Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Emergent Gameplay, Risk vs. Reward, Leveling Too Fast and Other Musings

Rambling thought warning ahead!

The title is weird, but it comes from a problem I am facing: a campaign I ran for the better part of this year (six months) in Cypher System came to a close on its main plot but all of the side plots were not yet clearly resolved (some were, but others weren't). This is at minimum a side effect of a reasonable sized group and the Cypher mechanics in which players can pursue personal plots/quests that net additional XP for achieving goals. 

Ordinarily I wouldn't stress it too much, but the problem arises from higher level play in Cypher System. Character advancement, even when you try to slow it a bit, tends to be much quicker than in D&D or Pathfinder. The group hit Tier 4 when we left off, and this means that for many of them, especially the characters optimized for their level of experience, will find most mid-range and lower threats in the game trivial to the point where, mechanically speaking, they don't even have to roll to succeed at task in combat. The best way to handle combat in the game with average opponents at this point is to avoid it or expediently dispatch it through a narrative. 

Now, in most cases with Cypher System the best solution is to scale the threats and risks (which aren't generally meant to be opponents in straight combat; Cypher works best when you get creative). But the problem is a lot of the lined up plots resolve on the more basic level.  So how to handle this? The system itself basically dictates that at this point we're just narrating the process. I could spice it up with something suitably exotic....but....and there's no nice way to put this....it's not really exciting me as much as it should to do this.

Part of the problem was I made a poor choice for setting with Cypher this time. I adapted a D&D world (Realms of Chirak) which is built from decades of D&D style gameplay, a style which drives much of the conflict through battle, and as a result there's an expectation in the default pacing of scenarios to rely on the tropes and styles of D&D. When I break from that, it works....but it stops feeling D&D and starts feeling Cypher. But I am restrained by the setting, still. I can break the rules of the setting and lean hard on what Cypher does best, but then I'm messing up what the setting is about. This is a very personal issue, mind you; my players would be happy no matter what, but I as GM have done this before in the past and learned that there are things you don't really want to do with a game world you create for specific purposes (unless you want to axe the future of that setting for your own use). So it's really an internal GM issue.

One more session could probably resolve enough plots for everyone to move on and we can then go play a game where I get to experience what I realize is the more engaging element of D&D (and Pathfinder) that I like very much: emergent gameplay. You've likely heard of the term or are familiar with it already. Emergent gameplay is the idea that you start with the rules and a setting, maybe a scenario, but nothing is on-rails, nothing is preordained and no one has plot armor. The story emerges directly as a result of how the players choose to engage with the environment and how the GM gets the environment to react. Unexpected things can and will happen in emergent gameplay, and often when you hear people talk about those amazing plot twists in games it's from adventures driven by the emergent gameplay process.

A game like Cypher System allows for emergent gameplay as well, but it does follow a different beat, and as you move through the Cypher System you realize the universe is informed (sometimes rapidly) by the power level of the players. There's emergent storytelling to be had, and mechanically there are layers of support for it in Cypher, but it also lacks a certain kind of non-determinism. If you can, as a player, get a guaranteed success that requires no roll in a system where the key GM tool is the GM Intrusion mechanic, then you cut off one of those random things the GM can do to make things more interesting. And as the game scales so quickly, it means you might (as in my case) run out of time for the loads of plot points designed for lower level characters because they are all now high tiered superheroes and no longer concern themselves with petty guild fights and other such nonsense.* I mean....sure, they can,  but what right-minded NPC in a world of level 1-5 foes would be willing to take on a gang of superheroes who can automatically attack and dodge without any chance of failure? It removes a lot of tension from those scenarios.

I suppose the issue here may not be emergent gameplay but instead lies within a mechanical framework that moved beyond the scope of what I wanted (gritty heroes with a sense of mortality vs. powerful superheroes at high tier) and combat with risk that doesn't evaporate.

My personal choice would be to retroactively go back and pick Pathfinder 2E as the base system. Pathfinder 2E has a different sort of problem: players will struggle to ever truly feel like superheroes, as the game system is brutal when the difficulty level spikes even a bit, but it is trivially easy for the GM to include an occasional feel good encounter in PF2E as well. That said, I think the emergent gameplay is more prevalent (and possible) in Pathfinder, at least in the way that I am thinking of it. But....there are better systems out there yet for that sort of gaming, too. My recent stint on revisiting Mythras has me thinking about the possibilities. 

