Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Free RPGs for Better or Worse

Like a lot of gamers out there, my disposable income is limited. When a new RPG comes out a new roleplaying game supplement, I can get excited. Then, I take a look at my wallet and think—boy, I have to make some more money. For years, people have been putting out free RPGs, though. More recently, publishers—mostly independent, smaller publishers—have been putting games up for download as a product where you Pay What You Want.

Now, traditionally, these free roleplaying games have had a lackluster presentation. While they may have had some clever ideas, a great deal of them were merely house rules and settings changes for already popular, for-profit, published games. They were often done as a simple text or HTML file, sometimes converted to PDF. Artwork may have been non-existent, little more than stick figure drawings, clip art or cut and paste from public domain art. Some went as far to use art without permission or to ask artists if they could use their work in the free products. Without getting into the ethical debate about what art should or shouldn’t be used, things have certainly changed.

The popularity of digital publishing has made it easier for a lot more games to hit the market. Kickstarter and similar crowdfunding sites have made it possible for other, mostly higher quality games. More people have computers with even basic word processing software that is freely and easily attainable, so the production quality has increased across the board.

Meanwhile, if you know where to look, those games that are not put out for free can be downloaded for free. It really isn’t hard. And, there is research that indicates this helps the hobby. However, it is still frowned upon for all the right reasons. It is funny, however, to see people posting free to download or pay what you want pay schedules on unofficial sites instead of just providing a link to those official sites. Those official sites, like DriveThruRPG help publishers keep track of how popular their games are, even if they aren’t making any money. If a lot of people have downloaded your game for free, after all, maybe there is something viably profitable there. Could you hire better artists, put more time into research or editing, or unleash further products if just a percentage of the people who downloaded your game for free would be willing to pay for new updates?

Now, I’ve taken a look at a lot of games over the years. Some I would never play. It’s not that they are bad games—they just aren’t to my liking. I really don’t like Fiasco, for example, but it’s not a bad game. It’s just not for me. Over at my friend +Adam Dickstein's  blog, BarkingAlien, he put together a Muppets RPG that is quite sound. He actually does run the game, but it’s only format so far is right there on his blog. +Joshua Macy  has published the SFX! Line of genre-based games, and those are all free right over on DriveThru. Lady Backbird, while widely accepted and shared and spoken of in high regards, just isn’t a game for me. And, there are many others out there I simply haven’t found or had the chance to try. Hellcats and Hockeysticks seems absolutely hysterical and while I wouldn’t normally play that style of game, I want to try that one as soon as I get it.

My thoughts of the Pay What You Want were mixed at first. I figured that was, to many people, just another way to say “free RPG.” And, in a way, it is. I am one of those people who will download the games and pay $0.00. However, if the game is good, is something I would play, I will go back and download a fresh copy, paying for it the second time around. It’s like working at the comic book store when someone asks me what something is worth—“Whatever someone is willing to pay for it.” It might be $500 to you. But, that $500 is just sitting around on the shelf collecting dust. Is it worth $100 cold hard cash in your pocket?

If it’s free, where is the risk for you, the consumer? Some time lost skimming through it? Note: a lot of these new games are shorter rather than longer and you can get a feel for whether you like them or not more near the beginning than after reading cover to cover. You may find some gems out there that you really enjoy. I think it’s cool too, because these independent publishers haven’t grown too big for their britches. They take feedback and listen to what people have to say. They answer questions and they are a bit easier to get ahold of because they don’t millions of people trying to track them down.

What cool free RPGs or Pay What You Want RPGs have you seen out there recently?

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Cool Fight Scenes for Your RPG

I’ve been doing a lot of jabbering about fighting and doing cool stuff in RPGs recently. Anyone who saw my recent post about making a game more about what players can do and less about what they cannot saw one clip I shared from the cinematic trailer for Elder Scrolls Online. Yes, that’s the kind of stuff I want to see (or, at least imagine) during a roleplaying game. But, there are certainly others.

Awhile back, I first saw Now You See Me. It had a great cast of mostly up and coming actors and was a solid movie. I’d definitely recommend it for +Jonathan Henry or anyone else looking to run a heist style game. However, the main fight scene they had starring Dave Franco opposite Mark Ruffalo was awesome. I can totally see doing this with Fate Core. At the same time, I’m almost reminded of a well-flavored D&D thief, particularly DnD 4e. I like it, because we see no damage is being done really, but the characters are both fighting, working toward a goal. I don’t see that a lot in RPGs, but I wish I did—not only for the “damageless” combat, but the creative maneuvers.

Next up is a movie I saw some years back. Equilibrium is set in a dystopian future where emotion has been outlawed, because it is the root of all evil. Even fine art and music is contraband. Everyone takes a Prozac-like drug. But, it also brought in the “gun kata” which is funny and ridiculous in its own right (although, I have seen several firearms instructors speak as to how it could work in real life), but what is roleplaying if not fun, over the top, and unbelievable. The final fight scene here with Christian Bale and Angus Macfadyen has it all. A 45 in one hand, katana in the other, the maneuvers make for some visually stunning effects. I like this and want to see more of it in RPGs, because the fast paced action and complexity of the moves being able to be watered down mechanically to pull it off so we could actually envision this would just be awesome. Check out the beginning part where he slides the magazines across the floor strategically too. Tell me your favorite gun bunny shouldn’t be able to do that!

