Fate+Fiction: Communication Breakdown

ff anthology2Our second Fate+Fiction anthology, Communication Breakdown, is out today! It contains 5 more short stories from author Gary E. Weller: Chapters, Code of Hammurabi, Communication Breakdown, Dak Kodak, and Five Words. Each is deconstructed, and Situation and Character Aspects, as well as Consequences and Boosts, are pulled out with suggestion on how that can be used in your own Fate RPG game.

Fate+Fiction: Communication Breakdown is available at DriveThruRPG and RPGNow. The price is pay-what-you-want, with a suggested donation of $5. All proceeds go toward the No Sleep ‘Til Finland fund.

Campaign Design: Set Pieces

campaign design logoIn a screenplay, a set piece is a pivotal scene in the film. Most of the time it’s a scene with a dramatic payoff, typically where some big reveal happens, a big game-changer to the plot is presented, or the main problem the characters have been faced with is resolved. It’s called a set piece because it often involves some elaborate location that’s costly to build, and requires either meticulous camera work or carefully planned special effects of stunts to pull off. Screenplays are often built about set pieces, building up to those moment in the film, and the rest of the film’s events resonating from them.

The other thing about set pieces is that, unlike other scenes, they can’t just lift right out. You can but other scenes for length, you can tweak them to make room for more commercials when they’re shown on TV, but you can’t do much to a cut scene. Without them, you lose the plot, and theoretically the best or most interesting part of the movie. They’re the scenes that get featured in the trailers and commercials. They’re the scenes that get fussed over in reviews and forum discussions. They’re the part you’re likely to remember, and cite as the reason you loved (or hated) the film.

When I wrote about finding the Middle Path in campaign design, striking a balance between railroading (the characters go where you want them to go, and they have few or no choices in the matter) and an open sandbox (characters go wherever they feel like, and it’s up to the gamemaster to try to keep up), I had set pieces in mind. They’re as close to railroading as I’m likely to get. The players can wander around the rest of the time, but they’ve got to get to the set pieces.

I recommend building your campaign around set pieces. If you’ve got the time to develop detailed maps and descriptions of each location, and choreograph fantastic fight scenes, for every encounter in your game, by all means do so. If you’re strapped for time, pick your moment. Figure out what absolutely has to happen in your big plot, whether it’s a single adventure “episode” or a big, “seasonal” story arc. Focus on putting your effort into those. Try to have at least one per game session. If other scenes and encounters fall flat, your players will still have one memorable experience, the one they’ll take home and be talking about later.

If your campaign is a journey, think of set pieces as the mandatory stops. You leave one place, you plan to visit certain sites, and you eventually end up at your destination. That’s the semi-railroading element of the Middle Path. In between, you can stop for food, fuel, and to see other things along the way they weren’t planned, and that’s okay; that’s the sandbox. And consider this: should the unplanned side-quest sandbox encounters be as big-budget exciting as the main plot? Sure, they should be fun, everything in a game should fulfill some requirements of fun, but it’s okay if the random stuff has less attention to detail. Hopefully, with grand set pieces, the characters will voluntarily follow the plot, rather than having to be railroaded into it.

Character Workbooks, Revised Wave 4

All of the Revised Character Workbooks for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game core classes should be available NOW everywhere Asparagus Jumpsuit game aids are sold, including Paizo, RPGNow, DriveThruRPG, and shop.d20pfsrd.com. This week we continue our revisions of the core class Character Workbooks with the release of Antipaladin, Alchemist, Cavalier, and Gunslinger!

Each Character Workbook guides you through character creation for that class, as well as advancement all the way through 20th level. They’re perfect for new players and time-crunched gamers who would rather just sit down with their friends and play than wade through 600-page rulebooks. Each workbook also contains links to the official Paizo Pathfinder Reference Document so you can easily look up what feats, spells, and other abilities do and how they work. A great time save for harried gamers!

