Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Role of the GM

For the majority of my gaming career, I've been a GM. I'm sure a number of you have been in the same situation. Everybody wants to game, but no one wants to GM. So one guy gets stuck doing it. And that guy has usually been me.

It doesn't help matters that I like a lot of different games. So even if one or two other people I know are willing to run D&D or some other game, if I have a new game I want to try out, I'm the one who has to run it.

And with all those games, I've read a lot of GM advice. A lot of it is the same, so you are forgiven if you skip over the GM section in the games that you buy. But I find it continually useful. At very least, it gives me a broader perspective on the various jobs that a GM is called upon to do. Tips for running different genres, writing adventures vs. building a sandbox, and so on.

One of the other things I find useful is that, especially with the more indie-style systems, the designer takes the time to talk about what they want you to get out of their game. Not always explicitly, but it's there.*

Then I contrast this with how the Rifts line supports its GMs. The Rifts Main Book dedicates less than 8 pages to the Game Masters Section. Most of it is a compact bestiary with quick-roll monster tables and simple pre-generated opponents.

The Rifts Game Master Guide fills most of its pages with a comprehensive index of rules. Races, classes and equipment from every Rifts book available at the time of publication. A useful thing, to be sure. With the astonishing breadth of the setting, having all of that stuff in one place can be darn handy.

If there's a theme here, it's that these materials presume that you already know how to run a game. So they skip past the old "How to GM" stuff and go straight into providing things to help a GM turn their ideas into action. And I do want to reaffirm that there's nothing wrong with that.

My big question here is: How much support does a Rifts GM need? Do they get it? Is there some bit of GMing advice that you wish was in one of the books, but isn't? Was there something you wish you had been told when you first started running a Palladium game? Would a "How to GM" section of the book have been useful, either to show you how to run a game (as a beginner) or to tell you how to make the Palladium system sing (as a more experienced GM)?

One of the things that I strongly believe in as a GM is The Power of No.  Even if something is in the book, even if the designers claim that it's balanced. If it's something that I don't want in my campaign, I will not include it.

*I know there's a camp out there that says "Who cares what the designer wants me to get out of their game? Once it hits my table, it becomes my game to do with as I please." I'm not going to stop them from having fun playing games their way. But as a designer and a guy who believes that System Matters, I'm only going to speak for myself on this one.

Monday, October 1, 2012


When talking about most RPGs via the internet, players generally focus on the RAW or Rules As Written. Since every game table is different, focusing on the one thing all players share, the rulebooks, makes a lot of sense.

The Palladium system is a bit different. Because nobody truly plays with the Rules As Written. In some cases, it's because the mechanics are broken, poorly explained, or both. In other cases, the rules and setting don't mesh as neatly as they should. And then there are the times when the books are oddly silent on certain subjects.

What you get instead is a lot of IMC, or In My Campaign. For those times when the books don't have an answer, individual GMs and players step up to the challenge. Sometimes it's simple tweaks or filling in minor details. Other times, entirely new races, occupations, or even subsystems emerge at the table.

I've been wrestling with this mostly as I try to understand the economy of Rifts Earth. You see, the prices in every Rifts book I own are given in credits. So my assumption is that this is a standard currency throughout the setting. But every time I get into a discussion with Rifts players on the topic, they tell me how silly that assumption is.

And they're right. It's a silly assumption. A balkanized world like Rifts Earth would not have such a unified economy that a single currency would be accepted everywhere. But nowhere in the RAW (at least what I've seen) is this contradicted. So individual GMs have stepped up and devised their own currencies and conversions.

Gold and other precious metals work rather well as "universal currency" in fantasy games. Unlike paper (or electronic) money, gold is valuable in itself. It doesn't matter whose face is stamped on the coin, as long as it's gold. Without that intrinsic value, the only thing that gives paper money worth is the face printed on it. And that only goes as far as people trust that face.

The other issue I find is that there are very few mundane prices. I know Rifts is about having awesome adventures and dialing everything up to ELEVEN!, but giving me an idea of what it means to be a normal person in this setting is valuable. For one thing, it helps me be aware of exactly how awesome I am. When I have a million credits, is that equivalent to having a million dollars or a million yen?

