12/30/09

This is how you ruin my game, Part 2

Let us continue on our journey into the depths of tabletop gaming hell, and look at another of it's denizens.

The GM breaker
"So, the NPC has clearly laid out the epic quest to save the East Kingdom, eh? I go West."

Some people just can't take a hint. This is not one of those people. The GM breaker takes the hint and bludgeons the GM with it.

The GM breaker is not the one to stand and argue rules. The rules in the book are not the rules that he is turning on his ear. It's the rules of the setting that are his weapon of choice. He's playing a game, but it's not the game you are running.

If you are running a high fantasy tale of heroes saving princesses and killing orcs, he will make a philosopher who finds issue with the assumption that the orcs are evil. If you are running a dark adventure with gritty characters working around the system of goverment in place, he will make the lawful stupid character trying to bring the other PCs to justice. If the party is good, he's evil. If the party are eco-warriors, he'll drive an SUV. If the plot is to the left, he'll go right.

And woe be to he or she who questions her on this, because he will go to ground arguing his right to play his character. Any concession he is asked to make is taken as railroading, and he will fight it every step of the way. He will pick apart your words on the subject. If you ask him to kill the orcs because they are evil, he will use this to justify killing the shop owner who gouges his prices, because he is evil as well.

If there is one rule this player is going to argue, it will be the alignment/morality system in your game, assuming it has one. Expect long winded arguements on what constitutes lawful, chaotic, good, evil, neutral, dark-side, humane, chivalrous, ect. The arguement has nothing to do with the way the game works or the rules in the book, and everything to do with the GM breaker's own views and objectives.

More often than not, the motivation here is control. The GM breaker has a game they want to play, and your intentions be damned. If they stick to their guns, the party will have to adjust around this character, and if then the GM is backed into the corner. The GM will have to make a 90 degree turn with his game and try to get back to actually running a consistent game. Then the GM breaker pulls a 90 degree turn in the opposite direction. Consistent story means the GM is in control, not the GM breaker.

The solution is generally decided by how stubborn this player is. At some point, once you realize that this is going to be a persistent problem, you have to sit him down and tell him that the situation cannot continue. If they have no interest in changing their behavior, they need to go to the store, buy Neverwinter Nights, sit at home and play that, because what this player needs is a single player game.

12/24/09

This is how you ruin my game, Part 1

There is this age old debate among people who play tabletop RPGs as to who is more responsible for the success or failure of a game, the GM or the player.

It has been said on many occasions by many people that while no one can define what makes a good game, anyone can tell you at least one thing that makes a bad one. Here I will seek to provide a few of those definitions, detailing behaviors from both players and GMs that detract from a game. As a bonus, I'll even try to throw out some helpful advice, both for the guilty parties and the innocent bystanders.

The Tyrant GM
"What, do you think your character is anyone special?"

I would like to start this description with a gaming story. I was playing D&D with a new GM, who after both of us had played under a pretty story-shallow game for a few years, promised a story rich adventure of grand purportions. I opted to play a paladin for the first time in my gaming career. After rolling up my character, I was informed that I was a squire to a low ranked knight. My fellow party member was a wizard, who was likewise informed that he was a lowly student under a no-name hedge mage in servace to another mage who was in survace to another mage who was in servace to the kingdom.

We get tasked with dealing with a small goblin infestation that is below anyone else in the kingdom's notice. We are given threadbare gear appropriate for our classes and sent out to earn our keep. Despite the situation, I came into this wanting to play my character as a chipper, upstanding paragon of goodness, chivalry, and rightousness, and took my duty with pride. We set out to face off with the goblins, a pair of lvl 1 characters. We encounter them to find that they are far more powerful than us, having a few mages and several high level fighters among their numbers.

We are quickly and mercilessly overcome, beaten to within an inch of our lives, stripped of all our gear down to our undergarments and taken captive. After being beaten and tortured, we are informed that we are going along with them to defend their base of operations from an orc raid, and that we will be expected to fight or die. At this point, my character is beaten, bruised, mostly naked, but still confident. Perhaps in the chaos my cohort and I might be able to escape, regroup, get back to town, and warn them of the legion of super-goblins dangerously close to town.

