Thursday, August 25, 2016

Book Review: No God But One

A few months ago, I received a copy of Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward for review. Written by Nabeel Qureshi, it was a brief examination of jihad in Islam and the Christian response to it.

I was fortunate enough to receive a review copy of Qureshi's third book, No God But One: Allah or Jesus? as well. If his first book, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, was the story of how his heart changed in his conversion from Islam to Christianity, then No God But One is the story of how his mind changed.

In No God But One, Qureshi takes the time to unpack two primary questions central to someone seeking to know God:
  1. Are Christianity and Islam really all that different?
  2. Can we know whether Islam or Christianity is true?
These are both questions of profound importance. There is no sense in choosing between one faith or the other if they are not meaningfully different, but if they are different, then how can you know which one to choose? This is not a process of elimination, either; they must stand or fall on their own merits. As Qureshi says of his own experience:
For me, it's been a decade since I made the decision to leave Islam, and the fallout of my decision haunts me every day. I knew it would, well before I ever converted, but I also knew that I was sure. I was sure that Islam and Christianity are not just two paths that lead to the same God, but two very different paths that lead very different ways. I was sure that I had excellent historical reason to believe the gospel. I was sure that, though I loved Islam, I couldn't ignore the problems that plagued its foundations. But most of all, I was sure that following the one true God would be worth all trials and all suffering. I had to follow the evidence and the truth, no matter the cost.

RPG a Day - Day 25

Today's topic: What makes for a good character?

Before I start, I have to say I wish more of the questions were like this. This is red meat for gamers who like to argue about their hobby.

My answer to this is going to center around the non-mechanical aspects, as I feel like the functionality of a character and the interface of mechanical and non-mechanical character traits is a different issue altogether.

Backstory

First, a good character has to have a backstory.

It's a common trope that poorly made characters have no history. They sprang from the earth, fully formed and clad in adventuring gear. Some games don't really need more than that; Fi-tor the Fighter doesn't need a backstory if all he's doing is descending into an endless dungeon to fight monsters until he dies.
Unless you're literally playing Athena, then springing forth fully-formed is probably okay.
Still, a good backstory provides a few benefits. It gives the character motivation for his adventures. It ties him into the setting, unless you're going for a fish-out-of-water character. It provides hooks for the GM to draw the character into the adventure by personalizing elements of it.

It doesn't have to be War and Peace, it just needs to be enough to understand what motivates the character and why. What benefit is all of this motivation?

Goals

A good character also needs goals

This starts with justifying why your character is even on the adventure in the first place. Frodo's life was not one long build-up leading to Bilbo handing him the One Ring, but the events of his life made it plausible for Frodo to accept the quest to take it to Mordor. The well-written character will follow the adventure for reasons besides "I'm good and the bad guy is evil" or "All my friends are doing it."

Some exceptions may apply.
It goes beyond that, though. Most people have some interests outside of their profession. Presumably, your character should have things that motivate him besides completing his quest. Do they have hobbies? Are they collectors or trophy hunters? Are they part of an organization? Are they religious? Do they have any feelings about the local government? 

This doesn't have to be an extensive or comprehensive list, but having a few things that the character wants out of the game will go a long way towards making him three-dimensional. 

Personality

To really shine at the table, however, a character needs personality, things that make him unique to the other characters at the table and those you've played as well.

A lot of people like to do voices and accents for this, which is fine. A lot of us are only mediocre at best at this sort of thing, so it's probably best to skip it unless you do some practicing ahead of time.

Still, distinguishing the character at the table goes beyond just the voice. but also the mannerisms, the tone, and other affectations. This can be something incorporated into the way the character speaks, but it can also branch into the way you describe the character's actions. 

For example, perhaps the character is shy. This could be voiced by a slight studder and squeamishness when speaking with strangers. When possible, perhaps the character chooses to stand behind other characters, being out of direct line of sight. They probably don't make a lot of eye contact, either. 
Just don't do catchphrases. The other players will try to murder you.
 None of these things in isolation may seem like much, but in concert they can take a bland, boring character and turn him into something memorable and vibrant.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

RPG a Day - Day 24

Today's topic: What is the game you are most likely to give to others?

