RPG Blog Carnival October ’09 – Morality: In-Game & Real Life

RPGBlogCarnivalLogoFirst of all, thanks to Johnn at Campaign Mastery for hosting September’s Blogger Carnival (even if my entry was a bit late).

This month, I’ve chosen a rather philosophical topic for discussion: morality. Everything from alignments to your limits as a player.

There is good and there is Evil. Evil must be Punished. Even in the Face of Armageddon, I will not compromise on this.
– Rorschach illustrating his black and white moral sense, Watchmen

I’ve encountered games which encourage depravity from the darkest depths of the human psyche and which result in nobel behaviour that would put a saint to shame. I’ve personally murdered innocents on a whim, encouraged genocide, been sacrificed by my companions and have sliced my way through thousands of characters, creatures and assorted NPCs, often the in name of a deity or king.

Is there any chance I would ever act like that in real life? Not even the slightest chance.

Likewise, I’ve heard stories about in-game racism, misogyny, ethnic cleansing and the sort of death tolls that would make history’s greatest warlords turn pale. All this is before we even get started with notorious games such as F.A.T.A.L. or Racial Holy War, where all sense of conventional morals is abandoned in favour of blatant racism and disturbing mechanics. In fact those examples I cited come from Vampire, a home brew system and Dark Heresy – we’re talking mainstream games and normal, well adjusted players.

I’ll be discussing some of these stories in my own entry for the carnival, later this month. What I want to hear from you guys is how you deal with morals in-game and in real life. What are your limits as a player? How evil can you be? Do you just like to play by alignment or do you like a more realistic moral system? What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done as a player? How much difference is there between your real life morals and your in-game morals? If a God mandates Kolbolds are evil and must be destroyed, could your character kill a Kolbold pup in cold blood?

What ever your answer is to these questions, then, as always, post an entry about it to your blog. Once it’s up, come back here and leave a link in the comments. At the end of the month, I’ll compile the links and have a bit of a discussion about each.

For previous carnivals, please see the Carnival Archive at The Dicebag.

RPG Blog Carnival – Mistakes, I’ve Made A Few

RPGBlogCarnivalLogoThis month’s RPG Carnival, hosted by Campaign Mastery is about mistakes made during role-play.

I’d be the first to admit that there are a few flaws in my roleplay. The one which I’m currently trying to eliminate is the use of out-of-character knowledge and out-of-character deductions. I’ll illustrate this with an example.

The last mission in the Dark Heresy campaign I was playing was set on a Chaos-riddled space-ship hulk, buried on a war-torn planet. My character was a tech-priest, the only class that is more then vaguely competent (read “has better then 45% success rate on rolls”) when it comes to dealing with technology.

So far so good. A tech-priest should be right at home on a spaceship – except this is the 40K Universe, where nothing is ever that simple.

Drawing upon everything I knew about sci-fi and Warhammer, I petitioned my party to destroy the ship. In order to do this, I suggested we find the engine core and perform some rites of cleansing to the Omnissiah (ie Press the self-destruct button).

That would have been my big mistake – my tech-priest was born and raised on an Imperial planet. There was no way he could have the knowledge to destroy a millennia old spaceship given the WH40K universe. During the next session, the GM turned round and told me that there is no way I’d have had that knowledge (after he’d dropped heavy hints to make the same point). Not a major problem as things turned out, but I really was aware that I’d used too much Star Trek fanboy knowledge as soon as I’d voiced the idea.

The correct way to play it for the character would have been to come up with some bluster about the Omnissiah showing us the path and trying to hide my lack of knowledge.

The positive side of this is that at least I’m aware that I’m doing it. Self-awareness helps me work on better characterisation and means I stop and think more before I take a character action. Hopefully in posts to come I’ll be able to look back and laugh at the silly mistakes I was making.

It’s How I Roll

DiceI roll badly.

I don’t mean that I end up sending my dice all over the floor every few minutes (although I’ve been known to do that to my dicepool after a few beers). I just roll consistently poorly.

My incompetent assassin and ‘Combine-Harvester Repairman’ Tech-Priest in Dark Heresy became running jokes. They averaged just one successful check per session until I eventually got my Tech-Priest up to 70% chance of success in Tech-Use (in Dark Heresy, that’s a god-like success rate).

In Castles and Crusades, I’ve been similarly blighted. My Ranger at least managed to hit targets, but often for just one or two damage. He was a bit of a sod anyway – I think failing rolls kind of suited him. On the other hand, the day that I played a friend’s Illusionist, it was a case of success after success – in one area, he melee’d the combat area clear after a Fighter, a Knight, a Rogue, my Ranger and a Priest had all failed to hit the enemy. Unfortunately, he immediately went on to accidentally blind the Rogue when we went up against the Necromancer in the next chamber, but the Rogue deserved it.

Most recently, I utterly confounded my GM while playing an indie Superhero game. According to the rules, my success rate should have been about 75%. It was actually about 30%.

