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When it comes to making new characters for gaming, there are a lot of processes a player goes through before pencil touches character sheet, or dice clatter to table.  It’s not that it’s necessarily a laborious process, but most players grow concerned about what they are going to play and how, if at all, that character is going to fit into the table dynamic.  When this is what is called a “shared world,” such as Living Forgotten Realms, Shadowrun Missions, etc., it becomes even worse.  After all, when it’s your friends at the table, it’s easier to know what will work and what won’t.  When there are a crap ton of other variables, including players you have never met before and may never get a chance to make a good impression upon again, the stakes are higher.

Let me let you in on a little secret: None of that matters.  The party needs a cleric?  It’s just as incumbent upon every other player at the table to consider playing one.  You think your barbarian warrior is going to be a little rough around the edges, and not very personable from the beginning?  So freaking what?  You think no one will like you if you don’t play a good little soldier that follows every order barked at him or her?  Tough crap.  Play the character you want to play.  Now, don’t intentionally dick over other players (I’ve said that before), but make the character you want to play that still fits the setting.  After all, a Sherlock Holmesian inquisitor is not going to work well in a setting built around sheer survival.  A brutish warrior known for breaking tables and NPCs isn’t going to work well in a setting that is based on courtly intrigue.  Then again, I could be wrong.  The points here come down to two simple ideas:

  1. Are you designing the character just to screw another player or players?
  2. Can you make your design work in the game?

There you have it.  It really is that simple.

You see, everyone spends all their time worrying about impressing others and playing instantly personable characters.  Here’s the killer truth though: not every PC is going to be some shining-toothed goody two-shoes.  Raistlin Majere?  Conan the Cimmerian?  Solomon Kane?  Harry Dresden?  Anita Blake? (I kinda threw up a little in my mouth there, but it’s still a relevant point)  The list goes on and on.  Hell, even Quasimodo the Hunchback.

It’s not about the personality of the character; it’s about your personality as a player.  You can play an aloof and divorced character in a game and still do it with panache and style.  You can make people enjoy being in a party with just such a character without being an insufferable suck up.  The loud and boisterous barbarian who comes to respect the fighter in the party after getting into a fistfight with him; the slightly overconfident mage who grudgingly admits his need of the others, and his constant silent support of them; even the sneaky rogue who cheats at dice with the other players, but is the first to slip a dagger between the ribs of a threat she gets the drop on.  All of these are characters that, by all conventional thought should be hated, but most often aren’t.

You see, the character works as an extension of yourself, and if you consciously paralyze your creativity, you are going to paralyze yourself.  As I said, this is discounting the impulse to play a character that exists only to dick over others, or attention whore.  But playing a character renowned for being a bit of a prick, yet very dedicated to the group he is with is not an issue.  Backstabbing, betrayal, the like… they all belong as ploys used against the bad guys.  Egotism, self-centeredness, and flat-out asshole gloryhounding are not a part of the cooperative game experience.

But tell the story you want to tell.  If you want to play a character that is not fond of divine spellcasters, but respects them enough not to outright attack them on sight, go for it.  If you want to play an arcane spellcaster who sees melee fighters as little more than cavemen with sharpened sticks, go ahead.  But when that Cro Magnon saves your ass a couple times with his “sharpened stick,” you had best acknowledge some skills.

Once again, it comes down to grace on the part of you, the player.

What do you think?

There is a certain joy you feel when you reunite with an old group of friends after months or years of absence.  And, if it is a particularly solid group of friends, it will seem like nothing has changed and no time has passed at all of note.

When this occurs around a gaming table, it is particularly poignant for the group.  Add in the factor of playing characters that have not adventured together in that time, and a sense of nostalgia overpowers even the great nostalgia from just the friendships.  There is a weight of shared adventures and exploits that, while not truly more powerful than those of the real world, are as if Jason and the crew of the Argos reunited.    It’s a delightful weight that doesn’t encumber like a millstone, but supports, like a solid foundation built on bedrock.

This past weekend, I returned to the COSWorld game setting from my local Gaming Guild (Circle of Swords, www.circleofswords.com for those of you interested).  And what’s more, I was able to return not only to play as a new character in the new iteration of the world using the Pathfinder system, but I was able to update an old character and have him return to the active world of the adventure again.  Luth Stormwind strode the world once more, turning his mind to the pursuit of the righteous path and the pursuit of knowledge.

Now, I suppose I ought to provide some background here.  COSWorld is the shared world, much like Living Forgotten Realms, Shadowrun Missions, and some older shared worlds in which players can take part in the constantly developing events of the world and help shape it.  In essence, they can sit at a table where multiple other players, some they know, some they don’t, are working with them.  Since this group is not overly massive (at most, about twenty active players, max, at any one given time), we still get to know one another, and a dynamic forms.