This is an easy answer: Fate Accelerated Edition. Partially, this is because of my deep love for the system, which I've discussed previously. Much more relevant to the question, though, is the price point: $5.
Yep. What it says on the tin.
In fact, Larry's been known to hand out copies of this to his players at Charm City Game Day, in case you needed additional incentive to go.
September 17th. Hint hint.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

RPG a Day - Day 23

Today's topic: What is your best 'worst luck' story?

Oh, my best is non-gaming related, so I'll have to save that for another day. As for gaming . . .

It's often said that people create their own luck. I think when it comes to RPGs, a GM can create his players' bad luck, too. In the very first Dungeons & Dragons game I ever played, the GM did exactly that.

We were playing a party of adventurers in a pre-made adventure setting. Saltmarsh, I think? It doesn't matter. Had I more experience, I might have known there was going to be trouble right off the bat when the GM had us bother with finding jobs. Not adventurer jobs, mind you. Normal civilian employment.

See, 3rd edition D&D had rules for earning money the civilian way. You could spend your (for some classes, severely limited) skill points on professional training and earn varying amounts of money per day for your labor. I didn't spend any skill points on such because I thought my paladin was going to actually be out there smiting evil. That's fine; you can perform unskilled labor and earn money still; moving crates at the docks and so forth.

It's worth pointing out that a night at the inn was one gold. The cheapest lodging in town was to stay at the temple of the god devoted to travelers and safe roads for 10 silver a night. Using my divine might to haul cargo, I was earning . . .
Hoo boy.
 . . . Much less than that.

Thankfully, the GM decided that a game about a paladin starving in the streets of Saltmarsh was not going to be interesting and sent us on an adventure.

Unbeknownst to us, this adventure had us crashing a smuggling operation in a "haunted" house. We found a member of the smuggling ring clearly cast out from the group, as he was bound and gagged in the house. We freed him and invited him to explore the house with us, because why not? So just as we're about to discover the hidden entrance to the smugglers' hideout . . .
Uh oh.
 . . . The jerk decides to shank me in the back. With sneak attack dice. And a high level poison worth more than everything we'd find in the smugglers' den.

Somehow, I survive and we clear out the den for actual monetary gain. Except, the smugglers were apparently the only source of alcohol for the city, so now we're hated by the general populace. Even better, the jerk who shanked me was the nephew of some politician, so now we're also wanted criminals.

Gee, you'd think maybe we were being set up.

By the time this all came to light, we'd recently escorted a diplomat to the city, and she offered to shelter us under her authority. Well, on the condition that we "consummate" this arrangement. I didn't like it, but the GM had shown he was ready to let the characters sit in prison, so if I wanted to keep playing the paladin, this was the way to go. Except . . .
"Make a saving throw." Why? . . . Shoot.
. . . It turns out our kindly benefactor is a succubus. Now the entire party is broke again, because we have to pay high level spell casters to heal the level damage she caused.

Our next adventure has us sorting out an "artist" whose sculptures were just people and creatures he'd been turning to stone with magic. Can you guess how that went?
"Make a saving throw!" . . . You've got to be kidding me.
(Edit: I went back to look this up. That spell isn't even accessible to a caster until level 11 or later. At our peak, we hit level 4, and we weren't there long. By all rights, this was a crazy challenge to throw at us.)

We had similar luck when a gang of local ruffians decided we were suitable targets for bullying. Their response to a bit of backbone was to murder my paladin in the street. In broad daylight. In the middle of a crowd.
"The barbarian turns you into a fine, pink mist. The ruffians are now local heroes because everyone hated you."
Now we have to spend some money we don't have on a resurrection for my paladin. We were completely out of options, except . . .
I couldn't find any tasteful pictures of a succubus, so have a bunny instead.
Broke. Back at level 1. Reviled by the city. Our only friend a soul-consuming sex demon.

The game didn't last much longer than this. Like I said, though: Sometimes your bad luck is made for you. We rolled poorly, but even good rolls weren't going to save us in this environment.
Just to lighten the mood. Comic by Shamus Young.

Monday, August 22, 2016

RPG a Day - Day 22

I don't have a great answer for the scheduled topic, so I wanted to revisit a topic from a few days ago: What is your favorite media property you wish was an RPG?

