Why so little love for Group Initiative?

Among the many great things of Basic D&D, one that stands out the most for me is the initiative system. I find it so much better than the commonly used by other editions and even most B/X clones.

A wonderful thing about group initiative is that it completely removes the whole work of remembering the initiative order. I absolutely hate it to scribble down a list of all the PCs and enemies in the correct order at the beginning of each fight. That’s always a minute or so of interruption doing something tedious, right at the most exciting moment of the game. The alternative is to write down the names in advance and make a row of numbers with the initiative counts, but then you easily skip someone by accident all the time. (At least I do.) With group initiative that doesn’t matter. You roll two d6 at the beginning of each round and then everyone goes in whatever order they want.

But I think something even much more important is happening on the player side. Everyone is paying attention all the time and taking turns much faster. Nobody is sitting around three numbers until their number comes up.
The players who decide the fastest what they want to do go first, and those who take longer do their thinking while everyone else is taking their turn. And everyone needs to pay attention during the whole enemy turn, because the next turn is always their turn.

I’ve been using this system for a while, and it’s just so much more fun to run the game, and I believe for the players as well. Why doesn’t everyone use it and most games go with individual initiative counts instead? Even such otherwise great games as Basic Fantasy and Lamentations of the Flame Princess and wonderful ones like Spears of the Dawn and Barbarians of Lemuria (not a B/X clone, but still) go with the cumbersome initiative count system. Which to me really has always been one of the most annoying thing about running games.

Y’all got any more of these GMs?

Angry wrote another post about the constant apparent lack of gamemasters among RPG players. Being a regular GM myself that has never been a problem for me, but then I also always was the one who initiated the groups in the first place and got all the players together in the first place, pretty much proving his point: New players are overwhelmingly introduced to roleplaying games by existing players and only when a GM is already starting or running a group. If there will be any game at all really comes down to there already being a GM. Old players may ask a GM they know to start a new campaign, but usually it’s all happening on the GMs initative. No GM, no game. Simple as that.

No matter how much companies advertise their games, it doesn’t matter how many players they get excited, only how many GMs they can reach. And they can’t get any new players to start playing any RPGs. The only way to get more people to play is to get more people to become gamemasters. GMs can train other GMs in the basics, but that’s nothing that companies can influence.

Now the question Angry is putting out in the open is how we can get more people to become GMs. Because as he correctly notes, running games is not generally treated as something desireable. It’s not usually “Who wants to be a GM?” but “Who is willing to be a GM?” If you are not already totally excited about an idea you want to run, people become GMs for a campaign because everyone else “refuses” to, or feels “unable” to do it. And I think here is the key to the whole problem. Running a game is generally perceived as being difficult, tiresome, and all around undesirable. If anything is going to change, we need to make games that are easy to run. And looking at the big names in RPGs we got D&D, Pathfinder, Exalted, Shadowrun, World of Darkness, and Legend of the Five Rings. And from what I am able to tell these are all really a bitch to run. Among the most work intensive and complex systems that are out there. So no wonder nobody wants to be a GM. Even I don’t want to run these games and I already am a GM of 15 years. Now D&D 5th Edition made a few little steps into the right direction, but why are all the big games what could be called Hardcore or Expert-Level games. These are games for players and especially GMs who already are familiar with the whole thing. For new people they are almost inaccessible.

The one shining light I can think of are the various B/X clones, because Mentzer Basic and Expert are actually the only truly introductory game products I’ve ever seen. This is a game that is easy to learn in half an hour and also puts a very light workload on the GM, and it actually makes a real effort to tech the game to new GMs. Sandly, there are now dozens of them of which most people have never heard of because they are made often by just one or two people at home who don’t have any marketing and rely entirely on nostalgia from very old GMs and word of mouth. Little honorable mention here to Barbarians of Lemuria, which seems to have gained some real popularity while also being rules light and not a B/X clone. Doesn’t try to reach new players either, though.

Continue reading “Y’all got any more of these GMs?”

An adventure for any number of characters of any level

A few weeks ago I wrote a short post about the problems I have with published adventures. One of the pretty big problems that makes most adventures unusable to me is that they are not only written for a different game than the one I am running, but have also been designed for a group of player characters of a specific power level. While am talking a lot about published adventures here, the main point I want to make further down is really about designing adventures in general, so even if you don’t usually use published adventures either, this might still be interesting to read. The earliest adventures for Dungeons & Dragons were pretty vague on this subject, simply saying they are for adventurers of “1st to 3rd level” or characters should be “5th to 10th level”. Since at that time nobody had any pretense that character levels and monster experience were an exact science, it really was just very rough eyeballing. But soon it got more specific like “This module is designed for 6-8 characters of 4th to 7th level. […] The party should possess somewhere between 35 and 45 levels of experience.” Since experienced henchmen were a common feature of the game at that time, it really wasn’t any big deal to get a few more of them to make the party ready for adventure. I make no secret of the fact that I think AD&D was really terribly written and had really bad ways to deal with numbers. But while the 3rd edition did some good work in straitening up the rules (mostly fixing attack bonus, armor class, and XP tables), it also went of into a completely wrong direction with long steps. A derection into which I, being totally new to RPGs, happily followed.

