don't know how the system works.  My roommate is the only one with the book, and he's going to be the only one who knows how the game works.  I plan on roleplaying the hell out of it and just forging ahead, but most likely there are going to be game flow interrupting "rules breaks" during our first few sessions.  I will be annoyed, but hey.  It's a game, and I'll be playing with my friends, so it'll hopefully be a good time.

When I run, I fudge rules for purposes of story a lot.  My epic boss just got one shotted because of a rules glitch in a broken Pathfinder build?  No prob, he has 100 more HP.  The fight rages on, people do epic things, and my player's have a more memorable combat versus "yeah, the boss went down like a bitch because there was a charge lane and I got in 200 damage on a regular hit."  Most of the time, the dice fall as they may, but if the rules are standing in the way of the session, screw them.  Roleplaying, to me at least, is about a story, not about chucking some dice and playing with probabilities.

Mini Murder Hobos AKA Running A Game For My Little Siblings

So, for the past few months, I've been running a game of Castles & Crusades for my 11 and 9 year old sisters and two 8 year old brothers.  They were all adopted, and since my biological brother and I bonded over D&D and Star Wars D20 in junior high and high school, I figured I'd bring them into the nerd fold (my biological sister is far to practical, down to earth, and busy camping and kayaking to bother).  Now, those sentences sound wonderful, fun, possibly tedious, and slightly like a twisted version of a Norman Rockwell painting done by Edvard Munch.  It's not.  It's absolutely terrifying.  There have been countless articles and comments written about the culture of murder hobos in Dungeons & Dragons-like games.  I can tell you with utmost convictions that my little siblings make your most hack and slash players look like upstanding citizens.

Now, when I say I'm running Castles & Crusades, I mean I took the most rules light version of D&D I could find, stripped it down even farther to the point where basically they just roll to attack and damage things (and the spellcasters do spell damage), combat rounds are fluid, and basically it's just freeform with occasional excuses for them to roll the pretty new dice I bought them all.

The party consists of:
Little sister 1: Tarca Dyron the female Dwarven Wizard who I have been informed does not shave ever
Little sister 2: Tiki Wiki Miki the female Hawaiian Elf Monk
Little brother 1: Honkanog Rooly the male Half Orc Fighter
Little brother 2: Bowser Sharp Turtleback the male Half Orc Fighter/Monk

They named their characters.  I had no hand in that.  Tarca Dyron rolled an owl on the random familiar table, and it has been expressly stated that it is a snowy owl named Hedwig.  Because it's Harry Potter's owl.  It's not named after Harry Potter's owl.  It's the same one, and she stole it.  There is also issue with Bowser's class.  See, playing just one character is a problem for him.  He wants to change characters every session.  For now at least, we've settled to just multiclass so he can do a little of everything, although he still asks to play a dragon at the start of every session.  He's also informed me that he wants to run the game so he can try to kill the characters for a change.

I quickly realized that there would be no roleplaying when the four of them proceeded to slaughter a town after the stablemaster told them they didn't have enough money to buy horses ten minutes into the first session.  The concerted outrage and tantrum after one of them fell below zero hit points made me realize that there was no enforcing negative consequences.  They now ravage the lands as a terrifyingly focused murder band, slaughtering travelers and monsters alike and making things out of their body parts like tying vampire bat skulls to their boots (to stab people when they stomp on them) or braiding a dead giant's armpit hair into a whip or sticking needles through eyeballs so they can shoot them as spiky rocks from a slingshot.

Usually, I am able to exert control of my players.  Sure, there have been some groups that have felt like herding cats, but try wrangling four high energy primary school kids who fight like cats and dogs on a regular basis.  It's unlike any gaming experience I've ever had.  All of them tend to be sugared up when we play, and playing in their home means there are an endless array of toys to distract them at the drop of a hat.  Complaints about Monty Python quotes and cell phones at the table somehow seem minor at this point.

This group controls me.  If one of them decides they want to kill tarantula people and the other three join in, by God, we're fighting tarantula people and now.  The entire game falls apart until some arachnid folk feel their steel and sorcery, and they can make outfits out of the body parts.  Of course, the game is falling apart while they're finding, killing, and constructing exoskeleton gear too.  Someone is always grabbing someone's dice, character sheet, getting in someone else's space, touching someone, or just deciding it's time to run off screaming for absolutely no reason.

I've tried to make it a more focused game.  I've used randomly generated dungeons, drawn up dungeons, tried sandboxing, tried plot training, tried just about everything.  It doesn't work.  They are not interested unless they have something to murder.  If I announce they've run out of spells or hit points, the tears start until I give them spells or hit points back.  They need to be invincible.  They are second level and want to kill dragons and giants.  They don't want to fight them.  They want to kill them (and make stuff out of the bodies, have I mentioned that?).  Leveling up?  Psshhhh, who needs that?  That's something their big brother does for them between sessions.  Rules?  Whatever, he'll just tell us what dice to roll and what to add to it (and probably do the math for it if we pretend not to know how to add 12+4).  We're hitting this snake person in the face with a club made out of the bones and teeth of the goblins down the hall.  Bonus points if you hit it in the nads or if the big brother does voices for it pleading for its life.

So why do I do this?  Why would I ever subject myself to this torment?  Because they absolutely love it.  They beg to play, plead even.  The second I go over to my parents', I am beset by small people shaking clear Chessex boxes full of rattling seven die polyhedral sets and asking if we can kill stuff today.  I play in the hope that they will mature and learn to love aspects of the game other than killing.  I live for the moments when all four of them are staring up at me chanting for me to roll low so that they can get initiative and kill the monster before it can hit the back.  Even though it's so hectic I can only play for two hours tops (usually our sessions run about an hour), I know I'm helping them build memories of their big brother and introducing them to a hobby that has made my life so much richer.  Maybe in about six or seven years, I'll be sitting across the table from one of their DM screens as they casually toss about a D20 that holds my character's fate in its pending roll.