It also opens up other campaign options. Rather than assuming that the PCs are a party of wandering adventurers, let's say I want to do a stationary campaign. The party is a band of locals who protect a small town from the predations of the Coalition and/or the Xiticix, or maybe it's near a nexus and Rifts spill out trouble like a bar at closing time. Or maybe my game is "D-Bee Hospital" and the party is made up of Cyber-Docs and Body Fixers who treat anyone who comes through their doors.

Suddenly, the PCs aren't foraging to survive, but are drawing steady paychecks for their labor. They have bills to pay. A GM who wants to run that sort of campaign doesn't have a lot to go on. Now Rifts GMs are notoriously industrious (and mad props for that!), but it would be nice if the game were better able to support them.

The big question is: How did things get to be this way? A few things jump out at me.

Excessive familiarity with the material. If you've been playing a game for a long time, there comes a point where you know the rulebook by heart. If you've been publishing and writing for the same system for a long time, your eyes glaze over as the rules pass before your eyes. You become less critical of critical portions of the rulebook because it's all stuff you've seen a million times already. So stuff slips by.

Gamer elitism. RPGs, especially in the old-school era, had a reputation for being obtusely written. Gamers took special pride in being able to decode the rulebooks. (One letter to Dragon magazine during the development of 2e D&D urged the designers to retain THAC0 and descending AC to ensure that only smart people would be able to play it.) If some of that decoding required filling in some blanks, so be it.

And none of this is to say that Palladium games are unplayable. Many people do play them and have fun doing so.

I think a big chunk of the reason that there will never be a proper Rifts 2e is that the community surrounding the game is as balkanized as Rifts Earth. Everyone is basically playing their own version of the game. And they've been doing it their way for so long that they don't want a serious revision telling them that they're doing it wrong. (Because they're not.) Those who do want a serious revision are similarly stymied as they try and decide which revisions to make. So many players want their tweaks and revisions to become canon that it can be difficult to choose.

Comments are open.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Game Imbalance Is More Fun!

I've been doing some thinking on the role of game balance in old school play. That's when I realized that part of the point of old school gaming was game imbalance.

I've written before about the old school ideal of immersion and how it's facilitated by the lack of rules. The other thing that facilitates immersion is game imbalance. Specifically, power imbalance between the PCs and the opposition. In old-school D&D, a first level character was a nobody, little better than his 0-level brethren. With single-digit hit points, magic users wielding 1 spell per day, and a bonus to hit only if you're lucky, that first level party can't count on the numbers to save them. They need immersion to give themselves every tactical advantage if they wanted to survive to second level.

KS tries to sell Rifts and other Palladium games as "thinking man's games", and that's true to a degree. I can readily imagine some early 90's Palladium gamers who's GM just bought Rifts. Up to that point, it was a fantasy campaign, or maybe Heroes Unlimited. They've got a few levels and are killing orcs/beating up thugs with alacrity. Then they find themselves on Rifts Earth. Suddenly, their SDC-level abilities don't matter for much. That super-tough guy with the scads of SDC and armor and stuff? 1 or 2 hit points on the MDC scale. 3 if he's lucky.

Suddenly, those characters who thought they were top dogs have been knocked down a notch. Time to start thinking. Time for immersion. Time for roleplay.

All well and dandy until the surviving party members (and the native characters that wound up replacing the dead ones) get their hands on MDC gear. Once they level the playing field, now the GM has to up the ante yet again. It's kind of telling that the first Rifts Worldbook details creatures that are functionally immune to MD.

So what does this mean for BTR? Does this mean that I'm throwing out all notions of game balance? No. Balance between characters is one of my priorities. The ability for every character type to be awesome and relevant is very important to me. But one thing I am definitely not including is a method of encounter balance. And I can definitely see putting some advice in the GM section advocating putting the players out of their element in order to keep them on their toes.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Something Old, Something New

Okay, now that I've laid out some of the major differences between old school and new school gaming the question becomes: What am I designing for: Old school or new school?