Anyway....more thoughts as I gear up to return to gaming in a week or so....

*To some degree I've figured out with Cypher that the best approach is to either go in with zero expectations (really let the start state move along through emergent gameplay and just see where it goes with zero expectations) or you plot meticulously, which includes figuring out well in advance how much XP to award and be stingy if necessary. I think the latter fails with Cypher for various reasons, but I have to concede I haven't really pinned down the formula here with Cypher as this is now the third Cypher campaign that will end unexpectedly because the players reached a power level where it became difficult for me to figure out where to go with it next. This is a thing I need to think about, that as much as I like Cypher it might have....pacing issues, at least relative to my style as a GM.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Choosing a Flavor of Mythras....

 I've noticed a trend during my gaming hiatus....I'm back to browsing endlessly through Mythras and associated tomes, reading and scheming about what I might  do with them. BRP remains a core go-to when it comes to Call of Cthulhu gaming, but Mythras covers all the bases so well these days, that its justifiably entered the realm of "universal systems" which the likes of GURPS and a few others normally hold the ring on. I mean....look at this breakdown:

Want to do Science Fiction? Mythras Imperative gives you essential tools, M-Space and its expansions carry it through. 

Want to do time traveling or alternate realities? Check out Luther Arkwright, which aside from being a useful sourcebook on an interesting but obscure British graphic novel series is also a useful dimension-hopping sourcebook.

Want to do D&D but with a D100 mechanic? Classic Fantasy has you covered, providing more than enough emulation to incorporate classes and a ton of D&D tropes without otherwise altering the core Mythras experience.

Just interested in straight fantasy? Classic Mythras has all you need in its core book, but you can also dive deep into mytho-historical adventures in Britain, Rome, Constantinople and now Babylon. It is also trivially easy to pull any GURPS sourcebook as a reference tool for use with Mythras.

Pulp adventure? Monster Island is an excellent resource, and Mythras Imperative covers the bases nicely, although I think there is room for more here.

Post-Apocalypse? Rubble & Ruin and Seasons of the Dead collectively cover most any angle on the genre you could want. R&R covers a low key near future apocalypse with plenty of science-fiction weirdness (not Gamma World level, but you could definitely use this for a quasi realistic post-apoc future). Seasons of the Dead has everything from zombie plagues to terminator robot invasions fully covered, something I did not expect prior to getting the book.

Weird alt-reality dystopian retro-futurist Sci Fi? Odd Soot is one unique and dark flavor, and there's Worlds United for an entire other "Flash Gordon" style flavor. I have the former but not yet the latter.....I'm not much of a fan for retro-futurism unless it incorporates the benefit of hindsight, but concede I haven't picked up Worlds United yet so maybe there's stuff I don't know about.

If you want mythos stuff, and don't mind "Mythras adjacent" from the OGL we have Delta Green, and there are other similar mythos-based OGL products online as well (that I don't have so can't comment on). Delta Green is nonetheless the best modern interpretation of the Cthulhu Mythos out there, so well worth it.

Supers is covered too. 3rd edition Mythras Imperative contains enough rules to start, and a forthcoming tome from TDM will provide the rest.

I see some spots that need more bits to fill in, of course: a proper Pulp Adventures setting book would be nice, I imagine, for those who want to run some hardcore Indiana Jones type stuff. More SF content would be welcome; a Gear Sourcebook for Mythras and/or M-Space would be extremely welcome. We could also use some more focused genre books on Cyberpunk and maybe something aimed at modern day adventuring, or modern horror that is not typically mythos based.

The issue I face now is: how to narrow down the focus to what I should run next? I'm leaning hard toward something Rubble & Ruin on the one side, and of course Mythic Babylon on the fantasy side. I also have the Bronze Age Egypt campaign I've been working on, which would be easy to fit within the Mythras rules. After that....M-Space, Mythic Britain, and more all demand attention. Maybe I can plot out several 4-6 session long mini campaigns in different settings, and let the group decide which flavor they are most keen on pursuing.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Metacomment on Video Game News Articles - Catch it Before It's Yanked

 Go here and read through. If you follow any video game news sites you will know what the author is doing:

Video Game Article (Kotaku)

(Hint: it's metacommentary, and not really satire.....)