Now, I’m up for a good kung fu movie just about whenever there is an option. I happen to like Jet Li. In Unchained, he plays a prize fight who really only know how to fight. It was actually a very well done movie, though. The acting and script were good and it totally wasn’t what I was expecting. The cool thing about this martial arts flick, though was how a lot of the fighting was so brutal and animalistic. It wasn’t all style and form, but had a lot of street fighting in it. That was pretty cool and I think, when we have the brute that isn’t some sort of kung fu master, we forget how awesome and entertaining their fighting can be. That isn’t always the case, especially when there is a military guy in the group, but it often is. This compilation of scenes shows how awesome street fighting really can be made to look, and it’s worth keeping in mind for describing cool fighting stuff even if you aren’t playing some wandering sword master of the 9th clan of the 9th moon.

Along the same lines, checking out Fighting with Channing Tatum is worth it. It’s not a good script, but the acting is decent enough. The fight scenes are brutal. At one point, someone’s head hits a linoleum floor and I and about three other guys cringed at the sound when we heard it in the theater, because it was so spot on. That shit hurts, too. This level of realism, where getting punched actually hurts and—if you don’t do it right—can hurt your hand, where fighting leaves bruises and torn muscles—it makes sense and is something to keep in mind, especially for grittier campaigns and is a good reason many characters might avoid a fight, because—well, fighting hurts.

Now, there’s a lot of cool stuff out there and maybe you have some of your own you’d like to add to the list down in the comments. I know I could think of more, but there’s only so much room on the internet and all. Of course, with martial artists, action film buffs, etc., there tends to be more description that goes into the fighting. That’s been my experience, anyhow. And, there can come a time when that individual kind of steals the spot light. As a GM, I find it important sometimes to have them hold their thought when only part way through, so others can have a turn. There is a certain balance required here. It can be done. Let them start in, as it gets a little too long, ask them to hold on, because other players are acting at the same time in “fast paced combat” and all. You’;ll come back to them after others have gone or t least started to go. I’ve actually had it work quite well and the pause gives players a chance to modify and make their character’s actions even cooler, sometimes by playing what others in the group are doing.

To me, that’s a big chunk of what RPGs are—stories about cool people doing cool stuff. There are lots of variations on a theme there, but—I strong believe—if you’re going to do it in a game, you need to do it “awesomer.” It’s like +Robert Hanz  is always talking about framing the scene and making it interesting and I know +Joshua Macy  often talks about, if it isn’t interesting, why is it in the game?

High Tension, Fast Pace

This is something I know +Jonathan Henry and I have talked about at length before. It’s been included in our personal discussions as well as part of Giant Dragons Gamer Chat (if you haven’t checked that out before, be sure you do—a bunch of guys and gals sit around between 6pm and 9pm Wed thru Fri and talk about gaming). There is a certain bit of intensity that you get when you are in a dangerous situation or even when you watch an action sequence in a movie. A good writer can even make that tension palpable in a book. And, let’s face it, combat is an integral part to many a roleplaying game. Even if you play to the intrigue of a setting, there is typically going to be at least one combat in most RPG game sessions. Combat can be a complex process with square or hex grid maps, measurements, a variety of tactical choices, etc. It can also be relatively light and freeform. It seems that this combat is missing the adrenaline influx and blood pumping we get in other fast paced, high tension scenes. There is regular meta gaming going on while we discuss options and have side chatter. In fact, combat is often full of laughs and moments of awe when players make an unbelievable roll or come up with a cool idea. But, where is that ticking clock, stressful feeling we get from combat.

Okay, I know RPGs are supposed to be fun. And, I go so far to say if you’re not having fun, someone is doing something wrong. And, being in a death defying situation in real life isn’t fun. However, we have fun when we see these fights in a movie, read about them in a book. People have fun scaring the hell out of themselves on roller coasters and in haunted houses. People can have fun by raising their blood pressure a little, making game combat a bit more tense. But, how do you do that?

I know +Jerrod Gunning has times where he does a very disruptive and loud countdown—don’t call out your action within that three seconds and lose your turn. Some people hate that, some like it. Others use egg timers, set for a few or thirty seconds. It was even discussed to base a modifier on how long it takes someone to decide what to have their characters do. Others use cards, slapping them down quickly—almost like a game of Speed—to help keep things moving quickly.

Personally, I haven’t found a method that works for me yet. Maybe it’s because most of my games are so laid back. But, I’m interested to hear what thoughts others have and what others have used to keep the action tense, fast, and fun. Do I need to start playing the part of Sam Kinison or Bobcat Goldthwait to get people to sweat a little during combat? And, it’s not just for combat, but trying to make that swing across a bottomless chasm on a vine or being involved in a car chase or anywhere else our where we would be excited and doing things quickly in order to survive.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Yes, And...

