Too many parentheses

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Wednesday, October 29, 2003


Spiel '03

Last week I went to Essen, Germany, to visit the world's largest game exhibition (or so they claim), Spiel '03.

The first impression is how cheap games are in Germany; they are approximately half the price compared to Sweden, so I ended up buying quite a few. The lower price seem to hold mostly for board and card games, not for role-playing games or collectible card games though. I still had to pay 54 euro for Nobilis. (That is around $60)

Sadly the place was very crowded, so it was pretty hard to get to try any games. We queued for about half an hour to play San Juan, the prototype of the card game version of Puerto Rico. As it turned out it was worth the wait as the game was very good, but I dislike queuing.

Other games to watch out for:

Alhambra is Spiel des Jahres 2003. It is basically a set-collecting game, where you pay game money for the pieces you collect, with the twist that there are 4 different kinds of money. It also has a tile placing element. The game has a very well-crafted feel to it, and can probably be played many times without risk of getting boring.

Feurio is a rather abstract game about fighting a forest fire. One wants to have ones fire fighters at the most burning spots, but still have access to water, so the main game strategy is blocking. The first game I played was a blast, but I will have to play it a few more times to see if the game degenerates or not; the strategic decisions might be too limited. Also bad players might give too much opportunity to one of the good players around the board (This is one of my main complaints about many board games; if the decisions of a bad player might favor for instance the next player more than they favor the other players) Still the game was one of the best I played during the week.

Finstere Flure was one of the most hyped up games for the week. I played one game, and managed to win despite making mistakes in every strategic desicion. I'm not too impressed.

Thursday, October 09, 2003


Project finished

Yesterday we played the last session in my short campaign "The Monster in the basement of St Claremont's" in my ftf group. The campaign has been interesting for several reasons:

We were two GMs: The campaign is really the result of a late-night discussion between me and my co-GM Kristofer, where we debated how to raise the enjoyability and quality of our gaming. Being two GMs certainly had it's advantages; we were able to raise the pace during the sessions, handling two different parts of the PC group at the same time. Also we had to plan a lot more than usual (which is a Good Thing) as we both needed the same idea of what was going to happen. The planning took a lot of time, though.

The campaign was designed with a purpose: Normally when I design a new campaign I start with the setting and the system. Here we started with certain goals in mind, and designed the campaign from them: We wanted a short fast-paced campaign, we wanted to test a magic system we had constructed, we wanted to place the PCs in a new milieu (to avoid any problems with knowledge of the world), we wanted to give a lot of handouts, we wanted to make it easy to explain why a certain PC didn't do anything if the player was absent and we wanted to try using two GMs.

The players played 11 year old kids, and did it better than I had expected. This also gave opportunity for some multi-level experiences, where the players knowledge was much greater than the PCs knowledge (This could have become a problem, but turned out very well) GM:"You find out that the strange guys talking to the school priest are something called jesuits. Some kind of monks, that is. Or priests. You are not entirely sure." This made the players much more freaked out than the PCs.

The setting of the game was a magic-and-steam-tech school for kids 11-18 years old, much inspired by Harry Potter. (Heh. We casted Christian Coulson as the head of the pupil's council.) The school was located on an isolated island northwest of an alternative England; the world was a fairly vague steampunk/magic-alternate history world in the late 19th century, with the Vatican dominating the religious sphere. When the PCs arrive at the school it's brimming with friction between the different groups of teachers (magicians, engineers, and the school priest who think God is against both witchcraft and machines). The school also have some strange pedagogical ideas; instead of tests the students got some really weird assignments from "The Examiner". A typical assignment could be: "Find out where the cook has hidden the sugar" (Needless to say the cook was a really nasty fellow , inspired by Gormenghast ) We played the teachers as rather twisted personalities, almost caricatures, adding humor to the game.

The core plot element was student that disappeared; when people close enough to the PCs vanished they started to investigate.

I am a bit proud of some of the handouts: Before the campaign started we handed out a teaser in the form of a flyer from the school intended for the parents, filled with impressively sounding empty phrases. The character sheets where the application forms, complete with an agreement that the school would'nt be liable for any damage done to he kids. Also at the end of the game the PC's received special diplomas for services to the school.