Read the comments then! The crowd there also knows and contributes handily. In the meantime, I will take a look at John Walker's site because I think he's done with Kotaku....

Too Much Mythras Coolness: Mythic Babylon, Odd Soot, Rubble & Ruin, and M-Space Companion

Mythras is doing really well, almost a renaissance of really cool and useful new content to fill the void left by BRP's quiet return to being an engine for Runequest and Call of Cthulhu. Mythras has only grown increasingly versatile and accessible thanks to the condensed Mythras Imperative rules, various genres popping up powered by Mythras, and a wealth of third party publishers taking Mythras in interesting directions. Anyway....here are four books you as a Mythras fan should not be missing right now:

Mythic Babylon

This released today, and I am perusing the impressive PDF this afternoon but can already tell its going to be a book I must run. The Design Mechanism has been knocking historical sourcebooks with mythical elements out of the park, filling a void not properly covered anywhere else save by GURPS. I'll post more on this as I read in more depth, but wanted to get word out that the book is now live while I wait for my print copy. I also ordered a copy of Fioracitta from TDM, a book which a friend of mine grabbed and looks like a fascinating take on a fantasy alt-Italy.

Odd Soot

While investigating my plans for M-Space campaigning in the near future I noticed this oddity on Frostbyte's storefront and decided to take a leap even though it sounded like it might be part of one of my least favorite genres (retro SF in which the SF is rooted in the golden age of science fiction and ignores the benefits of hindsight). Instead, it turns out this is an amazingly weird and unique take on doing an alternate history science fiction setting in a 1920's universe, but it defies the stereotypes of this sort of genre completely in favor of something weird and new and extremely compelling. You need to read it to see that it is unique and worthy of being a cult classic.

Rubble & Ruin

I was a fan of the original BRP monograph for post-apocalyptic roleplaying even though it needed more depth of design, and was surprised to discover quite by accident that it's been revamped (with two modules as well) for Mythras as a stand alone system. Rubble & Ruin provides all the rules and more for rough post-apocalypse gaming in a package that looks like it's not wanting for any content. I'll also be writing on this one more soon.

M-Space Companion

M-Space, despite my gripes with the very basic equipment and weapons list in the core rulebook, is still by far the best SF adaptation of BRP I've found on the market. It's only gotten better thanks to the M-Space Companion, which adds in some much needed SF content, most notably rules for cybernetic augmentations (good rules!), rules on playing robots as characters (also good rules!) and an expanded culture/background system that adds some randomized elements to character backgrounds. Well worth the asking price to provide useful additional content to M-Space. 

Speaking of M-Space, if you did not know, a quality color edition of the rulebook is available on DrivethruRPG now here. Previously you had to order it from Europe at prohibitive cost, or get a cheap copy in black and white off Lulu. Get it now before the cost of color printing skyrockets for POD in July!


Thursday, June 17, 2021

Devil in the Details - When that one design choice overturns an otherwise fine system

Today is a post about griping about things, completely new to the internet, I assure you. You have been warned!

So I wonder how many have had this experience like me. Take a game, a game you might have a keen interest in. You read through it, design some characters, work out some scenario ideas.....you're learning the system. So far you see all the cool stuff and you become increasingly impressed. The creator of the game has a vision, and its one which aligns well with yours, meshes nicely. Indeed, it either supports your own ideas well, or provides ideas you had never considered but can definitely get behind.

Then....that thing happens. It's the thing that for some people they say, "Yeah I like this, but I wish the game did this thing differently," and then they start tweaking and house ruling. In some cases, anyway. I don't generally mean that, though.....first off being I don't like assuming I know enough about the rules to want to change them until I've actually run the game. Second issue being a rule might pose issues, but the idea in my head is that subtler, more disheartening moment when you discover that there's a design element in the game, something maybe a bit vague or undefined that you feel should be fleshed out, or an omission (or inclusion) that just feels out of place to you. 

Maybe the game suggests you should have a wild and wooly bestiary included and the game only has stats for four monsters or something. Maybe you expected the game, which deals with a serious look at ethics or morality in a genre setting to include some rules that support that and they're just...absent. Or maybe you expected the game about high tech capers to have more than a page or so on high tech things. That sort of "oh no" moment.....things you could only fix by, essentially, writing an entire new chapter or sourcebook for the game, or rewriting the game to remove a weird tonal inconsistency. Or drafting up new art to reflect the dark and serious nature of the grim setting, reflected through the eyes of an artist focused on cute anime styles. Stuff like that.

