Against The Odds
It’s the end of 2012 today, so Happy New Year from here in Edinburgh! I’ve been heavily involved in Kickstarter this year. More than I should be, if I’m honest. Maybe it’s nostalgia as the year’s end approaches, but there’s a number of projects that hearken back to the old days for me.
ELITE: Dangerous is one of these. Back in 1984, my family got a BBC model computer. I scrimped and saved the £14.95 for floppy disk version of Acornsoft’s Elite game. It’s long ago enough that I can still remember that utilities was the most expensive thing I’d ever bought at that time – it was the 80s and was 11! I’ve a lot of memories regarding the heavily detailed faux-leather manual, Robert Holdstock’s Dark Wheel novella (a sequel to follow the following year, which didn’t appear), and struggling with the ship recognition chart (usually in the middle of combat!). I remember breaking the Voltmace joystick from heavy use, leaning on the fire button! When I went around to a friend’s for tea (the taper version which took 10 minutes to load from tape), we’d take turns piloting the Cobra Mk.3, and inevitably shooting our own missiles that the other had just launched! Since the BBC I used to have is now long gone, I’ve not played since – although I did finally reach the giddy heights of the Elite eventually. I’ve a lot of fond memories, but didn’t have an Amiga to play the sequels. So I’m happy to hear that Elite is back, in the form of Elite: Dangerous, now 90% funded on Kickstarter (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1461411552/elite-dangerous). There’s only a few days to go but I’d love to see this game made.
Another bit of nostalgia is the Fighting Fantasy series. This series is the main reason why I am an RPGer, and Jonathan Green, one of the authors is putting together a book on the series Fighting Fantasy: You are the Hero, it looks at the history of FF (as Fighting Fantasy was called), and will involve interviews with Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone (both wrote Fighting Fantasy and, Jackson the companion series, Sorcery!). They are also known for founding Games Workshop, Eidos Interactive (Livingstone), and F.I.S.T. (Jackson). It’s been 30 years since the Warlock of Firetop Mountain came out. Scary stuff. When I look at some of the RPGs on offer we’ve a long way since then. Should be interesting to see what their take is on the way the gaming landscape has changed.
I’ve also been receiving twitter messages from @SynnibarrInvictus (don’t bother trying to follow it, the account has been removed for some reason). Apparently that car crash of an RPG has reached its funding goal and will now be re-released as Synnibarr Invictus. AW, HELL, NO!!! – that is all.
Happy New Year everyone.
I’ve always been someone who adapts to circumstances as they happen, but hate being an early adopter! Working in IT, I always wait until the first service pack is released before upgrading an Operating System (OS) and I tend to carry that over to gaming rules-sets as well. I’ll freely admit that Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition (4e) hasn’t really fired my imagination as previous editions have done, although Ashes of Freedom was originally a 4e setting.
Looking back now I can see where I went wrong with games like Against the Odds and season 1 of Ashes of Freedom (I run campaigns for a year usually then take a break, similar to the format used by TV). I was trying to shoehorn a rules-set into a campaign setting, not the other way around. 4e is heavily combat-orientated, designed largely with the power-gaming “Munchkin” player in mind or so I’d thought – similar to most computer RPGs. I’ve decided to give 4e a second look. As part of a drive to get more folk participating in ORC Edinburgh‘s activities, I’ve decided to run a short mini-campaign, possibly to get some would-be GMs fired up to run their own games too. It is probably going to focus on a group of low-level PCs stationed on the border between Volkrania and the Eastlands.
It will be called “A Watch Upon the Border”. Most likely it will feature pre-generated characters (from Essentials/PHB), although those first in will have a choice. It will focus on adventures in the east of Volkrania, the Ashes of Freedom setting, but will take place some years before; between the end of the Orcgate War and the Purge of Fire. The PCs will be low level, but there will be plot hooks aplenty that I can work in as the stage is set for future events in AoF. Player-wise, I’d be looking for 4-6 players. It’s only going to be a short campaign but by using pre-gens it means anyone can pop in and play. The forum thread I’ve created at ORC Edinburgh can be found at http://orcedinburgh.co.uk/forum/Games–Players-Wanted/13411-d-d4e-border-watch.
