Monday, November 14, 2011

What I'm working on...

Have a dinner party scenario to run for the next session of Masks of Nyarlathotep, so I'm detailing a few NPCs to give it some life.

I'm also putting the finishing details on the current chapter of the Star Wars Saga Edition campaign I've been running (I tend to run this campaign in episodic form, short campaigns of 10-15 sessions, and we're close to wrapping one of them up).

I'm currently writing a pulp one-shot for a convention in February. The game will use d20 Modern, mostly because I know it like the back of my hand, and I'm a big fan of Adamant Entertainment's Thrilling Tales line of pulp adventure stuff (also available for Savage Worlds).

The latter game will likely include as many of the following as I can fit in a four hour session: flying boats, hostile natives, dinosaurs, giant ant swarms, quicksand and other natural hazards, a secret Japanese base (and lots of Japanese baddies) and possibly some mutated half-men, half-animals as a result of super-soldier experiment gone awry. About the only pulp cliche I've omitted is Pulp Nazis.

More on the scenario as I develop it.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

D&D 4E dying?

OK, let me set some expectations here. This isn't a value judgment. I'm not interested in an OGL 3.5/Pathfinder vs. 4E edition war. When I run D&D, which is not often, I run 3.5. I like Pathfinder, but haven't taken the plunge yet. I've looked at 4E, and while I think it's a dramatic departure from 3.5, I'd suggest it's actually less of a departure than 3.0 was from AD&D2. Still, in my mind, it's a perfectly serviceable, if complex, system for running a Heroic Fantasy RPG. If I were just starting out, I'd probably pick Pathfinder, but I have no strong feelings against 4E.

We all know about the WotC layoffs. I'm not sure that alone they tell me much about where WotC is going, other than we're in tough economic times, and that WotC is going further down the road of a freelance model than they have in the past (and as just about every other RPG publisher already has for some time).

What I'm really surprised by is what I discovered yesterday. To back up a bit, when it comes to print RPG books, I'm a bargain hunter. While I do buy things from an FLGS, for every new print title I buy, I'm liable to buy a lot of PDFs via RPGNow or others (the iPad makes reading a PDF about as easy to deal with, if not easier, than a printed book), and if its an older system, I'll often buy used. To wit, I often will troll the shelves at Bookmans, a great Arizona-based chain of used bookstores that beats Half Price Books all to hell.

Yesterday, I breezed in for a few minutes, not with the idea of purchasing anything specific, but just to see what might have been turned into them in the intervening few weeks since I've been there.

Bookmans has about 16-20' foot of typical bookstore shelving devoted to used RPG books. You can find some great bargains, particularly if you happen to hit it on the right day. I've amassed a solid collection of 3.5 stuff I missed the first time around that way in recent years. The mix of stuff that their shelf traditionally has had in recent ventures can be summed up by a lot of D&D 3.0 stuff, a lot of Old World of Darkness, some old GURPS 3rd Edition stuff, a lot of older White Dwarf and Dragon issues, some really old Champions/Hero System books (all 4th Edition or older), way too much RIFTS stuff, much of which looks like nobody's ever cracked the spine, and a smattering of odds and ends (old Traveller stuff, odds and end sourcebooks for Spycraft, Shadowrun, third party OGL 3.0/3.5 stuff, OCR/RCR Star Wars sourcebooks, even a few of the old d6 Star Wars). That was until yesterday. Typically, the WotC/TSR published D&D stuff takes up about 4 feet of shelf space. In the past, it's been about two-thirds 3.0/3.5 D&D (more 3.0 than 3.5, as the 3.5 stuff tends to fly out about as quick as it comes in), maybe the occasional d20 Modern book (those don't last long either), and about 1/3 older editions of D&D (mostly AD&D 2nd Edition stuff that will probably be there years from now, by the looks of things). I've never seen a Pathfinder book there. Star Wars Saga Edition books wind up there once in a while, but those fly off the shelves pretty quickly as well.