I’m not a big believer in luck, dice superstition or any other form of supernatural. I just roll badly. Who knows why…

Why Old School Is Bad For RPGs…and Good For Gamers

There has been a furore of late within the RPG Blogging community regarding “Old School” gaming.
The definition of “old school” remains vague, and everyone seems to have their own variation – be it homebrewed systems based on the Blue Box D&D, original World of Darkness, legacy GURPS or even classic Cthulhu. I’m not going to quibble over definitions however – for the sake of ease lets just take “Old School” to mean any game system that is still being played despite being replaced by a newer products or abandoned by it’s publisher, or any game which seeks to emulate such products (ie Pathfinder).

My recent survey regarding the age and length of gaming careers of RPG gamers, places the average RPG gamer in their mid 30s with more then 20 years of gaming experience. The respondents in their 20s were in a distinct minority.
On the other hand, Project Daedalus – a sociological survey of MMO players – places the average age of MMORPG players between 18 and 28 with 24% of surveyed males and 15% of females aged between 18 and 22. 23% of males and 27% of females were aged between 22 and 28.
Now, the numbers here aren’t very scientific, but this does suggest that I’m on the money. The average age of RPG players is continuing to rise and they aren’t being replaced by a younger generation because us young whipper-snappers tend to play MMOs instead.

This is a bad thing. As gamers get older and older, two things start to happen: we die and other interests take over. It also gets harder for younger people to get into the game if the perception of RPG gaming changes to it being an ‘old peoples’ game.

So what does thing have to do with Old School?

Well, Dungeons & Dragons, love it or loath it, is one of the most popular RPGs in the world and the best supported by a country mile. In my FLGS the only other games which comes close to the amount of shelf space D&D takes up is Call of Cthulhu and World of Darkness. If people pick up an RPG book because they think it sounds like fun, it’s probably going to be D&D and it’s inevitably going to be 4e rather then the legacy systems.
John Smith with his newly purchased set of core rule books and WOTC branded dice set will need some help trying to get friends together, writing a campaign and even just playing for the first time. He’s probably going to turn to existing communities for advice.

And he’s going to find quite a lot of blog posts and even businesses rubbishing 4e. Now, everyone is entitled to their opinion and no-one should be evangelising about 4e if they don’t like it, however we as a community have to recognise that 4e is the single best tool we have to get people into RPG gaming.

The drive to make 4e old school and the debate around it is not going to help. It’s only going to confuse new players and alienate them from more established players.

When someone looks advice on 4e on the internet, they should be finding a helpful and supporting community. A community which helps them hone their skills, find players and provides a bridge into other systems. Not companies producing a product based on the fact that they don’t like the Dragonborn as a race.

That is why I believe that the old school debate, the forthcoming “old school 4e” products and the whining about 4e in general are bad for RPG gaming – they are helping to turn new players away.

But (and this is a big but)…the old school movement is amazing for established players.

The old school movement is doing a lot for gamer choice.

It’s amazing that games that are 30 years old are not only still being played, but being promoted and attracting new players. You don’t like one version of a game? You can pick up the books for a different version of the same game for half the price.

So, that’s that. There isn’t a good and bad side to this debate. Moral of the story: don’t rubbish 4e, we need it because it helps get people into gaming. But don’t rubbish old school either, because it gives us way more choice.

Top 5 Bad Guys Who Wouldn’t Work in an RPG

I don’t know about you, but I generally love bad guys. I’ve never really worked out why, but I always wanted Darth Vader, Jason Vorhees, Sauron or whoever else to win. Just to see what would happen.

It’s probably why I like being GM so much – I get to play the bad guys and find out what happens.
Consequently, I try and use my favourite fictional characters in different guises. Many of them are tropes, but they are also good inspiration. There are some of my favourites which just don’t work though.

So, in the spirit of presenting varied reading, here is my top 5 list of entertaining fictional characters who wouldn’t work in an RPG.

5 – Q (Star Trek: TNG, DS9, Voy)
Q is both the first and last enemy encountered by the crew of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D during in Star Terk The Next Generation. His role remains a mystery throughout TNG and is only explained in the excellent finale, All Good Things… He makes return appearances in DS9 and Voyager, expanding the lore regarding his race but in much more sympathetic roles.
Why He’s A Bad Enemy: Omnipotent, all powerful, able to manipulate the entire universe at a whim and a mischievous temperament to boot: Q’s powers read like the power trip of a bad DM and render him nigh on undefeatable.

4 – Darth Maul (Star Wars: Episode I)
The weakest character in the most reviled of all 6 Star Wars films, Maul existed solely to look badass on PR material and provide the deus ex machina to give Obi-Wan a chip on his shoulder. He had nearly no lines and about ten minutes of screentime.
Why He’s A Bad Enemy: The ultimate two-bit looser bad-guy. As he stands, he only exists to be killed. No background, no development, nothing.

3 – Frank-N-Furter (Rocky Horror Picture Show)

Transsexual alien with his own cloning project, ghoulish servants and one hell of a clothing line. Amazing singer.
Why He’s A Bad Enemy: Not too hard to use in a sci-fi setting, but I dare you to use him in your next D&D campaign.