The simple answer is: New school, while keeping respect for the old school. One of the big criticisms that has been leveled at Palladium is that they are no longer competitive. Not just in terms of the rate that new material is produced, but also in their ability to keep up with the rest of the gaming industry. Say what you like about "forsaking the old in favor of the new and shiny" or "keeping up with the Joneses of gaming", it is costing Palladium customers, and it's that customer that I'm trying to catch with BTR.

The new school "web" approach also helps us avoid one of those old-school traps: The spot rule. I talked about this briefly last month, when I mentioned "rulings that become rules." Along with the inconsistency I mentioned last month, these rules tend to turn up scattered throughout the various books whenever the designer thinks they should apply. There's a spot rule for muscle atrophy under the Glitter Boy OCC in order to justify forcing the pilot out of the Glitter Boy every now and again. The entire set of Crazy Hero tables from Heroes Unlimited (a game I found surprisingly limited) were reproduced as part of the Crazy OCC.

The old school concept of "fair play" makes it very difficult to talk about game balance. Because real life is not fair, the claim goes, there should be no expectation that the game world will be fair either. I would like to point out at this time that real life is also not fun or optional. Since most people have a choice regarding what they do in their free time, they will tend to focus on things that are fun.

And I'm not going to say that randomly rolled stats aren't fun. I think some of the most fun I've had has been playing a Paladin with randomly rolled and not terribly great stats. Although D&D these days lets you place stat rolls where you like, a Paladin character has a lot of bases to cover and something had to give. I wound up putting my low rolls in Strength and Intelligence. That character was a blast to play and it's a shame that the campaign fell apart when it did.

What I will say is that there's a big difference between rolling an 8 or an 18 for PS and playing an SDC or MDC scale character. Especially since the latter is a player choice. The reason that Glitter Boys and Juicers are so popular that they wind up getting new variants and books devoted to them (as opposed to Vagabonds or Rogue Scholars) is because those classes are powerful enough that players are going to pick them over most others.

The other case that people try to make against game balance is that it attempts to make everyone the same. And that's just not true. Game balance thrives on difference. Even D&D4, the most rigorously balanced game to call itself an RPG, was built around a party composed of characters with different specialties (Striker, Controller, Leader, Defender).

A useful definition of game balance is: A game is balanced when every character has an equal and fair chance to participate in the game's primary activity. But in order for that to be useful, we have to discover the game's primary activity. In a game of Vampire: The Requiem, the primary activity is sucking blood and making moral choices.  In D&D, through all of its editions, it is fairly easy to pick out the game's primary activity: Combat. Each class in the game is built to ensure that it has something to do in a combat scene.

The Palladium house system, as a fantasy heartbreaker, shares this feature with D&D. While it is significantly expanded from its roots, the focus on combat has not changed. Much more print space is given to weapons, armor, and vehicles than other items of utility or interest. So naturally, those character types that are more able to kick ass in various ways are going to be more strongly favored.

A slightly more "indie" variant of the definition of game balance is: A game is balanced when every character has an equal and fair chance to be awesome. The value of this definition is that is doesn't assume a "primary activity." In fact, in many of the more indie RPGs, players can choose or create the primary activity for their character and have the means to be awesome doing it. White Wolf's Exalted RPG as well as Evil Hat's Spirit of the Century both allow players to choose powers (Charms for Exalted, Stunts for Spirit) that can amplify any skill a player chooses to a point of epic awesomeness. Even skills like Bureaucracy or Art can be elevated in this way.

So part of the mission of BTR is not just to mitigate the power of the physical powerhouses, but to make character types like the Rogue Scholar fun to play.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Fans and Critics

The buzz has surely died down by now, but I wanted to take the time to make a well-thought out comment (part of why you read this blog, I hope).

Right about 2 weeks ago, KS posted an "informal survey" that he had conducted among fans and varying employees about the how the company was doing. Since the general vibe of this was "Keep on keepin' on, KS!" many people in the gaming community (including members of the Palladium forums) cried foul. The two main complaints seem to be that KS only asked people with a vested interest in keeping him happy, and that the survey was so informal and unscientific that its results could not be relied upon.

