Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Carpe DM…Translation: “The DM is Whiny” (The Theory And Practice Of GMing RPGs, Part 2)

OK. So as I was saying before with RPGs, I started DMing Traveller, or rather “Classic Traveller” (there’ve been a couple version since the original 1981 edits of the little black books), recently.

Back when I got the source stuff for the campaign, up to and including the CD-ROM, from Far Future Enterprises, I started making a mental list of the stuff I’d have to change. In the RPG parlance, I knew there’d be a lot of homebrew rules. I already knew two things right off the bat. Several more major things popped up in the course of my campaign prep and the first couple sessions.

I mentioned the unique character generation, where you start with a mature set of skills; the corollary there is that you’ve spent anywhere from 4 to 30 years in military or quasi-military occupations. With all the hazards that pertain thereto. The character generation system had a survival roll every 4 year term (later, one for every year-long assignment). Fail it and die.

In addition, it had the old hardcore character generation rules; roll 2 dice in order for Strength, Dexterity, Endurance, Intelligence, Education and Social Standing. If you wanted to be Navy and rolled crappy INT and Social Standing? Better roll high on enlistment, buck-o, or you were out of luck. Actually there was a weird synergy there. You could “hunt medals” in your military career, taking penalties to your survival roll for bonuses to decoration rolls (decorations increasing your chance of promotion). Those of you with ruthless streaks no doubt see where this is going.

If you rolled a crappy character you’d get him into a risky profession, say Army or Marines, where you could take outrageous chances for medals. The dice modifier equivalent of stripping naked, gluing feathers to your butt and charging a machine gun nest with a toilet plunger while making “woo woo” noises. Then when probability caught up with you and you croaked, roll another character until you got a guy whose characteristics you liked.

Those two rules were going to have to go, replaced by roll seven times, discard the low roll and assign to your stats as desired method and a medical discharge roll rather than death roll. I added a chance of characteristic loss to go with a discharge, and the ability of the player to try and overcome medical discharge, to give someone who didn’t feel like they were “fully baked” yet have a chance to stay in.

Ok, so far so good. What else? Over the history of the game, Game Designers Workshop…the now defunct home of Traveller as well as other games including some very nice board wargames (read: hideously complicated games…I had weird tastes)…anyway, GDW released rules and character generation supplements over the course of the early 80s until they effectively abandoned “Traveller” for the “Twilight 2000” and “2300AD” RPGs.

The original 6 professions were Navy, Marines, Army, Scouts, Merchants and “Other”. Over the course of the game, expansion books greatly enhanced character generation for Navy, Army, Marines, Scouts and Merchants…you got WAY more skills over the course of a career. “Other” was expanded by another sourcebook, but not in terms of depth…instead it got broader. Instead of what seemed to be a generic roguish character, Other became Barbarians and Doctors and Hunters and Bureaucrats and Scientists, Pirates and of course, Rogues. But they all had the same low skill allotment.

When the supplements came out back in the 80s, Army and Marines were first (“Mercenary”), followed 6 or 7 months (and what felt like an eternity to me) later with Navy (“High Guard’) and an even longer eternity later by the Scouts (the imaginatively named “Scouts”). What happened was everyone stampeded to the cool Army/Marines careers, and there was a sudden dearth of ship based skills in most groups. And so it occurred, on down the line until “Merchant Prince” came out and allowed mercantile players to have some real fun buying and selling. So I had to homebrew some skill roll eligibility rules to ensure that all characters at the end of a term of service had had a similar count of skill roll opportunities (if not skills). I had to test that out with a few character roll ups. Seemed to work, at least well enough that the “Other” characters weren’t obviously disadvantaged. Enough so that one player picked Rogue, and his skill count had more to do with luck than anything structural.

What else was a problem? Well, although the Third Imperium background was considered the gold standard of SF RPGs it had some structural defects. The Imperium was huge and impersonal, which removed one common source of pride for PCs: that they were big swinging dicks in the universe making big differences in their worlds. Also, since the characters were “born” with a mature skill set, there wasn’t that “level up/always something new to do” pull for the characters.

So I had to fix that. I’ll cover the former point in my next, and last, post (concerning putting together a fun yet not obviously railroaded narrative in an annoyingly wide open universe); but one thing was obvious…there would have to be experience rules. Traveling takes time, a week and a half to two weeks per “jump” (a discreet distance traveled in a starship) so training of various types would and could take various amounts of time (3 months, 6 months, 9 months or a year per level, depending). I also needed a way to reach a point of diminishing returns to keep people from being the world’s foremost authority on Ship’s Tactics or whatever. Which I finally managed to put the finishing touch on recently.