Over time people realized that any claims that there was a balance between the classes and experience, treasure, and monster abilities were carefully calculated and weighted against each other was complete nonsense. It was still nothing but eyeballing and often pretty bad one. But you still got all this huge amount of additional math that didn’t actually make anything better! But the published adventures might be one element of the game that suffered the most. From now on published adventures would usually make a statement like this. “The Sunless Citadel is a DUNGEONS & DRAGONS adventure suitable for four 1st-level player characters. Player characters (PCs) who survive the entire adventure should advance through 2nd  level to 3rd level before the finale.”

Great. What if the characters are already 2nd level? What if I have another adventure I want to run that is for 2nd level characters? At these very low levels it’s not such a big deal yet, but when you get adventures that are for 10th level characters and take them to 14th level it does become a real issue. My campaigns are usually with new players and run for perhaps a year or so, so I usually ran games with characters that are all 1st or 2nd level. (It’s easier for new players.) Which means lots of great adventure I never got an opportunity to run. But it got worse. The way things were described in the rulebooks and the first adventures that were published for 3rd edition, players had the expectation that the encounters would be “balanced” and “suitable for their level”, which means they should win the fight without any big trouble. I did. I am guilty. I was young and stupid.

But of course, that idea is nonsense. While Gygax was pretty bad at explaining himself, he did understand that D&D was not just a game about individual fights, but also, and perhaps more importantly, about rationing your strength and resources. Part of that is judging when to let the warriors clear the room with their swords and when the wizards unleash their full awesome power against enemies the warriors can’t handle on their own. And when you put it this way, it is obvious that individual encounters should be highly imbalanced in either direction. Many fights should be pretty easy while some should be pretty hard, and the key to being a successful adventurer is being able to tell which type of fight you’re currently dealing with. If you rush in with full force, your resources will be quickly exhausted. And if you then get into a fight against a strong enemy, it could be your death. But if all fights are balanced to a level where the players will be able to win without great difficulty or great risk, what is there really to do for the players other than “I guess I attack it with my sword again” over and over and over. 3rd edition tried to “fix” this with lots of special attacks and feats. But that’s where everything started to go wrong. They tried to make the round by round attack and damage routine more entertaining, but that part was never meant to be center of the game. It really was about judging the strength of your enemies, using the environment to your advantage, and making calls which fights to pick and which ones to avoid. The notion that fights should be balanced according to a mathmatical calculation killed all that. The Sunless Citadel did include a fight that would be really difficult to win and force players to retreat and come up with outside the box solutions or avoid that particular monster entirely. But as the story is being told, people complained about the encounter being unbalanced and that practice was discontinued from there on. Paizo eventually became not only the biggest creator of published adventures but actually the biggest RPG company of all. (Seems like WotC has left the field.) But even though there’s lots of great stories, I only really ran three of their adventures. Flight of the Red Raven and Escape from Meenlock Prison and The Automatic Hound from the Dungeon magazine. All three of which I completely rewrote to fit the size and level of the party I was running them for.

Continue reading “An adventure for any number of characters of any level”

I think I am done with Weird Fantasy

I discovered Lovecraft only a few years ago but found that there is a real charm to his works. And the more I read, the more I realized that it’s really not a lot like the “Cthulhu Mythos” I’ve been hearing about for several years before. All the many horrific gods and the alien races with their billion year old wars barely make any appearance in his stories. Calling it the “Cthulhu Mythos” is particularly puzzling as he appears in only one story, which I admittedly found rather lacking, and so much more talk is about Yog-Sothoth, Nyarlathotep, Shub-Niggurath, and Dagon. There are some hints here and there that strange creatures have been to Earth in the distant past, but there isn’t anything about ancient histories of cosmic wars. Turns out Lovecraft never called it Cthulhu Mythos and all the other stuff was written by other people. And I have to say I find Lovecrafts own stories to be much higher quality because they don’t explain things and leave things vague. All the systemization, cataloging, and historic recording was the work of people who wanted to expand, but in my oppinion didn’t actually get what Lovecraft had been done. Still, most of Lovecrafts own writing is quite good and I still regard those stories very highly.

Some time later I came into contact with various videogames that had some kinship with the style I appreciated in Lovecrafts stories. The Japanese Silent Hill series, and the Ukrainian Stalker and Metro games. All these works have themes of desolation and decay, with protagonists who have to deal with events and environment which they don’t understand but have to deal with alone. And one thing that is really compelling about all of them is not what they explain about the events and environment, but what they leave highly vague and ultimately unexplained. The stories themselves have some interesting ideas, but it’s really everything around the characters and the plot that’s really selling it. In the sphere of games the common term is Lore, but it’s really the same thing as worldbuilding. Perhaps even a better term as the worldbuilding is really the creative process of making the world, while the Lore is the information that actually gets presented to the audience in the finished work. They don’t care so much how it’s done, just what the final result is.

