Archive for June, 2010

Everybody’s got a story when it comes to munchkin gamers. They are the reason most convention-run games have pre-gens. They are also one of the highest causes of stress in a gaming environment a GM or player can face. Suffice it to say, if Steve Jackson writes a game parodying your existence, you’ve reached the level of epic problem in the hobby.

I suppose most of us at one time or another entertained the idea of or indulged in munchkin behavior. Consider it. Sure it’s well beneath you now, but in your past, perhaps when you were young, it was all about what you could accumulate rather than how your character or the campaign developed. Did you ever describe your character by starting with “Well, he’s (she’s) got a +5 Holy Avenger (Longbow, Demonslayer, whatever), Full Plate +5… blah blah blah blah blah” or perhaps mentioning some treasured and rare artifact that’s equally BLAH? If you did that, you suffered a bout with munchkinism. Most of us grew out of this in our early teenage years, but not all of us and it’s to those I’m referring in this article.

In my now decades of running and playing RPG’s, I’ve had the displeasure to be exposed to a whole variety of munchkin gamers. I suppose the question most people have when encountering one is to wonder why. Why are they doing this to my group/game? Do they get off on it? Do they have some inferiority complex that requires them to try and prove they’re better or that they can always win? Didn’t they grow out of it years ago like everyone else? I have yet to find the answer to this. All I can say with any degree of certainty is that if you aren’t one, you’re best hope is for you and/or your group to survive them and if you are one, well, I hope you’re enjoying World of Warcraft. Watch I say that and people will complain I’m picking on Warcraft. I play it too people. It’s called Warcrack for a reason.

How did we handle them in the old days? Well, a bar of soap in a sock did wonders…oh, you’re probably wondering more about in group setting. Mostly given that these were friends of ours we tolerated them to some degree and all stewed as we watched them try and ruin our GM’s (or my) carefully crafted setting. Then it became of game of making that player’s character miserable and ensuring that things happened to it that no amount of maxing hit points and equipment would solve; petty I will admit but immensely satisfying. The other option was, and this usually wrecked whatever campaign we were in, to join them. If they couldn’t be stopped, we would all go into this virtual arms race to see who could outdo the little treasure, sometimes with the assistance of the GM. The satisfaction of this avenue was also short-lived.

If such persons are irredemable in their quest to acquire as much loot as possible or be the most powerful player just to say they are, then often your option is simply to cut bait and move on. Some people, you just can’t reach (cue Struther). Ostracizing a friend or an otherwise good acquaintance isn’t a fun thing, but having them in your game environment just breeds animosity and contempt, so which is preferable?

That said, in another light the existence of perpetual munchkins does provide some of the best gaming stories out there. I shall never forget one almost archtypical example of the species who in his waning years in our group tried to consistently build characters who were “like a Jedi, but tougher”. Don’t get me started on the number of miraculously successful rolls that were made on such characters as well. Not like rolls don’t get fudged during any given game, but when you’re known for fudging every single roll, again that’s the kind of thing that indicates a problem.

If you have similar stories, I always like to hear them, so please sound off in comments. If I think up any, and I try not to on the advice of qualified mental health professionals, I’ll do the same and expand on the post.


Soon To Be Live…

When I first decided to start an RPG blog about a year ago, I had thoughts of eventually transitioning to a podcast format. I’ve done podcasting for other fields of endeavor for the past couple of years and since most of the people I enjoy that hobby with are also gamers, the natural conclusion for me was to mix the two.

Of course, everyone and their grandmother podcasts these days just as everyone and their assorted relatives started blogging a couple of years ago. How is this different, one might ask? I’m not sure there’s benefit in trying to be edgy, trendy or flashy, especially in terms of tabletop RPG’s. They’re not exactly cutting edge themselves anymore. My purpose for the blog also was mostly for a touch of nostalgia and reminiscing and thus that will be the focus of the podcast.