That was, until yesterday. The 3.0/3.5 stuff had shrunk down to about half of what it normally was (not surprising, as I've noticed the stuff getting thinner in recent months already). There was still a sprinkling of 2nd Ed AD&D (that stuff's been slowly selling down, and most of what's left likely won't sell anyway until they cut the price further), and there was an entire shelf of 4th Edition D&D books. Four copies of the Players Handbook. Four copies of the Players Handbook 2. Three copies of the Monster Manual I. Five copies of the Dungeon Masters Guide. A large sprinkling of other books. All of them used, all of them formerly belonging to different people.

I also used to shop a whole lot of Used music stores. There are some great ones in the Phoenix area. Back when I was doing a lot more CD buying back in the 1980's and 1990's (iTunes and Amazon has pretty much killed my desire to do record hunting that way anymore), I noticed a phenomenon I call the Used Record Store Review. It works like this. If a new album from a popular or semi-popular act comes out, and you visit the local Zia Record Exchange a week or two later, only to notice a dozen used copies of the CD or LP sitting in the used racks, you know the general verdict amongst people who bought the CD is that it was terrible. I found it be a lot more reliable indicator of what I might think of a CD I was on the fence about buying than any music critic.

Again, I haven't played 4E, and haven't looked at the game beyond thumbing through it on the shelves of the FLGS. I can't comment and won't try to comment first hand on its qualities or lack thereof. But it's a very bad sign in a used bookstore where getting your hands on a core rulebook of any edition of D&D is challenge (they don't last long), and where I've never seen a Pathfinder book of any stripe, that I can lay my hands on enough used copies of the 4E Players Handbook to outfit my whole gaming group.

My question, to those who have played 4E in the past, is are you still playing it? Are you thinking about giving it up, or have you given it up? If you have given it up, what has pushed you to this point? I'm curious to know if this admittedly anecdotal evidence is backed up by anything more.

Canon Nazis Must Die or Oh My God!, Darth Maul Just Killed Obi Wan!

First, I'll come clean. I'm a Star Wars junkie. I've read and collected virtually all the novels, and some of the Dark Horse comics stuff. I've got the Star Wars films in three different formats. I've been collecting the Clone Wars series on Blu Ray as it has been coming out. I bought the 3 volume Star Wars Encyclopedia at a store closing sale from Borders a few months ago. So I've got a stronger sense of Star Wars canon than any player I've ever had.

Still, I could care less about the continuity of any of that when I'm running a Star Wars RPG session. I see so many GMs who walk on eggs in fear of whether players will be upset with them for messing up canon, or worst still, GMs destroying their own game because they are afraid of destroying canon that I've got to say, take canon, put it in front of the Death Star's laser, and fire the laser on full power.

There are some things players of ANY RPG based on a licensed property, or even just an extensively published original RPG setting (cough. cough. Greyhawk. Eberron. Forgotten Realms. cough. cough.) need to understand if they really want to get the best out of their games.


I'll come clean. I hate playing or running in the canonical Rebellion Era. What makes for a great pulp-space cinematic story in the Original Trilogy (a handful of determined, talented, doggedly loyal to each other friends taking down a Galactic Empire) makes for a terrible RPG setting. A canonical Rebellion Era dooms the PCs to being a B plot. Think about it. Luke destroys Death Star I. Luke becomes the first (and only during the Original Trilogy) new Jedi. Han and Leia lead a group of rebel troopers (and Ewoks) to destroy the shield generator on Endor. Lando and Wedge destroy Death Star II.

None of those characters are PCs. So what do your players get to do? Maybe they get to be Rebel Trooper #111 on Endor. Maybe they are Rebel Pilot 26 in a snowspeeder trying to delay the Imperial invasion of Hoth. Then again, maybe their actions are off-screen entirely. The one time I ran a canonical Rebellion era game, the climax had the players lead a diversionary action elsewhere while Luke, Han, Lando, Leia, Wedge, R2D2, C3PO, Chewbacca, et al. were destroying a Death Star. B plot. Strictly B plot. It was easily the least satisfying campaign I ever ran.

To make your game more satisfying, play fast and loose with canon. Lucasfilm certainly has over the years (mitichlorians, Leia knew then couldn't have known her mother, retconning Obi Wan's knowledge of Luke's father being Vader, various Expanded Universe gaffes). Feel free to have Wedge catch a case of food poisoning the day of the Death Star battle over Endor so a PC can have a chance to save the world. What does it matter? It's not like somebody is going to reshoot Episode VI to make it match what happens in your game.