The world was once known as Kysie, and survived through the Second and Third/3.5 editions of the D&D games.  I started playing as Luth in about 2002, and played him through 2008, periodically, as I gradually took over greater reins in DMing, and then Admining, along with my friends, the world itself.  Soon, though, life started keeping me away from when and where I needed to be, and I turned over the reins to my friend Steve.

Luth started as a wizard, venturing alongside his friends Angdor the outcast dwarven fighter, Kiara the statuesque elven sorcerer/ranger, and Jonathan the devout human cleric of the lord of battle.  There are tons of tales I can tell about the adventures, from the ruined knighting celebration of Sir Turlogh, to the now-infamous “dart-in-your-neck” story, and beyond.  If you catch me in a good mood some time, and offer to buy me a drink, I may just share them with you.

We helped shape the world, and were shaped by the world, becoming iconic adventurers in the world, along with the lord Armand (a wonderful fencer and boon companion), and so many others.  We worked towards making Kysie a better place, and told grand tales in the process.

And then Kysie changed forever.

A comet plummeted towards the world, its source unknown.  We gathered one last time in Dweomerheart, the name for Luth’s manor in the town of Deepwood.  We came together and did all we could, sending ourselves to vast and different parts of the world, gathering all who would listen to us, and finding a way to survive the coming holocaust.  Luth gathered what he could carry from his home.  One of his friends, Angdor, had died recently defending a remote dwarven outpost.  With a heavy heart, he magically locked the doors to Dweomerheart, doors that could only be unlocked by six others with the right key.  And off he went, along with Kiara, Jonathan, and others to try and save what he could of the world.

During this module, I actually had moments of tears in my eyes, so immersed was I in character.  I remember looking at my friend who plays Kiara, trying not to break down, and saying, “How do you say goodbye to home?”  I was constantly on the brink of leaving the key magical item for everyone’s survival in Kiara and Jonathan’s capable hands, and staying behind to save who all I could from the comet.  To me, in part, it was fitting for Luth.  Though insanely intelligent, he nevertheless always took the risks to do what he hoped was the right thing.  But when I turned to Kiara’s player at the table, I felt inside that even Luth couldn’t do that.  People depended on him here and now.

So, Luth left his home behind to be destroyed, trusting in the goddess of Magic who he had always served faithfully.  At the end of the module, Luth sequestered himself in his new tower, given to him by Sir Turlogh.  He was going to find a way to bring his home back, to return Dweomerheart.  I did this at the time because I was entering a stage in my life where my attendance at the conventions and game days I loved was becoming spotty.  It was time to take a sabbatical from this setting and drift a bit.

Fast forward to this past weekend.

Sitting at the Epic Level (Epic for COSWorld is level ten or so, given the nature of the beast) module for COSWorld, I was able to once more step into the boots of Luth Stormwind and adventure once more.  It was glorious.  Luth’s character is one I adored playing so much that it was second nature for me to slip into playing him once more.  The cerebral mage, known for refusing to use fire magic (“it’s inelegant and brutish; only the simplest of mages would resort to such a thing.  I prefer the power of the storm, thank you.”) was once more a part of the unfolding events of the world Caladonia (the name for the world we ended up in, 500 years in the future), and the return of a villainous old foe we had worked to oppose frequently in the old world.  Apparently, my friend who runs the world decided he would make this module just because I decided to return to COSWorld.  I feel honored.  Honestly, I really do.

But more than that… It was fun.

I bought a new set of a dozen six-sided dice just for spell damage (yes, I get to roll that many dice sometimes.  I told you, Luth is freaking awesome in the true sense of the word).  I was faced with a situation where my evocation spells, powerful dweomers of lightning, thunder, and force were ineffective.  I proved my utility by still being able to utilize spells that bolstered my companions’ abilities, making them more effective at combat.  I had a chance to teach a spellcaster of the new world a new spell Luth brought with him from the old world.  I sent a message to a mighty foe from old that some still stood against him.  And I got a chance, for one evening in game, to return to Dweomerheart, which is now the retreat of the gods and goddesses themselves.  It was what I, and Luth, needed.  The storm was reinvigorated, and my return was well worth every dime I spent on the weekend, even if I had done nothing else.  Had I not sat at a single other table, not rolled another die the rest of the weekend, that evening, that module, those friends… it was all worth it.