I’m sort of a people watcher. Watching people for me is an anthropological experiment. Gaming has been the ultimate for me in this regard. Not only have I gamed with numerous groups and personalities over the years, but I’ve attended conventions that have allowed me to do even more. You really get to explore the human condition and you don’t even have to like people that much or be that extroverted. 🙂 My lessons and our bs stories are a good portion of what I intend to share on the podcast, all at least loosely related to gaming of course.

Expect to see the first episode rolling off the truck within the month with more soon to follow.

Swashbuckling had certainly been tried before as an RPG. GDW had introduced the genre to the gaming industry with its legendary “En Garde!” in 1975 and a smattering of other titles including one by Fantasy Games Unlimited, Flashing Blades, followed over the years. The definitive work on the “real” era of Swashbuckling and Swordplay circa the 1600’s was probably GURPS Swashbucklers, with its stellar research and the venerable GURPS system to back it up.

All these systems were limited, though, to historical settings and time lines. Unless a GM wanted to heavily invest time and effort into creating an alternate history in order to fool players or at least keep them guessing as to events’ outcomes, this simply wasn’t feasible. Let us not forget, there was also the matter of keeping players feeling like they were more than small cogs in an already running machine. Such feelings can quickly lead to frustration, apathy, boredom and the end of the campaign.

There never was a fair answer to this, not until 1999 with the release of Alderac Entertainment Group’s 7th Sea. An interesting note to start this discussion is that 7th Sea RPG was published in tandem with a very popular card game. Both are now out of print after only about a 6-year run. Even more interestingly, finding an easy reference on Alderac’s home page to the fact that they’ve even heard of 7th Sea is nigh unto impossible.

7th Sea rejected previous models of Swashbuckling adventure RPG by modifying the setting. As can be seen from the wiki entry and as is known to just about anyone who played the game, 7th Sea was basically a 1600’s Bizarro Europe setting with analogs for most historical European powers and several auxillary powers of that era. It was fully stocked with a compliment of very in-depth heroes and villains that controlled the destiny of the known world, but who could all play a part in and be affected by a campaign with no significant loss to any GM-inspired storyline. Another fun fact about 7th Sea, the original supplements were supposed to cover the state of affairs and the condition of the world in only one year, 1668. It was thought that as they progressed, future supplements would be marked with later years.

One thing that impressed me about this game line was the incredible amount of high-quality support material, with each major nation and secret society having their own impressive sourcebook, each again with its own equally impressive cover art. This extensive support made it all the more puzzling when AEG decided to kill the line several years ago. Apparently, although the game had a rabid fan base, they didn’t exist in sufficient numbers to justify continuing production. A sad reality of such games, especially one so intimately tied with a card game, is when gamers move on, companies will these days cut bait rather than support a flagging line.

I recall the system being exceptionally easy to learn and the point system for character development fairly flexible. It was easy enough to play it very hard-nosed with slow character development or cinematic with rapid, but controlled leaps. Membership in Secret Societies and new fighting styles bore huge costs, for example, but the game lent itself readily to flamboyant storyline development and I as a GM certainly made use of that.

My group at the time had craved a shot at such a setting for a long time and quickly grew to love the often fast-pace of the game, mixed with an insanely rich storyline and a, as was noted on wiki, an almost Lovecraftian undertone to some elements of sorcery in the game. Looking back, I seem to have a knack for injecting or enhancing horror in many of the games I’ve run and this one was no different. Unnerving the players seemed to imprint on them almost as much if not more than making them laugh. Each one of their characters left a considerable impression on the other players to the point where years later we were all still sharing stories of their particular adventures or comedic moments. This remains the only campaign I wrote a follow-up piece of fiction to years after the campaign had completed; such was the continued interest in the characters by the players.

I had always wanted to play a game like this, but until 7th Sea the results always fell short. It was just as easy to play a round of Sid Meier’s “Pirates” and call it a day. 7th Sea, later called Swashbuckling Adventures, was one of those settings that produced such a detailed campaign setting that it was like waiting for the next installment in your favorite fiction series to come out. As a parting shot, its very last supplement, Rapier’s Edge (which if memory serves was marked with a later year), even contained a timeline treatment for what they had planned to happen over the next couple of years of game play. For a busy GM, the timeline was a godsend and for anyone else it was worth its weight in gold for ideas.

