What’s Character Progression For?

On another forum, someone was asking about how to deal with the problem of a new player joining a group and being underpowered relative to the existing players. They were mostly getting answers from people who were assuming that players will feel cheated if they don’t have character progress or if someone else gets to the same place without the same trials and tribulations. What I think of as a very “old school”, D&D viewpoint. This is a slightly edited version of my response. 

Could a game be designed where new characters could come in and be as effective (primarily in combat, I suppose) as current members of the group? A level-less system of sorts? 

I was thinking characters could always be basically the same, but might have a wider variety of skills than a newer character.

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Gen Con 2014 — How Not to Do Registration

I wrote last week about the awesome time I (well, we—my friends and I) had at Gen Con this year. Easily the most fun I’ve had at a Gen Con without staying downtown. 

Which leads me right into the lousy time I had getting set up for the convention. Registering for Gen Con has become a hassle and a frustration. And it doesn’t have to be. The fixes are technically easy. They may not be politically easy, but I think they are palatable, and certainly better than the situation we have now. 

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Gen Con 2014 – Gaming

Gen Con was great fun, as usual. This was the first year in 15 when I wasn’t running games, so I had a blissfully laid-back schedule. In a later post, I’ll talk about all the flaws in the organization, but once I was there it was great!

Since we couldn’t get into many RPG events that weren’t D&D or Pathfinder (and we aren’t interested in those), we instead filled much of our game time with Games on Demand. This year they solved the principle problem of previous years by making the “boarding” order random rather than first-come, first-served. So you could show up 15 min—or even 2 min—before the start time and not only get into a game but have a reasonable shot at getting into one of your preferred choices. (Last year, you could show up an hour and a half before a time slot and still not be the front of the line, so you basically had to allocated an additional 1-2 hours of line-standing if you wanted to play Games on Demand and had any preferences whatsoever among the games offered.) I had poor luck on the letter lottery, inevitably picking one of the last letters called, but there were enough games of interest to me that I never had to settle. I won’t talk about every game I played at Gen Con, but want to highlight a few.

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#RPGaDAY 31: Wildburry, Cape Suzette, and Perach

[School started, so time is short, and this is late.]

While the rules are not necessarily the game (especially since many game systems are used in more than one RPG), I’m gonna say that “best RPG” has been covered in one way or another by days 6, 12, 18, 20, 21, and 25. There’s no way I could narrow it down to just one favorite RPG—even coming up with a top 5 is hard (and last time I tried I gave up once I’d narrowed it down to 8)—and whatever it is it would be one of the games I mentioned on one of those days, and/or repeatedly on several other days. So rather than bore you with the same things over and over, I’m going to interpret this as my favorite game instance (evening/campaign/whatever)—which includes a particular RPG, of course.

There are a lot of possibilities here—I’ve been blessed with lots of great games. There was our “filler” game of Remember Tomorrow from a couple years back, which did an amazing job of giving us a coherent game that consisted of a quartet of individual stories. I had an awesome time playing Heroine at Forge Midwest this year, and my first-ever game of Primetime Adventures was this amazing con game of “a more serious take on Jem, as remade by J.J. Abrams”. And there are many others. So in my usual decisive fashion, I’m going to declare it a 3-way tie.

In general, my favorite games are ones that other people have run—I tend to be the GM, always have been, so any time I get to play is great, but it’s particularly great if the game is great. So I’ll take running a good game over playing a mediocre one, but if everything else is equal, I’d rather be in the player’s seat.

Wildburry Academy

An exclusive private school somewhere in the Romanian mountains, where exceptional teenagers are taught how to play “the great game”. Except it’s not a game any more—the Cold War is over, and the gentlemanly rivalries of the 19th and early 20th centuries are found only in history books. Not quite as dark as reality, but still a world of deception, double-dealing, and uncertainty. We used Spycraft 2.0, and our characters were 15- to 16-year-olds when they first enrolled. We played through their first year, with a fun mix of fake teaching missions, serious espionage missions—and typical high school events, as depicted in any teen romcom. (We don’t take our games overly seriously.) The GM was great, and Spycraft really supports running a game like this, with lots of crunch to differentiate our characters and make tasks genuine challenges. Plus, I got to play Vacile Moşanu, former Transnistrian teen idol with an ego that borders on solipsism, but an actual knack for organizing others and an inexplicable way with people. I got to play the member of the group that everyone loved to hate—the Barney Stinson of our game, complete with pulling off outrageous plans (when the dice favored me).