Don’t turn down a chance at that nostalgia.  If you get a chance to revisit something old and left behind with a group of gaming friends, take it.  Don’t even think for a spare moment; just freaking do it.  There are new stories to be told, new treasures to be won, and old tales to tell around an imaginary table in the game, passing ale and wine, eating good food from a magical table, and remembering old glories.

Just like in life, there are things out there that are good for the soul.  And old friends are one of them.

Share your stories here as comments, or just let me know what you think.

P.S. – I EVEN GOT A PERMANENT +1 CASTER LEVEL AS A DEIFIC BOON!  Kickass, right?!

P.P.S. – Included is a swiped and recolored picture I use for Luth.

My 12th level wizard (Pathfinder), Luth Stormwind

My 12th level wizard (Pathfinder), Luth Stormwind

EF

I have tried, numerous times, to get roleplaying started on chat systems with other RPers, and have, without failure, always found that it sucks.  I spend hours and hours trying to get something rolling, to prompt the players to move forward and craft storylines that are memorable and enjoyable.  But inevitably, it always goes the same way…

They sit around, bullshit, and accomplish all of squat.

And I mean jack damn squat.

These people take the time to make a character, get into the chat, and all they want to do is sit in the bar chats and act like a bunch of drunks just trying to find a warm body for the night.  They provide no storylines with any achievable or recognizable goal, and no one is willing to take the time to be a villain for everyone else to target.  In short, they do nothing.

Inevitably, the men are all perfectly sculpted creations with no appreciable flaws, all confident and trained in martial arts, and can kick the hell out of anyone else.  The women are all models who have no problems with maintaining their beauty, or struggling with identity.  And always they all never worry about money; they could buy the drinks for the whole bar and never even dent their bank accounts.  In short, they play shit characters with no chance for failure.

They also never create any storylines outside of their own little dramas that exist between characters.  Their stories exist around who is sleeping with whom, why is this person taking self-defense lessons, betraying each other by sleeping with another person, and all the things that make afternoon soap operas the worst programming on television outside of reality TV, which it also resembles in many cases.

What it comes down to is that these people are not interested in telling stories that most roleplaying games encourage, full of adventure, risk, and true plot.  Someone, since it takes place in a chat system, has to be willing to play the villain and lose in the end.  And it should change from player to player, each one taking on a temporary persona to present the antagonism needed for true motion in a plot.  There has to be the occasional combat, even if it is just a drunken brawl outside of the usual bar or tavern.

Any tabletop system can actually be used with great ease in a chat system.  Almost all chat systems have dice-rolling programs integrated and the use of them does not appreciably intrude in the chat of the channel.  What’s more, simple dice resolution systems are easily created and implemented if no one system will do.  Dice adds the important role of Fate into the game, simulating the teeter-totter of life tipping first one way then the other.

There is an old adage that if your life is going well, don’t bother writing.  It’s all about conflict, and just telling the stories about conflict that just deal with broken love affairs and desperate men and women looking for Mister or Miss Right Now.  The conflicts of roleplaying are less Driving Miss Daisy and more Gone in 60 Seconds.  Even highly political games like Vampire (both the Masquerade and Requiem incarnations) contain their fair share of altercations and action-packed sequences.

In order to make it work in a chat room, there are a few items that have to be contemplated:

  1. Who is the bad guy?  I know a lot of systems try to get nebulous as to who the villain is, but the primary antagonist needs to be identified.  Whoever decides to take on the role of the antagonist in the chat must be willing to play a character who should, in the end, fall.  Whether the antagonist falls prey to his or her pride, flaws, or the efforts of the rest of the involved players directly, they have to be willing to provide that service.
  2. There is no need for a GM/DM/ST.  The players keep things fair among themselves.  All agree to play by the rules that have been determined.  That’s the wonderful and potentially dangerous part of roleplaying games in this venue; it really has to be cooperative.  By default, the person really responsible for engineering the overall skeleton of the plot should ideally play the antagonist.
  3. Keeping track of minor NPCs and the rank-and-file cannon fodder is a community effort.  Narrating the combats and interactions between PCs and these characters should, ideally, by adjudicated by the antagonist player.  Remember, though, it’s a community effort.
  4. How will the events of the storyline affect all involved?  If the antagonist doesn’t die at the end, what happens to him?  Is there a chance he could resurface later?  How will the vents impact the other players?  Will the one character that was viciously, physically beaten by the thugs of the antagonist have a change in personality because of it?

Unless someone continually likes to play the bad guy, players should trade off the duty for playing the antagonist in the stories.  This way, everyone gets a chance to really participate in appreciable ways.  The same goes for NPCing.  Many chat systems allow for multiple identities to be played by one person through multiple windows.