If you've never read it, you should seriously check out the webcomic Drive. Of all the sci-fi properties I've encountered in recent years, this one has fascinated me more than any, and this is coming from someone who only discovered Firefly two or three years ago. 

Drive is the creation of Dave Kellett, best known as the creator behind Sheldon and co-director of the comic strip documentary Stripped.  The story behind Drive is absolutely fascinating. It starts with a man who discovers a spaceship, advanced technology from a far-flung civilization known as the Contiuum of Makers. From this ship, the man derives the secret of "ring" technology, and with it, the ability to break the light-speed barrier in space travel. With this secret, the man builds an empire, eventually becoming the first emperor of a second Spanish empire that spans the galaxy. It is a secret so closely coveted that only blood-relations of the royal family are permitted to know how the technology works. For a non-familia to enter the engine room of a ship is to invite a swift death.

The problem for mankind, however, is that the Contiuum knows its technology has been stolen and wants it back with a religious fervor, and their firepower far exceeds the capabilities of the Drive Corps, the new Spanish Armada.

Complicating this war is the reappearance of The Vinn, a "race" of parasites that reproduces by infecting other species, searching for their lost gods and attempting to infect every planet and race in the universe.

I've barely scratched the surface, but you can guess that there is an epic story to be told here. I absolutely love the potential playground this enables for an RPG and the stories that could be told. It would certainly be a change of pace from the standard-bearers of Sci-Fi RPGs.

It's probably not going to happen any time soon, but it's a property I'd absolutely love to see as an RPG.

A wealth of stories just waiting to be told.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

RPG a Day - Day 21

Already three weeks in? This is the most commitment I've shown to a writing project in a long, long time. Neat!

In any case, today's topic: What was the funniest misinterpretation of a rule in your group?

I'm not sure my group ever had any truly hilarious rule misinterpretations. The closest I could say is that, when we first picked up Sentinels of the Multiverse, our friend Adam would retroactively invalidate our victories the next time we'd play. "As it turns out, we were doing X wrong, so we probably wouldn't have won that match." Like clockwork. Not that it was his fault we couldn't follow the rules, but shooting the messenger can be very satisfying.

Instead, I think I'll share some of the best, most hilarious rules shenanigans I remember from 3.5 Dungeons and Dragons. They're not so much "misinterpretations" as they are "unintended consequences" from the over-accumulation of rules books. Splat books will do that to you.

The Jumplomancer

First up is the Jumplomancer. The idea behind this build was that you could build a character who would leap hundreds of feet into the air, and by the time he's landed, the awesomeness of this feat of athletic prowess caused all who saw it to become his fanatical devotees. Without focusing too much on the details, the steps this entailed:
  1. Acquire feature that allows you to substitute any other skill for a Perform check.
  2. Acquire feature that allows you to substitute a Perform check for a Diplomacy check.
  3. Boost your Jump skill and speed (related to jumping) into ludicrous levels.
There you go. People might argue about the specific combinations of feats and class features, specifically whether they interact in the manner intended to make this so ridiculous. Still, just the idea of the Jumplomancer is hilarious.

The Locate City Bomb

The other trick I'm thinking of is the Locate City Bomb. In this case, the shenanigans come about by the abuse of meta-magic feats, which served to alter the way in which mages cast their spells. The central misinterpretation is on the spell Locate City, which ostensibly a spell meant for finding civilization when you're far from it. However, because it was published listing it as having an area affect, and not just a range, that opened it up to meta-magic abuse. The general chain of progression:
  1. Acquire feat that turns it into a Cold spell.
  2. Acquire feat that adds frost damage to all Cold spells. 
  3. Acquire feat that changes the damage to Lightning.
  4. Acquire feat that adds a reflex save to avoid the damage.
  5. Acquire feat that pushes a target to the edge of the spell area if it fails the reflex save
There you go. It's worth noting that being pushed to the edge of the spell area causes damage per 10 feet traveled, and the spell has an area measured in miles. It's funny because the ridiculous chain of feats that has to be combined to make it happen, as well as the innocuousness of the original spell, speaks to just how abusive of the rules this is. 

That, and just imagine it's use in a game. 

"Hey, where's the nearest city?"
"Hm . . . That way."
"Never mind."


