A brief description of character generation in Amber diceless and some commentary on how it went. See the previous blog post for an introduction.
Characters start with 100 points. These are used to buy the following: Attributes, powers and items. The balance remains as good or bad stuff, essentially karma. Powers are expensive: Pattern, the fundamental and very useful power, is described as a bargain for 50 points. Attributes have the following scale: Attribute may be human level (which gives 25 points and is very much discouraged), chaos rank (gives 10 points) which stands for peak human ability, amber level (0 points, default) which is a major improvement over chaos rank. Further, each attribute is auctioned and bids buy ranks. Whoever has the first rank is significantly and permanently better than the other player characters. Only the ranks matter, points spent do not. In theory. In practice, NPCs (of which there are several in default cases) have point values, so ranking player characters with them goes by points. After auction, players can buy up the attributes of their characters so as to provide hidden information and uncertainty.
There is also player contributions: Diary, game reports and drawing trump (tarot) cards of the player characters and other major characters all give 10 character points per commitment. I add: Bringing munchies gives 5.
There are four attributes – Strength, warfare, psyche and endurance. The first three are used directly in conflicts, while endurance breaks ties and works as a sort of battery for powers. Of the attributes strength and sometimes endurance are judged weak, while psyche and warfare are strong. This is not a problem, since the auction nicely balances this. We had the first rank in psyche with 30 points, while first rank in strength was mere 11 points, so it was quite a bargain in comparison.
I set one limit: Everyone is to have at least amber rank endurance. That way they can regrow lost body parts and recover from other injuries in reasonable time and can acquire the pattern power. I did not force them to take pattern to start with and only one character has it (as public knowledge). I did emphasise that it is a good power and highly recommended. I suppose the other powers looked more interesting. Pattern allows one to shift from shadow (reality) to another, to manipulate probabilities, and gives certain other benefits.
Right now one of the characters has frequently used pattern to move from a reality to another, one draws trump cards, which are sort of cell phone-teleporters with extra risk of mental assault when used and allow travel to known locations and to familiar people, though they are slow to use. One has a pollaxe that allow to seek objects in shadow, but which is limited when compared to pattern. One has not demonstrated any significant ability shift through shadows. The trumps have been rarely useful (though there is a reason for this that is not related to their usefulness), pollaxe sometimes and pattern frequently.
So, of four characters, one is shadow-crippled and two have problems. One is as capable as one would assume an amberite to be. Give the players enough rope to hang themselves…
As it happens, the character without ability to travel shadow is separated from the others, in an unknown reality, and with no good means of escaping. There is one risky way, though, and more might be found – but they’ll have a price.
Briefly: Use the same short description over and over again to describe something that is or will be significant.
This is a trick learned from Ludosofy‘s Runequest game. There was a shaman in his hut. Our characters knocked on the door, the shaman (eventually) opened it, checked who was intruding, turned and walked inside, leaving the door open. This happened whenever our characters met the shaman. The phrase Ludosofy used to describe the event were almost the same, or maybe even exactly the same.
The descriptive trick creates an expectation and catches attention. Attention is naturally powerful – this trick can be used to create a clear vision of some place or character. Acting contrary to expectations is an effective way of creating a sense of foreboding – the shaman greeting us and not going inside in silence would have had us assuming a ploy of some kind. Creating a pattern and breaking it could be used to evoke the elusive beast that is horror.
Using the same short description over and over again to describe something that is or will be significant also enhances the potential of it being turned into an inside joke or story. Such inside jokes are can strengthen one’s role as a member of a group or clique, which might or might not be desirable.
Do remember to keep the description short, and don’t do it with everything.
I have up to this point game mastered three, I think, sessions proper of Dogs (hereafter DitV) plus one character generation session. There is a pool of six players (plus me as the GM) and we handwave why the cast of characters changes between sessions.
- DitV is actually well-designed. Both the rules and the setting are. The writing is very conversational, which I occasionally find demanding to interpret, but most of the time the text is clear and entertaining enough.