Higher for Hire

A few years ago I was playing in a group that was playing fairly traditional, long-running campaigns—things like Arcana Unearthed and Reign. I wanted to play some more story-oriented games, so I pulled a small group together of like-minded people, and one of the first games we played was Primetime Adventures (PTA). We followed the suggested setup, meaning that we first settled on a setting & premise, then created characters, then chose characters from among those to be our PCs. I’d heard multiple accounts of starting from children’s shows producing amazing games of PTA, so we started talking about actual shows that we were all familiar with. Turns out there weren’t that many (mostly due to age differences), and then we hit upon TaleSpin. Taking a tried-and-true method to adapt an existing property, we decided to play the next generation. It was almost 20 years after the events of the show, with Molly & Kit all grown up. Baloo and Rebecca had married and retired. Kit had inherited Higher for Hire, and then run it into the ground—like Baloo, he was a good pilot but no businessman. He was living on the couch of his friend Riki Tavi. Meanwhile, Molly had gone off to college and, teaming up with her friend Gosalyn Mallard, become an actual costumed vigilante, bringing her childhood idol Danger Woman to life! What she knew was that it wasn’t all Kit’s fault that Higher for Hire had gone under: the escalating conflict between the air pirates and the vigilantes had made the airways so dangerous that everyone’s insurance rates had gone through the roof. Sher Khan had made sure of this, and then stepped in as all the smaller insurance companies went bankrupt to “magnanimously” buy out Higher for Hire (and any other competitors that didn’t fold first). Don Karnage was now a doddering shell of his former self (though having gained in wisdom what he had lost in debonair), and the air pirates were only still around because it was convenient for Sher Kahn to continue to have them as an excuse for higher shipping rates. We also had fun pulling in other possible characters, beyond who actually appeared on TaleSpin, from related settings.

We decided who our main characters would be and then randomly determined who would play whom (rolled dice? I can’t remember), which left Dan as GM, me as Molly, and Caitlin as Kit. It was absolutely fascinating as the combo of the dice, the characters’ stats, and the situations drove us into all sorts of unexpected territory. I remember distinctly discovering at one point “Molly’s kinda selfish”, and being surprised by this. But, all around, it was an awesome game, and has me ready to return to Primetime Adventures any time I can find an interested group and a few weeks.

Relationship map v2

Reclaiming Perach

After a couple false starts, I finally got to run a game using The Burning Wheel. We created our own setting, extrapolating from the life paths: a world where the elves had “uplifted” humanity (and, before them, the orcs). Eventually, the humans outgrew their “parents” and war broke out. Humans discovered/invented sorcery and won the war, destroying elven society in the process. Our characters included an elf who feared he might be the last of his people, but the rest were human, remnants of the war. The story was intended to revolve around Anthony de la Bouche attempting to reclaim the throne of Perach from his usurping uncle, but I made the mistake of letting them into the same room with a weapon in the second session. In a deadly and non-narrative system, don’t let the PCs at the main badguy early on, because they will kill him.

As it turned out, this made for a very interesting game: only a select few knew that the uncle was dead, and so it became a game of politics and propaganda while trying to avoid the king’s forces long enough to raise political support for a return. The Burning Wheel system really shone, and made for an awesome game, despite my occasional errors in gauging the effectiveness of enemies. Though my very favorite scene never happened: we were all set for a combined simultaneous duel of wits and duel of sabers between Anthony and the most powerful of his dead uncle’s supporters, Captain Robillard. We’re talking total de Bergerac territory here—and a game system that can actually make both parts equally fun and equally consequential. Then the PCs used a clever combination of facts and carefully fabricated evidence to sway Robillard to their side, thus completely short-circuiting the duel. I was so disappointed. :-( Not that I can actually complain when the PCs are clever and/or non-suicidal—the duel really would’ve been a toss-up, and thus a very risky move on Anthony’s part.

