RPG Creations and Musings.

Posts tagged ‘General Nonsense’

Science Fiction is Hard?

Since I’m organising a Science Fiction RPG convention, it’s high time I wrote something here about science fiction RPGs. On forums and such, I often come across the statement that science fiction roleplaying games are tougher to “get” than fantasy. I don’t think this is true for me, but I’m not going to argue with this statement- if someone says something’s tougher to do, then it genuinely is tougher to do, at least for them.

However, there certainly are a few features of science fiction gaming that don’t always come up in fantasy, both from a player and a GM viewpoint, and which need some thought.

The Technology

Okay, in fantasy, the erm fantastic element comes mainly from magic. In science fiction it usually comes from high technology. Okay- so far, so good, right? Now, the only players in an RPG who needs to know anything about magic are those playing characters who use magic- and even then, they only really need to know what magic their own character knows (sure, a GM might give a quick explanation of something else encountered with a relevant skill check or something, but that doesn’t change this point). The thing is that magic is the exception rather than the rule.

Now when it comes to technology, some of it’s going to be omnipresent. What sort of communications are out there? Travel? Access to information? Medical nanotechnology? Are things like quickfire universal 3d printers easily available? There are things the players need to know, as well as the player characters, unless play begins in an isolated or backwards location.

It’s only technology that’s above the norm, and isn’t available to everybody, but only available to some characters, that really works like RPG magic.

Big Ideas

For me, the big inspiration for RPGs is books rather than films or TV series. I don’t see RPGs as a very visual medium. This is not to say I don’t picture things when playing or running a game, or even preparing it- the same way I picture things when reading. This is maybe a topic worth returning to in a future post, but for now I’ll leave it.

Now, most fantasy novels map reasonably well to RPGs. The classic quest to defeat the dark lord through a hidden weakness, or sneaking into a heavily guarded and trapped wizard’s tower to steal a ruby the size of an egg- both feature heavily in RPGs. So does fantasy worldbuilding, backstabbing political intrigue, and all sorts of other features from good and bad fantasy novels.

When it comes to Science Fiction, many stories (especially “hard” SF stories) don’t have a plot based around a quest, politics, or anything familiar from fantasy. They involve a BIG IDEA, and it’s logical consequences, along with a dollop of good old-fashioned sense of wonder from them. The BIG IDEA might be genetic engineering, an explanation of the Fermi paradox, the science of psychohistory, the laws of robotics, time travel paradoxes, relatavistic time dilation, or the heat death of the universe.

The BIG IDEA isn’t just background in such stories- it’s what the whole thing is about. The BIG IDEA is often an extrapolation from genuine science. I’m not saying fantasy doesn’t feature big ideas, and exploration, and a sense of wonder, and logical consequences- of course it can and does, certainly at its best.

But this notion of a BIG IDEA is harder to capture in roleplaying, and not something that’s present in most Science Fiction RPGs. In an RPG, it may well be better in the background than the foreground. It means most Science Fiction in roleplaying isn’t going to feel much like a big chunk of science fiction literature.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I think it’s worth looking out for- and a big difference to fantasy.

It’s a mystery to me.


A couple of people on RPG blogs I’ve read lately (Baz King and Rabelais, please, take bows) have been looking in detail at investigations in role-playing scenarios, and in particular at the Gumshoe system recently. I thought I’d follow suit.

So what is an investigation in an RPG? It’s following a trail of clues, hopping from scene to scene accordingly, to unravel a mystery. One thing the Gumshoe system does is have you not roll dice for tests to uncover clues; anyone with a relevant skill will automatically uncover any relevant clues in a scene, and can spend points to get non-central clues or extra information. There’s not much more than that to the central investigation mechanic in Gumshoe. If you don’t believe me, here’s a link to the free System Resource Document.

Now, I was a bit sceptical of this at first- it seems like railroading. After all, where’s the challenge in a mystery scenario if the core clues are always uncovered? And the “issue” dealt with by the mechanic- namely a failed skill test meaning a clue isn’t found and the scenario grinding to a halt- is something any competent GM will avoid anyway.

Now, having played a Gumshoe game (the Esoterrorists, played out via video linking on Google+, which is a whole new different topic) and run one (Night’s Black Agents), I look at things a bit differently. What the investigation mechanic does is provide a neat way to handle passing out information, giving a clue in a scene to a player character who’s good at a relevant skill, or who thinks to use one. When I’m constructing a mystery scenario, I want the player characters to solve the mystery. Any clues I construct, I want them to have. Extra information that might help them I want them to have the chance to earn.

