Tag Archives: tabletop rpgs

The RPG Campaign as Episodic TV: Two Techniques

In addition to the regular D&D game I run, I’ve just started up another tabletop RPG campaign using the Geist system. Like many of White Wolf’s “limited series” games (Promethean, Changeling), the concept is incredibly provocative. You died, and in the moments of death, a being “more than ghost, less than god” offered you a partnership. This being, called a geist, shielded you from death and allowed you to survive. You are a living human, but now you can see ghosts, control strange creepy powers, and even travel the underworld. The mood of the game is a cool mix of the macabre (you died, and now you see death everywhere) and the celebratory (you got a second chance at life! Live it up!).

The bittersweet mood, morbid theme, and cool antagonists reminded me of shows like Angel, Dead Like Me, and Death Note. So I decided that I wanted my campaign to run like an episodic, ensemble-cast television show. I also wanted to explore giving players more control over the game, while maintaining primary authorship as GM; tossing a strong flavor of the indie RPG into a traditional system. As a result, I’m using two techniques: Episode Previews and Cutscenes.
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Dream Project 1.5: The Fortress of Dreams

This is a summary of my ongoing Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition game, played with some friends from college over the internet using MapTool and Teamspeak.

When we last left our game, the citizens of Meersha had fled a dragon who had taken over their town, heading north to the city of Decolay, which had been out of contact for years. When they arrived, in the midst of a thunderstorm, they found the city partly burned, with scattered fires and little signs of life.

The caravan was guarded by five people:
Etzlojek, kobold rogue and lover of fine things, adopted by the town’s general store owner
Eva, student of the local ritual mage and magic shop owner, who seems like a perfectly normal human wizard
Donaar, dragonborn warlock, who ended up in town after his home city was overrun by undead
Diesa, dwarven fighter, who was visiting family in town
Sully, formerly-retired half-elf paladin of Erathis and party NPC, who ran the tavern in Meersha.

This is the second half of level one.
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Dream Project 1.0: The Flight from Zekleinenezzar

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been running a mostly-weekly Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition game over the internet using MapTool and TeamSpeak. Generally, these tools have served us well, with the biggest problem being the voice chat; it makes conversation flow very awkward, with some people stumbling over other people’s sentences due to lag, and other people often unintelligible due to mic issues. MapTool is a bit clumsy, but it gets the job done.

For a while, I’ve wanted to run a tabletop game where the play shifted between a dark, gritty, waking struggle for survival and a wondrous, fanciful dream world that the player characters entered when they slept. This is not that campaign, but it uses the “dream world” motif that I’ve incorporated into several of my games. Below the fold, I’ll give a summary of the first part of the campaign for those who are interested.

Before then, however, I should discuss my current feelings on D&D4e. First, the combat system is a lot of fun and very slick, but it requires a lot of effort and attention to keep it from becoming a tactical strategy game. In the game so far, players basically just say “I’m using Scorching Burst” or “I’ll do a Deft Strike.” I much prefer a game where players describe their actions with more flavor and color, and often do actions that aren’t straight from their power list. I’ll work to encourage this in the future.

Second, I still don’t have a handle on Skill Challenges. They make sense on paper: a way to structure non-combat encounters to have the same randomness, flow, and structure as combat encounters. However, in practice they feel very clunky. Twice I’ve had a single character take lead on a major NPC conversation, and instead of having them make repeated Diplomacy checks, I’ve just roleplayed it out. Maybe I need to make the Skill Challenge mechanics more explicit; maybe I need to abandon them altogether.

Finally, the XP system feels slow. Ten encounters between levels is a lot. I’ll be giving double experience in 4e in the future, just to restore a sense of progression to the game.

Now, for the story so far. This is the first half of level 1.
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GM Success

This week I had one of those great GM moments. In my Promethean game, my players have been presented with a dilemma: they’ve found the workshop of a character who named himself Paracelsus, who was in search of an alchemical elixir called the Ascendance Formula. However, as the players were told by a mystical qashmal, his choices of ingredients were “not human enough.” Instead of turning human, Paracelsus was killed and his body split apart into a collection of monsters.

Clearly, I’m trying to set up a dilemma here. This formula could be a shortcut to mortality for the player characters, but it is very dangerous; not only could it kill you, but it can also create new monsters to make everyone’s life more difficult. As a GM, when you set up this sort of dilemma, you want to create inter-player tension and discussion. I think I succeeded. At the end of this week’s session, the player characters sat down and discussed the dilemma in detail, and they each had interesting perspectives.

One character, a loner soldier and sometimes thief, wanted nothing to do with the formula. Screw the alchemy, screw the existing monsters, just get the hell out of town. Another, a naive tinkerer with Tesla’s right hand, was all for trying the formula for himself. Build a cage around the experiment area, sure, shoot him before he turns into a monster, but he wanted to take the chance. Finally, the flighty con artist of the group had a brainstorm. The tinkerer can try the formula, and if it works (and maybe even if it doesn’t), the surviving party members can sell the formula to other Prometheans. With the promise of money, the soldier was won over, and a plan is in place… for now.