Heh. And the names of most of the major NPCs...Well, we were a bit out of ideas and started using anagrams. "Erik Knutsen", in Swedish an anagram for "not the culprit", is a favorite. None of the players ever found out about the anagrams.

Sunday, September 28, 2003



Hah. My first WISH for a long time. Look here for the other participants.

GMs can spend hours designing an adventure and have their players take off in an entirely unexpected direction. How does a GM handle this—try and steer the players back to the designed plot, or hang back and see where the adventure goes? How does a player handle this? Stay on target or go with the flow?

This has to be one of the best WISHes ever. The more I think about it the more I want to say. Let's see where this rambling ends. Bear with me. It's long.

First we take the player's perspective:

Solving the Gordian knot: As a player, I can become really annoyed when the GM can't handle an unexpected action on the small scale; in combat or solving some riddle-like for example. Often the players can expose and exploit some weakness in the construction of the obstacle, making it trivial. (Monsters with non-intelligent behavior is a prime example.) An example from a session a few weeks ago. The group is beset by some stupid creatures that try to eat our ammunition (and explode when killed.) Neither me nor the GM handled the situation really well:

Me: Am I faster than those things?
GM: Yes, somewhat.
Me: Then I run.
...a couple of failed attempts to kill the thing later:
Me: Well. I run until I put enough distance between it and me, that I can prepare this...
GM: You can't. The creature is right behind you.
Me: Didn't you say I was faster?
GM: Yes I did.
Me (frustrated): Well, then I should be able to outrun it given enough time. It's simple physics.
GM: It does not work that way:...[Somewhat contrived explanation]
Me (pissed off): Then I am not faster, am I? *grumble*

As I got the situation the GM really meant for us to fight thosecreatures, and wouldn't let us away with any solutions that didn't at least put our characters at some risk. (Of course I might have misinterpreted the situation, but it serves well as an example.)
The situation could ave been handled in several different better ways: the GM could have let me do the preparations and kill the thing (Note: this is not always the best way. One of my largest weaknesses as a GM is that I let almost every creative solution work.), the GM could have explained to me that my character had underestimated the speed of those things (essentially meaning the thing would have caught up with me.), or that my stamina would run out before I was able to outrun the creature.
As a player I could have asked in a more planned manner, knowing how hard it is to describe a situation to the players: "Has this plan any chance to work (given decent dice rolls)?" (Of course I should not have let this trivial matter affect my temper, either.)

Another example of this was when I GMed a month or so back, in a Harry Potter-inspired-steampunk-mage-school-mystery game ("The Monster in the basement of S:t Claremont's") me and a co-GM are running. One of the PCs was supposed to leave the answer to an assignment in a mailbox belonging to one of the teachers. (The assignment was really to find that mailbox, the question to be answered was trivial.) When the PC finds the teacher's room he sees seven mailboxes, and promptly places a note with the answer in each of them. My idea was that he should figure out which of them it was, but his solution was definitely good enough in the context of the game, so he passed with a small remark from the teacher ("Wasn't that a little excessive?")

The larger scale: When it comes to the larger scale it gets more complicated. As a player I can accept that the GM has problems creating large amount of plot on the spot. GM Tip: Don't be ashamed of saying: "I haven't planned for this. Let's take a short break, and let me think!" No-one will ever be disappointed with you for doing that.

Sometimes you realize, through heavy railroading, that the GM really wants you to pick up a certain plot line, although it's not necessarily what your character is most likely to do. If I see that it would destroy the GM's day if you don't follow his plan, I normally do follow it, at least when playing with my ftf group. Although it might lessen my enjoyment of the campaign, I value my ftf group more than the individual campaigns, so I don't want to piss off the GMs totally. (Normally I grumble somewhat, though, to make the GM know they could have done things smoother.)

In House of Cards Ossian has been slow at picking up the major plot lines, and more interested in just interacting with the other PCs. I know the GMs have worried a bit about it, and that the game wouldn't work with everyone being like Ossian. I do appreciate that I have been allowed to play as I have.

That was the player perspective. *Deep breath*

As a GM the type of campaign you run affect your handling of the players going off in strange directions. I'll discuss the problem using the campaign classifying paradigm described below.

