17 April 2011

Transparency

I'm not talking about wet t-shirts or those fancy sheets of plastic you show off on an old-fashioned overhead projector. No, I'm talking about the transparency demonstrated by a GM to his players.

I got to thinking about this last night as we were playing the last Warhammer Fantasy game I'll be able to run until we're safely nestled in our new house in Rhode Island. I've taken to making my to-hit and damage rolls in full view of the players. I'm fairly brazen about it, and I hadn't given any thought to how it might make them feel.

Let me preface this by saying: The chances of hitting, for anyone playing a first-career character in WFRP, are highly dependent on how crappy your Weapon Skill attribute is. Generally, it's pretty crappy, so unless players make liberal use of specific combat actions (which are relatively simple to incorporate), they're not going to be hitting very often. In fact, it often feels like you're rolling to miss, with the happy chance of a hit being a reason for celebration.

(Let me say that I really enjoy WFRP. Yes, starting characters are oftentimes inept to the point of comedy, but they *do* improve in the long run, and I think that's something that any player with a long-lived WFRP character can be proud of... especially when you consider the inherent lethality of the combat system.)

Keeping this in mind, I tend to make my NPC's to-hit rolls for all to see. Last night's posse of stinking, maggot-riddled zombies probably hit the players a grand total of four times throughout the entire combat. The players did manage to re-deadify the zombies in the long run, but they had to work at it... and there was much rejoicing.

On reflection, I started to wonder: Do my players actually want me to be this transparent? By making my rolls in the open, I have no recourse for fudging said die rolls. If I hit a player in his head and then roll a decapitation crit on him, there's no way for me to take it back. The player can, of course, spend a Fate point to avoid his messy and untimely demise, so there is a safety net of sorts worked into the process.

When I first started GMing games, back in... erm... well, in antiquity, I was quite attached to the GM screens I used. I hid my dice rolls, for the most part, because I knew that I'd annihilate my players if I didn't. I could fudge rolls as I saw fit, scaling back damage on lethal blows to make the fights that much more suspenseful. "Oh, wow, dude... he hit you for ten points of damage. You've got one hit point left? Sucks to be you!" And all that when my actual damage roll was closer to twenty than it was to ten.

(Another note, this one to the players I've played with in the past: Yes, I fudged dice rolls on occasion. I didn't do it all the time, only when it seemed appropriate to do so. Hopefully this doesn't ruin the enjoyment of the games we used to play (assuming you enjoyed them in the first place).)

As time's gone by, I've become less concerned with the GM screen as a method of secretly hiding my rolls. In retrospect, I think I liked using screens to hide my game notes from prying player eyes more than to hide dice rolls. Given that I tend to run my games from a laptop these days, which only I can read with any degree of clarity, the only real reason to use a GM screen is to reference the information they contain. Since I don't like rolling my dice on my laptop's keyboard, I make my rolls on the table.

But how do players feel about this sort of thing? Is it refreshing that a GM can be so open with the rolls he makes? Does it make the game more suspenseful knowing that my next roll might result in your character tripping on his own intestines? Does it aggravate you because you'd rather not know what I rolled? Or do you not care one way or the other?

Call me curious, but tell me what you think. That's what the comments are for on this here blog.

Oh, and I will get back to my dissertations on the games I want to play. As it is, I'm not really in the mood to write reams of nonsensical gaming jibber jabber after a long day at work followed by an hour's commute home. Once I'm settled in my new place, I'll definitely pick up the slack. I promise.

09 April 2011

How Many Books are Too Many?

I used to be proud of my gaming library. I had a lot of interesting books, some of them unusual, uncommon, or even rare. I still do, in fact. I find it difficult to liquidate my collection, even those games I don't play or rarely look at. I can find something cool, interesting, or amusing in every single one of them, from the art in SLA Industries to the fact that the author of Road Rebels uses the word "riffles" to describe longarms throughout the entire text of his game.

It really only hits me when I have to move. The family and I are relocating to Rhode Island at the end of the month, and this involves taking all of our stuff with us. In speaking with my moving company rep, she mentioned, "Last time, you had 110 book boxes. Do you think you'll need the same amount this time?"

"We haven't gotten that many more books," I answered. "I expect it'll be about the same amount, maybe a couple more."

As I answered her question, I felt a brief pang of guilt. A group of movers will be here in the next couple of weeks to pack, carry, and load my family's extensive library. Books are not lightweight. Yet, being as I'm closer to 40 years old than 30, I don't regret not having to move the boxes myself. I think I'll survive, just as I did when we moved from CA to VA, and from VA to MA.