I've had that happen to me on occasion. I'll concede, a lot of what crops up here are SF related, which might say a great deal about my expectations for SF games. A few notable examples I can think of at the moment include....

M-Space Falls Flat on Weapons and Gear

I really dig M-Space and it's design intent, but I believe the author is on record as not being very "gadget focused," and it shows, unfortunately. When you get to the equipment section the barebones weapons and gear lists are the barest essentials for a good SF setting from my experience, and are oddly reliant on some Star Wars terminology with the serial numbers rubbed off a bit (seek out evidence of where else in SF the actual term "restraining bolt" is used, for example, outside of Star Wars). When you see the similarities in the gear it can't be unseen, and the minimalist list means the GM has some work cut out for him if he wants to have a range of gear across differing tech levels. M-Space also lacks tech levels, and oddly, while it does provide ship costs in design, its prefab ships do not tell you how much they cost. My players will want to know!

White Star Can Be Taken Seriously But Doesn't Want To 

I griped about this before at one point, and it was really when the Galaxy Edition came out that I realized that the White Star universe was defaulting to a setting with transformers, cosmic space squirrels, not-wookies, not-ewoks, off-brand jedi and off-brand sith and so on and so forth that the simplicity of the original core rules (which had nominal Star Wars-esque content that I could hand waive) suddenly overwhelmed my ability to use the expanded product with any sense of seriousness. Were I to write a game like White Star, I'd try really hard to corral the homage-style content to supplements and leave the core rules something with a broader scope in application.

Starfinder Uses Handwavium for Gear and Starship Economies

Also griped about, but ultimately a bugaboo that makes it hard to properly run campaigns for this otherwise fine D20 system, is its use of level scores for gear and a starship design system that completely divorces ship design and advancement from wealth. The core conceit of Starfinder is that mechanically both gear and ships are tied to PC level and over time you can get better gear (and boost your ship) as part of the leveling process rather than as part of the "in game story process" in which the players negotiate for the cash to buy things. In theory this shouldn't pose too much of a problem except that it does....and it does so because the way gear is done lampshades the entire process. Gear at level 20, as an example, isn't theoretically that different from gear at level 1. It's just....better. Much, much better. Trying to explain how build points for starships tie in to the galactic economy or why the corporations sell gear at increasingly staggered levels of complexity raises all sorts of uncomfortable questions about how the Starfinder universe is supposed to work, and as a result it does some very weird things to one's sense of verisimilitude. The problem of course is we as gamers know the real answer: mechanical balance demanded by the game system. But when the game mechanics cause weird and illogical interpretations of the implied game universe, it makes acceptance of that universe very difficult. More difficult, ironically, than believing in fantasy space elves with magic and laser guns.

Pulp Cthulhu Is Pulp at the Expense of Cthulhu

Yes, you can adopt the Pulp Cthulhu rules and have a rousing adventure in which you through derring do and sheer grit manage to blow away an elder thing while dynamiting his pet shoggoth.....but are you actually playing Call of Cthulhu then, or are you just using assets for a physics defying action game that is paying a slight nod to the source material it perverts? Maybe it depends on the interpretation, but I personally think that talents and all the associated drivel of the pulp rules can go hang out in someone else's games. On the plus side, it's all quietly constrained to the Pulp Cthulhu books and therefore easy to ignore.

Those Dark Places Likes to Talk About The Idea of What's In Those Dark Places But not..you know...What's Actually In Those Dark Places

Those Dark Places is essentially a game about the first twenty minutes of the movie Alien, and it stops right when they are about to find the eggs in the ship. It's an indie game (and as such a lot of the times you have to either be on board with the creator's vision or get off the bus), in which the smallest section of the book is the one which advises GMs on how to populate their games with vile xenomorphs and evil androids. Indeed, it really doesn't seem to want to do this at all, and stops short of....anything. So, yeah. It's really just an indie RPG for rolling up space workers and then thinking about how it would be cool if something interesting happened while they were working. To contrast: the excellent Mothership gives you one rulebook to roll up spacers, then showers you with several incredibly dense space adventure tomes that are increasingly insane and deadly space crawls. 