Saturday, August 20, 2016

RPG a Day - Day 20

Today's topic: What is the most challenging, but rewarding, system you've learned?

This answer might strike folks as strange, but I'd say 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons.

This game (which I'll abbreviate as 4E) was controversial when it was released. Its predecesor, third edition (3.5E,) was tremendously popular, but it had accrued a great deal of cruft in the form of splat books. When 4E came along, it turned a great number of the mechanics that had been endlessly reiterated in 3.5E and turned them on their heads. It's probably too much to recount the differences here, but suffice it to say that many of the features players considered "core" to the D&D experience, such as Vancian magic, were exchanged for new systems.

For some people, the new system was fundamentally broken. It simply wasn't something they could enjoy, and they'd stick with 3.5E thank you very much. For others, it could have been a reasonably fun game if it just didn't have the D&D label on it. Regardless of who you asked, it was a substantially different experience from 3.5E.

The Challenge

Coming in to run the game for the first time, I had a number of hurdles to overcome. This included, but wasn't limited to:

  • Pacing the game against player resources, such as healing surges and powers
  • Understanding the role of combat in a session, and how to pace it appropriately
  • Properly utilizing the Skill Challenge system
  • Motivating players to use Rituals effectively
  • Rewarding players without trivializing the challenges
I could go on. The point is that there was a new mindset needed, and a lot of things to consider, when running this system. It couldn't be run in the same fashion as a 3.5E game. There were many elements "out of the box" that needed tinkering to get the most mileage out of them. It came with a lot of trial and error. 

The Reward

I shouldn't have to explain this one too deeply. I've written quite a bit about the 4E campaign I ran for my group. It was one of the longest games I've run, it ended after about 15 sessions, and everyone seemed to enjoy it throughout. I had lots of player investment in the setting, there was good roleplaying throughout, and the ending was satisfying all around.

Now that 5th Edition has been released, a lot of people have moved on from 4E. I don't blame anyone, but I consider it a game I'd return to again. I learned how to get the most of the system when I ran it, and I think it can be a fun system to play again and again. 

Except for Grappling Rules. Those are never rewarding. Comic by Shamus Young.

Friday, August 19, 2016

RPG a Day - Day 19

Today's topic: What's the best way to learn a new game?

I have a lot of experience learning new games, thanks to Charm City Game Day, run by my friend Larry.  I saw some games I'd never even heard of in the past and met some awesome people this way, by the way. The next one is just around the corner, September 17. If you're in greater Baltimore/DC area, you should consider coming out for this.

In any case, I've found that immersion is the best way to learn a new game. Most people, if they've played any sort of RPG before, understand that if their character sheet says, "Sneaking +5," then if they decide to sneak, they'll get a +5 to their rolls. That's relatively intuitive for even the greenest of gamers.

For more complicated rules, though? Demonstrations are worth their weight in gold. For example, I mentioned a few days ago that I loved Fate Points. This system isn't always intuitive to players right away, whether they're seeing a written description or the GM is explaining it to them at the table. Show them the different ways they work in the first five minutes of the game, however, and they'll catch on quickly.

Another helpful element of jumping into the game is to simply ask the players to declare their actions and start getting into the rule details as things come along. For example, perhaps the players are a spaceship crew, and you tell them that their destination is blocked by debris. One player says, "My character is the ship's navigator. Can I pilot us through the wreckage?" Great, this is the perfect time to talk about how piloting a ship works in this game.

This appraoch also works because the players will ask questions as they come up. To use the same example, another player might say, "My character has a bonus in 'Heavy Weapons' and training in 'Ship Weaponry.' Is there a difference? 'Cause I'd like to use the ship's guns to clear a path in the debris." This makes a great time to talk about those differences and the mechanics for shooting the ship's weapons.

You might not think it'd make a difference, but if you'd tried to throw all of that at the players before starting, plus whatever other explanations you think they'd needed, it probably would have gotten lost in the din.