I also want uncertainty in the outcome of a scenario, but in a mystery, whether the player characters find out broadly what is going on is not where I want the uncertainty. If they don’t find out broadly what’s going on, the scenario is likely to be a bit rubbish really. Not finding a clue just because a dice roll is failed, and the only consequence of failure is not finding the clue is also a bit rubbish.

So where’s the uncertainty? Well, they might not find out everything, but more importantly, ideally for me, solving a mystery should lead to action, and the process of investigation should carry danger with it. The danger along the way, and the action that’s called for when the mystery is uncovered- that’s where the uncertainty lies. The investigation itself is a vehicle for exploration of the setting and the scenario, and to an extent a pacing mechanism.

It’s only in purist investigative games that the investigation is a puzzle to be solved, and that’s the main point of a scenario. I have the feeling that such pure investigations are a specialist taste among roleplayers. Personally, I like them on occasion, but not as a steady diet.

Investigations, in the form of mystery solving and exploration as part of something else, on the other hand, are a part of many different adventures.

I might return to this topic later on- another thing I’ve been thinking about is sandboxes, and the role of investigations there- but that’s something for a future post.

Trad and Indie, and the Heroine RPG

In a “traditional” RPG, there are several players and a game master (GM). In the game, each player controls the actions of a so-called player character (PC), who are the protagonists of an unfolding story, and the game master is responsible for the world and every other character. Each PC has a character sheet, where their skills and in general what they are capable and good at (or bad at) is detailed in terms of game-mechanics.

Within the traditional RPG there is a great variation. Some are quite simple, with the rules fitting into a few pages, and others are heavier on the rules front. Many many genres and settings are covered.

Then there are “indie” RPGs. I don’t like that term- there’s a confusion as to whether it’s used to denote something small-press and creator-owned or something with a certain philosophy of play that differs from the traditional. I’m using it in this post in the second sense (where there is a substantial overlap with the first, though there are many “traditional” RPGs that are also creator-owned). I’m using it because it’s probably the most commonly used term, and I don’t want to introduce more terminology, though Storygame seems to be reasonably popular, and Hippy Game, as used sometimes on UKRoleplayers, I quite like.

Indie RPGs move the focus away from the actions and abilities of the player characters to the story told as a group, to a greater or lesser extent. Some have players as well as the GM make contributions to the narrative rather than just PC actions. Character sheets can be simplified or even done away with entirely. Rules tend to be simple, but often a shared responsibility rather than adjudicated by the GM, who must abide by rules (possibly in a different form) just as much as the players. Some of them share GM responsibility, or do away with the GM entirely, with the rules structuring the story. Many Indie games are extremely focused on a specific type of story, with all of the rules going towards that.

I’m just describing what I see as trends in Indie RPGs here rather than trying to define anything- that’s a game I’m not going to go into. I’m also not going to go near the argument about whether or not some of them are RPGs- even if they’re not, according to whatever definition, they’re clearly closely related, and that’s enough for me. I should also comment that some traditional RPGs do take ideas from Indie RPGs and incorporate them into that framework. It’s not two camps, it’s a spectrum, and I’m most comfortable somewhere in the middle part of the spectrum in most of the RPGs I play, though there are always exceptions.

I mention all this as Josh Jordan has kindly given me an electronic copy of his RPG, Heroine, for review purposes. It’s Indie and it’s rather good, and I thought I’d give some context first.

So what’s it about? Well, there’s a number of pieces of fiction out there that involves a girl growing up who is somehow transported to another world, where she undergoes various heroic experiences in that world, before returning to the real world having learned something about herself, and maybe gaining a more mature perspective. Examples are of course The Wizard of Oz, but also Alice in Wonderland, Coraline, Labyrinth and Mirrormask.

That’s the set-up for the Heroine RPG– a Heroine begins with real life problems in the real world, before being transported, having adventures, facing an antagonist, and returning to the real world having grown more mature and able to cope with a real life obstacle. This is a single story, designed to play out in one game session, with a structure encoded by the game’s rules.

Amongst the players, one plays the Heroine herself, who is undeniably the central player in the narrative, but to a great extent is reacting against what the other players do. Another is the Narrator (basically, the GM). The others play Companions- people accompanying the Heroine in the otherworld. The game is divided into chapters, each of which ends in a central Challenge, which is described mechanically in terms of various “moves” the GM is allowed. The Companion players can simplify or complicate the challenge. The heroine is allowed various moves to respond to the Challenge. These Heroine moves are Be Heroic which means the heroine will behave admirably, but may or may not triumph, Be Successful, which means the heroine succeeds in the challenge, but might not come across very well, or Take a Chance which means the heroine either succeeds and looks brilliant, or fails and looks foolish, with slightly greater odds of the positive outcome than the other two moves.