The official response to this doubt must be read to be truly believed. He opens with befuddlement. I can almost imagine a cat macro with a kitten looking piteously into the camera "Y U no Liek gud nooz?" Then it shifts into betrayal rage at all of the people who he thought were fans (including one uber-fan whom he calls out by name) who clearly aren't because they had the temerity to doubt his survey.

He also details some means that Palladium is supposedly looking into so that they can finally experience some growth. My guess is that these moves are just like the Palladium fan page on Facebook: Something they were trying to avoid as long as possible while pretending to "work on it" but ultimately got shamed by the fans into actually doing.

So as much as the "fan" numbers were telling him to "keep on keepin' on", the actual fans want him to be doing more to promote and advance Palladium as a company.

Watching this play out both on the Palladium Forums and makes me want to take a slightly closer look at fans and critics. Because the Palladium "party line" seems to indicate that you have to be one or the other. You can't be both.

Now, I'm a publisher, too. I don't talk about my published work because it's not often germane to the things that I'm talking about over on this blog. It's a neat little indie thing that is designed for an entirely different demographic than BTR is. Check it out!

Speaking as a publisher, I consider my critics to be some of my best friends. Firstly because they are people who are not me who are talking about my game. Free advertising is worth its weight in gold. Really. Secondly, critics tell me what I'm doing right and what I'm doing wrong. For example, my game has gotten a couple of reviews that pointed out that the magic system didn't really work (They loved the game otherwise, so I think I'm doing okay). So I looked, and sure enough, the magic system was missing a key rule. So I updated the PDF versions of the game (both the one that I sell direct to customers and the one that I have printed into book form) and released an errata notice via the blog for that game.

One poster on the thread made a very interesting point: In order to criticize, especially with the vehemence that Palladium critics do, you have to care. And the other posters seemed to confirm this. Several of them, in fact, were ex-fans. Some of them were introduced to gaming via Palladium products, but then found other games that did what they wanted more easily. Or some other action on the part of the company made them decide never to give the company money ever again. (Like the infamous Cease & Desist policy on fan publication.)

I think that if Palladium is going to grow and thrive, it needs critics at least as much as it needs fans. It needs criticism and it needs to listen and learn from that criticism rather than using it as an excuse to circle the wagons even tighter. Especially since the circle is so small there's not room for everyone within it.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Old School vs. New School

Let's face it: Rifts is an old-school game. It was a response and improvement upon old school D&D/AD&D. And because it hasn't seen a significant revision (although plenty of minor ones) over its life, it retains a lot of that old-school vibe.

One of the big mantras of the Old-School Renaissance is "Rulings, not Rules." And this approach does have its benefits. When a new school player finds an old game, they find the lack of rules as a flaw. "If there isn't a rule for it, then you clearly can't do it," they think. But in actuality, when an old-school GM is faced with a gap in the rules, he looks at his player and says "There's no rule that says you can do that, but also no rule that says you can't. Give me some reasons I should let you do that."

The end result of this process is immersion. Because your ability to imagine and describe the scenario is what allows you to succeed. In large part, this is what an old-school gamer means when they talk about roleplaying. When they say, "Yeah, I defeated that wizard purely through roleplay" they generally mean that they used their own wits to probe their GM for the information they needed to defeat the wizard. The drama and characterization that a new-school player would consider roleplaying might be there, but there's no real guarantee.

The popular example of this is the "Search check." A new school player has a skill or stat on their character sheet and the ability to say "I rolled a 21. What do I find?" The old-school player asks their GM "What's in this room? Is there anything that looks like it could be used as a lever? I knock on the statue. Does it sound hollow?"

There is a trap to this, and it's one that Palladium has fallen into. Ironically, it's can be directly blamed on their success. Especially in a long running game (or game line), it is very easy for those rulings to become rules. And since they are made at different times to cover different situations, they're not wholly consistent.

The new-school counter to this is a "web" of rules. While old-school gamers may decry the fact that modern games have rules for "every little thing", that's not necessarily the case. Most modern systems, no matter how "light" or "crunchy," spin a web of rules designed to catch as many cases as possible. The advantage to this is that rules can be more consistent; Rather than having to devise a new rule off the cuff to cover this instance, you simply take a more general rule and refine it to cover your special case. Combat becomes an extension of the skill system, for example.