Really, my primary hobby has been gaming since I was 13 years old (give or take). I bought (or conned my mom into buying me) a copy of the original Monster Manual when I was in 5th or 6th game. Little did I know at the time that I'd eventually have 4 or 5 bookshelves worth of splatbooks, core books, and hardcovers. Not to mention numerous boxed sets from the golden era of tabletop, various board games, card games, Dungeon tiles, miniatures, and a seemingly endless series of three ring binders containing game notes, characters, maps, etc.

But when does my pride in my collection give way to embarrassment at how large it's become?

People collect all sorts of things: music, movies, computer games, stamps, coins, bottles, sports memorabilia, figurines, paintings, sculptures, teddy bears, etc. Heck, I've got a coin collection (which I'm in the process of organizing) that I inherited from my grandfather, most of which consists of foreign coins that he picked up when he was in the Navy during and after World War II. But it's relatively lightweight as compared to my RPG collection.

I suppose my RPG collection would be all the larger if it weren't for my kids. When you're single, or even newlywed, and you have fewer expenses, it seems like a trivial thing to keep up with a number of game lines. As it is, I've really only kept up with D&D 3.5 and Star Wars (in its various editions) since my kids came along. Even now, both those lines are extinct, so there's not much to keep up with. I'm interested in keeping up with Dark Heresy, maybe even Rogue Trader and Deathwatch, when I've got money to spare. Which isn't often.

I guess I'm not terribly embarrassed by my book collection... but I am self-conscious about it. The size won't be growing significantly any time soon, though I suppose I'll continue to add to it when I can.

As a side note, it wasn't solely my books that filled 110 book boxes the last time we moved. My wife owns a substantial library of her own, mostly paperbacks and research books (science, history, sociology, you name it and she probably has a book on it). Who can blame us for being a literate family... besides the movers, that is?

02 April 2011

Games I Wanna Play, Part 3b: Horror

Continuing from my last "Games I Wanna Play" post...

Call of Cthulhu (Standard)
I want to run a Cthulhu game. I've been chomping at the bit to run one for a few months now, but it's a tough sell for some of my players. One thing about Cthulhu is the overwhelming mortality of the characters. Run in the traditional manner, PCs end up dead, insane, or both in a short amount of time. For players who devote a lot of time and energy to developing their PCs, this can be somewhat dispiriting.

To my mind, Cthulhu doesn't have to destroy characters. Not right away, in any case. In fact, a long-term CoC game could be so much more entertaining, because as players do become invested in their PCs, the fear and trepidation they experience becomes much more tangible when dealing with Lovecraftian horrors.

The nightmares that haunt Lovecraft's stories aren't the typical fodder for horror games. A lot of folks don't understand this immediately upon being exposed to the RPG. If they haven't read Lovecraft or his contemporaries, they may have a completely different idea of what the game is about. It helps if you can get them to read a story or two. I have my own favorites, such as Pickman's Model, The Colour Out of Space, At the Mountains of Madness, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, and The Shadow Out of Time.

Of course, if they know the fiction, they usually have a much better idea of what they're getting themselves into. Conversely, they also have certain expectations that might not jibe with my own plans or insights. So much has been written, insofar as the the RPG and the Mythos are concerned, that I don't like to be beholden to canon. This isn't to say I change things out of hand, but I do like to think I can surprise players without them having an immediate idea of what I've got in mind.

Lovecraft has never been about "cheap" scares for me. I'm not saying that CoC can't be used to tell stories that involve typical horror villains popping out of the woodwork to surprise their victims before chopping them to ribbons. At its heart, CoC is about things that are so terrible, so huge, and so hard to comprehend that they rend at your sanity before they eat you. Many times, the characters in such stories are so far beneath the notice of the creatures they encounter as to make their madness/death purely circumstantial.

All that said, I've never quite run a standard CoC game, though I've played in plenty. I wouldn't mind running a standard, "Vanilla" CoC game at some point. God knows I have access to plenty of books chock full of adventures and plot hooks, if I needed inspiration. Like as not, I'd prefer to do something wholly original to my game, though it's easy enough to adapt an existing scenario.

Though CoC is its own setting, it also has a number of eras available. These are commonly Victorian (1890's), 1920's, and Modern. I'm aware of sourcebooks that have been released that give insight into other eras, but I haven't looked at many of them. Cthulhupunk (CoC meets Cyberpunk) sounds interesting, but I'm not sure it'd be something I'd want to tackle as a GM. When it comes to CoC, I think I'm more interested in 1920's and Modern.

There's a certain awesomeness about 1920's games. You're far enough into the modern era that players have access to some technology, but not so far along that they can run roughshod over you with their cell phones, iPads, and other high-tech tools. The Great Depression adds another level of gloom to things, as does Prohibition and the organized crime associated with it. If I ran a 20's game, I'd want it to be like a cross between Road to Perdition and Of Mice and Men.

As for the Modern era, I wouldn't be able to run such a game without using some aspects of Delta Green...