Some other good advice for teaching a new system:

  • Provide a copy of quick-start rules if you can. It can speed up the game if the players have something to reference for their questions on basic mechanics within the system.
  • Keep it simple. Some systems can get incredibly complicated, and the game can get bogged down in the details if you throw too much at the players at once. 
  • Limit the options. The players' primary vehicle for interacting with the world is the collection of knobs and levers that make up the character sheet. Don't put anything on there that you know won't get used in the game. 
  • If the characters are divided into different classes or roles, make certain that all of those roles are show-cased and useful in your game.
The last thing I'd say about all of this is to make the game fun. Nothing about the system or the mechanics will matter if nobody actually enjoys the adventure. 
September 17. Put it on your to-do list.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

RPG a Day - Day 18

Today's topic: What innovation could RPG groups benefit from most?

Most readily, I think RPG groups could benefit from smart phone integration.

Think about it. Most likely, everyone at your table is carrying one. There's probably a good chance they're already looking at it throughout the game session. I think there's an obvious opportunity for apps which make integrating them into the game a smooth endeavor. I realize that there are programs out there that would cover most of the functions I'm thinking about here, but something that made it more seamless, especially in the context of a group of people sitting around at a gaming table, would probably be very popular.

As for innovations that aren't really prominent, I'd be delighted to see how the digital table top endeavor is coming along.

If you're not familiar with it, the idea was to take advantage of the boom in touch screen technology to create a digital, interactive table top display.
Something like this.
Supposedly, this was something WotC was working on back in the days of D&D 4th edition, but seems to have abandoned the project for various reasons. Most likely cost; a quick google search shows digital table tops available, but with costs running in the $8-10k range. Yikes.

The advantages of such tech are obvious: High quality visuals without having to buy printed maps all the time. (Generally) easy to interact with. Lots of possibilities for a variety of systems.

I know people already simulate such things using projectors and virtual table top programs such as Roll20, but this always felt like the inevitable progression of the hobby. (Throw in smart phone integration as I discussed above, and you've got a solid gold project there.)

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

RPG a Day - Day 17

Once again, I'm skipping the scheduled topic for one I find more interesting. Today's topic: What is your favorite revolutionary game mechanic?

I'm not sure how you'd define "revolutionary" in this context, but discovering Fate Points was a moment of awakening for me. To explain why, it would help to start from the beginning.

I started gaming back in 2007 with D&D (3.5). It's a system people love to death, enough so that when WoTC moved on to 4th Edition, people stuck with a new version of D&D 3.5, Pathfinder. I point that out just to say that it's obviously a system with redeeming qualities if people loved it this much, but it places a lot of the narrative control in the hands of the GM. Players are generally limited to interacting with the game by the "buttons and levers" on their character sheet. This is why magic users are often considered so much more powerful in those systems; they just have more options for interacting with the world than the martial classes.

Even so, that ability to interact with the world is still limited to the effects described within the rules. If the player wants to interact with the game itself, it's entirely at the discretion of the GM.

Fate Points changed that in a way that I love. They give the players a way to interact with the game that goes beyond the mechanics defined on the character sheet. A player can spend a Fate Point to, for example, declare a detail about the world, or force a certain behavior onto an NPC. In some systems, similar types of resources can be spent to declare a PC automatically succeeds at his action.

It's an incredible method for the game to become much more interactive to the players, and not just the characters. It provides means for them to be much more creative and contribute in ways that the GM may never have anticipated. It's also a great vehicle for the GM to reward the players. It's frequently the case that a player might have a great moment at the table: He comes up with a great plan, does something hilarious, or capitalizes on a dramatic moment that impresses everyone. Fate Points are a good way for the GM to reward such moments. In a system like D&D, there's no obvious way to handle this.

Like I've said, there are similar systems out there, but Fate Points were my first encounter with this sort of mechanic, and I love it. It's why Fate remains one of my favorite systems.
Besides, there's just something satisfying about passing tokens back and forth.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

RPG a Day - Day 16

I don't care for the scheduled topic for today, so I'll grab one from yesteryear: What's your favorite RPG accessory?

For this, it would have to be my dice box. Find me a gamer who doesn't revel in his method for storing and transporting dice? A lot of people start off with the classic Crown Royal bag. Just google "dice bag" and you can see the wide variety people make them in. They come in chain mail, they come in scales, they look like monsters, they look like people. As I recall, one of the Fear the Boot hosts has a dice bag made from a kangaroo's scrotum. (Although I hear it's probably wallaby.)