The downside is the tendency to reduce everything to dice rolls. So when an old-school player tries to roleplay his way through a situation, he is a bit stunned when the GM then tells him to "roll for it." Especially since he likely built this character on the presumption that he would be rolling for certain things and roleplaying the rest, just like he used to.

Another big difference between new school and old school gaming is the definition of "fair play." In old school games, the GM was a neutral arbiter of the world. His job was to make unbiased rulings regarding player actions in their world. One of the reasons that so many old-school games include random tables is to heighten this impartiality (at least in appearance). Players have less ammunition to claim that the GM is hosing them if the horrific event was rolled randomly on a table.

In the new school of gaming, "fair play" is about giving players the opportunity to strut their stuff, being awesome and, generally, successful. Drama Points of varying descriptions enable players to seize success from the clutches of failure and make their successes even more awesome. Encounter balancing tools are provided to ensure that your monsters are just tough enough to be interesting, but only going to trounce the party if you really want them to,

The best example of this difference is a first-level party chasing down rumors of a deadly dragon. A new-school GM is likely to have several responses to this.

1) Make sure the dragon is far enough away and make sure that the party has enough adventures that they will be of a proper level to face a dragon when they arrive.

2) Make the dragon a baby, or perhaps some other sort of encounter that the party can handle.

3) The dragon is there, but not hungry. It will laugh off attempts to slay it, and will banter or parley with the party.

The old-school GM, on the other hand, will simply allow the dragon to be there in its full draconic glory. It will talk or eat the party depending on how they approach the situation and potentially a roll on a reaction table of some kind. But if you piss off a dragon, you had better believe that it will eat all of your tasty hit points and you'll be rolling up a new character.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Shifting Gears

I got distracted over on my other blog, so I haven't updated in a while. But here's a teaser of the sort of things I'm thinking about in terms of BTR.

On thing that many people complained about regarding earlier editions of D&D (Anything before 4e, that is) was its tendency towards Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards(Warning! TVTropes Link!). And it's true, if all you're looking at is the class tables in the PHB. A wizard constantly gets new abilities, while a fighter's power is only slowly doled out (and is nowhere near as cool).

But what this comparison fails to account for is gear. Equipment. Weapons, armor and all that jazz. Fighters may not get a lot of power from their class, but they have much better opportunities to improve themselves with gear. +1 flaming ax? Fighter loot. +2 plate mail of spell resistance? Fighter loot. Scroll of fireball? Okay, the wizard can have that one. So while the wizard is building a "golf bag" of spells, the fighter is building a "golf bag" of specially enchanted weapons and armors.

Gear balance is equally important in Rifts. Actually, it is absolutely vital. Many critics will point out how great a divide it is between the SDC and MDC tiers. Put a dragon up against a Rogue Scholar, and it's very clearly a curb stomp battle. The dragon wins because it can deal 100 SDC on a hit even if it rolls a 1 for damage. That poor SDC wimp doesn't stand a chance.

But what they fail to notice is that the MDC gap is one that be readily bridged. That Rogue Scholar is very likely to have access to some sort of MDC body armor. The most protective armor in the core Rifts rulebook (not counting powered armor) is the heavy Dead Boy armor with 80 MDC. Just by slipping that puppy on, our Rogue Scholar just made that confrontation a bit more fair. Add an MDC weapon of some kind, and this fight suddenly becomes interesting.

If there's a balance problem here, it is that a Rifts character is overly reliant on MDC gear to compete. Rather than the game being about the character underneath all of that weaponry, it can readily become a contest to see how much stuff can be piled on a character.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

BTR Design Goals

Okay, I've been sharing bits and pieces of what Project BTR is about for a long time now, but haven't really given you a real overview of what sort of changes I want to make to the system and setting of Rifts as I design.

1) Eliminate classes and levels. As much as Palladium may pride themselves on the realism of their system, classes and levels strike me as unrealistic. Especially the narrow sort of classes that Rifts features around 10 of in every book, each with their own experience table.