Mutants & Masterminds Bundle of Holding

Mutants&Masterminds-HerosHandbookI want to take a moment and plug someone else’s stuff for a change. The great Allen Varney runs a terrific site called Bundle of Holding. It’s a sort of Woot! for tabletop roleplaying games. There’s one limited-time offer going at a time, from days to weeks, featuring a themed collection of games and accessories in PDF format. It’s not only a great way to get great stuff at an affordable price, you support the game creators by buying their stuff, and a portion of the sales go to charity!

Right now, the current Bundle of Holding features Third Edition Mutants & Masterminds swag, including the Deluxe Hero’s Handbook (the core rules), the Gamemaster’s Guide, the GM screen, and a virtual ton of adventures and pregenerated characters. Everything you need to start a superhero campaign, a value of over $70, and it can be yours for as little as a contribution of under $20.

I loved the first two editions of M&M and both played and ran it faithfully. Then the ever-present gamer’s lament (”too many games, not enough time!”) set in and I fell away. I’m looking forward to reconnect with the game, and to run it again as soon as possible. The fact that it’s published under an Open Gaming License also means there’s always the possibility of Asparagus Jumpsuit publishing some M&M-compatible material in the future.

Character Workbooks, Revised Wave 3

CW PALADINThis week we’re finishing up all of the Core Classes with the release of Paladin, Ranger, and Sorcerer! And to get a jump on the Base Classes, we’ve also released the Magus, one of the most requested Character Workbooks! They’re available now, everywhere that Asparagus Jumpsuit stuff is sold.

If you’ve previously purchased any of the Character Workbooks, you should be getting a link in a separate email where you can download the revised versions for free as they become available!

Embracing My Inner Ed Wood

Ed_Wood_photoI am the Ed Wood of game designers. I am fully aware that my passion often exceeds my talent. I know that I don’t have the budget to properly execute my vision, and that even if I did I still wouldn’t be the next Orson Wells (or Kenneth Hite, or fill in the name of the person you think sets the high bar for the industry). My production value isn’t very high. It is highly unlikely that I will ever win any awards for my work, let alone find a massive, mainstream audience for it.

And I’m okay with that.

Maybe I am tilting at windmills, but every day I get to do what I love. Most people, even other gamers, may not “get” what I’m doing, or trying to do, but those that do seem to embrace my work, and me, with appreciation, love, and support. I may not be one of the cool kids, but man, I wouldn’t trade my little circle of weirdos for anything. I have fun doing what I do, and I help other people to have fun too.

Sure, I’ve got a mission and vision statement that sets the bar pretty high, and proclaims my aspirations to create Art. That means that I’ll keep doing the best I can with the limited resources I’ve got, always trying to learn, always trying to do better. It doesn’t mean I’m delusional. It means that I’m lucky, even blessed. The goal is to entertain people, and eek out a living and a life doing it. And, hopefully, end up doing a little bit better than Ed Wood did.

Why Game Balance is an Illusion

campaign design logoGame balance is an illusion. No matter how clever you are in crafting your rules so that no one can exploit them, there will be players and gamemasters that are move clever than you. Not that this sort of creative sneakiness matters. Every game group operates on an agreement, and if that agreement includes the use of house rules, minor tweaks, or ignoring certain parts of your carefully crafted, “balanced” mechanics, well, then, your efforts in that direction have pretty much been for naught.

I’m not saying that rules don’t matter. I’m saying that they’re only part of the equation. They’re not the be-all, end-all of a tabletop roleplaying game. They’re guidelines. They reveal creative possibilities so that people can craft characters and tell stories and build worlds. They create some semblance of order so that disputes can be resolved regarding the degree of success or failure around any particular action. They’re the foundation, but they’re not the whole house.

Game balance comes from people and, more specifically, from the gamemaster. It’s not about making sure that no player character is objectively more powerful than any other character. It’s not about making sure that every single character, character class, character archetype has the exact same number of abilities so that no one can cry that one player character gets more toys than another. I’ve seen a lot of game design leaning in that direction lately, and I don’t agree with it, for a couple of reasons.

