Wednesday, December 30, 2015

System Synopsis: GURPS

So I figured I would periodically go through and offer my opinions on different gaming systems out there. This is the first attempt, so we'll see how this goes.

It took me a long time after getting my first roleplaying game books to end up running my first campaign. Despite starting my RPG life by consuming the AD&D 2E books, my first game used Steve Jackson Games' Generic Universal Roleplaying System, or GURPS.

GURPS has been around since the 1980s and is now in its 4th edition. The system does not feature classes or levels. Instead, you're allowed a certain number of points with which to build your character. Virtually every mechanic in the game boils down to a either a skill check or, less commonly, an ability check. In either case, roll 3d6, apply any modifiers, and succeed if you're at or below your character's skill level or ability score.

With such a simple mechanic at its core, the game flows remarkably smoothly. All that is needed is the occasional reference to your character sheet (or notes, if you're the GM) to determine what the roll's target number is.

The potential failure point is when you have to establish the roll's modifier. Often, the case of no modifier is reserved for your average adventuring scenario. (You know, a thief picks a lock in a dungeon.) Players get a bonus for something being easy or low-stress, and a penalty for something being difficult or rushed.

For example, a gun attack is a check against your gun skill, with an additional modifier based on how many yards away your target is. Add another modifier if your target is moving (the modifier depends on its speed), and then another if, say, it's nighttime. It's for this reason that when I GM GURPS, I typically hand-wave modifiers based on how difficult the attempted action "feels" to me.

Additionally, the base target numbers of your skill levels are sometimes a pain to determine due to the math involved at character creation. Fortunately, GURPS Character Sheet is a free software package that will let you build characters with the right point-buy costs, and print everything out to your character sheet.

Some would consider that combat also has an advantage over D&D and similar systems. Rather than Armor Class being the catch-all statistic of how difficult something is to hit, your character has active defenses (dodge and parry, for example), and armor simply takes away a set amount of the damage that's dealt to you. Others would argue that these factors, while more realistic of how combat works, are unnecessary and bog down the combat experience.

In conclusion, I do believe that for any game I wish to run, I could use GURPS if I wanted to. Its default flavor is one of realism, and all the deadliness and grit that that implies. There are also many other ways, outlined in the GURPS material itself, to incorporate certain optional rules and disregard others to tweak the flavor of the game - make it more "cinematic" or "heroic," for example. But all these require up-front preparation on the GM's part. Once the game is underway, though, it's usually a breeze.

As for me, however, I'm something of a game system junkie. I like playing around with different games to see what they have to offer, and choosing a game to run based on what sort of experiences I've come to expect from them, whether I've had those experiences myself, or heard how others have experienced them, or consumed various actual play recordings on the internet. For me, GURPS will be a reliable standby, but usually ignored while I try out everything the wide world of gaming has to offer.

One Game to Play Them All - GURPS was designed to be able to handle any genre of game. It doesn't matter whether you want a Western, Medieval Fantasy, Space travel, or whatever. GURPS has some way to accommodate it.
Simplicity through Uniformity - As I mentioned above, there is one simple mechanic with a few exceptions. Roll 3d6 and get under a specified target number. (By the way, the game uses d6's and nothing else. If you're a fan of polyhedrals, this is not your game.) With the simplicity of the underlying game mechanics, you can quickly get past the system and get to telling the story. The system is quite capable of getting out of the way and fading into the background.
Tons of Support - Got a question on how something works? The SJGames forum is incredibly active. If diving right into GURPS seems too intimidating, The Mook has a very informative website, particularly his New To GURPS Series

The Reputation - Those who have heard of GURPS but have not played it have probably heard that it was terribly complex. It certainly can be if the GM tries to use all the optional rules. It's better to read How to be a GURPS GM and figure out what kind of game you want to run first. Odds are, things aren't going to be as complicated as GURPS' dreaded reputation would imply. Nevertheless, you might have a hard time convincing some potential players.
Misconceptions about Options - There are a lot of options presented to GURPS players. But just because there's a character point value associated with having an extra limb doesn't mean that your character gets to have one. The GM needs to clear everything to make sure the character concept fits in the game s/he is trying to run. I think it's crucial that the character concepts be determined first, and only then should you start shopping for Skills, Advantages, and Disadvantages.
Time Investment - GURPS can handle any game fairly well, but it will take some time to determine which rules will be used, and to build player characters for the game. The more you want to tweak the feel of the game, the more you're going to have to play around with incorporating the optional rules. If I want to play a specific type of game, I'm honestly most inclined to try a game system that's specifically designed for that type of game than start assembling the system together from the wonderful toolkit that is GURPS.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Battle of the Hexes

So a fairly recent discovery of mine has been the concept of the Hex Crawl.

