Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Tabletop Recipes: The Bloody Beef of Battle

Or the Beet Broth of Battle if you're a vegetarian.

For a game that has a lot of readers who complain about its over-simplistic combat system,  it's amazing how self-limiting approaches the approaches to fixing the problem can be. Once in a while, I do get to watch other people run T&T, which I do with unrestrained delight, because the game attracts the best storytellers ever. Combat does seem a touchy area, especially when the GM is fairly new and the players at the table are straight up D&D players and rather uncompromising towards the game that makes That Game look rather silly. So here's some tips to serve up melee. Note that I've discussed a couple of the points before, at this very blog, so be patient long term readers (except Bennet, you don't have to).

Break the phases of combat up. One of the best things about Our Game is that strike rank, initiative are mostly irrelevant. There are three parts to every combat turn; Magic, Missile and then Hand-to-Hand. One reading of the rules is that this is only an administrative separation. I decided years ago, that I'd do it different than that. Each phase of the turn gets its own spotlight. Someone cast a spell and a target gets zapped, the effect or damage is calculated immediately. Someone let's fly an arrow, another gets an arrow in the leg, damage is incurred. Don't forget GM that a little dramatic narrative on your part really pulls the players into the scene, and makes the up-close melee more anticipated. Now the Hand-to-Hand portion can be given as much detail the GM wants, but I find doing the math quickly and coming up with a colorful description for the players works better than anything. Which brings me to the next point, portion size.

Illustration by John Armbruster. Not to be reused without his permission.

For the most part, keep combats quick. In less than four turns, the delvers need to know if they're winning, losing or at a draw. This keeps the session lively. People should not be going for soda and chips during combat. This is the major difference between Our Game and That Game. When violence is going on this should be the most important thing in the players' mind, if for nothing else than their PC can be killed with just a bunch of Spite damage if the opponent has enough dice. If you see one of your players getting bored in combat, you're doing something wrong. And it probably has to do with pacing, not the mechanic of the game system.

Now in some cases, like as a series wrap up, long running battles should go on. I am just saying that if you as the GM are calling for "Magic" phase of attack four times in a row, and no one is coming up with clever strategies to optimize their survival, someone is getting bored. If nothing else, have your monsters (err combatants) start taking cover and developing kill zones. This will get the audiences attention. And it makes a better scene for the playing of it.

There are ways to get sessions of purely combat game mechanic driven, but this a gimmick, and shouldn't be the point of every session. At least not if you're playing T&T. I'll get more into this onion later.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Tabletop Recipes: Gravity Salad

I don't know how well Avalon Hill's version of Runequest ever sold, but their covers of Adventurers doing the traveling bit of the quest sold me hook, line and sinker. Forget the monsters on the shields. The dragon snarling from its pile of gold and booty? Been there, done that; got the +2 bastard sword and mithril-scaled tee-shirt. Forget the Otis scenes of combats full of devastating magic and horrific monster body parts, like tongues and talons. Nope I like the well groomed Saxon-armored female atop a horse, with a donkey tied to it, looking out onto some salt plains with mountains looming in the distance. At that point, my own personal brand of T&T would become about the tasks involved in getting from point A to point B, maybe some would say the torture of it, as well the trials and treasure at the heart of it.

I think about my travels in life, from misadventures to deployments in the Army to now regular vacation trips, and this bears out the truth of my philosophy above. What mostly comes to mind is the little mishaps and obstacles getting there, not so the being there. Traveling one time from eastern Romania to Atlanta, Georgia to meet a friend flying in from Fairbanks, Alaska, the most memorable part of the trip was a ten-seat airport bar counter in Aviano Italy where I ended up staying the night because I got pick-pocketed by a chickpea that I had spurned earlier. Luckily I still had my American Armed Forces ID card and an expired US Passport in my coat pocket, just no money until my grandparents could overnight mail a bank card from my credit union in Texas to the hotel in Atlanta. Luckily I had enough cash in my front pocket, a traveler's trick against pick-pockets, to cover my tab and just had to wait for the flight out at 6:15am. My credit card company would get me a new card by the end of the month at my address in Germany. How exactly was I going to get from the airport in Atlanta to the hotel? Well, it wouldn't be the first time I had to panhandle for subway change. It would actually be the second. Boy, bar stools were not designed for sleeping on but they're better than boarding area benches.

The environment should define the scenario, or sets of scenarios, to help the Delvers get the feel of the place. What's being a desert without sunburn and avoiding scorpions? Ever tramped through a swamp without heat exhaustion and avoiding water moccasins? How about been in a snow storm and  stepped into a puddle of freezing water hidden by the thinnest layer of snow and very thin ice? Never? Okay, how about that time you were headed to the mall and that red minivan cut you off and stole your parking space? You had to park all the over by J.C. Pennys when you were trying to get to the cinema almost a football field away. These are pretty dramatic moments in the advent of our days. They should be for your characters as well.  The resulting ailments, from frostbite for Lumbering Jack in the Birch Lands to Shivering Fever for Confucius Rogue in the jungles of Djung, have made my player groups feel they have really gotten there when they arrived at the entrance of tunnel finally.