Both the Stalker and Metro games are based on Russian science fiction novels and few people would think of Silent Hill as Fantasy. It’s simply Horror. (And the most terrifyingly, pants-shitting horror I’ve ever seen anywhere.) But they still intrigued me greatly as inspirational sources for the worldbuilding on my own Ancient Lands setting. Having really gotten into fantasy both with Dungeons & Dragons, rereading The Lord of the Rings, and playing the Warcraft games, my encounters with fantasy were highly dominated by works that explain absolutely everything down to the smallest level. The more minimalistic approach of both Lovecraft and Horror games, which also have a lot of Lore but it’s much more uncertain and speculative, seemed both more entertaining and intriguing. I later encountered other Japanese fiction like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Elfen Lied (the manga, the anime sucks), which also went a similar route and did very well, at least for me.

So when I heard of fantasy roleplaying games created with the express intend to evoke the bizarre and unknowable it had my curiosity. James Raggi is the posterboy for this movement with his Lamentations of the Flame Princess game, but there are plenty of others whose creative output is just as important. Raggi made the choice to call his game Weird Fantasty Roleplaying, which all things considered seems quite accurate. I haven’t read any of the Bas-Lag books, which are probably the most popular work by which the “New Weird” is identified, but from all I’ve heard about it there seems to be a clear kinship.

And over the last two or three years, I’ve learned a huge amount of things about creating fantasy that is based on and revolves around the inexplainable and extremely lethal. I came, I saw, and I learned. But I also find it to get really tiresome and also going overboard. The Weird Fantasy roleplaying material seems too deeply focused or even obsessed with the grotesque and being outright repulsive. Mutilated corpses and baby-eating penis monsters get from being horrific to being just obnoxious very quickly. I can’t speak for the literature, but in the area of roleplaying games, the Weird seems to be taken as almost synonymous with being both random and repulsive. And that’s just not doing it for me.

When I am looking at a great mystery, I am seeing a small piece of something bigger. Potentially much bigger; who could tell where it ends? In a good mystery I learn what happened here and now, but how it is connected to all the hidden forces and powers I might never know. That’s just what Lovecraft did. But in the Weird Fantasy there often isn’t anything to know. Weird shit just happens and because the characters of the story will never know, the writer doesn’t make any effort to give some reason or purpose for it. And I think the story as a whole suffers greatly from it. In a total vacuum of information, the characters have no meaningful agency. Investigation is pointless if there isn’t anything to learn. Surviving in a situation you can’t begin to understand might be interesting and exciting at first, but ultimately it really is just pure luck and the writers whim that keeps the characters alive. They don’t really have a hand in their fate. And while that’s bad in literature, it’s just outright terrible in a roleplaying game.

I also found myself trying to make all my monsters horrifying, until I realized that I didn’t really have any idea why I would think that might be necessary or even desirable. Reading Hellboy this week, where fey spirits of Britain and Russia play a major role, I remembered that I went looking into this whole Weird Fantasy business to learn about how to make monster threatening and dangerous, and most importantly ambigous. And there just isn’t anything ambigous about a 30 meter tentacle penis with huge teeth. What I am really after with the Ancient Lands is a world in which spirits are real, potentially dangerous, but also worshipped as protectors and bringers of prosperity. What I am after is “awe”. Not terrified panic. In good fairy tales the protagonist has to get face to face with the spirits and atrempt to have a human interaction with something that deep inside is utterly inhuman. That is the fear I am after. The fear of overplaying your luck and slipping up right in front of a being of unbelievable power and primordial and unrestrained emotion. Something that is like a person, but ultimately not a person at all. Which is something none of the beings in Weird Fantasy have. They just attack as soon as they see you and turn you into screaming goo as soon as they touch you.

My time with Weird Fantasy certainly was not a wasted one. There are actually some really good ideas to how approach and structure things. But these are fine tools, which I believe are much more often misused as sledgehammers. I rather go with Hellboy.

Things I still plan to review

This list is actually getting longer instead of shorter because I constantly forget that I wanted to write reviews for these. Hopefully I get around to do them someday not too far in the future. And if you want to, you can bug me about them still being late. That usually motivates me quite a lot. ;)

  • A Princess of Mars
  • Atlantis: The Second Age
  • Barbarians of Lemuria
  • Conan (Comic)
  • Dark Sun Campaign Setting
  • Death Frost Doom
  • Demon’s Souls
  • Gargoyles
  • Heavenly Sword
  • Hellboy
  • Knights of the Old Republic (Comic)
  • Metal Gear Solid
  • Mirror’s Edge
  • No Salvation for Witches
  • Pitch Black
  • Primeval Thule
  • Red Tide
  • Riddick
  • Seirei no Moribito
  • The Savage Frontier
  • The Witcher 2
  • Thief: The Dark Project
  • Trawn Trilogy

This looks even worse that I thought. oO