The term "sandbox" in an RPG context refers to the idea that the players are in charge of wherever their campaign is going to go. Much like a child in a sandbox, they are in control of the play—it's up to them to grab whatever they find interesting and run with it, thus defining the game's agenda. As a GM, though, you have to be prepared with a load of potential scenarios for the PCs to encounter. If they choose to go North but you serve them the exact same thing you would have served them if they were going to go East, then that's not really a sandbox.

A certain technique for preparing a large-scale campaign setting like this is to divide a region up into manageable subdivisions. A hexagonal pattern became the standard, perhaps because it naturally tessellates. I'd be interested to know the history of it... Anyway, you populate these divisions with interesting landmarks or encounters. Therefore, if the players want to go to a certain hex on the map in order to follow a plot hook, then they may encounter other interesting things along the way. They may even abandon their original intentions altogether.

Now, my first encounter with the hex crawl was actually plotting out my own subsector for a Traveller campaign, where the subsector is a pattern of 1-parsec-wide hexes (1 parsec = 3.26 light-years). I wanted only a few star systems to be defined, because of the "feel" I wanted for the game. Basically, I wanted jump travel (the week-long process of travelling to a different star system) to be limited to one hex only, because in the setting I was envisioning.

In the game, certain renegade researchers were on the verge of discovering how to make jump travel go even farther, which would be similar to the way Traveller works by default. However, humanity was economically stretched to a breaking point after the exploration of the systems that were within easy reach turned out to be relatively fruitless. Therefore, the PCs' story is taking place amidst a backdrop of a conflict between those who are hopeful that technology will bring humanity's salvation and those who are fearful that it will spell its doom.

Sound interesting? Well, maybe it is, and maybe it isn't. But it definitely doesn't sound like much of a hex crawl, like I imagine many Traveller campaigns end up being.

Now, contrast the above with the Palladium Fantasy game I'm playing in. Our GM will probably disappointed to know that I've forgotten the original thing we were supposed to find—I think it was a lost city in the mountains to the northwest of our starting point. (I've lost the notes from that first session.) Anyway, in our first curveball maneuver, we befriended a goblin and got him to be our guide. We lost him overnight in a seemingly abandoned watchtower, and have traced his captors to some sort of ancient temple. We discovered last session that he eventually became spider food.

However, we were the ones who decided that this goblin was the thing that we were going to follow. We could have easily decided to stay the course and seek out this lost city. We recently added another player to our group, who is playing a ranger. He's hunting a summoner who is also supposedly in our current location. We might go after him or something else might pop up. Since our GM has repeatedly called the game a hex crawl, it would not surprise me in the least.

Lastly, I'd like to mention the Carcosa setting book, published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess. The book was recommended to me by a fellow RPG player during our discussion regarding morality and in-game conflicts after a game we were playing. The reason being, sorcery rituals in the Carcosa book all involve human sacrifice, and potentially other gruesome NSFW elements. For this reason, the supplement has gained some notoriety. However, a good chunk of the book consists of descriptions of hex contents in a massive catalog of the planet. Many describe various population centers, some describe monster encounters, and some outline where you can find material components for those nasty sorcery rituals.

If I were to run a fantasy campaign again (and I really want to), I would probably scrap my idea of intricate world-building in the way I've done before. I mean, it remains an option, but the randomness and elegance of generating a world in a series of interlocking hexagon-shaped building blocks is at once both amazingly simple and remarkably effective.

In closing, please check out the following links that have helped me learn about hex crawls. Also, please comment with your experiences running hex crawls, or with links to more hex crawl resources.

Run A Game: The Hex Crawl
Lorekeeper0: Hex Basics series
Welsh Piper: Hex-Based Campaign Design
Bat In The Attic: How to make a Fantasy Sandbox
The Alexandrian: Hexcrawl

Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Level 0 Blogger Appears

Here we go, another blog. At least this time, I've chosen a subject that's not only got my attention, but seems to be holding it for quite some time—tabletop roleplaying games (RPGs). I've written about other stuff that hasn't held my interest as much (baseball), as well as my other passions like photography and chess. However, photography is a giant investment of both time and money, so my involvement occasionally wanes. I am on a long dry spell at the moment, especially since I want to focus on large-format portraiture, which only amplifies the amount of time and money involved. As for chess, I'm just not good enough at it to write with any authority.

The subject of RPGs, however, seems to be a topic that's well-suited to me. I'm naturally a creative person, and I've been involved with them in some manner since the mid-1990's, when I had a copy of the black-border AD&D 2nd Edition Dungeon Master Guide (TSR 2160).

Now, when I say I had a copy of the DMG, I mean just that. I didn't have a copy of the Player's Handbook or the Monstrous Manual because I didn't know I needed anything else to play. In fact, I didn't have any friends to play with either, so it was mostly me sitting at the kitchen table many evenings eating a bowl of cereal and flipping through the book, admiring the artwork and concocting adventures in my head.