One of the biggest problems for me in the past has also been the miniatures and terrain – and that’s expensive! However I think I’ll be able to muddle through with the miniatures I have, and an improvised “battlemat”. The miniatures I ordered as part of the Reaper Miniatures Kickstarter (Vampire level) won’t be here until next year. However, I’m also investing in the Legendary Realms Terrain Kickstarter as well – their stuff is very nice. There’s another reason too: Legendary Realms is the Official (TM) 🙂 scenery of The Secret Fire RPG, a game I worked upon last year, both in development and playtesting. Look out for the Demons supplement I wrote coming out soon from Secret Fire Games!
Improvisation isn’t really an art as such but it can work extremely well when your players go off on one of those tangents that they love to do so often… and I know some players love doing it to games. The secret is: don’t let them know that you’re winging it. Or give them enough rope to hang themselves. Whatever works 🙂
Some of my most fun games have been run off a few notes and maps, and both myself and the players have enjoyed them immensely. It’s actually quite straightforward to run an improvised game, although you paradoxically need to plan ahead to a certain extent. Make sure that you’ve got a pile of stock NPCs or monsters to use and that you’ve a few encounters that you can throw in to break things up.
Among the improvisation techniques I’ve used, the application of “imminent peril” is probably one of the best. It puts PCs in a situation where they have to keep moving as they are being chased or are up against the clock. It worked very well in my first game of Ashes of Freedom as the group are pursued across Volkrania by the Mandragora, trying to avoid their forces and warn the capital. Encounters with heavily armed patrols and unrelenting attacks meant that the PCs (and players!) had little time to rest. The game was almost entirely improvised – as long as you’ve got the stats for some stock characters/encounters you (and your players) can have a great time!
Another of my favourites is the total improv(isation) campaign – all your plot is centred upon the PC actions and their consequences. This can be hugely difficult to plan for obvious reasons, so its pretty heavy work for the GM and can be difficult to run. Take away the toys. PCs thrown in prison or going undercover are not going to have much more than their own wits to help them out. Against the Odds was built upon this premise, with the group being escaped prisoners: no armour, food, weapons, or gear. The players would have to rely on their wits and creativity – particularly since they escaped into an area known as the Hellswamp. I’d planned to make the campaign about toppling the ruler, and creating a resistance force/rebellion.
Superhero/spy games are a great fun to improvise in, where you can wing it freely and give the players free rein as it were. I remember playing in a Marvel Superheroes game many years ago that basically focussed on us opposing the robotic Sentinels (long before the X-Men movies!). Oh, the elaborate schemes we came up with…
Anyway here’s some basic thoughts when improvising:
- Be consistent – treat anything you improvise as part of the game “canon” from that point on. Keep some NPC names and stats pregenerated.
- Let your players create their own encounter -“This looks like a great place for an ambush!” or “There’s going to be undead” 🙂
- Don’t railroad the players – gentle encouragement is better than forcing them back onto the original plot.
- Keep your cool – don’t get discouraged or annoyed when the players do something unexpected.
- Adapt the ideas into your game. In Ashes of Freedom, a chariot race originally intended as a background actually provided a number of sessions that were fun!
- Roll with it – enjoy yourself! If your players ignore the dungeon you’ve spent weeks designing and decide to go on an ocean cruise let them do so. Then maroon them on a mysterious desert island. With non-euclidean geometry.
- Don’t be too “out there” with your improvisations – try and keep the flavour of your game intact. Humorous side quests can be fun – in moderation.
- Don’t indulge individual players too much – remember, RPGs are social games. Give each player enough of their own air time, returning to individuals afterwards.