The other big problem with canon, particularly with a canon heavily developed along a timeline with an overarching metaplot (Star Wars, Dresden Files, Star Trek, anything publishing using the Cortex System) is that the players have a good sense of what is coming. In Star Wars, we even name the various eras in the timeline, and each of them has a very different feel (Rebellion Era, Prequel Era, Dark Times, Old Republic Era, New Jedi Order, etc.).

Even though players may not know the details of your campaign, they do have a pretty good sense of the general feel of the era, particularly if the game adheres to canon. For example, in a Dark Times game, your players go in knowing the Emperor has been triumphant, the Jedi are gone, force-users everywhere are hunted, repression is everywhere (particularly for non-humans), and eventually the seeds of a rebellion will coalesce.

Feel free to mess with the feel of the eras. Let ideas and concepts from other eras bleed into the era you've set their game in at least a bit.

An example of this is the campaign I'm running right now. It's set in the Prequel Era (moving towards the Clone Wars era, but between the first two films). The party is centered around a young Jedi Padawan who becomes a Knight, a young noblewoman who is a distant cousin of Padme Amidala, and a wise cracking Dug pilot/mechanic. In the early stages, younger Jedi just keep disappearing without a trace. The players are employed by Supreme Chancellor Palpatine, and so far he's been more than accommodating to every request made, interfering little with their missions once assigned.

Now, the players are beginning to run into all sorts of red lightsaber wielding dark siders? Are they Sith apprentices? Or are they Dark Jedi who defected from the order as part of the disappearing Jedi and stumbled across the wrong sort of knowledge? Is the Rule of Two still operative? Is Chancellor Palpatine really the one-dimensional villain he is made out to be in the movies?

Even though outwardly, the campaign looks an awful lot like the Republic from the Prequel Era, there are just enough oddities to create a sense of cognitive dissonance...a sense that maybe things aren't quite what they seem to be on the surface. Even if running a campaign in an era with a well-established canon and generally planning to adhere to that canon, I encourage GMs to create this sense of not knowing for sure how things are going to work out. Make the tactics of some members of the Rebellion morally questionable from time to time. Let your players run into honorable Imperial officers and soldiers. Create that sense of verisimilitude by changing things up a bit.


There's an unwritten rule that I've always adhered to when designing or running campaigns. Never put an NPC into the game if you aren't prepared to have them killed the first time the players meet them.

A classic example of this was when I ran the WotC campaign for Star Wars Saga Edition, Dawn of Defiance. It's a pretty solid series of linked adventures set during the Dark Times Era. Without giving too much away, the true Big Bad Evil Guy of the campaign is a recurring villain. By the end of the adventure, everything imaginable happens to this character. In the final battle, he basically winds up looking like Darth Vader without the really cool black helmet he's been wounded so much he's lost so many limbs and organs.

That's, of course, if the characters don't kill him outright the first time they encountered him by blowing a boatload of Force Points and Destiny Points. Which happened. In my game. My players were rolling exceptionally well, I rolled exceptionally poorly, and before I knew it, the recurring villain was being skewered on the business end of a lightsaber. Ouch. The campaign pretty much died with him.

My point is that in an RPG, no character should be more precious or sacred than any other, particularly NPCs. It's a slight spoiler here, but a decade old, so I'm going to give it away. Chewbacca's death in Vector Prime (New Jedi Order series of novels) was handled ridiculously by the fans. The unfortunate author, R A Salvatore, received death threats...yeah, that's right, real death threats because he killed off a fictional character in a novel.

Once you got through dealing with the shock though, the story made sense, both from a literary point of view (how do you write a character that doesn't speak in a recognizable language?), and from a dramatic point of view (nothing says "shit just got real" quite like the death of a beloved character). To me, it was written well (he dies saving others), and served to let people know in a way that every previous Star Wars novel had failed to, that the galaxy was dangerous, that the antagonists were utterly ruthless, and that all of a sudden you feared for the rest of the heroes of the story. Whatever you may think of the New Jedi Order series of novels (and opinions are decidedly mixed), that moment, to me, was one of the most dramatic moments of the novels. Mission accomplished.