That’s basically it. There are Drama Points for the Companion and Narrator players, which are needed for certain actions. One of these actions lets a Companion player take over as Narrator, with the Narrator playing a Companion. There are no character sheets- everything is described by the narration and decided by the various moves. You could easily play this with little or no preparation time, even as the Narrator.

By now, you probably know whether the game is for you or not. It’s an easy and clear read, being about sixty pages long, with separate chapters for the Heroine, Narrator and Companion players. It looks delightful, with a nice page background, crisp font, and art in the form of well-done photographs of models in costumes. The PDF is nicely hyperlinked. There’s no index, but it hardly seems needed. There are nice charts summarising the structure at the end. I like it a lot, and I look forward to trying it out in play with the right group.

Cthulhu and Me

When I wrote the title of this entry, I wondered whether it should really be “Cthulhu and I” but then I remembered how different grammatical cases work.

Ahem. Well, in case it wasn’t obvious from the title, this is a post about the game Call of Cthulhu, and H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction.

First the fiction. The best of Lovecraft’s stories are darkly terrifying, yet absorbing when I’m in the right mood. What fascinates me still is the idea that some knowledge is just wrong– seeing and knowing some things are incompatible with being able to function in normal human society.

As Stephen King says in Danse Macabre, there’s nothing quite as frightening as a closed door beyond with all you know is that something terrifying lurks. No description of the monster could be quite as bad as the fear of the unknown, and a good Lovecraft story opens the door a crack- just the minimum amount that what you know is…what’s seen is so awful it unhinges the mind. It’s not about gore- gore doesn’t scare me, though it can make me cringe. It’s not about making me jump- that works for films, but not prose. It’s about dread.

Further, in the right mood, there’s something horrific to me about, for example, the geometry being wrong, for example the angles of a triangle adding up to something other than one hundred and eighty degrees. Madness inducing. Of course, in the wrong mood, it’s all a bit silly- I’m a mathematician, and I’ve studied non-Euclidean geometry after all. I’ve even taught students such dark arts. And in the wrong mood, Lovecraft’s baroque prose and inability to handle dialogue is hard to cope with. But in the right mood, a Lovecraft story is delicious dread.

When I first came across the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game, I was enchanted. It codified the Cthulhu Mythos– the setting for Lovecraft’s fiction- for me, and the Sanity rules seemed to provide the ideal vehicle for Lovecraft-style stories, and something refreshingly different to more heroic roleplaying.

I say different to heroic roleplaying, but my ideal take on Call of Cthulhu is heroic, in the sense that the player characters (termed investigators in the game, so I’ll use that term here) are the ones fighting the horror, and they are doing so without remarkable talents because they are the only ones who are in a position to do so. After all, if the very knowledge of the horrors of the Cthulhu Mythos is damaging to sanity, who else can you tell? By definition, no sane authority could believe you.

And fighting the Mythos, while necessary, means putting not just your life, but your very mind on the line. When it comes down to it, what could be more heroic? Another fun thing with a horror scenario is that everything is up for grabs, every victory is hard-won, the player characters are just as likely to lose as to win, and even if they do win, not everyone is likely to come out intact.

My first experience of Call of Cthulhu was running it in a one on one game over about four or so sessions. It was absorbing and horrifying, with a sense of creeping dread. It ended with the half-insane investigator blowing up the Empire State Building before it could be completed, thus prevanting the calling down of the great horror, but dying, buried under the rubble. Maybe I’m idealising it now, but it was perfect.

Since then I’ve played and run a fair bit of Call of Cthulhu, but nothing matched that first encounter, and for a while it hasn’t been the same. Maybe it’s the fact that most groups of players treat it as a black comedy, which rather ruins the atmosphere of creeping dread. Maybe it’s familiarity breeding contempt. Maybe it’s a number of minor problems adding up, such as little bits in the rules that grate and the fact that it’s work to come up with good reasons for investigators to, well, investigate, and to introduce new characters.