We had a very satisfactory conclusion to Anthony’s storyline, and were just starting to get into the question of whether any elves remained (and they had begun finding evidence of the returning orcs) when the game ended. Had it gone on, consequences would’ve become very interesting: in addition to the orcs no longer held in check by the elves, there were side effects of all the magic, some of it very dark, that had been used to win the war, still lurking about the land. Maybe someday…

#RPGaDAY 28: Dread

The scariest games I’ve ever played have all been sessions of Dread. Let me tell you about our very first playtest of the game. We already had most of the rules there (plus a few extraneous bits that we thankfully dumped before we published), so it was pretty much what you’ve played if you’ve played Dread (though characters were pretty different). Eppy and I were playing in our kitchen with our friend Dan, with the lights low. Eppy was running the game. He had set up a playlist of mood music, looping on his computer a couple rooms away. We were dealing with some creepy cultists in a recently post-apocalyptic land. We had discovered they were engaging in human sacrifice and maybe cannibalism, and decided we needed to get away while we still could. Dan was working on a pull, his hand almost on the tower, and the music was so quiet as to be inaudible. Then, with no warning, an agonizing scream erupted from the next room. We all jumped a foot in the air, Eppy included, and had to take a break before Dan could finish his pull and we could continue the game. Sure, it was just a coincidence and a startle, but it wouldn’t’ve mattered if the game hadn’t been so scary to begin with, if we hadn’t all been so tense through the combination of the events in the game and that looming tower on the table. 

I don’t think we ever bothered with music for a Dread game again—it was almost too much. But we continued to play and run scary sessions of Dread, and I’ve even seen it work its magic in loud, brightly-lit, crowded convention rooms. 

Oh, that scream? It’s part of the opening of a Samhain song, which actually has some very soft other sound effects, but those were inaudible on computer speakers a room away. Unfortunately, neither Eppy nor I can remember the exact song, and some quick googling didn’t provide the answer. 

#RPGaDAY 27: Amaranthine

Why publish a new edition of an RPG? Cynically, I might say “to milk the fans of more money”, but let’s give everyone the benefit of the doubt. So why else do new editions of games get made? Sometimes having several thousand people play your game turns up problems that even diligent playtesting had missed. Sometimes you run out of copies and want to print more, and you figure this is a good opportunity to fix some problems, minor or major. Sometimes your game world has a storyline that has advanced and the old edition is no longer current. Sometimes the original was rushed or you can now afford better editing or art.

These are, to me, loosely what I would consider “bad”, or at least weak, reasons. Some are better than others, but they’re generally things that I wish would be fixed before the game was released in the first place, or they’re things that I don’t think merit a new edition. The problem with a new edition is that it fractures the player base if there are significant changes. If it’s just cosmetic, that’s fine, but if there are significant changes to setting or rules, then you run into the problem of people with different editions having trouble playing together. 

Then there is what I suspect is one of the reasons that people frequently want a “new edition”: because the old one is out of print. But in that case, why not just a reprint? There are a number of games no longer in print that I’d love to see once again easily available in hardcopy, but I don’t think there is/was anything wrong with the original. Castle Falkenstein, Underground, Primetime Adventures (which is currently in the process of being revised and reprinted), Aria, The Last Exodus, Advanced Marvel Super Heroes—the only thing wrong with any of these games is that they’re out of print. 

But the more interesting situation is when a game has real promise and fails to live up to it. Maybe the rules are horribly broken. Maybe it really needs an editor. Maybe there’s the sketch of a really interesting setting married to 200pp of rules, and what it really needs is to focus on that setting and strip the rules down so that it can shine. Or maybe they were so focused on the setting that the rules are junk. 

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