2) Mitigate Mega-Damage. My view on this one has softened somewhat. I started out as a typical hater and pointed to the concept of MD as "proof" that the Palladium system was broken. I now see it as an attempt to create a feeling that the PCs are Big Damn Heroes and empowered to fight evil that no one else can face. But I think that as the game line progressed, the PCs stopped being treated by the designers as "Gods among Men" but simply "Gods" (metaphorically speaking, anyway).

3) Consistency and elegance. The Palladium system has grown mostly via agglomeration, the accumulation of small rules patches and adjustments over a long span of time. Many of these rules are not only spread out among the multitudes of books that have been published, but also not necessarily consistent from book to book. One of the reasons I'm opting for a ground-up approach is so that all of those special cases can be looked at and designed for at the beginning, rather than having to kludge them later.

4) Tame the tech porn. Big guns are cool. Giant mecha are cool. But between all the new guns, mecha and other toys, there's not much room for setting. I don't need every detail of the setting, but I'd like a reason to care about why I'm trying to protect this world from the eldritch horrors that are trying to eat it. But instead, I get a picture postcard version of a setting followed by page upon page of stuff to fight things with, followed by page upon page of MDC critters to kill.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

This Island Earth

In my last post, I mentioned one of the things that really turned me off about the default Rifts setting. Namely, the prevalence of the Coalition. On the one hand, it does mean that your money is good wherever you go in the world, because everyone wants to do business with the Coalition. On the other hand, in this war-torn post-apocalyptic world, how are they able to establish and maintain the economic links that allow this to be practical?

But that's not the only thing that bothers me. Here are a few more.

It doesn't matter that it's Earth: Not only is the setting Earth after an apocalypse, but Earth having experienced a Golden Age of technological advancement and then an apocalypse. Which makes the main reason to insist that it's somehow the Earth we all know and love is so that they don't have to come up with a new map (Much like many fantasy heartbreakers included settings that were redrawn maps of medieval Europe). While earlier material left some room for Gamma World-style "relics of the present", the focus rather quickly switched to stuff from the rifts and advanced military technologies. Finding a reference to "Old Earth" these days becomes more of a Planet of the Apes-type reveal ("Everything's so different, but it was Earth all along!)

It also saves on that pesky little thing called "research." Because Rifts England doesn't care about whether or not Buckingham Palace or Big Ben survived the apocalypse. It just recreates Arthurian myth with an MDC veneer. How is this new King Arthur related to the existing royal family? There's no extrapolation of the modern world, just whole cloth fabrications justified by the rifts and the Rule of Cool.

It Comes From The Factory: We all know that our cheeseburger used to be part of a cow, and that our paper was once a tree. But with many other manufactured goods, we follow its origins back to the factory and stop there. And the way that manufacturing is discussed in the setting material, I wonder if KS actually believes that things work that way. There is much talk of factories and manufacturing techniques, but incredibly little on resource gathering.

With all of the advanced technology in the setting, it is conceivable that raw materials could be created from thin air in a process similar to how a Star Trek replicator causes food to materialize. But it's never mentioned, or even implied.

And resource gathering adds so much story potential. Rather than attacking an enemies' fortified bunkers or munitions plants, why not attack their supplies of raw materials? Can Free Quebec keep manufacturing Glitter Boys without the materials to make their special, laser-resistant alloys?

Here's my current plan to address those issues in my own setting design.

My initial setting will be a world colonized by Earth and one or more of the other galactic powers (the elves and dwarves and such). Since it's not Earth, no one can be particularly upset with me if I don't mention or include certain details or if I just make stuff up. And because the world is a fairly recent colony, it's easy to justify a fairly high level of economic unification. Even the hermit who hasn't spoke to anyone in 10 years and eats bark was on one of a fairly small number of colony ships and wandered away from one of the few settlement sites on the planet.

It allows for the world to be largely uncivilized, but with fairly advanced humans (and other races), just like Rifts Earth.

And once I'm done exploring that world, there are other worlds in the universe to explore. Maybe explore something more civilized, or with a different mix of races (an elven world where dwarves are forbidden and humans are begrudged a small embassy).