In most Intrigue heavy campaigns you more or less expect the players to take off in their own direction. You will have to improvise a lot, so you'd better be prepared in some way or the other. Run the campaign in an environment you are comfortable improvising in. (For me that means Everway most of the time, as the Everway universe fits my instincts, and I can handle most unexpected situations.)

I have no experience running Management heavy campaigns, but I imagine that players taking off in unexpected directions can have at least two causes: The characters may have found a solution you haven't thought about, in which case all is just dandy; just decide if their solution works or not. On the other hand the players can be bored; then you might have to ask the players if they are dissatisfied with the campaign, and alter it accordingly. Most of the time I think I would be hanging back for a while and see where the PCs end up

In Mystery heavy campaigns you'll certainly have to improvise somewhere. Getting your PCs back on the plot can be pretty simple if you run an escalating plot (more murders in a murder story for example), where the PCs get affected sooner or later if they decline to solve the mystery. But think before you hand out new clues, an improvised clue can be really bad. Take a five minute break in the session if you need it. If the PCs won't be affected if they neglect the mystery, and they do, the mystery either seems uninteresting or unsolvable to the players. Be sure to determine which before you put more work into that plotline!

A Quest where the players stray off too far can be a catastrophe. It is never wrong to ask the players what they are planning to achieve with a certain action. They might not be straying so far as you think. (I think the Quest is the most safe route if you don't want your players to stray. It can also be the most boring route.) If the players neglect the quest, make a campaign of the consequences. Whatever you do; don't bully them back to the plot, unless the plot provides logical ways of doing so. No-one likes to be bullied.

The Tour can easily be turned into a railroad trip. Fight all urges in that direction. You have to be somewhat wary when improvising in a Tour heavy campaign; if you don't think you might create inconsistencies. Generally you are fine, though.

Generally if you don't want your players to stray off too far you can restrict them in some way or the other. In "The Monster in the basement of S:t Claremont's" the magic school is located on an isolated island, restricting the geographical movements of the PCs and the number of persons they can interact with.

In House of Cards Shadow travel was very dangerous for a time (and probably still is) thus making some side tracks more risky. If this was the GMs intention I don't know.

All in all it boils down to the same advice as everyone else give: When you plan your campaign: Plan the motivations of key people, and key mechanics of the world rather than a fixed storyline.

And don't be afraid to improvise.


A paradigm for classifying RPG campaigns

I just realized that I needed some way of classifying RPG campaigns, by the goal of the campaign. This paradigm is not necessarily complete, any suggestions or comments are welcome. (Heh. If anyone could provide with clearer explanations of the components, I'd appreciate that.)

Note that the whole story/character development issue is outside the scope of this classification and a possible complement. (I more or less expect some amount of character development, and a good story of every campaign I get nto as player or GM.)

Most campaigns contain several or all of the following components but in different quantities:

Intrigue - The PC's (and NPCs) have different (keyword) and sometimes opposing personal goals that drive the campaign forward. Very likely the players create very much of the plot by themselves. Examples of typical settings: Amber, Vampire.

Management - The PC's keep things in order when small and large problems arise. The problems are typically generated by the GMs and solved through using the resources available, and talking to key persons etc. This is not half as bad as it sounds, it gives a lot of room for character interaction and development. Examples of typical settings: Stopping a revolution, a famine or fighting a war.

Mystery - The PC's solve a mystery or several. Almost every campaign has a mystery element. Example of typical setting: Agatha Christie novels.

Quest - The PC's get a well-defined goal, that is to be solved by the PC's more or less without help. Often involves travelling. Examples of typical settings: Free the Princess. Destroy the Ring of Power.

Tour - Some campaigns have as one of its goals to create a sense of wonder letting the players experience exotic surroundings. I would place campaigns with humor as a primary goal as a subgroup in this category. Examples of typical settings: Everway, Toon(?), Amber's Chaos

Two Examples:
The parts of House of Cards I have been involved in has mainly contained the Intrigue, Management and Mystery components. On the Amberside (we were left in Amber during the Patternfall war) we had to deal with Amber's treasury becoming empty, the people starving and the aftermaths of an earthquake. (Management) We also tried to find out why people went missing, and who hoarded food during the famine. (Mystery)
The Intrigue elements were subdued, but increased as soon as all the other Amberites returned from the war.
There have been some Quest components for some of the other PCs (I guess Jerod's and Solange's trip to the Land of Peace could be decribed as such?)
Tourish experiences in House of Cards mostly include strange and/or well played persons: Daeon and Merlin serves as good examples.