This game had it all for cinematic gamers, dedicated role players and even card gamers. With such wide appeal, I expected it to still be around and selling, but admittedly I don’t know as much about TCG’ers. I’ve heard they’re a more fickle lot and move on rather easily and if this is the case perhaps I have only them to blame for the loss of this line. 🙂 Because 7th Sea/Swashbuckling Adventures was so intimately connected with its namesake TCG, it conceivably couldn’t survive on its own.

Thus it joins the sad and long list of games on the bookheap of RPG history, but during its tenure it burned brighter than almost any other. This is a game I would readily recommend for almost anyone to play and any collector to have in his or her collection. Any interest in that era makes ownership of this game a must.

Writing about Dark Conspiracy recently got me to thinking back to my marathon campaign. As I’ve previously noted, the Dark Conspiracy campaign I ran lasted several years in real time and much longer in game time. I’ve also run a campaign for Conspiracy X, Eden Games’ contribution to the market and back in olden days I played Call of Cthulhu a bit and read the fiction more.

With these and others fresh in my mind, I thought it worth sharing a few ideas on how, for me at least, I was able to produce effective conspiracy and horror-style campaigns. I have run scores of campaigns from classic fantasy to scifi to Old West to post-modern military and apocalypse and of all those I consider conspiracy campaigns some of the most difficult and time-consuming to develop. With most other campaigns, there may be archvillains or great truths that the heroes eventually have to uncover, but there’s nothing to match combining slow discovery of an overarching conspiracy with true horror capable of unsettling even veteran and jaded gamers.

For campaigns of this style, I’ve always felt the first priority was some development of the overarching conspiracy first. It must be nebulous and non-specific in its original form, because the more you flesh it out, the more you risk players exposing items too early or completely missing your well-placed twists and turns. GM’s need to have fun too. The more open the framework and loose the conspiracy is, the more you can use the players to drive its development. Their actions can help even a moderately creative GM provide life to their enemy. My original conspiracy in Dark Con was practically a flow chart. There were the big bad guys at the top, the Dark Ones, with Dark Lords fighting it out underneath them, each with its own small blurb on power base and motivations, groups below that working directly or indirectly for any one of the above and then individual minions and peons at the base who caused the most obvious and open trouble.

My group actually dealt with each tier in the flow chart at varying points in the campaign, sometimes directly and foiled plans of all but the Dark Ones themselves and most times they were unaware of just how much damage they truly did or didn’t do. This is another element that provides a good conspiracy game experience. Players can be allowed to have small measures of success. In fact, this is usually required otherwise why would they want to play? Good conspiracies, though, survive more often than they are eliminated and although pawns and the occasional more powerful pieces may be sacrificed (to the satisfaction of the players), the big pieces stick around. While this may seem like intentional frustration of the players, my response is that unless you plan on wrapping the game up next session, why would you ever want to destroy your greatest villain? Anonymity is a more dangerous power for any foe than just about any other.

The horror factor was perhaps the most difficult element to design. How do you scare or creep out jaded, veteran gamers? It helps to have a somewhat warped imagination oneself, but ultimately you need to set the mood. Unnerving players leaves them vulnerable to a variety of horror elements that might not be so scary in the light of day. I used creepy music at times (Tubular bells and the Poltergeist theme worked wonders) at a low audio level as a sort of subliminal disruption to the feel of an adventure. Such things wear on a person’s psyche, which is why horror movies use them in the first place. I admit to playing on known weaknesses and dislikes of my players. If it’s not too personal, but still allows for easy avenues into unsettling a given player and if one player gets unnerved, more usually follow. Again, I wasn’t trying to mindf*ck the players, merely to destabilize the situation a little so that my horror story was scarier. It’s a slightly more complex version of the flashlight under the face at the campfire trick.