I’ve been playing D&D for over 20 years in its various editions, from 1st Edition AD&D Dragonlance at school, to my own 4th ed. Against the Odds. Over time, each edition has developed its’ little faults: from bad marketing to an over-abundance of rules. Not to mention some god-awful changes in the system: I’ve heard this referred to as the Version Wars – they’re on par with Kirk vs. Picard…
1st edition was pretty basic – it still has a huge following among those that first picked it up in whatever generation they were born in, leading to many OSR games now being released. I remember seeing the rulebooks in John Menzies (along with the Fiend Folio, produced by the then UK branch of TSR). Without 1st ed, there would have been no Games Workshop – and the tabletop gaming world would have been very different. GW may now be a monolithic money-grabber, but its owes its’ roots to D&D. I think there’s maybe a little too much nostalgia for 1e, and a lot of games produced since are trying to capture the feel of it: production values have changed since Gygax’s golden era. People expect more for their money and costs for books have gone up! Would I run a 1st ed or OSR game? Probably not: it’s like being given a zx81 and then expected to install Halo upon it. I don’t suffer from the nostalgia attributed to it. Dragonlance was good, yet it was gorram linear (and hasn’t worn well) – no deviation from the plot allowed. It could be argued that a lot of 1st edition was the same: kill the monster, steal its treasure.
2nd edition had a lot of possibilities and works for me, for reasons I’ll mention later. However it also fell in the 90s to the CCG phenomenon that was Wizards of the Coast. AD&D worked up until the point where TSR was taken over – after which they seemed to produce a lot of sub-standard adventures and supplements. They had too many product lines and settings and I guess this is what lead to the development of 3.5. The Forgotten Realms, Planescape, Dark Sun, Greyhawk (oddly neglected), Red Death, etc. – all were run off as production lines (and often shut down after a few years). However the system itself works, despite the whole silly fear of THAC0, I think it works better than 3.5 (THAC0 is easier to work out than OB in MERP for example). There’s also another reason I like 2nd Ed. – the Core Rules CD & Expansion. This was brilliant and years ahead of its time.: customisable and easy to export, a character generator, mapping tools, searchable rulebooks, monster builder. And it worked – you could even export the content, bearing in mind that the OGL was still many years away too. The Dragon Magazine archive was also useful, although maybe misguided – contributors to the early magazines should have got something for it. 2nd Ed. functions well as a toolkit – the game and classes work, there’s little complexity, and you can build a fantastic game out of it. Also, the characters are balanced and you don’t need to worry about the munchkin factor to any great extent. No Feats or Powers make the game a lot more balanced, and also a lot more challenging. Rather than tweaking stats or attacks, you can get on with what makes your character different without overpowering the game.
3rd edition (and its +1 3.5 version) are where WotC dropped the ball in my opinion. Designed for the new generation of PC role-players, they had the opportunity to change the game such that it could work well. Non-weapon proficiencies were dropped in favour of skills, THAC0 disappeared and became Attack Bonus. Some of the core races and classes disappeared. Yet Hit Points (HP) remained unchanged – I’ve never understood why. Wound levels, such as those found in The Secret Fire work far better than some arbitrary number, and very few modern games use the process of experience levels to gain more (Call of Cthulhu certainly doesn’t!). It always feels like the game was created and any feedback ignored – the playtest list for D&D3.0 was huge, but I suspect many of those on it were WotC sycophants, or those looking to get a free game. Certainly it didn’t seem playtested (you can read my post about playtesting here), although it did have high production values! If it worked so well, why was 3.5 brought out so quickly? I know its still popular at ORC, but I’m not a big fan of how it became a collection of splat books designed to give munchkin players less opportunity to use their imagination (feats, skill ranks etc). 3.5 also saw the release of the OGL (Open Gaming License) which probably re-invigorated the RPG hobby – but also saw the release of a lot of rubbish and the occasional gem e.g. Pathfinder. And don’t get me started on the whole E-tools debacle.