I grew up reading reprints of Doc Savage pulp novels. Clark Savage, Jr. was obviously the star of the series, and he was a physical and mental marvel, but he wasn’t the only character in the book. He had a supporting cast, and they were all interesting characters with their own special abilities. Were they his equal? No. Were they still interesting, and important? Yes. I also read superhero team books growing up. Is Hawkeye the equal of Thor, in terms of power? No. Is Aquaman playing on the same level as Superman, or even Batman? Of course not. Do they all still get to be in the “adventuring parties” of the Avengers and the Justice League, respectively? Yes, they do.

Allow me to keep hammering this point. I love ensemble television shows. On The West Wing, are Jed Bartlett and Charlie Young equal in power on any level? No. Could they be built on the same number of points, in a roleplaying game? Of course not. You can look at any ensemble cast in any television show or movie and virtually no arguments can be made that all regular characters, regardless of genre or setting, are equal in power, whether that’s measures as physical might, intellectual prowess, or influence.

What roleplaying games do, by their nature as “games”, is violate basic rules of fiction and storytelling. We justify this with the battle cry of “balance!” and it’s crap. Pure crap. Balance comes from being sure that every character has a role and a function in the story. Balance comes from giving each character something to do that plays to that function, their background. They need things designed to play to the strengths of their abilities, and challenges designed to draw out their flaws and weaknesses not to punish them for having drawbacks, but for the characterization and story possibilities.

I’ve have variations of this conversation dozens of times,, and I get a lot of the same questions and comments over and over. No, you don’t need to make sure you have a thief in the party to deal with the traps. You don’t need to make a player who wants a different type of character play something he’s not passionate about. How do you keep balance in the party, then? Well, how about having fewer locks and traps, and more of whatever highlights the abilities that do exist in the group? Oh, the group is “fighter-heavy”. Well, but the combat challenges. But there’s no cleric, so how do they get healing? Um, NPCs, potions, local temples, magic items?

People have told me that I’m not playing the game right — it never matters what game it is — because I don’t care about party balance, rules balance, power balance. I care about every character getting an adequate turn in the spotlight, every character having something to do, every character getting to live their story. If you think that the needs to the rules, the needs of the game designer, and the needs to the game’s fan base outweigh the needs of my players, at my table, in my campaign, well, I think you’re wrong.

“Balance” isn’t something that happens by rote because the rules say so. Balance is a creative challenge. Balance is something you have to work for. Balance is work, but balance is also the reward. Balance is something you earn. And this definition, my definition, of balance, is what has made tabletop roleplaying the incredibly rewarding experience that keeps me in the hobby and coming back for more week after week, year after year.

Fate + Fiction: Black Dreams and Other Bad Juju

ff anthology1Our original plan was to release this, our first full Fate+Fiction anthology, last Friday. Unfortunately, we bumped up against the Tabletop Day Sale at DriveThruRPG, which was so wildly successful that intermittently took their servers down! Since we were unable to upload the files, we decided to wait until after Tabletop Day weekend and release it today!

Black Dreams and Other Bad Juju contains five short stories by Gary E. Weller. There are elements of horror, fantasy, and cyberpunk in them, but some aren’t “genre fiction” at all. That’s art of the point. Each story is then deconstructed, with gameable elements called out and translated into Situation Aspects, Character Aspects, Consquences, and Boosts. You can use those elements in your on characters, and in your own game. Fate+Fiction will also help you see how you can analyse stories for yourself, to find ideas for your own characters and campaigns.

Black Dream and Other Bad Juju is a Pay What You Want release at DriveThruRPG and RPGNow. As with all Asparagus Jumpsuit releases, all proceed go to No Sleep ‘Til Finland.