It’s also important also to keep the players feeling “hunted”. They can never be allowed to be too complacent or relax. A good horror or conspiracy game has no permanent refuge for players. They must always be on the run or those around them suffer. Everytime my players got soft or too settled, those behind the conspiracy would always attack and usually overwhelmingly. Occasional PC’s and most NPC’s in such situations who were exposed typically perished. This kept up the sense of just how much their behavior cost them and it provided a tangible example of how dangerous the forces against them were. There must be consequences for the player’s successes just as much if not moreso than their failures.

Revealed truths are a part of that. The more players learn about the conspiracy or think they learn or for that matter the more they learn about a given creature or denizen of your campaign’s menagerie, they more they feel they have your world figured out. Familiarity breeds contempt and a world in which the enemy is predictable is not a fun one. To solve this in Dark Conspiracy, I allowed that the lower level minions, the ones like bloodkin or Ravagers or the like that players figured out after a few adventures were basically turned into shock troops for higher-level minions or Dark Lords. Those higher-level creatures would then be slowly revealed and so on. The danger level for the lower-ranked minions never decreased, of course. They were just more predictable. Their handlers, however, never were.

I performed a similar work-up with Conspiracy X. The campaign in question was more based on dealing with aliens than more earthbound supernatural baddies. If players started to get an inkling of one race’s abilities, habits or origins, I would confound them with a visit from another, usually without a clear picture that a new villain had shown up. Much time was spent rationalizing the new evidence against what they had collected for the previous race and it usually ended in them starting over or coming to incorrect inclusions. Ultimately, they would unravel several useful tidbits over the course of the campaign, but it always came with a good deal of effort.

Cthulhu had an even simpler mechanism with its sanity stat. The more you learned about the pantheon, the less sane you were and if you started out somewhat frail of mind, that was a short trip. I always felt this made GM’s a bit more lazy. Other games required you actually had to develop reason and justification for character’s inability to cope with discovered evidence and this always led to better character development and richer game play. I’d remind GM’s to never take this more simplistic route, as players will resent you for it.

If all else fails, fall back on the masters of horror and suspense. Hitchcock was famous for saying the simplest way to build suspense was to put a bomb into a room with characters and watch their reactions. To let it go off was to ruin the suspense. I used that simple truism to great effect in my campaigns. Small successes and occasionally big successes are fine, but solving the conspiracy or eliminating the horror effectively ends the game. The skill to master is the one in which a game master can accomplish this balancing act in a long-term campaign. What I’ve offered here is just a small token of advice on an incredibly large and diverse genre. Please feel free, should you have run campaigns in this field, to post your own ideas and suggestions. I love hearing good war stories.

With the explosive interest in the paranormal as a hobby, many forget that such trends have been cyclical and that times in even the recent past RPG’s were there to exploit that interest. Many games came out of the period just before and during the interest in the paranormal sparked by the series, The X-Files. Dark Conspiracy was in my opinion on of the very best.

The game was released from the long-lost Game Designer’s Workshop (GDW) in 1991, the brainchild of Lester Smith. It posited a near-future setting for a horror/conspiracy RPG centered on a decaying and failing United States and an encroaching and growing supernatural threat. Players took on the roles of those who stumbled upon this encroachment or who were pushed to that end and chose to fight it. The career-choices offered were varied and could be expanded upon, as the whole game was skill-based using the GDW House System.

Any discussion of this game will dwell on the amount of available equipment. In typical GDW fashion, there was a lot, even to the point of an entire book being released dedicated to new gear for the game. The reason for this was rather obvious. First, the GDW guys were gearheads and old wargamers. They liked equipment and they liked equipment variety. Look at any of their other games (Traveller, Twilight 2000, 2300AD, even Space 1889) to confirm this. If you’re a gearhead (and I am) then you really appreciate this level of detail, and if you’re not, who cares? You just ignore the extra pages.

I used the GDW House System for years in the various GDW games, but I was often frustrated by its limitations. It had a modest vehicle combat system, which almost no game at the time had (or likely still has), but I wanted more detail. This is why GURPS’ system eventually won me over in that regard. Want to make an eye shot or shoot the hand? Not so easy in GDW’s system. The skill set was good and expandable and the character career choices were quite acceptable. They expanded this as GDW lengthened their product line.