There was one area that required little alteration. I mentioned that GDW was a BOARD wargame company? Their intensive combat rules were based on a board wargame. D&D’s original combat rules were clearly based on miniatures rules…move x number of inches per round, etc. Even back in the 80s, there just weren’t that many folks who played miniatures. I’m sure it surprises no one that I was one of them…I played tabletop Napoleonic wargames but even I didn’t play D&D the way it was supposed to be played…everyone just sort of declared where they were and the DM kept the positions in his head (it was always a he...I played with women, but none of them have ever wanted to DM).

Wizards of the Coast’s D&D 3rd edition, while I was away, dropped the fiction that we were all out there adjudicating disputes with rulers…and came up with combat rules that basically derived from board wargames. They did keep the mini-figs instead of using cardboard counters, although now you buy them pre-painted and they’re sold like collectable cards…you get them randomized in a box, unless you pay market rate on the secondary minis market. You can take the company away from the business model, but you can never take the business model entirely out of the company. But I digress (even more than usual, I mean).

Anyway, the GDW Traveller combat rules, “Snapshot”, played eerily similar to what the group had been doing with D&D 3.5 all along…rules that came twenty years after GDW released “Snapshot”. Those rules would cover from close range to (in some cases) long range combat, for both guns and hand weapons. Since “very long” was 250m and up, I figured I could simply cover that range increment abstractly. And in fact, so it has turned out (a recent encounter started at a klick…and all of that was conducted in the “once a minute a target appears during a rush, and you can shoot at it” way (a unit deployed in combat formation, using bounding overwatch will cover 1000m in somewhere between a half and hour to two-plus hours). The one thing the group took to like a duck to water was how to do combat. (What they constantly have to remind themselves about is radio contact…you can talk remotely, unlike D&D, and they’re constantly poking each other to remind each other to “tell the rest”…something I’m allowing because contrary to popular opinion, I’m not a total dick and it really is a novel concept when you’re used to D&D.)

The final, major piece of homebrew was “Difficulty Class” or DC, the target roll of dice for success or failure at any given task. For the first few sessions I was winging the DCs for tasks. It felt unfair to me, god only knows how the group perceived it. Pretty much the same if the eagerness with which they seized on the table I made up is any indication.

As a rule generation example this one is fairly typical. It’s based on two insights and one statistical reality. First the statistical reality: the center of a two six sided dice, normal probability curve is 7 and it’s a fairly steep curve, so average “difficulty” will play off 7 as a target and change by increments of two.

The two insights were that 5 categories are more than enough to describe almost any situation (thank you survey design in grad school!), therefore difficulties are all described as either “very easy”, “easy”, “average”, “difficult”, and “very difficult”. Second insight: that skill level 3 is “professional grade”…the rules themselves state that if a person has Medic-3 they qualify for the title “Doctor”. Arbitrarily, I set “master” skill at 6, and not so arbitrarily “beginner” is 1.

Put the two together…a task that would be of average difficulty for a beginner has a target of 8 or more (the statistical 7 plus 1 for skill level), whereas a task that could be described as average for a master is 13 (statistical 7 plus 6 for skill level). All difficulties can now be decided in my mind by answering the question, “How difficult would this be for ‘x’ skill level?” An appendectomy is easy for a doctor, but average to difficult for a beginner. Heart surgery is average for a master, difficult for a professional, and very difficult (at least!) for a beginner. If you can put it in words, the chance that everyone agrees with your assessment (and hence thinks you’re playing fair with them) goes WAY up. So was born the three column, five row table at the center of skill use.

The point I’m making? If you as a GM have a problem, your group has or will have that problem in spades. If you look back up over the decisions I’ve described (especially if you’ve ever played Traveller) you can see that everything I’ve done is to increase enjoyment by providing a sense of accomplishment, or a sense of fairness.

There’s only one game out there whose purpose is to make the player feel like they’re a tiny ant and that the GM is out to get them (mainly because he is): Paranoia. From which players derive enjoyment. It’s not an everyday game though…

Making the game enjoyable, rewarding and fair from your players’ point of view isn’t the most important thing you do as a DM, it’s the ONLY thing you do, or rather should do. Everything else is record keeping.

