Friday, April 12, 2013

The Penny Has Dropped.

Hullo all,

Pretty Penny Low is now defunct.  If you wish to read some more RPG ramblings, please visit my new site:  Big Blue Die.



Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Super-Powered, Killer Jedi

Recently, I ran a Star Wars game (West End edition) by request for a friend of mine and some friends of his.  It was not a rousing success.  The friends of the friend were unknown to me and fairly new to tabletop RPGs.  I sensed the first disturbance in the Force when they were choosing pre-generated characters and one of the players wanted to play a Jedi because he wanted "super powers".  He also wanted to kill people.  I persuaded him to play a bounty hunter instead, as a better fit for his bloodlust.

The game (an extended search for R2D2 on Tatooine) muddled along, the bounty hunter picking fights and killing people, the other PCs doing their best to complete the mission despite him.  Finally, the PCs found themselves trapped in a mine, outgunned in a crossfire with Gamorrean guards.  As their situation became increasingly hopeless, the bounty hunter suddenly announced that he was shooting the other player characters.  He killed his fellow PCs, the guards killed him; it was a TPK in which I take no pride.

Being new to the gaming table, the players were happy simply to be rolling dice and went away satisfied.  I, however, consider the game to be failure, not on account of the bounty hunter, but due entirely to my own failings.  When the bellicose player said he wanted to play a Jedi with super powers who kills people, my reaction as "no, that's not how to play Star Wars". But what I really meant was "that's not how I play Star Wars and I'm the GM so you'll do it my way".  That wasn't fair of me, nor was it hospitable.  These were new players.  I had agreed to run a game for them.  That weren't my regular group.  I wasn't there to teach them the Right Way to Play or to educate them on the One True Interpretation of Star Wars, I was there to show them a good time.

And there's nothing wrong with wanting to play a character with super powers who kills people, even a Jedi.  I could have -- I should have -- whipped up a scenario where a super-powered Jedi and his friends could justifiably kill bad guys.  It won't have been hard, after all, that's pretty much all the Prequels were.

Of course, the GM is at the table to enjoy herself as much as the players are, but those of us who sit behind the Screen have a greater responsibility.  Yeah, sometimes we teach, sometimes we lead the players in creating a shared story, but always and more importantly, we entertain.  Sometimes that means setting aside our grand notions giving the players exactly what they want.

(But killing the other PCs?  That is the wrong way to play Star Wars.)

Monday, January 9, 2012

Save versus Nostalgia

Being an old D&D hack who whet his blade in 2nd edition (I'm the same age as the game, actually), I am naturally nostalgic about Dungeons and Dragons.  Helplessly nostalgic, as it happens.  Recently, I was rating RPGs for fun (F.A.T.A.L. * -- Paranoia ****) when my wife asked me where I would rank D&D.  I was stunned.  I couldn't do it, I couldn't see the game objectively.  How do you judge the system merits of weekend-long sessions with your best friends?  How do you assess the playability of midnight debates about Alignments?   No, even though I no longer played the game, I had still failed my saving throw and was Charmed by D&D.  

And now there's going to be a 5th edition of D&D.

3rd edition (and 3.5) was a decent game; the new D20 system was fast and simple, and though I liked to make crazy old man speeches about wooden dice and walking to the game sessions uphill both ways in the snow and figuring THAC0 and liking it, the new Armour Class was an improvement. I looked at 3rd edition (and 3.5), played it a few times and DMed a few games, but found that I was not really interested.  I didn't like the emphasis on miniatures and wargaming.  I just didn't feel like D&D to me.

When 4th edition came out I was even less interested.  The game seemed both dumbed-down (3 alignments instead of 9) and power-mad (healing surges).  Miniatures had become mandatory and the game seemed more focused on combat than ever.  The carefully balanced classes and encounters -- while a laudable goal undertaking for the best of motivations, I'm sure --  removed all the chaotic, unfair, and absurd bits that made for the most exciting moments and the best stories.  Years later you'll remember that day your 1st level wizard, separated from the rest of the party and armed only with a Light spell, survived an encounter with an ogre because it was unfair.

What will 5th edition be like, then?    The New York Times article  (a fair and favourable article for such a muggle paper) talks of the competition D&D has from computer gaming.  While this is certainly true, I think the only way tabletop games can compete is to distinguish themselves from computer games and not try to imitate them.  The official D&D website speaks of "the vital traits that make D&D unique and special" and the "fundamental essence of D&D" but in 2012, with so many RPGs available, what is D&D's fundamental essence?  Alas, they do not say.  What they do say is that they want to involve the players in writing of the 5th edition, or rather, the re-writing of 5th edition: playtesting.  Players from across the world can sign up to playtest the new edition and submit feedback.  In this way WotC seeks to create a game that will unite rather than divide players, that will bring them all and in D&D bind them.  One D&D to rule them all.  It is a Herculean task and I truly hope they succeed, for whether we play D&D or not, it is the hobby's public face, our flagship, and we need it.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Adventure Ho! Part II

The first session of our new C&C campaign went well.