We are each given rudimentary clothes, I'm given a longsword and my wizard buddy got a light crossbow. We formed up with the goblin troops and prepared for battle. We were both a little worried. I was unarmored, and the wizard was unable to prepare spells without his spellbook. But, we were fighting along side some of the most crazy-powerful goblins we'd ever heard of, and under normal circumstances orcs were not much higher on the food chain. My character did not revel in the thought of fighting along side his evil captors, but he braced himself for the coming battle.

The orcs quickly and mercilessly sweep through the goblin camp, killing the goblins, beating each of us to within an inch of our lives, stripping us of all our gear down to our undergarments and taking us captive. After being beaten and tortured yet again, we are informed that we are going with them to attack our home town, and that we will be expected to fight or die.

My character's optimisim has started to wane at this point, but there seems to be a silver lining to this cloud. The orcs may not realize that we are members of the town's military, albiet low ranking ones. Once the battle begins, we can assist our old allies and hopefully overcome these orcs, who must be paragons of their people seeing as they managed to so easily defeat the super-goblins.

The day of the attack comes. We are each equiped with a stick and told to toe the front line. We march on the town. We are hungry, bruised, tired, and more than a little shaken, but freedom seems to be on the horizon. When the town guard shows up, we will help them, throw down our weapons, go with them.

We are given no such opportunity. The guard quickly and mercilessly slaughters the orcs before we have a chance to think about acting, then proceed to brutally beat us, capture us, take our sticks, throw us in irons, and charge us with treason.

The session after that, the two of us players reccomended we play a board game instead.

This was a bit of an extreme case, but the problem is an all too common one. Generally, this behavior stems from two major sources. The first being a misunderstanding of what a PC's abilities truly mean in regards to the rest of the world, and the second being a desire to keep the PCs from getting out of control.

One common problem I've encountered in various RPGs is a general misunderstanding of what a character's abilities translate out to in real life terms. Generally, PC's are larger than life heroes to one extent or another, be they modern day gunfighters, mideval swordsmen and sorcerers, or jedi knights.

If you were to ask your average player or GM what a 20 strength meant in a D20 system, they would probably tell you it means you get a +5 to melee attack and damage rolls. If they were really observant, they might mention that you can also carry 133 pounds of gear without being encumbered. Few, though, will mention the fact that a character with a 20 strength can lift 400 pounds OVER HIS HEAD! He can lift twice that off the ground and carry it, and push five times that along the ground. A character with 20 strength could push a 2000 pound boulder out of the road should it block his way. This strength is easily achievable by a first level barbarian, or by a half-orc PC lucky enough to get an 18 stat to play with [or desperate enough to buy one in a point buy].

GM's and players both are quick to forget the real life implications of how good the PCs are at what they do. Some GMs get REALLY liberal with their interpretations of what these numbers mean, and suddenly even though your character might have an five dots of intelligence in World of Darkness, the GM won't let your character be able to figure up the quadratic equation needed to solve the ancient riddle.

The second problem generally comes as an overreaction to the fear of losing control of one's game. The problem I speak of in the understatement of the role of the PCs. This problem comes up most often in established settings. Generally, when playing in an established settings, the players want to live adventures as epic as those of the main characters of the setting you are playing in. Some GMs, unfortunatley, don't jive with this thought process. This leads to a sense that the PCs are small fish in a big pond, and effectively makes them side characters in the overall tale of this world.

Now, I need to throw out a disclaimer real quick. Your level one ranger is not Drizzt. Your level one jedi is not Yoda. Even they had to start somewhere. The problem is when a GM does not allow you to get there. I have seen many a GM pull their hair out once a game reaches mid to high levels. The Tyrant GM's solution is to not let them get there by downplaying who they are.

There is a point at which your average RPG character hits the badass threshold. As a GM, you must be willing to accept this. Some GMs solve this by not running a game to it's endgame, but most players grow tired of playing lowly footsoldiers in the grand scheme of things. Your game's handbook has those nifty high level abilities in there for a reason, and most players are looking forward to using them. Your job as a GM at that point is to respond by providing them a suitably epic challenge, not to underplay there abilities.