A co-GM and I have run a short campaign ("The Monster in the basement of S:t Claremont's") set on a school for magically gifted children in an alternate Victorian England. (It could be seen as a mixture of Harry Potter and steampunk.) The PC's are 11 years old children arriving to the school, which is a riot of lost students, bullying from elder students and politic/religious infighting. We set up the campaign with the Tour concept as one of out primary goals; The PCs get to explore the strange school and meet all the weird teachers. Of course there are a couple of Mysteries around; the lost students being the primary one. The amounts of Intriguing, Management and Quest are small. Had the campaign been intended to be longer we would probably have introduced more Intrigue. (As a side-note: My ftf group seems to enjoy when I focus on the Tour element.)

Sunday, September 21, 2003


Ossian's parents? Part 1

My character in House of Cards, Ossian, spent his first years in an orphanage, and does not know who his parents where. This is the first installment of my speculations on the subject.

It is pretty clear that at least one of Ossian's parents has an Amberite background, and I'm pretty much
concentrating on that half of his heritage. An Amberite mother is much less likely than a father; giving up the child requires weird circumstances. (One cannot exclude a weird deal with Brand, who found Ossian at the orphanage, of course.)

Osric/Finndo: While Osric's child (Reid) has about the same skills and interests as Ossian (except that Ossian does not view torture as an art), having Osric or Finndo as a father would require really skewed time scales. Osric and Finndo are not likely.

Benedict does not seem to keep track of his children very well, but that is really all that speaks for him. Ossian
does not have the physical prowess that Benedict and Lilly excel at. Benedict is not likely.

On to Faiella's children: It would amuse Ossian to no end to be able to call Jerod "brother", but the only support for Eric: as father is Cambina's skill with the Trumps, and she can't paint. Ossian lacks the fierce determination that Eric, Jerod, and to some extent Cambina have, and I find it unlikely that Eric would neglect to keep track of eventual children. Eric isnot so likely.

Corwin on the other hand is well known for his numerous amorous accomplishments, and for forgetting about their consequences. He also has considerable artistic talent and a son who is a good Trump artist. Corwin is rather likely.

Caine is pretty much an unknown to me. He is well-versed in the use, if not the creation of Trumps. He might also hide his child from his siblings, and then ignore the child (but not forget it) There are lots of possible reasons for Caine not to reveal himself as Ossian's father, but if he is; Why didn't he hide Ossian better? (Brand was after all able to find him) And Ossian's obsession with arts and aesthetics doesn't seem to be inherited from Caine. Still, I find Caine rather likely.

Few things would make Ossian more happy than finding that Deirdre: was his mother. (Marius is pretty much Ossian's best buddy right now.) There's really only one argument supporting Deirdre as the mother of Ossian: When he painted the Trump sketch of Marius, the sketch came together surprisingly quickly, something that could be pointing at Marius as Ossian's brother. Maybe Ossian was a part of some weird deal between Deirdre and Brand? Nah. Deirdre is not so likely.

To be continued.

Thursday, September 18, 2003


Monumental stupidity

I am fascinated by the various loons that haunt the net, sometimes by their ability to argue well for something with a very small probability of being true, sometimes by their lack of sense. Guys like this one, fall into the latter category. From observing that there are pyramids in Mexico, in Egypt, on the Canary Islands he concludes that they should have a common source.

Well, if you were a dictator who wanted to impress on people by building a huge building, and didn't have access to sophisticated construction techniques, how would you build? Certainly not a building with its pointy end downwards.

Sunday, September 14, 2003


Voting *shrug*

Today we had a referendum here in Sweden on if we should join the European common currency. When I woke up this morning I realized that I still hadn't decided what to vote for. The arguments for both sides were pretty good, and the tragic murder of our foreign minister last Wednesday made both sides call off their campaigns to avoid dragging the murder into the debate. While that was probably a good decision it didn't help me decide. In the end I took the consequence of my indecision, and voted blank, showing that I appreciate that I'm allowed to vote, but that I couldn't decide.