The back story was a real treat for me. It was just detailed enough to leave you wanting more and GDW added to it considerably with a major array of adventures and source books. Still, they left it open enough that you could customize it with considerable ease. No two conspiracies were exactly the same nor did they have to be and the influence of the antagonists was as much and as pervasive as the GM wanted it to be. I will always remember it as a game with an extremely high body count, at least for my campaign. I ran a campaign that spanned I think eight years of real time. Friend and foe alike saw huge kill tallies as I drove home just how brutal and deadly the world of Dark Conspiracy was to my players. They must have loved it, because they kept coming back for more. I might speak more on my campaign in a separate post.

This dovetails nicely into what I liked most about the game and that was that it tackled a genre that to that point had largely been limited to adaptations of existing science fiction/horror works like Call of Cthulhu. Also, in almost any setting such as that to date, monsters were nearly unkillable unless you had a special weapon, spell, etc. Guns almost always were useless. In Dark Conspiracy, bullets worked and boy did my players use ’em. To be sure, there were still unkillable creatures or hard to kill villains, but the run-of-the-mill Dark Minions were surprisingly allergic to copper and lead. This was immensely satisfying to the players, especially when faced with the knowledge that the worst were unkillable. It gave them a sense of hope, an often false sense but hope nonetheless.

As I noted previously, this game had a tremendous array of supporting material, most of which can still be found and at very good prices on the used market. Its mark was evident in the industry in terms of other companies trying their hands. Even Chaosium published “Delta Green” around this point, a similar “minion-hunter” style supplement to their Cthulhu line I think to answer similar concerns those players had. I’m sure Chaosium vets and fans might deny there was any correlation, but that it came out when Dark Con was still highly popular says it all for me. The great game Conspiracy X by Eden followed some years later and had a similar great run of supplements. I like to think that Dark Con’s popularity made such games much easier to pitch and develop knowing there was a market out there hungry for that sort of material.

Again, sadly, when GDW closed its doors, Dark Conspiracy became an orphan. An attempt was made, somewhat successfully, to revive it a few years later through Dynasty Publishing and it saw limited print release adapted from the unfinished 2nd edition rules that had languished since GDW’s closure. I had the distinct pleasure of play testing the second edition some years later directly with Lester (online no less – very high tech a decade ago) with some outstanding players (yeah, that’s a bit of a kissass, but so what?), but the game hadn’t matured with the industry. It was an early 90’s game in a market fast approaching 2000 and a lot of changes in game styles and gamer expectations had taken place by then.

A major rewrite of the system was probably in order, but there wasn’t the will, time or money to accomplish this. The market balked at the relic being polished up and brought out again for sale, but us die-hards bought it. We appreciated it even if others didn’t, although personally I wasn’t impressed with the team that handled its publication. Outside of Lester himself, who was great to work with, the rest of the team seemed almost uncaring in the quality or development of the new edition. That some of these same souls had been involved in the 4th Edition Traveller debacle wasn’t lost on me and I hate that my misgivings were proven to be correct.

One never knows what the future might bring, though and there are those of us who will always keep its memory alive however we can. I would point out three very worthwhile individuals, Mike Marchi, Geoff Skellams and Marcus Bone, who labored long and hard to develop the exceptionally high-quality fanzine for Dark Conspiracy and later all horror games, Demonground. They were the play testers I mentioned earlier and are some of the best gamers (in addition to my local crew) that I’ve ever had the privilege to know. I had the honor to contribute a few articles to that impressive magazine and if you are a fan of the paranormal in gaming, you could do a lot worse than give it a look. The art for the covers alone was mind-blowing. Should you ever read this, know that my hats off to you guys. You’re the best.

So not to finish off with further kissassing, but I did. I have a special place in my heart for this game, which is painfully obvious, but it’s well-deserved. Despite its dated nature and some issues with the game mechanics I still count it as one of the best RPG’s in its class of all time and if you like the paranormal, you should definitely give this game a look.