4th edition is a strange beast to me. It often feels like its been dumbed down (likely at Hasbro’s insistence), yet has some ideas that obviously didn’t make it to 3rd ed: the “bloodied” concept for example.However for me, it’s less of a boardgame and more of a wargame. None of the Powers are designed to help roleplaying: all deal with combat or support combat in some way – none actually help you roleplay your PC any better! AND I’m a bit miffed about the Dragonborn – who just resemble my own Mandragora way too much, and make me wonder who came up with them (probably sour grapes on my part)… The system itself is geared toward combat and encounters which is fine if you’d like to play that style of game, but I like my players and PCs to be able to get involved in investigation, politics and other stuff. Sales of D&D have largely stagnated yet it remains popular. One wonders whether the increased focus on miniatures and the battlemat are an attempt to break into Games Workshop’s territory of “hobby gaming”. Hasbro would obviously like a piece of that action. And one idiot who ripped off a digital edition cost most of their fans who would have bought the PDF editions of old modules and books when they pulled them.
5th editon? – Well, we’ll see it maybe in the next two years or more. I don’t hold out much hope of it being any improvement though and will likely be more wargame than RPG. It’s also likely to be marketed for the console generation and younger gamer groups – I read somewhere that most people won’t read more than 500 words these days. D&D is also pugged heavily on some of the webcomics like Penny Arcade and PVPonline.
So why do I return to (A)D&D? It’s like that cheeseburger that you know you shouldn’t eat – the one with bacon, cheese and a HUGE portion of chips (that’s French fries to the Yanks out there). It’s bad for you and you know it, yet sometimes you just get a craving for it! If I don’t like the newer version I can always go back to the old.
“It’s better to burn out than fade away!” The Kurgan, Highlander
I think there comes a time when everyone “burns out”, creatively speaking – be it storytelling, writing or GMing. I feel it every few years when I’m running RPGs, and I reckon I’m not alone in experiencing it. Creativity isn’t like a tap – you can’t turn it on or off as needed. I’ve often found myself in the position where I’m completely stumped for an idea, only to have an epiphany later on – sometimes its better to take a step back from a problem or project and just rethink things – I’m not just talking about RPGs: sometimes in IT you can create additional problems by over-thinking something (a PC may not be connecting because of a dodgy cable not a TCP/IP stack)! I’ve also found that my mental state also has some bearing – unsurprisingly, if you’re under a great deal of stress or feeling down, your problem-solving and thinking processes tend to suffer as a result. At the moment, I’m thinking of just taking my time and not rushing things: I’ve a lot on at work and it can be difficult to concentrate on some of the other stuff I need to sort out at home, gaming or otherwise.
To be honest, RPGs are a good way to relieve stress. In the past I’ve had what one of my friends calls “Black Moods”, where I feel pretty rotten, and depressed. That’s depression with a small D: clinical Depression is no joke – however I think it is too often abused as an excuse (often misdiagnosed and drugs are over-prescribed by GPs who can’t be bothered). I’m not denying that at some point I may have been Clinically Depressed, but that was a long time ago. Sometimes these moods hit me (not for a few years though) but I’ve learned to ride them out – if you look back through my blog entries you’ll spot some of the times when they hit me! RPGs and the creative process help considerably with these moods I’m not one of these people who post their mental status on social networking sites (at least I hope I’m not!), seeking validation through cryptic comments; or playing for sympathy, so that everyone is compelled to ask what’s wrong.
Enough of my psychobabble! The main focus of this RPG article is the phenomenon known as GM Burnout. I’ve been an occasional victim of this, as mentioned above.
Recognising GM (and player!) burnout
Once you reach a certain age, or level of experience as a GM, it becomes difficult to find the time to either create new adventures or settings. Certain game systems become too advanced, or too simplistic. You just go through the motions sometimes.This is what happened with me and D&D: I don’t like 4th edition as it’s just somewhat basic and seems geared towards using a battle map and miniatures. 3.5 is too munchkin now: there’s very little “role” involved in what is essentially a paper version of a PC game (feats, etc.).