Overall, the problem with this behavior is that it doesn't allow the player the satisfaction of being the hero. If you are trying to beat them, you are playing the wrong game. If you don't want your PC's to be the heroes, what is it do you want?

Join us next time when we look at an example of equally bad player behavior.

12/18/09

Chasing That First Crit

Once upon a time, I was full of ideas with regards to what I would do if I could make a game of my own. I was brimming with concepts, story hooks, character ideas, and plotlines. When I discovered D&D, I poured over the books voraciously, imagining endless possibilites. Unfortunately, I had yet to discover my friendly local game store, and had at the time no one to play this game with, or anywhere to play it. I was in highschool, and most of my friends had never even heard of D&D, and I was ill equiped to explain it having never played it.

Then, about a year later, I discovered said friendly local game store. I was elated, wandering about, peering at all the neat goodies. It did not take long for me to stumble across one of the regular game groups. I asked to join, and was quickly accepted. They were my first game, but far from my last. It was not long before I was playing tabletop roleplaying games 3 days a week, with three completly different groups of people.

I am very unique when it comes to how I developed as a tabletop RPG player, for this face. Each of the three groups were increadably different from one another. The group I played with on Sundays were all kids about my age, our GM having most of his experience in computer RPGs based on second and third edition D&D. My Wednesday night game consisted of no one aside from myself who was under 30. They had been running this same game for nearly a year, and were all relatively experienced in the game. The DM was the least experienced, this game being his first time actually DMing. The players had all been playing since second edition or longer. My Friday night game consisted mostly of people in their mid to late twenties, with a couple in their early thirties. They seemed amused to see a bright eyed, bushy tailed new RPG player, where most kids my age were playing Magic the Gathering or Yu-Gi-Oh.

I greatly enjoyed all three games for different reasons. The Wednesday night group challenged me on a tactical level, with intricate encounters, both combat and otherwise. The Friday night group had many varied and interesting characters who played off each other for some excelent roleplay. The Sunday group had grandois settings and storylines, and made us feel like truely epic heroes. Unfortunately, each of the groups also had their problems. The first game had the tendency to break down into hour long rules debates in the middle of combat. The second's players were unusually adverserial with one another, and with the GM. The third suffered from a lack of experience on the player's side and a lack of expertise from the GM.

This is one half of what finally got me in the GM's chair. All these little problems bothered me. I wanted to see if I could do better myself. The other push came from my non-tabletop playing friends expressing interest in these crazy games I kept talking about. So, finally, I drew up a world and ran a game.

The group originally consisted of a few of my high school friends and a few players from my Sunday group. We had a few new players walk up, and I greeted them with open arms, as the other groups had done for me. The group changed much over the course of the nearly two years it ran, but overall it was very enjoyable, and most of the people who participated in the game would talk about it for years to come. It was not without a few complications, up to and including having to ask a player to leave the game. But the game continued on, a great story with great characters unfolding, and ultimately coming to it's final conclusion, an epic showdown where only one character stood at the end of the combat, a lone soul to carry on the tale of his friends' sacrifice.

While I loved running that game, it has become my curse. I have found myself eternally chasing that game, never able to come up with anything quite as fun as those high school days. There are many factors at play, here. Part of it is high standard I impose on myself, part of it is the fracturing of my old gaming groups after high school, and there are even more variables I have yet to nail down.

I have always felt that tabletop roleplaying games where an opportunity for me to trade the visual splendor of the video games I grew up with for unbound freedom in storytelling and character choice. Yet, as I sit down as either a player or GM, I find myself placing odd restrictions on myself. I'll start to write a session, and find myself saying "that will never work" or "this is stupid."

Both my biggest strength and weakness is that I've never stopped observing, either as a player or GM. I keep mental notes of what works, what doesn't, what's not done, and whats overdone. Unfortunatley, I can pull up many, many more examples of what is either overdone or doesn't work than what is fresh and functional. After all, it is nearly impossible to define what makes a good game, but it's much easier to define the things that make a bad one.