But for now, my little murder hobos are far more terrifying than your murder hobos.

In Which I State My Intent And Hopefully Don't Bore Or Scare Off Potential Readers By Rambling

This is blog about pen and paper roleplaying, being a gay man in the RPG community, being a Gamemaster (or GM, DM, Storyteller, or whatever the hell you call it) and whatever random quasi related stuff I decide to include on the side.  I've roleplayed over half my life, starting in my friend's sun room with the then brand new copy of Star Wars D20, one set of dice to share between the lot of us, and an almost palpable excitement that I feel before every session to this day.  It's not a joke when I say RPGs changed my life.  An overwhelming majority of my closest friends have been made through RPGs, and because of the environment of safe social interaction, RPGs allowed me a safe haven during my high school and college years when I was trying to figure out who I was, coming to terms with myself, and generally coming out of my socially awkward shell.

Now, at 26, I am deciding to add my voice to the RPG conversation on the interwebs.  Bloggers like Zach S. at Playing D&D With Porn Stars and YouTubers like Samwise7RPG have inspired me to share my stories, tips, tricks, opinions, and experience with the online RPG community, because I possess the hubris to believe that my viewpoint is different and exciting enough to warrant a blog all my own.  Hopefully readers think so too.  The gay male voice seems underrepresented in the general RPG conversation, even though I know there are other gaymers out there.  That being said, don't think of this as political soapboxing.  It's a different viewpoint, and, honestly, there's not a whole lot different in my GMing and playing style than most of my straight friends.  I just have the pink sparkly dice at the table and my characters tend to fall in love with the prince and not the princess.  That ancient blue dragon I just said you woke up because of your failed stealth check is going to eat you not give you fashion tips.

One of the reasons the RPG community has drawn me in completely (something I will hopefully elaborate on in future posts) is the general acceptance of others in the community.  Few other social groups can include a metalhead, a stoner, a social outcast, and a 40 year old virgin who sit around the back room of a comic shop and kill goblins with near perfect camaraderie and Cheetos.  I believe the acceptance that is a gamer hallmark is due to the fact that most of us have experienced some pretty extreme bullying or at least some rough patches in our lives, and, as nerds and general outcasts, we don't want to visit the pain of exclusion on others.  Sure, there are popular kids, successful businessmen, and more normal people who play RPGs, but the vast majority of those who pull up a chair, open their Crown Royal bags, and embark on tales of imaginary adventure have experienced some pretty harsh stuff.  

That very fact is one of the things that makes RPGs so special to me--broken people coming together to create something beautiful, exciting, and life changing.  In high school, facing down dragons twice a week gave me the strength to face the horrors of school.  In college, my adventures with my friends provided exactly the kind of push I needed to realize that I had opinions that mattered.  These days, Thursday nights are exactly the kind of release I need after a week of work.  Everyone needs a little adventure, and if you can get it sitting around the kitchen table, you're ahead of the game.  My imagination enjoys the workout.  

Running games is a natural evolution of being a Roleplayer, although not everyone takes that step.  Back in high school and early college, I ran games out of desperation to play.  There was (and still is) a comic shop in my home town with a small community of roleplayers.  However, there were precious few DMs, so I started stepping in and throwing my paltry adventures around.  Most fell flat, lasted a few sessions, then fizzled.  I had no clue why, and became discouraged, relegating myself to being"just a player."  In my first few years of college, I was invited to a group of some slightly older guys I'd known my whole life and had never known they roleplayed.  And boy did they ever roleplay.  Sessions went past without dice rolls (we were nominally playing GURPS), and, when a fight split the group and the guy who was GMing stopped hanging out with us, I stepped in to finish GMing the story.  Notice the choice of words there.  I was GMing a Story.  I'm sure I screwed up a lot, but the few guys left were hooked, and after I narrated the closing epilogue, I received the greatest praise I have ever gotten as a GM when one of the guys, wonder in his eyes, breathed out, "dude, I will play any game you ever run."

The story is the part of the RPG that draws me in.  I write (lazily and none too often, but I do it), and I read quite a bit, and the narrative of a well roleplayed RPG session is exactly the drug I crave.  Crafting a story is what drives me to GM.  The rules are definitely second fiddle.  It's six sessions into the current Hunter: the Reckoning game I'm running for my friends, and we haven't done combat right once.  It hasn't mattered.  Now, I do have quite a few GM problems.  My players necessitate an exceptionally freeform GMing style from me.  Using the above example, we're six sessions into my Hunter game an I haven't touched 3/4 of my 20+ pages of notes.  Conversely, I've had to make up countless now major NPCs on the spot, adapt to them throwing me curveballs 2-3 times a session, and hell if I ever remember half of it session to session.  It's humbling having to ask them what the NPC I created's name was, but the important part is that they remember, talk about the game over the week, and remind me when I'm not doing the NPCs accent right after I finally remember his name.  A well fleshed out story leaves an impression.  

Now, rules are important.  I'm getting better at them.  Game design is fascinating to me, and like pretty much all GMs, I'm working on my own system and have houseruled the living hell out of quite a few games.  I can quote the best feat chains for your fighter from Pathfinder.  My players have necessitated this, and I thank them for it.  Now that I have a strong footing with storytelling, I can focus on running it as a game too.  One piece at a time, I'm still learning.  It took me ten years, but I finally figured out THAC0 two weeks ago and now no longer hate AD&D 2E because I can't understand it.  

But anyways, I've rambled.  I do that a lot.  Here's to hoping I can keep a blog alive.  My heart says I can, but the withered corpses of my dead houseplants laugh derisively from my windowsill.