(I'm still trying to choose a name for the campaign.  Though I don't know why, I've named scores of campaigns and one-shots and the titles almost never get used.  We usually play only one game a time, so the current one is simply "the game".  Later, when it becomes necessary to distinguish one game from another, the players inevitably end up calling the game by a descriptive nickname, usually based on the game system or a key plot point.  And of course, I end up adopting the players' title for the game for convenience.  Still I continue to name my games.)

To allow players to drop in and out of sessions, replace dead characters, or even change characters in mid-campaing, each players has several characters in the expedition.  To avoid replacement characters lagging far behind active characters, I decided to give "off-stage" characters half the experience earned by a player's "on-stage" character.  Naturally, one of my players immediately announced his intention to make a plethora of characters, calculating there were 92 unnamed members of the expedition.  I'm tempted to tell him that if he can roll up 92 characters without going cross-eyed, he's welcome to them.  But I'll most likely set a limit of 4 or 5 characters per player.

After introducing the ships and major NPCs that make up the expedition, I started the game with a harsh bit or realism: the PCs were all struck down by a mysterious fever.  As the sole survivors aboard their ship (save the stoic elvish captain), the PCs were transferred to another ship (after spending a week quarantined in a rowboat), where they were regarded as albatrosses or -- if prefer biblical metaphors -- Jonahs.

The rest of the 7 week voyage week was relatively uneventful: "mermaid" sightings, a mysterious and elusive black-flagged ship, running out of food.  Then a brilliant green light was spotted on the horizon, that tuned out to be a green-lighted lighthouse atop a steep cliffed island.

The expedition discovered a huge cave at the base of the cliff under the lighthouse.  Two boats were launched to explore the cave, one containing the PCs.  Inside, the boats discovered a wide bay lit by a dozen or more green-flamed lantern high on the walls.  A river run out of bay into the darkness, and a sandy beach was littered with rotting docks and nosy with the barking of seals.  The NPC boat left to explore the river while the PCs were sent to explore the beach and hunt some seals.

After balking slightly, the PCs set about clubbing seals (Seals: the Clubbing).  The carcasses, however, attracted a carrion renderer -- a kind of luminescent squid stuffed in a giant lobster, that I got straight from the latest issue of Knight of the Dinner Table.

(KoDT is a great gaming magazine, possibly the only great gaming magazine left.  The comic is, of course, constantly hilarious and true.  But the magazine also has interesting articles, helpful reviews, and useful maps, NPCs, monsters, and magic items.)

The encounter went very well, from my side of the screen anyway.  The players were suitable surprised and repulsed by the strange creature.  It was a close fight, several of the PCs nearly died before the monster was finally slain.

After this life and death struggle with a crustacean, the PCs explored the beach and discovered a wide and worn staircase leading up through the inner cliff face, lit by more green lanterns.  At the top of these stairs the PCs came upon  an empty town of empty buildings of unknown "gothic" design and green lantern-lit cobbled streets.  Their exploration of this quiet hamlet didn't get to far before the session's end, but they did discover a luxurious -- if ancient -- horse-less carriage; literally: it was a carriage with no harness for horses (though it was fitted with more mysterious green lanterns).

It was a good game and a promising start to a campaign.  Unfortunately we had to postpone the game for a few holi-dazed weeks, but next week it should be forward to discovery and adventure!

Now, what am I going to call the campaign  . . .

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Evil Matt

During my annual Halloween game, my wife snapped this picture of me.  I was struck by how happy I look.  God, I love tormenting players -- er, I mean GMing.

This is what my wife calls "Evil Matt".

Those pictures paperclipped to the screen are woodcuts I downloaded to match the Colonial theme of the game.  The game was a partial success: we had to leave it unfinished when one of my players fell ill.  I was so scary she threw up!  No, actually she just wasn't feeling well.  Fortunately she soon recovered.  We are looking for an opportunity to finish the game.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Adventure Ho!

Tonight I start a new C&C campaign.  Last week we made characters (using a strict 3d6 rolling method -- I think it gives interesting, "human" characters).  No matter how many games and campaigns I run, this is always a exciting, anxious time.  Will everybody have fun?  Have I forgotten an important?  Do I need more maps?  How the hell do Saving Throws work again?

The last thing I ran for this group was a straight many-seesioned dungeon crawl.  The map was lifted from Keep on the Borderland.  The dungeon was fae-themed with lots of Gygxian traps and weirdness (many taken from the excellent Dungeon Alphabet).  The rational of the dungeon and motivation of the PCs were -- to be honest -- a bit flimsy.  But it was fun.  