- Dogs is a game about religion. It is not a game that defends or attacks religion. This I find both rare and refreshing.
- Dogs works well with three or four players. I think I actually prefer three. No testing with two or merely one player. (Plus the GM.)
- The town creation rules work. Following them is recommended.
- The game works best when one is trying to play it honestly – don’t create a tricky character to begin with (that will come with play), don’t create a caricature, but do try to honestly fix the towns and their problems. Playing inquisition is trivial.
- DitV is difficult to game master. One should be able to play generally more than four actually different characters and make them somewhat compelling and sympathetic. This is beyond my skills, but one learns by doing.
- Do call player characters by name. Always. All the time. It helps to establish the characters. Also, non-player characters. Don’t be ashamed of the names you or others come up with – just use them.
Here’s something I’m planning to do. There are six players total. After each session there is a moment for reflection. Here’s my plan: an entire session for reflection, socialisation between the players and free roleplay. Some possibilities within the fiction: A city where everything is okay. Return to Bridal Falls (where everything is okay). Number of players would be up to six. Probably no or very few dice used. Players sitting in a circle or semicircle rather than around a table other obstacle. Maybe even players freely roaming about.
My modest apartment is too small for this, I fear, but maybe sometimes, somewhere.
Tommi Horttana, brother of a friend of a friend whom I had not met before, wanted to play some forgish games and another friend of a friend did not know how they were different from most roleplaying games. I prepared to create some horrible abomination on the fly, but luckily Sami Koponen of Efemeros fame happened to be nearby and the game he was playing in ended. So, we played some scenes of (the Finnish version of) Zombie Cinema.
The remarkable thing was my continued difficulty in playing games with shared narration and explicit scene framing. The others were pretty much pros or natural talents, it seemed. Small part of my poor performance is the heavy reliance on visual media (movies, TV) and the effects used therein, which I am not familiar with. The significant part is, I think, that though I can make scenes where something happens, I don’t have a feel for that something is supposed to be in this style of play. The good part is that now I have a new way of looking at storytelling.
I’ll be playing in a Burning Wheel campaign where I’ll try to make a dramatically interesting character. We are almost past the mechanical parts of character generation, so hammering beliefs and instincts is what remains. Just to not make things too easy for myself, I’ll try playing a religious character who is quite fervent about it and is not a sword-wielding maniac or overtly abrasive. This ought to be interesting.
Further, a bunch of us at Jyväskylä have been trying to make a short movie-like object. Success has thus far been mixed, but the parts I have found to be most enjoyable are the scripting/brainstorming sessions. They have also been the most challenging, which is appropriate. One lesson learned is to only include the relevant: Communicate something about a character or keep the viewers on track about what is happening, basically. (The other people make sure that inserting random bursts of action is not my problem.) Maybe this ties back in to playing a dramatically interesting character and to scene framing.
Note 1: Tommi Horttana is one of the designers of Lies and seductions, a free (as far as money is concerned) computer game for some non-open operating systems. It should be about relationships. I don’t play many computer games, but interested readers might want to take a look, as Horttana is quite smart as far as people go.
Note 2: Zombies.
In Ropecon I played Fane of the poisoned prophecies as GM’d by mister Raggi. After the con I’ve played four sessions of 4e.
Minor spoilers regarding the Fane shall follow.
Both of the games were mediocre, but for different reasons. The Fane felt somewhat directionless; we entered the place, killed some stuff, discovered some healing herbs, moved on, encountered a Cthulhuan camel, and so on. There was a big secret that we did not uncover, though the clues were there. I’m not certain that figuring out the secret would actually have been useful. On the treasure side we did find the herbs and one shelf of books, but the value of either was dwarfed by the appetite of the disenchanter-camel. Overall, I think the game might have been better if we had had a concrete goal or reason for being there. A good resource hoard to search for, say, or something more personal. Also, second journey in would likely have been more meaningful.
On the system side, we had one combat that felt too long (the moon chamber). All of them did nicely evoke a sense of danger and the need to move on, which was, I think, the point.