The starting point itself can be quite fun. It's not just showing up that makes getting into that remote and unfriendly spot you want to visit. One of the places where a Kopfy tunnel, that's a dungeon to you D&Dheads, differ from the Ken St Andre tunnel is the entrance. Mind you Ken's are great, his dungeons are challenges set by God-Wizards to mere punkass adventurers, so they are floating in the sky, or massive doors carved into the side of mountains with toll collectors waiting in front for entrance. But for there's this little adventure series with a protagonist named "Indiana Jones" a couple of you dear readers might have heard of. One of the hallmarks of this collection of little-known films is the difficulty in finding the treasure, and perils of the tunnels around it, is usually very hard to get to. Mind you all, I was into pulp adventure a decade before Raiders of the Lost Arc was written. So I like this part of any tunnelcrawl to be a task in and of itself. From puzzles as to how to find the entrance, the ever popular sunset or sunrise shooting through a gem onto a map; to my favorite gravity salad.

Gravity Salad is a specialty of mine, so I'd like to go a bit more into it. This concoction is known by anyone who has ever climbed a tree to look for landmarks in a heavily forested area or has ever been spelunking. I not only place entrances to my tunnels on the sides of the walls to a geologic sinkhole, I'll design the whole complex to be a series of gravity challenges that rock-climbers and acrobats won't shrug off. Ever been inside a pyramid? Not many stairs built into the original construction. And my own pyramids are even more fun, and not just hiding gold. They've been turned upside down because of a feud by their builder and the God of Madness. And you guys really should see my Gravity Salad masterpiece, The Loop, it is the actual temple to the God of Madness (Yes his name is Loopo, Ken). Ask Jherri the Great, Alanthea, the Clever, and Garnash, the Singer, about my lovely little side dish. Throw in the weight of gold and your players could very well miss the giant ant coming from the other direction.

As to the subway station in Atlanta? The hotel had free shuttle service from the airport. The subway from the airport though, did help us get to the downtown historic areas.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Tabletop Recipes: Holding Off On the Pickles and Ketchup

While some GMs are the master of the improvisational game, I've never been one. I've done it before and even sold two copies of the 5th edition T&T after doing so, and started a regular gaming group from it. But that was back in 1986. I was damn-near homeless and was all-but wearing a sign saying "Will GM for food." Really, I had a job and an apartment. But I had some transportation issues and the city bus system where I lived could only get me to six miles of my gaming store, so by the time that I got there I looked ruffled to say the least.

But as I said, I've rather gone out of my way not to do improvisation. Most the time I work from notebooks that can fit in my shirt pocket, which looks casual enough. Woe to anybody who ever reads through one of these books, for every casual line of an outline for that days adventure is about 10 pages of background, including calendars for said setting of events going on around them. So back to the derelict metaphor, I am that crazy guy who keeps scribbled notes on the voices in my head.

Often these days, when some of the gamer audience see a GM walk up with only a pad of paper, a dice bag and maybe the small T&T 7plus rules book, many assume that I am just making it up as I go along, so suddenly I start getting "request" like I am working at a Mongolian BBQ. Maybe it's the absence of a minivan full of miniatures and a GM shield.
"Ooo, are we pirates?" Says the mom feeding her kids at the table.
"How about some dinosaurs?" Says the guy who needs to get out more, looking down the mom's pirate wench shirt. "Zombies are cool."
"I like Star Wars!" Chimes in the dude wearing an Iron Man tee-shirt.

And then the poor gang is stuck with the milieu that I already had worked up for them. And in my opinion, the better for it.

I seem to be open to suggestion even when I take the time to type up and publish my material. There is often the "special requester" that occurs during working relationships with artists or potential writers even through casual correspondence about our shared hobby.

I was buying artwork from one guy who saw a copy of the fanzine of where my Rjinn the Swords Woman was featured. He asked to read it. After 30 seconds of him flipping through a couple pages, decided I should write up his version of Alice in Wonderland. I spent 40 minutes politely nodding and not buying the man a beer, while I had two, while he outlined his trilogy. When he noticed that I wasn't taking notes, he took his check for $300 for his artwork and slipped off.

Then there are the emailers, a couple of guys appearing every month from an unknown, and unlimited, pool who are just bursting with ideas. Apparently though they do not have enough time to write up their own ideas-- probably something to do with the time spent those thoughts emailing hordes of people instead. Many are the "Short and Sweet" sorts. One or two sentenced blurbs appear from the ether into my mailbox. Usually bits like "Flying Zombies With Sonar(sic). Think about it for WHAP." And then there is the "Voluminous Texts" gaggle, this number is growing. Pages and pages of effort thrown out there with the line "If you can use this." While these ideas, whether expressed long or short, are often brilliant and great, they aren't mine. And especially in the case of the folks throwing pages and pages at me, it would not take too much to complete that work in a form that wouldn't scare away most casual readers and publish something themselves.