Next: Putting together a campaign where you manage to move characters smartly from one situation to another despite the fact that they can literally get into a spaceship and zip off in another direction entirely. On a whim.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Bond Market Described

Via Dan Gross:

Finally, the notion that the market is telling us something—anything—ultimately rests on the erroneous assumption that financial markets represent the collective wisdom of rational actors processing information efficiently. There are plenty of cool-minded forward-thinking investors in the markets. But there are also a lot of lunatics, fools, sharks, widows and orphans, government actors with ulterior motives, algorithmic traders, greedy speculators, and whack jobs. The markets resemble the Star Wars bar scene more than they do the economics faculty lounge at Princeton.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues (The Theory And Practice Of GMing RPGs) Part I

The title comes from a classic pen and and paper RPG from the 80s called "Paranoia".  The political lamp is decidedly NOT lit.  After recounting my lawn-a-cide last time, I find that I am interested in discussing other things that are going on around here rather than just what's going on in Washington.  I do have other interests.

One of those things is "Geek Night".  As it happens those of us out there (like Stephen Colbert) who played D&D when we were little nerdlets occasionally visit the mothership.  So for the better part of two years I have been playing D&D 3.5 with a bunch of very cool folks, discovering that you can have even more fun with elves when you're an adult (for one thing, by calling them "tree humpers"...they HATE that) than when you're a teenager.  We've been meeting every other week (mostly) with the same crew of folks (mostly) and having a high old time (mostly).

We first started playing in "Forgotten Realms", the by now default D&D setting.  One problem.  Thanks to having been designed back in the dark ages (the AD&D era) it had a LOT of baggage.  Not least of which is a series of merchandising novels that pretty much put you in a straitjacket.  There's one way to present (and play) Forgotten Realms, and don't you DARE violate the way it's supposed to be.

Booooorrr--ING!  Thieves are thieves, Fighters are fighters, etc., etc. ad nauseum absurdum.

So when we lost our wizard to ennui and our flagrant lack of compliance with the way he thought way we should be playing (see above) one of our number trotted out the new "default" D&D setting from Wizards Of The Coast..."Eberron".  Now I will freely admit that the conceit of Eberron--that magic in many ways replaces technology but with similar effective end points--is simply a gimmick to allow elves to duel with orcs on top of moving railroad trains, while the dwarf hijacks an airship to swoop down and rescue the orc from the vicious elven mercenary (think Mission Impossible meets The Good, The Bad And the Pointy Eared).  But it is well executed.  Pretty fun too...it allowed me to play a shapeshifter with a nasty case of PTSD as result of his experiences at the end of an all encompassing world war.

But D&D has a problem, a systemic one.  There's a "sweet spot" to the game...starting about Level 5 and ending about Level 13.  Most of the interesting stuff happens in between those two points...before Level 5 a stiff breeze can cripple you and after Level 13 or so the scaling gets out of hand and you increasingly find it difficult to throw out a challenge that isn't either too much or too little...an oscillating system forever on the verge of getting out of control.  Our group collectively started getting close to 13 and we were running out of prepublished stuff to play (for the reason I just outlined you don't see many commercial modules for Levels 15 to 20...it's all but impossible to get the level of difficulty "just right" at that point...it HAS to be personalized).  The GM for Eberron is getting his Master's and wanted some relief from prepping.  It was getting time consuming.

That's when I stepped in.  As it happened, I had something I was really, REALLY interested in revisiting.  When we were casting about for a way to not have to end "geek night" when we lost the aforementioned Fandamentalist, and before we settled on Eberron, I had been lamenting the loss over many a relocation (some more frantically rushed than others...leases will run out from time to time) of all but the dreg ends of what had been a truly impressive collection of pen and paper RPG games.

The loss I felt most keenly was a game called Traveller.  It was, to SF RPGs what D&D was to Fantasy RPGs...the very first, the wellspring, the alpha and omega from which all subsequent games derived.  Its system was gloriously different from the d20 system we were playing.  It had all KINDS of spiffy aspects, including a character generation system that started you out with your mature skill set (instead of the usual generic, "You have left home to seek your fortune..." start) and a backstory as famous in its time as Forgotten Realms is to D&D now.

So there I was, hanging out in a game shop trying to find some Eberron sourcebooks when I ran across the reprint.  Apparently Marc Miller, the original designer of Traveller, had decided to reprint the old "little black books" of Traveller having reacquired the rights to the game at some point in the past.  After a quick consultation with the group regarding their willingness to contemplate playing something other than D&D at some point (the consensus was "why not") I started acquiring books and refamiliarizing myself with the game system and campaign setting.

This has gone on for a bit so I will leave you with this insight, stolen blatantly from Spiegelman's "Maus"...

And here my troubles began.