And it fulfilled its secret purpose: it rekindled the interest of my players.  Soon they were asking for more.  Emails were exchanged, games were pitched, schedules were scrutinised, and -- after patient eons -- the stars were right and we agreed on a game for Tuesday nights.  It's to be a Castle & Crusades game (we like C&C's old school feel and simple mechanics) set in the same vague Dark Age-themed world that contained the fae-dungeon.  

The campaign scenario was actually dreamed up by one of my players.  I'm alway thrilled when players make this kind of input and do my best to incorporate it.  I believe this is the 2nd time a player has suggested a campaign, and as that 1st suggestion led to one of my best campaigns, I have high hopes for the upcoming sessions.   We had specific desires for this game: we wanted some old-school dungeon-crawling; we wanted a bit of depth and a story; we wanted a game that players could drop into and out of as schedules allowed; we wanted something new.

Below is the proposal that my player submitted.  I've added a few bits and fleshed it out, of course --  chosen some signature foes and locations, worked up some devious surprises (I can't say more now; my players may be reading) -- but the song remains the same.  

We'll see how it goes!


C&C Campaign Proposal 

The story goes that once, long, long ago, a merchant ship vanished in the vast expanse of the ocean and was presumed lost. Over a year later, though, to the amazement of the world, the ship reappeared and those few who remained alive aboard it had a wondrous story to tell. They spoke of a great wind that blew them far off course, farther across the seas than any ship had ever dared venture. And there, on the far side of the world, they discovered a vast island. They spoke of the ruins of a civilization ancient and advanced beyond imagining, rich in gold and artifacts. Their stories would have been laughed at had they not returned with immense stone scrolls covered in an unknown script along with coins, baubles, magical devices and odd carvings unlike those any living man had ever seen.
In their wisdom and their unmatched might, the Empire resolved to claim this uncharted land for their own and they put together a vast fleet of ships and sent them to conquer. Two dozen vessels, mighty beyond all others and filled with the finest warriors and scholars in the empire, were sent off with great fanfare.
None were ever heard from again.
Now, some nine hundred years later, scholars at the university have uncovered documents showing the fleet's original maps and sailing coordinates -- the very guide the fleet used on their trip to the mythical land. Now, in their wisdom and unmatched might, the Church of Sol Invictus has resolved to send a new expedition to the forgotten island and achieve what even the Empire could not achieve -- and by so doing, prove once and for all to the world that the Church of Sol Invictus is indeed the rightful heir to the Empire.
Four great ships are now being outfitted for the journey, an arduous sea crossing expected to last months. Once there, the expedition is charged with four goals:
1. Explore and map the island and determine if it is suitable for colonization
2. Explore, map and study the ruins and recover any riches or artifacts from the ancient civilization
3. Determine the fate of the Empire's fleet and recover any related artifacts
4. Convert any natives to the true Church of Sol Invitcus
Only the most skilled will be accepted into the expedition. Every member must perform multiple duties; even the lowest deckhand is expected to wield a blade and even the greatest cleric is expected to swing a blacksmith hammer or wield a mason's trowel. The burden is great; the expedition may last years and the hardships and dangers will be countless. But for those who succeed, unmatched fame and fortune await.
Do you have what it takes to contribute to the greatest adventure of our time?

Monday, December 12, 2011

My Favourite Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol is Charles Dickens distilled to his best.  It has the pathos of The Old Curiosity Shop, the humor of the Pickwick Papers, the dark tension of Bleak House, the joy of David Copperfield, and the psychological depth of Great Expectations.  In Ebenezer Scrooge Dickens has created, in so short a space, his most memorable character; Scrooge is cunning and surprisingly witty; his transformation is wondrous yet wholly creditable, he is equally believable as a capitalist monsters and as the giddy soul of generosity.

The Yuletide season seems to have inspired Dickens to go beyond the realism of his other writings.  While many of his novels features tall tales and vivid imaginings, his Christmas stories are resplendent with spirits, visions, and magics that give Dickens an even greater license than even his wildest metaphor.  And A Christmas Carol is the epitome of this freedom with its ghost of Christmas past, present, and future, and its simple yet compelling vision of an afterlife.  

While much of this is captured in the best adaptions of the story (my favourite stars Patrick Stewart), the full joy of the tale can only be found on the page.  Dickens' language is so emotive, and he speaks to the reader with such sincerity, that his sorrows catch in the throat, his terrors quicken the pulse, and his joys bring smiles and laughter.  William Makepeace Thackeray called A Christmas Carol "a national benefit, and to every man or woman who reads it a personal kindness".  It is a kindness which I accept every December with growing gratitude.