Overall: The play itself was fun; interacting with the environment and guessing at the level of risks. The combat system is pretty incidental I’d go as far as to further simplify it or abstract it away, since what happens inside combat is not, at least for me, that interesting. Props to James for not naming the monsters. It does make them feel more sword and sorcerish, probably due to facing the unknown and otherwordly, and less like D&D fantasy (Dragonlance, Forgotten realms, …).
Yeah: Every character made it out alive, though two, including my fighter henchman, were unconscious.
As for the game of 4e, we had some fights, found some traces of drow conspiracy, had some fights, attacked some underground temple and were all killed. Verdict: 4e is far more deadly than old school D&D. Maybe our only healer being one-shotted during surprise round also was a contributing factor.
4e does not prohibit people from roleplaying; I don’t see any relevant differences when compared to 3rd edition. What is relevant, and what is striking in contrast to old D&D (which does not have much encouragement for roleplaying, either) is that modern D&D has combats that take awfully long time. I take it that people enjoy such combats, but I would rather be roleplaying. In addition, such awfully long combats create the illusory dichotomy between using rules and roleplaying, so harming much discourse on rpgs.
Our game would have been better if we had more players familiar with the rules. Right now there was insignificant amounts of fumbling and me and the GM keeping track of rules for other players. Roleplay was, as always, as meaningful as we made it.
Overall, I probably will be playing 4e (or 3rd edition) only when there are no other interesting games available. They are still preferable to almost all board and card games, though. Chess might be counterexample, if I bothered learning it properly.
So, mediocre games but for different reasons. Clearly different games, also, with similarities being in the name and some cosmetic stuff.
The first game I GM’ed at Ropecon was the Finnish scenario Jää hiljaisuus by Nordic, who is also knows as Risto Hietala, a famous name in the Finnish rpg scene (since I’ve heard of him). Players were Dare Talvitie (an excellent player), Riku, Tiina (who looked like a ferengi) and Jukka.
Spoilers ahead. The scenario will be very different if you first read this and only then play.
The story is that of four men being sent to a small research station, meaning essentially a storehouse, in the Arctic to get a few measurements and to bring said measuring equipment back for repairing and maintenance. The ship they are sent out from remains some 120 kilometers away (due to plot saying so and floating mountains of ice), while the men use a smaller vehicle. The vehicle gets burned during the night (the hours during which it is not the night are preciously few during early winter). There’s a number of events, like finding the frozen corpse of a seal, that will happen. Other than them, the scenario very much depends on the players doing something interesting, which basically amounts to arguing, trying to survive or fighting amongst themselves. There’s preciously few opportunities for the GM to do anything about their course of action, save for out-of-character prodding.
At some point during the first day GM randomly assigns for notes to the players without looking at them. One tells the character in question burned the boat, one that the character did not think he did it and two that the character did not do it.
Oh, yeah, the characters. All of them have secrets of some sort and all know the secret of one other character. The secrets are not really devastating enough to justify burning the boat, which is a major design flaw. Also, one character is married but it does not read on the information to be given to that player and that lack is easy to miss as GM (I did, but it went fine by sheer luck).
As for the actual play, I took a pretty strong lead at the beginning, explaining how things are done and not really asking if they did something unstandard; this is something of a requirement, as the scenario assumes the boat gets burned and communications with it.
The players certainly played their characters to hilt: One being sensible, one pretending to be sensible, one trying to attract aliens to pick him up, using whatever means he had available (the scenario did not mention them at all, so I sort of wonder why the player fixated on aliens) and another character getting caught up in the act, assuming everyone else an alien. In the end the boat-burner more-or-less killed those who did not do so to each other, afterwards wandering into the icy wastes only to perish quietly, freezing to death.
Overall, I did not find the scenario text to be helpful. I could have improvised equivalent content and it lacked details that would have been useful (a map of the cabin, say, or more detail on the few discoveries made in the icy fields). One lesson learned was that should I run a ready-made adventure ever again, I should look at it from the point of view of all players, considering the material they are given. Obvious, I know, but not something I even thought of before running the scenario.