As a GM, I get the most amount of glee from when players are deliberating over these sorts of interesting choices. If the choice is easy, it’s not providing the players much (high-level) agency. Only when a decision is difficult — when there is no clear “right” alternative — are the players truly choosing their own path through the narrative. And if there’s inter-PC conflict in the decision process, then that just makes my job more of a success.

So for now, I’m feeling good about my campaign. We’ll see how next session goes.

LORE and Belief Released

This world is not as it should be. There is no truth. Reality is what we believe it to be. If you think you can fly, then that flight is real to you. Others may see you plummet and die, but you might live on, soaring above the clouds. Anyone can dream, but it takes someone special to make those dreams real.

Here is the release of my May game: LORE, the Lightweight Omnipotent Roleplaying Engine, and its first sourcebook, Belief. Together, they form my first tabletop roleplaying game system.

LORE is an attempt to address some of the common problems with tabletop RPGs. It has an interesting dice system; a quick, easy, and original character creation system; and a system that’s lightweight, because roleplaying happens beyond the rules.

Belief is a game about changing reality, about subjective viewpoints, and about the search for a better world. It owes heavy debts to other sources, but it is its own being.

Download LORE and Belief.

Both of these books are beta releases. They have been playtested, but not enough for me to say they’re finished. Please, read them, play them, and comment with anything you think I did especially right or that I could change for the better. I’ve provided them in bookmarked PDFs slavishly laid out for optimal printing at your local print shop, and they’re released under a Creative Commons by-nc-sa 3.0 License.

These are just the initial releases; I wanted to get them out and in people’s minds so that I could start getting feedback. Expect extras like quick reference sheets and maybe an adventure or three in the coming weeks and months.

What’s Wrong with Tabletop RPGs

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I love tabletop roleplaying games. They are, in some ways, the perfect game. That being said, they certainly aren’t without their flaws. I’ve been working on a tabletop RPG system, and one of the things any creator needs to ask is “what’s wrong with what’s already there?” and “how can I make it better?” Here, then, is a list of the things wrong with tabletop roleplaying games.
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Never According to Plan

The players in a tabletop roleplaying game never do what you expect them to.

Case in point: I’ve just started up a campaign of Promethean. It opens with the player characters being drawn to a mysterious, sprawling house, where they discover an otherworldly being called a qashmal who dispenses a cryptic riddle.

This is the second time I’ve run the beginning of this campaign with different players each time. The first group did what I expected: they searched the building top to bottom for clues, then proceeded to follow up on the riddle. This latest group, however, decided against that.
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The Eye of Boccob

The Eye of Boccob is a prestige class for Dungeons & Dragons Edition 3.5. I used it for a creepy NPC in a campaign I am running, when I realized that I needed an NPC that was capable of teleporting large numbers of people. It grew from there into a character that my player loved to hate. If you intend to use this prestige class in a campaign, keep in mind that it was designed to be a non-combat NPC; I make no guarantees regarding game balance or feasibility of this class for PCs. However, it could prove to be a useful utility class for a group that desires heightened abilities of surveillance and transportation. The full class description follows.

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The Space Beyond the Rules

I just had an annoying conversation with a friend about the relative merits of Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition versus the previous version of the game. I’ll spare you the details, as it’s been discussed ad absurdum elsewhere. It did get me thinking, though, about the role rules play in tabletop roleplaying games.

Tabletop roleplaying games, as I’ve mentioned before, can adapt to players’ actions much more easily and completely than digital games. This is due mostly to the GM‘s ability to roll with the punches and make up stuff in response to an unexpected path taken by the party. Since the origin of tabletop roleplaying games, the roleplaying proper, that is, the social interaction, character quirks, and people-focused play, has been largely separate from the rules. Tabletop RPG rules focus on things like combat, non-social conflict resolution, and supernatural powers. All the fluffy social and character-building stuff is allowed to just occur, with the rules keeping out of its way. Sure, there might be a Diplomacy skill or a Charisma statistic, but those are usually reserved for small parts of the roleplaying: deciding if a character’s argument was convincing enough, or just how pretty the elf princess is. Few systems dedicate more than a page or two to rules governing seemingly important things like falling in love or becoming homesick.

And that’s just fine. Combat, magic, disabling booby traps: these are things that most of us will never experience, things which are nice to have codified and defined for easy processing. Social behavior, however, is something that’s familiar to every tabletop gamer. Even the most reclusive, introverted dice-roller has the experience of getting together with people around a table to play. Human beings understand social situations better than just about anything else, so our creativity is broader and deeper in that area. And I think that’s the interesting part of roleplaying.

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Some Free Indie RPGs

I recently looked around on the internet for interesting tabletop roleplaying systems that I could read and try out for free. I’ve yet to play any of the ones that caught my eye for the first time, but I thought that I should share the highlights of my search.

In the descriptions, you might see the terms “simulationist” and “narrativist.” I’m using those words to describe how the game approaches the details of its rules. A simulationist game, in my way of seeing it, is one which offers a realistic and internally consistent world model which provides specific rules for a wide range of things. A narrativist game, on the other hand, is vague on details; generally, the players and game master can go along with the story, with the rules providing much broader strokes.

Here are the games that jumped out at me, in no particular order:

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