My dice box isn't nearly so exotic, but I still love it. The box itself looks like a big six-sided die, so I'm storing my dice in a die. Silly? Sure. Nerdy pleasure? Oh, yes.

It's not a great transport method, mind you. It doesn't fit well in any bags, it's bulky, it takes up a lot of room at the table, and digging dice out of it is a noisy affair. Still, it's mine and I love it.
Very similar to this. 

Monday, August 15, 2016

RPG a Day - Day 15

Today's topic: What is your best source of inspiration for RPGs?

In general? Television.

It's actually a great medium for pilfering ideas. Most of your stories are either set up to be resolved over a 30-60 minute episode, or in bits and pieces over the course of a season. That's a very similar structure to most RPGs, which will either resolve plots over a single game session or over the course of several sessions that form a campaign.

Of course, it also depends on how you're swiping from the medium. Things like pacing, structure, or general plot lines can be great ideas to pull. Get too specific about the details, though, and you could end up with problems. You might end up expecting your players to respond the way the characters in the show did, which is never a good strategy because it's risky to expect the players to respond in any given manner.

Another problem you might run into is the players actually recognizing the source of your inspiration. If you borrowed too liberally, it can spoil the entire outcome for them. For example, for my short-lived Sentinels of the Multiverse RPG, the plot was essentially the first season of Young Justice, abbreviated to fit into six sessions and adjusted to be specific to the Sentinel Comics setting.

It was a fun game, to be sure, but one of my players recognized it right away, which definitely had a deleterious effect on his enjoyment of the game.
The members of Young Justice Sentinels



Sunday, August 14, 2016

RPG a Day - Day 14

I can't really say anything interesting about today's topic. Instead, I'll cover one of the topics from last year: What is your favorite media property you wish was an RPG?


I had to think on this one a while, because an awful lot of my favorite media properties already are RPGs, or at least have one in their name.

I think a really interesting game could be made from Deus Ex. It's a series of action games with strong cyberpunk elements focusing on the discovery and disruption of vast government conspiracies. The games were great fun. (Well, except for that one.) 

Of course, I know there's already one big cyberpunk RPG out there. Is another property really necessary? Wouldn't it be easier to just import the setting while using the system?

It can vary. Sometimes you can get away with adopting an existing system to a property and just ignoring the rules that aren't relevant and house-ruling the things that need to be specific. Other times crafting a ruleset specific to the setting makes for a better game, as it accounts for the idiosyncracies particular to that property.

Which category does Deus Ex fall into? I've only played Shadowrun once, so I can't really say with any certainty if it does the job or not. I wouldn't mind seeing a take on it, though. 
We definitely didn't ask for this.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

RPG a Day - Day 13

Today's topic: What makes a successful campaign?

I haven't played a lot of campaigns, but I've read much about others' campaigns. By far, the one element that every successful campaign shared was that they were completed. Many a campaign crashes on the rocks and never reaches its destination. Those campaigns that actually reach a conclusion? Rare.

The biggest mistake I see GMs make is a misunderstanding of their players' appetites and enthusiasm for the campaign being played. The GM conjures a truly epic campaign, an adventure spanning years of game time and passing from levels 1 to 20, until the characters slay the greatest evils and ascend to godhood. In his mind, it will become the game that defines them as a group.

Then the players get three sessions in and say, "This isn't really cutting it for us. Want to play Star Wars?"

Alternatively, the GM comes in with no solid plan, no "path" between the start and the end of his campaign. The adventure meanders about from one thing to another. Eventually the players start to wonder, "Is this going any where? Or are we just playing modules until you get bored of running the game?"

The point here is that your players aren't just your friends, or your game group, they're your audience, and "Know your audience" is timeless advice. Do they want to play the RPG equivalent of War and Peace? Do they want something episodic that can be picked up or shelved at will? Perhaps they just want a short, self-contained adventure arc, to see if they have any real interest in your game.

Maybe you get a few sessions in and they realize they don't enjoy this the way you thought they would; can you adjust the pace to renew their interest, or at least end things before they revolt?

Nobody will ever go broke betting against the successful completion of a campaign. Avoiding that fate means knowing what your players want out of a game and matching your plans accordingly.

Comic made by the estimable Shamus Young.