In the most recent session of my campaign, I killed Padme Amidala. It happened off screen, so the characters learned about it by being contacted by the Chancellor's Office. As a character, she no longer served a story function, she was in the way of making one of my characters the star of the story (See Rule 1 above), and it just felt like the right time. My wife, who plays her cousin, a noble diplomat, actually teared up a bit upon hearing the news (I basically rewrote things to let the bomb on the landing pad seen at the beginning of Episode II actually kill her and the rest of her delegation). Her death served a dramatic function, it increased the sense of danger, and even advanced the campaign's metaplot. The handling of the news, the roleplaying that came out of it, and the story that will come out of it took to the game to a level I've rarely ever achieved running a game, and have never seen playing in a game.


All of this thinking led me to my current campaign, which has been entitled Anakin Takes a Bullet. To understand the thinking behind the campaign, I'm inclined to believe in a blend of the Great Man Theory, combined with a more social evolutionary approach.

To put this in Star Wars terms, Anakin Skywalker and the Emperor were the men, more than any others, who helped to bring down the Republic, but the state of the late Republic (endemic government corruption, rising internal disorder, economic decline, political conflict between the Outer and Inner Worlds, ossification of the Jedi Order) created the conditions under which they were able to destroy it.

I envisioned a multi-generational campaign, where the players would take a few sets of characters through the events of the Rise of the Empire, through the Dark Times, the Rebellion Era, and at least in to the early stages of the New Republic.

My first, and foremost goal was Rule 1, making the players the stars of the story. If you want to make the players the stars of the story during the time period covered by the six films, one of the easiest ways to do this is to remove the A plot, that being the Skywalkers story. How do you do this? The simplest way is to kill the Skywalkers.

In Episode I, during the podrace, there are several scenes in which we see Tusken Raiders, on one part of the course, taking potshots at racers using a slugthrower rifle. In one scene, we see Anakin's racer get grazed by a bullet. This is the point of divergence.

In Anakin Takes a Bullet, this shot instead hits Anakin in the brain. Even if he had a chance to survive the gunshot wound, The resulting trauma injury from the crash of the podracer finishes him. And in a stroke, no Anakin, no Luke, no Leia.

With ObiWan, QuiGon, and Padme now trapped on Tatooine (their ship now the property of Watto), Darth Maul can now deal with them at his leisure. Instead of the lightsaber battle on Naboo, the Sith Lord confronts the Jedi on the streets of Mos Espa. To create this battle, I actually statted up Episode I era versions of the three characters and let them duel it out. Ironically, as happened in the film, Qui Gon dies, but weakens Darth Maul enough that young Obi Wan, with the profligate expenditure of Destiny Points, kills Darth Maul in turn.

Enter the players. Their job is to pick up the paces of the failed mission on Tatooine. After retrieving Padme, Obi Wan, the rest of the group, and the body of Qui Gon Jinn, the group returns to Naboo, and the rest of the story from Episode I (alliance with the Gungans, battle with the Trade Federation Droid Army, destruction of the Droid Control Ship (with one of the PCs firing the shot that destroys it) proceeds from there.

But with this one death, Anakin's, a thousand ripples have spread. The Jedi must keep searching for their Chosen One. The PC Jedi becomes newly promoted Jedi Knight Obi Wan's apprentice instead of Anakin. The PC Noblewoman gets promoted from Handmaiden to diplomat for the Queen of Naboo, Padme. The Chancellor will need to find a new fallen Jedi through which to engineer the fall of the Republic, and other concerns are beginning to crop up. All because of one bullet.


One of the biggest challenges of a game like Star Wars or any other game with an extensively developed setting is selling your players on variations on a theme. I've been very fortunate in that my main RPG group, my family, have played together long enough, that we've developed a rapport, and they know, regardless of how experimental I get, that their characters will be treated fairly, that their characters will experience interesting stories and situations, and that together we'll make it a good game.

For those less fortunate, I encourage you to talk with your players. Seek their views on canon. See if they would be open to such a game. Emphasize that the changes you make are intended to give their players the opportunities to be the stars of the show, rather than a sidekick. And most of all, never let canon get in the way of a good game.