Mind you, I don't mind people sharing their ideas with me. I work with many by providing feedback on their work. I even co-author with a few. I just don't compose for others.

So when you sit down at my counter don't ask me for catch-up for that meaty idea at my falafal stand.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Tabletop Recipes: The Mis En Place GM

"The first reference of Cylon I can find is the that he is the Son-in-Law of Theagenes of Megara. The dictator, I use the Latin word as opposed to "tyrant" which the Greeks used because of the slight difference in connotations in the English language, tried to have Cylon installed as the dictator of Athens. When the man seized control of the city there was no general uprising by the city-state's population. Instead a prominent leader of town, Megacles, organized a counter-push and Cylon and his supporters ended up being dragged from holy sites to be slaughtered in the streets and left in the gutter.
Still, the bad feelings around the sacrilegious conduct of the city's "protectors" rubbed many of the Athenians the wrong way. This would lead to the up and coming Athenian Draco to instill a set of laws that many would find harsh as well as intrusive..."

The little blurb opening up this post is the start to a paper that I was writing in '94 working towards a History degree from the University of Maryland. And on a warm spring evening in '98, it was laying open on my "working desk." I probably was reading it out of nostalgia for the Glory Days of the Service and sorting through the collection of paper-provable accomplishments I had achieved.

One particular Friday night, I was sitting around with my new neighbors in Cleveland, Ohio and complaining about the disappointment I was having as a substitute teacher to them. They were stoned, I was half drunk and we all role-played. To cheer me up, Lumbering Jack suggested that I "do this T&T thing" for him, after he got the burgers and cobs of corn ready for the picnic table. So I had twenty minutes to build a world back in my efficiency, and only a 23 year-old book at that time, that I had bought at a very high price, compared to his library of AD&D books scattered throughout his house.

Jonathon liked me, and continues to do so, for reasons that I don't know. More so than today,  I was angry and bitter back then.  I think that he wanted me to feel good about something going on in my life. He and others would pull me out of chatrooms to come BBQ and party those weekends when someone nicknamed "Shippy" would be imploring me to stay on-line and discuss this or that detail of the politics of the community surrounding Our Game. He hid it behind a challenge to show him how T&T wasn't D&D, or more politely put, That Game.

When the GM presents his campaign world to his players, anybody who isn't a straight-up mindless 4th Edition Zombie (DnDHead) knows that it takes a little bit of work. But the GM doesn't really have to work hard finding his voice or his material. It's probably already lying around all over the place. I grabbed a notebook and wrote down the names "Cylon" and "Draco" and quick notes like "minotaur MR100" "Healing Feeling necklace" "Buzzsaw trap" and "undead Wizard 1-5 spells STR 100."

For the next 3 and a half hours, 30 minutes mostly wolfing down a burger and potato salad and walking through the character generation process, LumberingJack, SeaShelly (his wife) and a guy named Sal, played T&T. Adventurers newly arrived to Athens when Sal's best friend Cylon wrote a note asking for their help in establishing order in his new regime. And when Sal's PC, Horakles, said "We're here to help out your king, Cylon." to a gate-guard the hook was set. They were arrested and taken to the city's strong man Draco, who was running things. And to be allowed to leave the city the delvers had to arrest or kill a Wizard who had taken refuge in the Temple of Hades. Anybody else sent in had not come out.

LumberingJack and SeaShelly still play T&T. They'd later be some of the main players of my 7th edition playtest campaign along with Peryton and Em. 

The reason I mention all this is lead into the topic of GMing a good game in my view. This first ingredient is "Willingness to play on short notice." And though I'd like to claim that T&T enables impromptu sessions, but in reality any good GM of any system that is willing can pull together an adventure even when a little surprised with a request to. So the first ingredient is the GM is things on his mind.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Strange Kin #9.2

The Toadie
Stats are the same as the Urook in the T&T rules book.

Like the froglin, they have "Snap Tongues" which can strike out three times there body lengths and grapple up to 1/4 of their own ST. Toadies tend to not be very social outside of their own siblings and off-spring. They fare a little better away from water than the frog-kin. They do trade with other amphibious Kindred, and sometimes selected land-dwellers, after a very long period to get acquainted with them.

Most of the toad-kin tend to be Warriors, but there are indeed Wizards, Rogues, Paragons and whatnot.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Strange Kin #9.1

The Froglin
ST x1/2, CN x1/2, DX x1, SP x3, IN x1, LK x1, CH x1, WZ x1, Hgt x1/3, Wgt x1/2

Found along the wilder and wetter areas of the Known World as well as in parts unknown, the humanoids can be as civilized as any Kin if a little alien to most land dwellers. They are amphibious and do not fare well being in drier areas for too long. They have "Snap Tongues" which can strike out three times there body lengths and grapple up to 1/4 of their own ST.

Many Froglin communities maintain ties with the Wizards Guild in city-states like Fel Sharas or Appo. More decadent cultures, like around the Wyrd of Peakvale, have their covens of witches and warlocks (Wizards) who worship dark and exotic gods-- at least to King Hobbletoe's standard.