I've now found myself back in the GM's seat, after going on hiatus from playing for about a year and GMing for twice that long. So far all has gone smooth, but I still find myself more concerned about what might go wrong than what is going right. Perhaps that will always be my curse. I just try to have fun, and hope my players do the same.

12/1/09

And Now For Something Completely Different...

Well, it is the end of the year, and three car wrecks, two cars, and a semester later, and I haven't written a single post here.

I think I may need to refocus a bit.

I wanted to avoid doing this, because it's overdone almost to the point of being trite, but I'm going to do it, regardless. I'm going to write about gaming.

Yes, this is going to become one of the millions upon millions of geek culture blogs on the internet.

I suppose it isn't a bad thing. I should write what I know, after all. I just wanted to avoid the easy route. But, I've found my life doesn't leave a whole lot worth writing about. This is not to say that every one of my posts from here on out are going to be about the latest 360 release or D&D 4.33333 [repeating, of course]. I'm still going to be writing about my life. The only difference is that this will be less of a place to showcase examples of my higher-brow writing and more just a place for me to unload in an exceptionally verbose fashion. It is my hope that there will be enough entertainment for even the occasional non-gamer type to enjoy.

In actuality, I shouldn't be expecting any readers to begin with. Call me an optimist.

3/10/09

My Love for You is Like a Truck

I suppose I should be happy I'm alive right now. For those who hadn't heard, I was in a car wreck last week, got T-boned by some lady running a red light. I spent the next day resting off my bruises and headache. I spent that weekend shaking off the shock of it all. I really cannot seem to stay in a vehicle.

I don't know if I'm still sore from the wreck now or just stressed. Things could be worse, but they could certainly be better.

3/3/09

Head Down, Charge Forward

Honestly, it wasn't even really writer's block. It was more of an anxiety thing. I would write, but I would be unhappy with what I wrote and trash it. It would be too whiney or too amature or lack any real merit. I have to remind myself that I have to keep writing, if only for writing's sake.

I've found it to be difficult, even in matters more relevant to my personal hobbies. Coming up with creative character ideas for tabletop RPGs has even become a headache, not because I don't enjoy the games, but because my head just feels... empty. Usually when I'm stumped for writing I just freewrite some stream of thought. Just typing out whatever comes to mind [as I am doing right now] usually gives me a topic that when dug out of the literary refuse can be refined into something mildly readable. But, at my last few attempts, the stream had run dry. I had a case of mental white noise. Music on, music off, different music, different lighting, none of these things seemed to help.

Honestly, I'm not totally sure what has changed now. I think being forced to write things for my creative writing class has helped some. Having some outside source of direction can give me some momentum, even if I end up changing directions when I turn to my own work. I rarely write poetry unless directed to do so, not because I don't enjoy it, nor because I dislike it, but moreso because I find it difficult without some sort of outside direction, in this case my assignments.

I find that unless I have a clear goal, I am generally unhappy with the results of mywork. I know this to be relatively common, having read dozens of entries by self-defeating artists and writers on the internet whining about how they haven't updated in a couple months because they aren't feeling inspired. I am legitimatly concerned that I am becoming this very beast.

Someone said something to me today. "You have to keep writing. Just keep writing, not for anyone, or anything, just because. It doesn't matter if it sucks. If you stop, you'll just have that much more difficulty getting started again." I need to go back and thank this individual if we ever meet again.

2/9/09

Of Fame and the Internet

Once upon a time, the popular tag line was "I wanna be in Hollywood." Everyone wanted to be in pictures. Everyone wanted to be in television, or music. Everyone wanted to be famous. Everyone wanted to "be somebody."

Of course, the appeal of such an existence has declined as we see more and more documentaries of burnt out Hollywood legends. Music stars overdose. Movie stars lose their appeal. Child stars grow out of their appeal without having learned basic survival skills. Hollywood turns out not only to be work, but to be work with very low job security. Hollywood loses it's appeal.

As time has gone on, the mediums themselves have lost appeal. Movies, television, music, all seem to be play-by-numbers minimum risk trash, with rare exceptions. People are so far removed from their entertainment, and entertainers so far removed from their populace, that it's simply no longer entertainment. It has become nothing more than going through the motions of being what society expects from mainstream entertainment.