I’ll start with observations on the scenario, local playing style and general anthropology. There’ll be some mild spoilers. For context: I’ve game mastered a fair deal of third edition and played it maybe thrice, but it’s been a while.
I created a first level character (halberdier with some talent in tripping people and making showy entrances). Other characters were a paladin of first level, and a druid and monk of higher level (2 or 3). I entered not knowing anything about the local play culture with regards to, say, optimisation; I just relied on the fact that if you create a third edition character and don’t try anything fancy it will usually work out okay, which it did.
First difference to my usual play was fiddling with all the equipment; not very interesting, IMO. Ready-made packages of standard equipment would be useful and make character generation significantly faster.
My character done and we were slowly starting to play, so I naturally asked what they were playing. Responses were roughly race (if not human), class, ad maybe somethig else. I have very fuzzy conceptions of what the character looked like, except for Veltzeh’s char of whom we had a picture. I did not talk much about my character, either, as it evidently was not the way things were done thereabouts.
The scenario itself worked as follows: The big Pathfinder organisation gives a job and some goals to achieve and then factions give a sidequest each for their members (each character being a member of one faction, I think). There’s also secrecy about the faction goals, which does deter the party hydra phenomenon a bit, but does not create compelling narrative as characters are not allowed to mess with each others’ subgoals, much less fight each other. (The party hydra phenomenon is when all characters act and work as though they were the the heads of a hydra, always having the same goals and wanting the same things.)
My sidequest was to talk to a specific person and do it out of hearing of other PCs (including the elven druid with quite keen hearing, which was conveniently forgotten or ignored in play). I had no idea if I had to actually drive gameplay towards achieving this goal or if I could just loiter along and the prestige award (which one gets for completing faction sidequests) would come for free. Proactivity would have been awfully risky, so I just went along and the prestige award was waiting along the rails. Had I been playing some other (the temptation to write “proper” is strong) roleplaying game, I would have actively reached for the goal and created all sorts of amusing situations, but it did not feel the right thing to do in a D&D game, where the mentality is very much that of players and characters trying to beat the scenario and players guarding their characters from permanent harm.
The scenario was very much a railroad; walk along this path, kill zombies and cultists and priest/priestesses, talk a bit every now and then. The fights were the most interesting part of it all. At the end we destroyed (probably had to destroy) an ages-old artifect, but it had no impact, because we did not see any alteratives. Genre-wise it was D&D fantasy, though the world could easily support sword and sorcery play, too. I don’t think Pathfinder society can, however, due to the inherent limitations of the format.
Jukka (the GM) made a point of describing attacks, hits and misses, for which I respect him. However, they don’t have any further effect on play; not mechanical, not anything else, at least most of the time. The descriptions hence are superfluous, sort of. As a design issue the indie designer Vincent Baker has been thik about something similar: If you can simply say what you are about to do (Attack the zombie) and the roll the dice, hence creating the effect (damaged / falls / miss), the actual details of how the effects come by is extra. It can be skipped. Hence it is very easy to skip. I’d go as far as to say that this is a design flaw in D&D.
All that said, I did enjoy the game and felt relaxed and in a friendly environment. The social dimension and jokes were more important than the game proper, though the game did inform said interaction and gave it structure, as well as killing random potentially awkward silences. There were tactically convenient boxes (one can climb on top of them and use them as cover), priestesses with minion masks that obscured their features and other such amusities (that should be a word if it is not). Jukka, BTW: If negative energy is inherently evil, why are spells using it not so?
I do recommend Pathfinder Society to people who like third edition. From talk at the table I got the impression that the quality and style of the scenarios varies greatly. Great variance between the assumptions of scenarios might make the play less pleasant, as one would have to adjust to fit the given scenario and hope one guesses right. I don’t know if such variance exists. I also don’t know if it bother most players. I just like knowing how I should play in a particular game so as to not be disruptive and to also enjoy the play.