Monday, 29 April 2019

Half the Story

Your job as GM/DM/Referee is to write half the story. The player characters are the other half. If you find yourself writing their bit then YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG*. The GM presents the problems, the players provide the solutions. If their solutions don’t match your expectations you are honour bound by the Great GM Code Article 1 to play them out regardless. 

Now, I realise that this may seem elementary to my three or so regular readers but from my consumption of RPG related social media (here read Twitter in particular) it seems to have been lost somewhere along the way in certain GMing circles. What I’m saying is no matter how much you think it will make the game better, do not railroad the players. Even in secret. They’ll work it out and fun will cease. 

Old School GMs be like...

I like fantasy fiction as much as the next nerd but stories and games are two separate things. A game is played, that’s how you find out what happens, then you have a story. Not the other way round. The player characters must be able to make meaningful choices, even if the choices they make are rubbish ones. Even if it means the game gets a bit shit for a while, even if they all die, even if it short circuits the Really Cool Encounter you had planned. If the players choices don’t matter then you aren’t really playing a game with them, you are subjecting them to your fantasy fiction and trust me, despite what your mum told you, it’s probably not even good.

Now, obviously it’s your game and you can run it however you want. If your players are cool with being railroaded all the time, or even some of the time, then also that’s fine I guess. It’s not my sort of fun but each to their own. The so called agency of the players is important to me, they must be able to make their own choices and for those choices to have meaning.

What that means if you’re a player in my game is that sometimes you might face problems, dilemmas or obstacles that I have no idea how you’re going to surmount. That’s good. Especially as every time I think “The players will probably do X at this point...” they almost universally do not. That element of uncertainty is good for a GM, it is the thing that allows you to actually play the game. When the player characters do something unexpected, play it out. Improvising around PC actions is some of the best fun you can have as the referee. You can make it easier for yourself by having a decent understanding of NPC motivations, so that they react realistically to PC behaviour. Also by having at least a vague idea of what will happen if the PCs do not interact with your hook. The world should carry on. It can often be worked out later (between sessions) what the consequences of the PCs action/inaction and this will be fuelling your prep for the next session. 

One of the great things about RPGs is that they can go anywhere. There is no board. No boundaries. Don’t shackle the game to your preconceived story. Do not limit the possibilities, embrace them.

*This is just my opinion, there is no objective “right way” to play RPGs.

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Dark Sun, part two: The Bad Different

Continuing where we left off here...

What’s not quite as good is traditional fantasy game races, given the “our elves are different” treatment. Yes, you get the half giant with it’s bizarre alignment rules (although surely everyone just chucked those out,) and everyone seems to like idea of cannibal halflings but seriously this does my head in. If you’re changing the nature of elves so much that they’re now ultramarathoning, desert tribes who are renowned for stealing shit, why bother calling them elves? It’s retarded. I have heard that the original plan was to get rid of the traditional D&D races but pressure from above forced their inclusion and quite frankly it does feel a bit forced.

Bow down before the awesome power of my novel infused railroad

Then after the first boxed set you get the immediate release of not one but a five novel set, The Prism Pentad, which are immediately deemed canon for the game products. So instead of the great set up we had, now every scenario, setting book and supplement is affected by the events depicted in unrelated game based fiction. This is now the reverse of cool. Pray to your non existent gods, denizens of Athas, for you are now beholden to the greatest evil in RPGs: The Meta Plot. Insidiously they were setting you up for this right out of the box, that ziggurat that one dude was building? Buy five novels to find out what happens next. Spoilers: It spoils everything.

We start to get 2e splat book bloat. Hugely verbose over written treatises with an emphasis on development of the canon of the setting. We know now that paying your writer by the word is not going to produce useful at the table content for your RPG supplements. Drown in useless fluff, oh dear reader, the cool random tables you wanted are either stuffed in an appendix at the back or conspicuously absent. They even mention in the foreword to the Dragon Kings supplement that one of the reasons the material contained within was not included in the original boxed set was because they didn’t want to include spoilers for the novels!
Our Fellowship is Different
The adventures are bad. Instead of an awesome sword & sorcery sandbox (a literal one) we are given a series of railroads tied to the published fiction of the setting. Now I realise that this was the nineties and that was the fashion at the time but also the fashion seemed to be for TSR to go out of business too so I’m not placing too much store in that.