Through these efforts, real and involved storylines that go beyond the soap opera norm can be brought into the chat.  There should always be downtime where the players just interact socially, but there also needs to be action and movement.  The peaks and valleys of action read like a heart monitor, and when it all goes flat, the life is gone.

Get out the paddles!

As always, what do you think?

In 1995, Stewart Wieck published a game using the White Wolf Studios Storyteller System called Mage: The Ascension.  It had grown, partially, out of an earlier game called Ars Magica, and was based around the idea of actual magic-using characters in a gritty, modern-era world.  The crux of the conflict was the struggle between the Technocracy, who believed that magic would only damn the earth (even though they used it as well), and the Traditions, who believed that the freedom of mankind to have imagination and power over their world was best.  The Technocracy was waging war on the Traditions, all while mages driven mad by magic’s touch (Marauders) and those driven to try and destroy all of Creation (Nephandi) ate away at the roots of the world like some thaumaturgical Nidhoggr. (If you don’t get the reference, look it up)

This was, without a doubt, the most complex of all the Storyteller systems.  Not only did you have to create a character, but you had to create for them a belief system on how and why magic worked.  You had to design the very paradigm by which they could alter reality.  This wasn’t D&D where you just picked a spell list and worked with it; oh no, you had to do a lot of spell casting on the fly, with a lot of adjudication from your Storyteller.  This was not gaming for the casually minded, which is one of the things that drew me to it as my favorite of all the Storyteller systems.  I dabbled in Werewolf and Vampire, and to a lesser extent, the other titles.  But it was Mage that really caught me.  The Nine Traditions (plus the Hollow Ones, the red-headed stepchildren of the Traditions) were great carte-blanche examples of real-world mystical belief systems.  They were perfect, blank archetypes ripe for the embellishment.

After deciding to end the current metaplot in 2005, White Wolf moved to reinvent all of the settings they had into something new.  Mage: The Awakening was released in 2005, ten years after the original was released.  It was a whole new idea, with the Mages now being inheritors of Atlantis.  No world-wide struggle between two factions, no amazing wonders that the world could have.  Just more of a whimper.

This is not to say that I hate the new system; on the contrary, I love some aspects of it, which I will detail shortly.  What I didn’t like was the new flavor.  It was like going from a five mile long, all-you-can-eat buffet of every possible ethnic cuisine that exists, to a four dish mini-buffet of French fries, pizza, egg rolls, and steamed rice.  But, I like steamed rice, you say.  That’s fine and good, but don’t you want the options?

I loved the addition of a morality system for Mages.  It was something I always thought they lacked; after all, didn’t they stand to lose their humanity just as much as the vampires did?  Of course they did call it Wisdom, which to me is not really that smart.  Why not just call it humanity?  I mean, Mages are just supposed to be the pinnacle of human potential.  I liked the more succinct delineations of what each level of a Sphere could do, as well as the division of Entropy into Death and Fate.

But one of the things I didn’t like was the renaming of Arete to be Gnosis.  Now, Arete is a Greek term referring to excellence.  Arete was a quality you had that made you a leader, a paragon.  Gnosis, also a Greek term, refers to wisdom.  (Wait, they had two Wisdom traits?  Yes they did…) Not all Mages where wise when they excelled at magic, but they all did excel as that trait increased.

One of the other things I hated was replacing Quintessence with Mana.  Crap.  Absolute crap to pander to the video game crowd.  They shucked Paradox right out the window in favor of an unnamed system of retribution for Vulgar magic.  Also, only the Atlantean paradigm of magic was established as true.  There was no more room for the role-playing possibilities of an aboriginal shaman arguing with an urban techno-wizard over the finer points of True Names.  It was gone, gone.

I also don’t care for Merit system replacing Backgrounds.  In the old setting, Backgrounds were ranked concepts that could offer you a benefit as well as work as story devices.  Backgrounds such as Arcane shielded you from casual notice, and Avatar rated how strong the magical spirit was inside of you.  But those were replaced by Merits, which were a bastardization of the old Backgrounds and the old Merits from the Merits & Flaws system.  Now the old Merits & Flaws system was meant to be small tweaks to characters that either offered them a benefit and cost them Character Points (Merits), or offered them a difficulty and gave them Character Points (Flaws).  When watched over by a Storyteller worth his salt, these systems worked well.  But, they left them in the dust.

And, as much as I like the idea of the Virtues and Vices (yes, you pick a cardinal virtue and a cardinal sin as the opposing forces of the character’s personality), I really feel it lacks that power of the original Nature and Demeanor system.  Natures and Demeanors, in the original Mage game, were personality tendencies.  Your Nature was the personality tendency that that you were at your core; Demeanor was the personality tendency that you showed to the world.  They could be the same, but playing them as different allowed the player to create a personal tension that had less to do with morality and more to do with personal peccadilloes.