Revised Character Workbooks, Wave 2

CW BARBARIANThe second wave of Revised Character Workbooks for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game are now available at Paizo. Barring a sharknado or a croctapus attack, Wave 3 should be out April 11th. At that point all of the Core Classes will be done, and those 11 revised workbooks will be available at d20pfsrd, RPGNow, and DriveThruRPG. If you’ve previously purchased a Core Class Character Workbook from those sites, you’ll be sent a link to download the new versions for free.

Gamemastering Across 3 Timelines

campaign design logoIn the last column I talked a little bit about timelines of events versus timelines of discovery. Basically, characters will figure things out in an order different from the way things happened. They have to not only find the clues, but discover the context of the clues, in order to solve the puzzle, unravel the mystery, or fix the problem.

Today I want to muddy the waters a bit, and give you something else to think about. I’m not trying to make your life as a gamemaster harder, but I want to give you a a perspective that can make your stories more interesting and your adventures more challenging. I want to do it without creating more work for you, or confusing your players. Ready? Here we go:

All stories have 3 timelines.

The Player Character Timeline: This is reality as seen from the players and their characters. This is what’s happening at the tabletop during the game session. The characters do this, then they do that, then they move on to the other things It is the narrative, the game as it is happening.

The Contingent Timeline: These are things that only happen after other things happen. The villain can only build the Penultimate Doomsday Machine after he’s stolen the rare Handwavium-238 Isotope. The protagonists can only question the femme fatale at the nightclub after they’ve discovered the matchbook cover at the scene of the crime. In the latter case, it might be a timeline of one event; when they figure out to go to the nightclub, the femme fatale will be there whether it’s 10am or 2am. Her role in the story is to dispense a piece of information, and she’s done.

In the case of the villain constructing his weapon of mass destruction, it may be a true contingent timeline. These have an order, but don’t adhere to an act structure. If you’re using a 4 act structure as discussed in previous columns, in Act 1 the villain may attempt to steal the handwavium. If he succeeds, he moved on to the next step. If he fails, in Act 2 he’s going to make another attempt to acquire handwavium. His plan, his plot, his personal story cannot move forward until something else happens.

The way I handle this is to label contingent timelines as Act A, Act B, Act C, and so on. In the Player Character Timeline thing progress through Act 1, Act 2, Act 3, and Act 4, but a supporting character might spend all 4 segments in his own Act A. You may decide to put a restriction on this; if you’re still in Act A by Act 3, you automatically move into Act B, for example.

The Non-Contingent Timeline: These are things that are going to happen no matter what the player characters do, and no matter what else happens in the story. Going back to the example of The Hangover in the previous column, there is a wedding scheduled on a set date, at a set time, in a set place, and all of the other guests are going to show up there whether the protagonists make it or not. These can also be stand-alone events, or the first act of a contingent timeline. In Act 1, the dragon is going to attempt to kidnap the princess, no matter what else is going on or what may happen afterward. In Act 3, the mobsters are going to rob the bank. These events don’t hinge on something else happening, and go off whether the players and their characters are ready for them or in a position to do something about it or not.

During my game prep, I write these various timelines down as simple lists. For contingent timelines, I write out what happens if or when something else I foresee occurring happens. I just write a couple of sentences for Act A, Act B, and so on. For non-contingent timelines, usually just place the events in with my notes for that act. I let the players do what they want, then inform them at the end of the act. “As you’re walking back down the mountain and out of the woods following your epic wrestling match with bigfoot, your cell phone goes off. Apprently, you have reception again. It’s the admiral, and he tells you that Snakey Jake and his gang have just robbed the Savings & Loan…”

As with every other piece of gamemastering advice I dole out, you’re free to take it, leave it, or adapt it to your own use. It’s a tool and a technique, not the One True Way set in stone. I’ve found that it instills a sense of reality to my games, as it drives home the point that the entire world doesn’t revolve around the player characters, that there is a larger world out there with things going on. With a little practice it’s not that hard to implement, but it yields great results.