As a GM, you’ll spot the signs of burn-out in yourself by these:
- You’re having trouble coming up with new ideas.
- You regard the game as a chore rather than a leisure activity.
- You’ve lost your enthusiasm for the game.
- You become annoyed at the slightest thing during your games.
- Player/PC antics no longer amuse you.
- You find yourself cancelling games as you have other things to do.
- You want to run another game but don’t know which one.
- You have to regularly cancel games because players can’t make it.
- You’re running multiple games and are finding it difficult to concentrate.
- The game just doesn’t work for you.
You can usually notice it in players too, with much of the same “symptoms”, for want of a better word. Often they’re committed to two or more games – possibly as a GM too.
Here are some of my own cases of burnout, or other failures (and what went wrong!).
Against the Odds: I used D&D 4e for this. Looking back upon it this was a mistake – I didn’t think about how the game would pan out using a system that focuses heavily on combat, rather than investigation or intrigue. Consequently I got frustrated and ditched it.
Ashes of Freedom: again D&D, but 3.5&4e this time. However, the first time I ran AoF (when 4e came out), I got a bit sick of the system (and one of the players threw a bit of a hissy fit too when he couldn’t get his own way), plus I had two groups and one lot changed nearly every week. However a little later I returned to AoF using D&D3.5. I did overcommit myself to creating a 3.6 version as well, but it WAS a popular game. It reached a natural end, with some pretty good action sequences, and I was needing a break anyway – I realised I was getting close to burnout.
Babylon 5: great idea, crap implementation, rotten PR. The d20 edition of the Babylon 5 RPG doesn’t work as it stands. Unfortunately, I thought I could craft this great campaign, with a story arc that could match JMS. Unfortunately it was not to be: other popular games were on that day; the setting required too much metagame knowledge/series background; and the system was pretty poor and didn’t really run well. Looking back, I could have done something with it I guess, but I was feeling a little restless: wanting to run an RPG, something other than D&D. I think I was definitely burned out as a GM at this point.
The New World: despite this setting being incredibly popular since, the first outing proved to be an unmitigated failure. In its first incarnation, it was designed to be an ORC shared campaign. A group of DMs worked over several months to hammer out a setting and plot line, and on D&D day we had three different DMs running a game. Then the other GMs lost interest (or couldn’t be bothered), and I was left carrying the game – I got pretty sick of that so the New World was put on ice for a few years – it’s still used frequently by other DMs at ORC and elsewhere (including some of my ideas 🙂 so its not a total loss. After this event I didn’t run anything for a while, as I was pretty hacked off. I felt vastly disappointed. It was a game where there were plenty of folk wanting to play, but few willing to run.
PBM games: I definitely suffered GM burnout with these. Shadows Lengthen took so much of my time that despite the fact that it made some small amount of money that I just got tired of running it. Ties of Blood looked really good on paper, but failed to garner enough interest. I just gave up on it as a result.
What to do
The best thing to do is take a break – the time involved depends upon the individual. If you’re running an existing game, tell your players that you want to take a break for a while. Maybe let someone else run, and you can relax and actually be a player for a while.
Try running a different game and keep it to a short series i.e. a mini campaign. If you’re short of ideas, it can be a good idea to carry a small A5 or smaller notebook everywhere. You’d be surprised when (and where) you can find inspiration!
If the game itself isn’t working, that’s more difficult: it’s best to give some serious thought to if you can see it continuing in its current form. If you can’t, give your players an ending to remember! If there’s no way you can see the game going on, be as dramatic as possible in the game’s conclusion – all the gloves are off: PCs die, NPCs change loyalty, the villain(s) die(s), the world ends, etc. Aim for a whammy!
NOTE: I know this is kinda written like a medical crib sheet, but I thought it might be fun to write it like that. Obviously RPGs are a leisure hobby – treat it that way!