Delta Green
I tell you, Delta Green did for me what no other CoC product had ever done. It took the Mythos, couched it in modern day conspiracy theory, and breathed fresh life into it. The threads were woven so skillfully, and they ran so deep. I was thoroughly inspired, so I borrowed my wife's CoC books and did some planning of my own. I called in elements of one of my favorite Lovecraft tales, namely Pickman's Model, threw in some crazy Karotechia Nazis, and shook until it was all quite frothy.

The game itself didn't last very long... heck, I was barely getting started. The best part was running the preludes, which is a technique I'd borrowed from the Storyteller system in order to give PCs more depth. The characters played law enforcement folks who'd been approached by Delta Green due to their prior experience with the supernatural. The characters included:

A DEA diver who saw something swimming in the Florida Keys while attempting to recover a load of narcotics that had been thrown overboard by fleeing smugglers;

A Border Patrol agent who was abducted by aliens, waking up three days later, hundreds of miles from his patrol route, with no memory of the lost time;

A Customs Agent whose drug-sniffing dog was inhabited by a strange, jelly-like organism which turned it into a slavering beast (which she had to kill in order to survive);

and

A DEA pilot who, while scouting the US/Mexico border in a plane with his partner, encountered strange UFO phenomenon that knocked out his plane's systems, resulting in a crash (and his co-pilot's death).

The plot that brought them together involved a number of stolen art pieces by C├ęzanne that were cropping up... pieces of art that had been stolen by the Nazis during WWII and never seen since. This led to some investigations of an avant-garde art gallery in Miami that, at the time, was showing a series of paintings by Richard Upton Pickman. The Pickman art didn't have anything to do with the overall plot, it was just set dressing, and 3/4 of the players didn't even know the significance of the paintings... but they still had to make San checks.

It was unfortunate that the game came to an end before we could really get into the meat of the plot. I guess I had a serious case of gamer ADD back in those days. I still do, but the medication seems to be working (just kidding).

If I could start a new Delta Green game, I'd probably use some of the ideas presented in the latest supplement, Targets of Opportunity. It's a particularly meaty book, with a lot of disturbing content. I'd also delve a little deeper into the way the actual Delta Green runs things, just for flavor. This means that the number of actual agents in a cell is limited, but other players would take on the roles of civilian experts and the like.

That's about all I've got to say at the moment. I might touch on this a bit more later, but for now... thanks for reading.

01 April 2011

Memories of November '09

November 2009 is important because it was the month that Electronic Arts laid me off. The proper corporate term is, I guess, "Reduction in Force," or "RiF" (pronounced "riff). It was a pretty tough time for me, as I'd never been through such a thing before. I was living in Virginia, 3000+ miles away from home, with no idea where I'd be when the money ran out. It's not as if EA hung me out to dry. The severance was fairly generous, but it wouldn't last forever.

The reason I'm reminded of my own layoff is because, just yesterday, SoE (Sony Online Entertainment) cut a substantial portion of their workforce. That's 205 people out of work and three studios shut down. I don't know any of them personally (at least, I don't think I do), but I still feel for them. On the off chance that you, dear reader, are one of the affected, please check the job listings at 38 Studios. Words cannot express how awesome this place is.

In my case, the layoff was a blessing in disguise. When it happened, I was in shock. I didn't know what to do. One of the first things was to sign up for the GamaSutra newsletter and start combing their job listings for things that might suit me. The second was to talk to a recruiter. Neither did me much good, job-wise, but it kept me busy, and gave me the feeling that I might find something eventually.

What really helped, though, was word of mouth from people I already knew. One FaceBook friend who had also worked at Mythic suggested I send my resume to 38 Studios. I'd never heard of 38, so I checked their website out. What little I read sounded interesting enough, but there weren't any positions on the job listing that reflected my skill set. I sent my resume in, anyway. It couldn't hurt... and it didn't.

Within a week, I got a call from 38's recruiter and the ball got rolling. I had a phone interview, followed by an on-site interview, followed by an offer, all before Christmas. Things were suddenly looking up for me. By February, my family and I were living in Massachusetts and I was getting acquainted with the job, the processes of a new studio, and all the people I'd be working with. Looking back on it, I'm glad EA let me go when they did.

I still miss the folks I worked with, some of whom had been let go at the same time I was, and others who were retained. I keep in touch with some of them, and they keep in touch with me. The industry is pretty small, all things considered, and I expect I'll be seeing some familiar faces as my career continues to evolve. Life will never be boring, but I hope to all that is holy I'll never have to go through that process again.

My thoughts go out to the folks who lost their jobs yesterday, and to their families, as well. I know it's hard, but I also know there will always be a sunrise tomorrow. Keep at it... get your name and your resume out there. Stay positive and don't give up. I can't promise your experience will be the same as mine, but I wish you the best.