Actually, my childhood was not entirely devoid of gaming. I also had the 1991 Black Box set, and I ran my grandma through Zanzer's Dungeon. Or at least the first few rooms of it. She was confused, but a good sport from what I can recall.

Anyway, I didn't get into a real gaming group until college, and that was over AOL Instant Messenger. (Yeah, remember when all that was happening?) With only two exceptions (plus a convention), all my gaming has been online. It's great to have a game, but nothing beats that at-the-table experience.  On a side note, please get in touch if the list of games below interests you and you live in or around Ann Arbor, Michigan.

My hope for this blog is to explore topics related to tabletop RPGs, as well as share my thoughts. I've done print publications (zines) for my photography work, and I'd like to explore a more traditional-style zine with my zeal for RPGs. What's encouraging is that the OSR (old-school renaissance) community seems to be quite active in this area. I'm hoping to get a lot of support, if I can think up enough content for such an endeavor. If that sort of thing goes well, I would eventually like to self-publish an adventure or even a series of them. If I sell them online, I could make tens of dollars if enough people like them!

Alright, this has gone on long enough. I wanted to conclude with a list of my RPG pedigree, so to speak, because it will give you an idea of what sorts of games I am likely to talk about on this blog, or at least what I'm fond of at its outset.

Games I've run:
  • Fate Core/GURPS: Easily my most successful campaign, and the only one I've run in person. PCs are members of a travelling carnival freak show in a Steampunk pseudo-Europe. Lasted about 10 sessions before I had to move to start my career. We started in Fate Core, but switched to GURPS after I formed the opinion that Fate was too intrusive on the gameplay.
  • Traveller: Online, and only two sessions deep (not counting character generation). Originally intended to be a gritty sandbox, but I learned that sandboxes aren't the easiest things to get off the ground. Needs work before resuming if I ever want to revisit it. (Which may or may not happen because I don't like sci-fi as an RPG genre, I've discovered.)
  • Dogs in the Vineyard: Evening-slot con game at UCon 2015. Pretty well-received, it seemed. Never seen such intense roleplaying and player-on-player conflict.
  • Legend of the Five Rings: Con game one-shot (Legacy of Disaster) at UCon 2015. Also well-received, albeit with a much different flavor than the DitV game.
Games I want to run (campaigns):
  • Lamentations of the Flame Princess - gritty system based on B/X, with a heavy focus on weird fiction and horror. I am thinking of making an adventure or campaign set in 1500s Germany during the Protestant Reformation. 
  • Legend of the Five Rings - One of the players of the aforementioned Legacy of Disaster one-shot expressed interest in a campaign. The L5R system is one that I've wanted to run for a long time, but haven't explored aggressively.
  • Dungeon Crawl Classics - A fun game that highlights the more off-the-wall elements of the OSR genre. Huge online community makes this a very interesting and fun game. Not sure a campaign would be the best fit, but it's a system that's got my attention.
  • D&D B/X or RC - I am waiting on a custom printing of the Rules Cyclopedia to arrive. I will digest it at leisure and may eventually want to run a loose game based on its rules.
Games I've played in:
  • D&D 5E (ongoing campaign) - Fun game that's much better than Pathfinder/3.5. Still not sure if it's far enough removed from said system for me to want to run it, though. Our GM is awesome and that fact may be hiding potential system flaws.
  • Palladium Fantasy 1E (ongoing campaign) - My first Hex Crawl sandbox game. Very old-school feel, although I'm not sure whether or not I like the skill system yet. The game itself really grabs me though.
  • Dungeon Crawl Classics - A handful of adventures at a bookstore in Lansing, with a really fun group. Cementing my affection for anything you could call OSR.
  • Dungeon World - Very well-run one-shot game that features a very transparent rules system. Has me interested in PbtA games.
  • GURPS Horror - First game with my weekly online gaming crew. Although I joined halfway through, it was great because it wrapped up a nice little story arc.
  • Pathfinder - interesting campaign with interesting ideas fell apart because it's Pathfinder. We also had a group that was bordering on the too-large (7 people)
  • Swords and Wizardry - Con game one-shot. OSR system, but not enough info to determine whether I would like it, especially since I think there were a few house rulings going on.
  • Call of Cthulhu - Two con game one-shots. Futility and despair in a crunchy candy shell. Not sure I like it. Feels too much like a haunted funhouse ride because what are you going to do, punch Yog-Sothoth?
  • 13th Age - One-shot con game with a D&D-turned-free-form feel. What Pathfinder could have been.
  • Star Wars FFG - Various one-shots at conventions. Neat die mechanic, but far too crunchy a system for me. I'm done with feats or anything that looks like them.
See you for the first real post later on.