And then there is the Internet. We live in strange times. We have this form of mass communication that is completely open to public domain. Anyone with Internet access and free time can throw up a website, get a Youtube account, start a blog, and generally put themselves on the Internet. Censorship is nearly nonexistent. If you don't like something, you go away, oftentimes to start your own forum or blog to complain about whatever you just left. Information and entertainment by the people for the people is here, and it is good.

Mainstream media is having a hard time wrapping their head around this "Internet" thing. At first this was not a priority for them. The Internet was nothing to be taken seriously, no more so than public access television. The Internet had accessibility, but in mainstream media lied the money, the power, the control, and the public's adoration.

One of the funny things about the Internet is that it let people see all possible options. If your local store was gouging prices on a good because it is the only store that sold it, you could go online and order it at a more reasonable price. The same principle began to apply to entertainment. While mainstream entertainment has us wade through commercial after commercial and/or pay outright for canned, freeze dried "entertainment," on the Internet people were putting out shows, music, comics, and news programs that people actually wanted to watch, and rarely did they ask more than a watcher buy a shirt or maybe consider sending a donation. This was not a demand, simply a request. Mainstream media didn't stand a chance.

We now live in a very transitional phase in our culture in regards to communication. Traditional values tend to balk at the Internet, for it's lack of censorship or respect for tradition. Businessmen who are losing money to their electronic counterparts are trying to evolve to fit this new business model. Entertainment, more so than most, is trying to figure out how to wrap their minds around this new concept, this series of tubes spreading picture, sound, word, and idea without limit.

When I first took an interest in writing as a career, I did so thinking in terms of print. The Internet existed, but it was new, and no one made money on the Internet. Print had been around forever, and it would continue to be around forever.

Right?

Now I find that I might be the very generation that sees the death of print news media. There is simply very little advantage to it anymore. Online publications have no print cost, can distribute at no cost, and still make money using in-site advertising. Print publications are tightening their metaphorical belts, trying to fight the information technology age.

The rules are changing. The problem is we are still writing the new rulebook.

Most people in places of wealth, fame, or success on the Internet will readily admit that to some extent they stumbled into it. Penny Arcade (www.penny-arcade.com) was started as a recreational project, that has culminated in it's authors having enough wealth to start their own gaming expo and charity. Google was originally a simple class project, now it is the foremost used search engine on the Internet.

So, how, in this terrain, does one become a successful writer. That is my challenge.

This blog is my first conscious step towards that end, I suppose. I've written on the Internet in various forms before, but I've never taken it seriously, and one could probably count their hands how many people have actually seen my writing, which has ranged from middle school attempts at poetry to amature video game reviews for games everyone already knows about. I generally gave up rather easily, partially because the success of these pet projects were of no dire consequence, and partially because I got a very distance feeling that while I was writing, no one was reading.

This project of mine is different, but not because I expect to have any sort of readership. This time, the purpose is self improvement. After high school, I wrote much less as real life encroached on my free time. It's the same old song many who claim to have had creative talent in high school sing. It is easy to be creative when nothing is riding on it. When you have to pay bills and rent and put food on your table, things become serious and priorities change. You give up on what you want to do and do what you have to do.

That is very much what I am doing right now, doing what I have to. I'm working an assistant management position at a food service job, and going to college to attain my "dream job" as a writer.

I hate that term, though. "Dream job" makes it sound so ephemeral. What I want is not something that has never been accomplished. It's just a path without guaranteed success. The demand for jobs is higher than the supply, and the job market as a whole is bad right now. So why do I take this route?

Because, frankly, I'm not good at much else. While I'm sure with proper education and training I could be passable at many professions, I would never be happy with them. I'm not simply talking about minimum wage jobs, either. Anyone, with the right training, can be a nurse, a secretary, or an office wage slave. Most people can teach, even if they couldn't make a living at what they are teaching. But I know myself. I take such a job, and I get better at it for a while. Then, I start to not care. I wish I was doing something else. I start not to care. I burn out. My productivity drops. I get reprimanded. I care less. I either lose my job or get shoved into a corner where I won't break anything. I find a new job and repeat the cycle.