Okay then! Felt like a rant for fun. I think some of this is cropping up as I am taking time during my work-related exodus from gaming to realign my gaming focus and look for other oft neglected games on my shelves to see which ones might demand more attention and interest. Maybe next post I'll mention some of the games which surprised me with their efficacy in design and focus. 

Monday, June 14, 2021

Games with Multiple PCs per Player

 I've been mulling over a recent experience in a Pulp Cthulhu 7E game where the players each got to run 2 characters. I think some of the rationale was it was a scenario designed for a lot of players but we were a small group. It was also potentially a very deadly scenario, so maybe multiple PCs left some wiggle room for death without taking a player out of the mix. The key thing, though, is that it meant that I was trying to juggle more than one PC, and it was an experience that made me think about another game I've been interested in recently: Dungeon Crawl Classics (as well as Mutant Crawl Classics) and their funnel mechanic.

Here's the thing: I really disliked juggling 2 PCs. I realize this has to do with my play style as a player, because as a GM I of course must juggle lots of NPCs. As a GM the process is simple, because the NPCs are not PCs, they have their moment/turn of events and are tied to the plotline....as much as I choose to ham it up, NPCs are still there to act as foils for the PCs to play off of, letting the story move forward. That is a distinctly different experience from what I want as a player.

As a player I imagine there are a few types of people out there who engage with their character in different ways. Ways I have seen include:

Speaking of your PC in the third-person tense ("James tries to open the door.") like you are an author narrating a protagonist's actions. A lot of new players who haven't role played before start here then work out their comfort zone over time.

Speaking in first-person, but playing, in essence, yourself (you are invested in actions, but not necessarily immersion; dialogue will sound like this: "I talk to the demon to see what it says it's name is."). Players who settle here tend to be playing a role, yes, but are not really role-playing in the conventional sense. 

Speaking in first-person, but playing a character (you may change your vocal tone, accent, or even go a bit out there: "If you, sir, are possessed by a demon, then how might I address you?"). A majority of long term gamers tend to nestle here after a while, and most tend to have a range of around 2-4 "types" that they favor, sometimes with varying personalities and other times with varying playstyles to match.

Speaking in first-person in charicature; these are the players who either are amazingly good at it and bring some genuine thespianism to the table, or they are an earsore and we all suffer, but they are key in always being exaggerated in their personality and voice, and indeed their main satisfaction may be less in following the story of their PC than in the representation of it. This kind of player is actually not that common in my experience.

Anyway.....I have a theory that the multiple PC methodology does not mesh well with all but the first type mentioned above. It creates a disruption when you are a focused player who likes to figure out a character, but must then "jump tracks" every turn to figure out a different chaarcter. In the recent games I found myself resorting to third-person narrative for my secondary PC just because it was the only way to keep things sane in my head.

When I have run my own games, if a secondary character becomes necessary I have always identified them as NPCs who act as henchmen under mechanical control of the player, to which I would then lend the personality or decision making if needed (it is not too common the player is good at this, unless the NPC/secondary character is something easy to manage like an animal companion). This has worked well; I've run games where there were 3 PCs but each had 2-20 henchmen, whom they could direct and control, without worrying about the personalities.

As a result, this got me to thinking about the funnel crawl and its design intent in Dungeon Crawl Classics. The theory is that putting a massive group of zero level PCs who are definitely fodder for the module will let players bond with the survivors. It's an interesting idea, and may work, but does require that the initial game be, in essence, about "no one" at first, and that the disconnect of the player to a mass of PCs will in theory subside once one or two of them are all that is left. I want to see how this works in play, but worry that it would be less exciting than it sounds.

I do know one thing out of all this, though: aside from not liking controlling two or more PCs equally as a player (in Call of Cthulhu, at least!) I also don't much care for the Pulp Cthulhu rules. Too unCthulhuish! But that is another blog post for another day.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

OpenQuest 3 Kickstarter POD in the wild

 Been super busy with work lately but just had to post that I got my at-cost coupon for OpenQuest 3 today from the Kickstarter and I have ordered two copies. Very excited to see this one....as much as I am impressed with the art and design of the new Runequest, I am just not a fan of the specifics of Glorantha and prefer RPGs that let me do my own thing, so OpenQuest 3 will very much allow for that. The PDF shows off a nice design strength, a good classic art aesthetic and a clean layout to the rules. 

Once I have the physical copies I will discuss in more depth!