Now, the black comedy angle is cut down when the player character group isn’t too big; my personal preference for horror is for no more than three or so players, and based on my first Call of Cthulhu experience it works well one on one. Finding reasons for investigators to investigate is also easily dealt with- though next time I introduce an organisation that employs people to look into strange things, I need to insist player characters belong to it rather than just suggest it. With hindsight, that’s fairly obvious, and another story.

The rules issues are minor. For the record (if you’re familiar with the game), I never liked the Resistance Table, the number of unarmed combat skills is silly, and I don’t like the Luck, Know and Idea rolls. I’m pleased with what I’ve heard about the next edition of Call of Cthulhu.

However, the issue of things being over-familiar is the hardest for me to overcome. I must have played in at least four different scenarios where the Mi Go were responsible for the strangeness. The Yellow Sign is a cliche. Cthulhu isn’t scary when you can buy Cthulhu cuddly toys. The “finding out that the Mythos is real” scene is utterly overplayed.

At the moment I’m enjoying other investigative horror games, which are bringing some of the freshness back. But I miss the feeling I first had with Call of Cthulhu, and haven’t given up hope of recapturing it.

Let me please introduce myself

Hello, everybody, and welcome to my blog! My name is Paul Mitchener, known as dr_mitch on most online forums I frequent, and I’ll be your host here. I will mainly be writing about roleplaying games (RPGs) here. I’m interested in the sitting around a table with friends, acting things out and following written rules to determine outcomes variety, rather than computer games. If you don’t know what I’m talking about- maybe you’ve been directed here as a cruel joke- there are many people far better at explaining the concept than me. The wikepedia article I’ve linked to is a reasonable start. In any case, explaining RPGs is not what this first post is about.

This first post is about me. I promise to get onto more interesting subjects later on, but what about me? I’m a university mathematics lecturer, which must impact my world view more than I’d care to admit. The mathematical sciences are one of my obsessions. My other obsession is what I’m writing about here…gaming! So enough of the general stuff- let me talk about my gaming history.

I first got into gaming when I was 13 or so, when a mate sold me the D&D Basic and Expert boxed sets and formed up a gaming group. After a couple of weeks of that I tried my hand at DMing for the first time, having created my own world to boot. I say my own world- it was a desert full of the undead and a magic item shop in the middle of nowhere, which the player characters promptly looted having knocked out the owner. I’ve improved since, though there was a fine cliffhanger when the magic user who owned the shop came back for revenge. Notes were passed around between the players all week at school with plans on how to get out of the situation.

I can’t remember how they managed it. The campaign died a couple of weeks later, though the group continued with a more experienced GM before I got another turn in the hot seat. My next game went on for quite a while too, before a total party kill ended it all when the party were level seven or so. Simpler times, but happy ones.

For years and years my system of choice when running games was D&D or AD&D. The main setting I used for my last big D&D excursion as DM was Planescape, which is still my favourite setting ever. Eventually, though, I got annoyed with some D&D concepts, and when I’d house ruled to get rid of classes and levels I knew it was time for a change.

Over the D&D years I dabbled in a few other systems, some of which I took to, some of which I didn’t I played Paranoia, Cyberpunk 2020 and Rolemaster. I ran Call of Cthulhu, Over the Edge, Unknown Armies and a couple of monstrosities I’d designed myself. I think I’d only gone to the effort of designing games in ignorance of the number of games out there that might have suited my needs. On reflection, nothing I’d written back then was usable by anyone who wasn’t me. Which was fine- I had no greater ambitions. Those came later.

Everything changed, and my gaming experience opened up immensely in 2007 when I attended my first convention, Furnace. It was amazing, and the number of games and play styles I’ve experienced went through the roof, both at the convention and later conventions, and with groups I’ve played with since. I do, if this isn’t clear, highly recommend the convention experience if you haven’t tried it. Not just for the games- I’ve made a lot of friends.

Since 2007 I’ve played and run more different systems than I can easily keep track of. Some of them I’ve now written for professionally- Wild Talents, Reign, Wordplay, Openquest, Fate and Crypts and Things. I’ve run campaigns of Call of Cthulhu, Reign, Openquest and Age of Arthur (the thing I worked on for Fate), played in Pathfinder campaigns, have just started a Night’s Black Agents campaign, and I’ve played and run too many one shots to count. Remember, that’s quite a few- I’m a mathematician. For me these days, variety is king, and the way I enjoy myself and keep things fresh.

I no longer build systems on the back of house-ruling D&D to get rid of classes and levels, and no longer design settings with deserts full of undead with lone magic item shops in the middle, but those are my roots, and I’m not ashamed of them. Well, not very much anyway.