Not that this has happened (much). I've only worked two jobs in my lifetime. This is simply a prediction based on what I know about myself.

So the question must be asked, for credibility's sake, why would writing be any different. Wouldn't I just burn out and stop doing it, too? The difference is that writing is the one thing that I can do for money that I do for free. This is not to say that I will work for free, mind you, but this blog is a good example. Though this is currently more or less just a personal dump space, it also serves as a practice ground. I write here, and intend on posting every Tuesday, without fail. After all, just because I'm not getting paid doesn't mean I shouldn't be able to keep deadlines.

Hopefully one day I will be writing on more meaningful subject manner. Hopefully I will get paid for it. For the time being, I will simply write.

2/3/09

I Like to Write

I like to write. It’s one of the few things I do that can be described as remotely constructive. So, it would make sense that I would like to make a living at it. But, it is a worrisome path.

My family’s reactions range from dismissive to condescending. Most expect me to at some point pursue a “real job”. Most are rather vague on what this “real job” should be. My mother has suggested nursing, her own vocation, on multiple occasions. Most my family that can be pressed into an answer respond with “You like computers and stuff, why don’t you work on computers for a living.” Of course, the fact that I have a basic functional understanding of how my computer works has me labeled as a “computer guy” despite the fact that most people I know could run circles around me on the subject.

So, I want to write. Unfortunately, so do many, many other people. So, when demand for jobs outweighs supply, the question then comes to ability. Frankly, I have no idea what my level of writing skill is. I would say I’m proficient without question. But I’ve never really been evaluated beyond that. Even in my college composition classes, the intent was primarily to establish proficiency. I did well, only suffering on the large amount if in-between work that cluttered up what otherwise would have been time better spent either working on the ever-existent upcoming paper or on other classes. So, I know that I can write. I can form words, and string them together to form coherent thoughts. Now what?

Well, I suppose narrowing down the field I want into. In my youth, relative to my twenty-two years of age, I wanted to write for a video game magazine, like EGM. As I looked into it, I realized a few things. First, such positions are in incredibly high demand. Legions of gamers would kill for the chance to write about gaming for a living. Secondly, gaming print magazines had just started their decline, and the profitability of online publications were still in question. So, at this point, I decided that perhaps I should broaden my range to simply “journalism”.

While I still enjoyed other forms of writing, journalism seemed to be the most straightforward path to writing for money. I became a member of my high school newspaper, and, for the first year, loved it. The highlight was, when my editor-in-chief for that year was looking for new material for the features section, she picked up my idea for doing video game reviews. People loved it. We saw higher readership and production quality that year than ever before.
I had turned down an editor’s position, citing that I was at the time more worried about getting to write that getting to manage. After all, the previous year had gone fine, and I didn’t feel the need to make any changes. I then got a lesson in publication politics.

My second year in newspaper staff, my senior year of high school, saw my section cut from the features and myself delegated to whatever job needed a body. Then, my senior year, we had a change over of Editor-in-Chief. The new EOC wanted a “serious” publication, she having just come off of a summer internship at our local newspaper. I had always done some hard news work. I have no problem with hard news as a general topic, though even at our high school, Little Rock Central High, topics of hard news worth reporting were sparse. But, due to a combination of my turning down an editorial position and the nature of my feature column, I was deemed as “not taking things seriously” by most of the editorial staff. I had never been so unsure about what I wanted to do for a living as I was after completing that year.

It took me a few years to start college, personal issues necessitating that I deal with the more immediate concerns of job, home, food, and bills. I’m currently in my third semester of college, and still floundering about for what I’m going to do with myself. I want to write. It’s something I can do, and people get paid to do it. I have just got to make the connection between those two statements.

In my recent days I encountered a certain tie-dyed traveler who makes a living doing freelance writing. It was encouraging to meet someone who had accomplished what I wished to do. At her advisement, I’ve started a blog.

I really can’t say I know what the theme of this blog is going to be. It’s function not to so much to educate or entertain on a certain topic, but to give myself a place to write, and hopefully, improve. If I’m lucky, someone who could make use of my skills may someday stumble upon this and contact me. Who knows, some may even find entertainment from it.