But there is something else they did right: they cleaned up the mechanic.  In the Old World of Darkness (OWoD), there were two variables to overcome: the difficulty of the roll (standard 6, but could vary), and the number of successes you had to achieve.  This could be a bitchy prospect at the table when many different circumstances came into play.  In the New World of Darkness (NWoD), they set a static difficulty of 8 for all rolls, and only your dice pool would vary.  You compared your success to either a static number based on the task, or on your opponent’s pool of successes.  Margins of success detailed certain effects.  Blam, done.  (side note: I do not like the NWoD format of rote spells as being dice pools based on Gnosis + an Attribute + a Skill.)  But their mechanic was cleaner, and it worked well.

What I see as happening in the near future is my own mash-up of the new basic resolution mechanic with the old flavor and minor mechanics to create a hybrid that works best for all.  I don’t know how soon I will have this done, but I am aching to do it.  I also find myself nostalgic for playing the game again.  I really do; I miss that kind of role-playing dearly.

What do you think?

I know I have been silent for a rather long time, but the semester ended up taking a lot of my attention towards the end.   But, with the most recent announcements of WotC about the work on the newest edition of Dungeons and Dragons, I find myself torn.  Fourth ed worked alright, but I am very worried about the general downward trend Hasbro/WotC is taking with their roleplaying games.   I have signed up to be a playtester for the new edition, and hope to make some kind of decent impact on the new iteration of the game.

In pursuit of this, I have been watching the developer blogs closely.  I came up with this one this afternoon: http://community.wizards.com/dndnext/blog/2012/01/20/mechanics_supporting_story.

Monte Cook, one of my favorite damned game designers of all time, takes a very short amount of time and text to deal with something I do find problematic: Should a flavor factoid for a race, or of any kind for that matter, provide a game mechanic bonus?  The example given by Cook is how dwarves favor axes and elves favor bows.  Should they necessarily receive a mechanical bonus to attack just because they are the stereotypical weapons for the race?

My answer to this is a firm No.  Think about it: just because a race favors a weapon over others doesn’t mean they all attack better with them.  In addition, rulesets like this create a problem.  I call it the No Child Left Behind Effect.

Follow me on this.

When No Child Left Behind came around, it was discovered that teachers were told by administrators to teach the test materials in an effort to secure greater funding for the schools.  In essence, they stopped teaching comprehension and began teaching rote memorization.  All for a bonus.

Now, when you tell players that al dwarves gain a +1 to attack with all weapons considered axes, you are, in essence, telling them that if they play a dwarf, they better use an axe.  After all, to do otherwise is to miss out on a mechanical loophole that makes you a better warrior.  This causes players to, at least 19 out of 20 times, follow the stereotype in order to min/max their character.  You are encouraging a decrease in creativity instead of offering chances for your players to break out of Tolkienian molds in order to blaze new trails and ideas.

One of the things I alternately offered was called a Proficiency Downgrade; certain races treated certain weapons as being one category lower for proficiency purposes.  Dwarves would treat Axes as part of this, meaning that in Fourth Edition, an Urgosh, normally a Superior Weapon, would be treated as a Martial Weapon for proficiency purposes.  By the same token, a battle axe would be treated as a Simple Weapon instead of a Martial Weapon.  This shows that the Axe is a weapon favored by dwarves, but mechanically speaking, there is no bonus to attack or damage offered.    Sure, many players will opt into Axes still, but it dramatically decreases that amount.

Personally, if I wouldn’t face absolute rebellion by doing so, they would be a simple thematic element.  Dwarves like axes; big deal.  Most dwarves you run into will use them, but not necessarily every PC.

What do you think?

Well, I figured I would let the cat out of the bag and tell everyone the project I am working on, and that is a comprehensive update of Ravenloft to Fourth Edition.  So far, I have about 12 pages of notes for this, and I haven’t even hit on the Curses or on the Domains themselves.  One week in, and I really wish I was getting paid to do this stuff.  I am also considering finishing off the Shadow power source, ignoring the Vampire class from Heroes of Shadow, and instead making up a leader, controller, and defender class using the power source to go along with the Assassin class from Dragon Magazine.

Please, tell me what you think; you would all be surprised how your feedback helps spur me on.

Thanks, and hang in there!

It was recently posed to me that I should write a free ezine with articles on things to be used in games, such as new powers, bloodlines for Vampire, etc., etc. What do you think? Should I do it? Would anyone read it?