Admittedly, I really struggled with coming up with a title for this blog post. I settled on a term that many gamers and GMs love to toss around these days. I can’t count the number of times +Jerrod Gunning  has used it while describing gaming and running styles. He’s also used numerous times in the handful of games I have been luckily enough to join in while he was running. Yes, Jerrod runs a lot of games, but my schedule tends to be a bit goofy. Anyhow, moving right along.

I was fortunate enough to sit in on a play test of D&D Next being run by +Tom Morris . I’ve had the playtest documents and played a few games, but everything had trouble getting off the ground. Tonight, I was a little late to join in the fun myself, but I was invited to sit back and watch. +Cavin DeJordy  was there with his natural impishness—he’s a lot more macabre in game than I remember. Then, +Shoe Skogen  was playing a character that was just downright brutal. +Lloyd Gyan was there with a proper and studious healer. The fray exploded early amongst these and other players.

I realized a few things here. Over the years, I have played an enjoyed a great many games—everything from Dungeons & Dragons Advanced Second Edition to Rifts (yes, I put them next to one another on purpose), Rolemaster, Fate, and so many more. Over time, my tastes have changed somewhat and in some cases, it was really because I didn’t know what I wanted. I found on more than one occasion I found an RPG I didn’t know I loved until I tried it, like asking someone if they enjoy chocolate when they have never had it. +Joshua Macy's SFX is a perfect example of this.

With DnD 3x, I enjoyed feats and skills, but it became clunky. I later experimented with +Mark Knights  running Pathfinder and I finally realized why I moved away from d20. D20 and DnD are built off a single, simple rule, a roll of a d20. However, there are literally hundreds of rules exceptions. Fate Core came out and I enjoyed it, but there was a lot of applications of rules—it was like peeling back an onion. With SFX! everything revolved around “does this makes sense?” Genius!

My point is, I’ve been trying a lot of games out over the past year and I have seen what I live versus what I don’t like. What I have really been doing is testing systems to see what they could and couldn’t do. I really wanted to push the envelope for what I was used to seeing in tabletop games. I wanted the high flying cinematics without having to memorize a thousand rules or find a way to make it work within a system—have it just work out of the box with just a roll or two, without and fudging or modifications. The cool trailers we see for video games—yeah, that’s what I want our characters to do…all…the…time.

Take a look here for a perfect example of what I mean (especially the archer dude near the end):

Watching this game of D&D Next get played, however, I was seeing the exact opposite. Testing out rules, you play a system as designed. You ignore the golden rule of gaming to “use what you want and discard the rest.” I heard more than once that the system simply wasn’t designed to do what the players wanted it to. Players pleaded with the DM for another player to be able to do something just because it would be cool. They worked something out, she did. It was awesome. They tried to encourage it to be more awesome and my take away line for the night was “There are no suplexes in Dungeons & Dragons.”

Meanwhile, I look at games like Fate where people are supposed to have fun making their characters and what their characters do “more awesome.” SFX is build the same way. The difference being in Fate, there are some pretty solidly established ways to do things. In SFX, you determine your desired end result and roll for that, everything else is just window dressing. +Adam Dickstien has a modified version of D&D he’ll hopefully run for me soon that, every time I hear about it, it makes me drool. He says that your characters are supposed to be mythic fantasy heroes. Meanwhile, D&D is often built more around what you can’t do.

At the same time, I heard a lot of meta gaming going on in the D&D Next play test. The healer of the group was trying to figure out how many hit points his companions had so that he could do cool stuff. Fate suffers from this a bit as well, as you make decisions based on Fate points. That’s thinking out of game. As Macy will tell you, just as in SFX, gaming should be done from the character’s perspective. What would they do or what would it make sense for them to do in certain situations? You shouldn’t be worried about this otherwise non-existent arbitrary facets that are included by the rules. Now, I still like to roll, so I’m not a diceless roleplaying guy. I don’t enjoy Gossamer & Shadow or Fiasco. I do, however, enjoy being in the moment and not worry about how many HP or or power points my character has and dealing with some archaic, otherwise intangible currency.

So, “yes, and…” makes a lot more sense to me now than it did way back when. I’m seeing the flaws in the games I grew up with. I still enjoy them for what they are, but I also find myself looking toward what else there could be. I have taken situations and videos to GMs and designers from different games. How would you do this with XYZ system? I get answers like it can’t be done or that you have to either ignore certain rules or follow a laundry list of rules that add so much table rolling, you can easily get lost. Then, I also get answers like “that’s easy, just blah, blah, blah.” So far, however, the only one that has really held true and made sense for me is SFX’s rule of “does it make sense.” Trying to work that into other games now, and I’ll have to see how the players respond to it, because it does require a certain bit of arbitrary ad libbing. And, even I am one who likes codification. It is an interesting conundrum with two diametrically opposing forces needing to play nice with one another.