We still have clerics, yes even of Athas we can’t escape them, but instead of gods they worship elemental beings of great power. So, gods then. Just elemental ones. They still grant spells and the power to turn undead like gods in other settings. It’s like with this setting every time they make something cool they snatch it away from you in spite and make you have your same-D&D-setting-but-slightly-different-regardless.

Crossing the magic blasted desert in search of agency

Did I mention that writing is outlawed in most city states? This is good because then the PCs never have to find out about the the god awful back story they shoe horned into this at a later date. You see, you can’t just have ancient history that has been forgotten about or is unexplained. No way, are you crazy?  Every fully realised game setting must have a Silmarilion like prehistory dating all the way back to its very creation. So for Dark Sun we get all this bollocks about the Green Age and the Blue Age, and ancient wizards, and so and so the hobgoblin slayer. Because you can’t just not have hobgoblins. That would be stupid. You have to come up with some ridiculous, contrived scenario about how they were all slain by this super powerful wizard guy. Same for the orcs, and probably the bugbears. It’s insane. If you don’t want bugbears in your setting, you don’t have to have them. It’s ok. The ghost of Gygax will not strike you down. What’s even more certain is you don’t fucking need a half baked mythological construct to explain why they’re not present. They’re just not. Fucking deal with it. There’s loads of cool stuff included in Dark Sun; you really should be emphasising this, rather than the lame stuff you didn’t include. Much less coming up with progressively lamer reasons for why that is the case.

This is all getting a bit negative. And really, Dominic doesn’t like something is not news for anyone. This is a game setting that was railroading you even when you weren’t playing and if there’s one thing we know about RPGs, it’s railroads are bad. Such a shame really because all this annoying stuff about the setting? You can just ignore it. Well, perhaps you can, it’s still driving me mental now.

Monday, 8 April 2019

Dark Sun, part one: Our D&D is Different

Of all the TSR published settings, the one that seems to get the most love is Dark Sun. I find this both interesting and disappointing, a bit like Dark Sun itself. I have previously described it as the biggest false alarm in gaming and used other fairly derogatory terms in reference to it. Whilst I don’t care why the Forgotten Realms is shit or that Greyhawk is so boring, the fact that I consider Dark Sun to ultimately be a failure actually causes me physical pain because of its potential.

Dark Sun could’ve been good. It isn’t though. That makes me sad.

This is how they draw you in
Sword, sandals and sorcery in a post apocalyptic world dominated by near immortal sorcerer-kings just sounds like it’s going to be the best thing in fantasy gaming. We get the scarcity of not just water but metal; all the weapons are of bone, stone or obsidian. It just sounds cool. There’s the additional focus on psionics. D&D has never had good psionics rules but at least they fit thematically here as opposed to feeling tacked on like they do everywhere else. There’s loads of original monsters, specific to the setting and they’re all pretty horrific. This is good stuff.

Magic is bad, it drains the life from the planet with every use. So this scorched, nightmarish landscape? The wizards did it. I love this. The cost of magic is something I constantly bang on about (see just about every post on this blog) and here we are with it literally costing the earth.
Sword, sandals and whatever that weird two pronged thing is

There are no gods. This is a massive departure from D&D settings previously published. It would be hard to get anything done in Dragonlance for instance without one of the pantheon sticking their nose in, banging on about the balance or some shit. True gods means there’s some hope of a higher power intervening to sort all this out. No such luck. Do not trust to hope, it has forsaken these lands...

It is all extremely grim. Slavery is an ever present evil. Most people live in city states, ruled tyrannically by the aforementioned near immortal sorcerer-kings. Their agents enforce that rule in the harshest, most self serving way possible. Injustice and inequality are ordinary facets of daily life but the wilderness is super deadly, so take your pick.

There are ancient ruins all over the place and tribes of escaped slaves and merchant trading houses, and political intrigue galore. This has great adventuring potential for a bunch of rag tag, rebellious individuals on the make in a world gone badly wrong.

There’s tons of cool art by Gerald Brom, so everything looks great too.

However, here endeth The Good Stuff. If you just took these elements and ran with them you have the set up for a great game. This was not to be though. Next time I shall discuss where, in my eyes, it all goes a bit wrong.