2 – Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal)
A egomaniac serial killer and cannibal, Lecter is one of the most memorable horror movie characters of the 80s and 90s. Despite being a mass-murderer, he actually manages to retain the role of anti-hero rather then all-out villain.
Why He’s A Bad Enemy: Lecter spends most of his screen time helping the FBI and not that much actually being a bad guy. When he is a bad guy, he takes it to a whole new, charming level, which, quite honestly I don’t think can easily be conveyed in an RPG.

1 – Scorpius/Harvey (Farscape)
Scorpius and Harvey, his counter-part implanted in the head of main-character John Crichton, are very possibly the best sci-fi enemy of all time. Scorpius is creepy and unhuman on his own (despite being a forehead alien), Harvey adds to this though some of the best black humour which has ever graced the small screen. Harvey causes Crichton to slowly loose his mind, his ship and just about everything else in his life.
Why He’s A Bad Enemy: You want to try inserting a character into the mind of a PC? It’s a great idea in theory, but in reality it’s impossible without the GM practically controlling the PC.

Let me know if you have any idea how to work any of these guys into a campaign 😉

You Gotta Roll With It…

You must never question the wisdom of the Die. His ways are inscrutable. He leads you by the hand into an abyss and, lo, it is a fertile plain. You stagger beneath the burden he places upon you and, behold, you soar.

– From ‘The Book of the Die’, Quoted in The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart

If you are reading this, spend your time playing RPG games and have never read The Dice Man, then I strongly advise you buy or borrow a copy of it.

It deals with that which every gamer seems to treasure above all other RPG paraphernalia and what exactly you can do with them. Although, while gamers generally live or die by the roll of a dice in-game, Rhinehart’s book is a fictional account of a man who decides to live his entire life by the roll of 2d6.

Of course, when we play, we don’t decide all actions though dice rolls – that would lead to a boring game, unless it was done purely for laughs with suitably ridiculous options. The idea has potential, but if all decisions in a game came down to random chance, then you might as well just remove the human element all together and program a random number generator with a plot.

That’s not to say that a player in a mischievous mood couldn’t absolutely infuriate the GM by role-playing a character who uses dice to make decisions.

Has anyone tried this? Or any other form of diced based decision making in or out of games?

Review: Dungeons & Dragons – Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide 4th Edition

Forgotten Realms CG SmallIt’s not really surprising that the first proper supplement for Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition (D&D 4E) is a revision of Ed Greenwood’s long standing Forgotten Realms setting.

This is one of Wizards of the Coast’s most successful brands and the only campaign setting other than Eberron to feature AD&D, D&D V3 and D&D 4E versions. It also has a long history outside of the main D&D game, with a number of videogames and books being set on Toril.

The changes for 4E are numerous. Like the core game, a lot of rules have been simplified and a good deal of the setting has been simplified as well. There have also been ground-shaking changes to the Toril, which will allow players to explore a whole different world from that encountered in the V3 setting. However, the best place to start is probably with the physical book itself.

One of the most striking changes to book is that the logo and styles of artwork which once made Forgotten Realms stand out from the Core Rules are gone. They have been replaced with artwork and logos identical to that of the three Core Rulebooks. This is a sign that Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast are being much stricter with the design than in the past or that they are trying to make Forgotten Realms a bigger part of the core D&D experience (for reference, at least some of the pre-made campaigns which have been issued in the past few months are set in parts of the Forgotten Realms).

Physically, the book is slightly thinner than the previous edition, with around 280 pages compared to the V3’s 320 pages. The arrangement of chapters has also been improved and now bares a resemblance to the Monster Manual, with each country or major town receiving two (or occasionally four or six) pages to itself. Other short chapters cover new monsters, the history of Toril, the Gods, the Planes and a selection of sample adventures.

Unfortunately, the majority of these chapters appear to have had content cut since their V3 iteration. Much of what has been cut is of no great consequence and can easily be restored by the GM, or indeed, supplanted with homebrew ideas and rules, but it is clear that WOTC want you to purchase the forthcoming Forgotten Realms Player Guide as well, which will presumably contain cut content such as the additional character classes and races, further information about the deities and the rather useful information about running a FR campaign.

Having looked at the outside of Toril as it were, it is probably best to turn to the actual setting for a while.
The biggest plot change, and indeed the premise for much of the setting, is that roughly ten years after the information in the V3 setting was published (1375 DR in the in game calendar), a massive catastrophe known as the Spellplague destroyed The Weave, which was the main source for much of Toril’s magic. The consequences of this were far reaching, resulting in much death, destruction and the worlds of Toril and Abeir (or Earth) colliding in a massive inter-dimensional rift.

The year is now 1479 and while magic has been recovered, there are many scars left on the landscape and on the people of Toril and a large number of consequences in the world, such as the death of some of the Gods, realignment of some Gods (in line with the reduced number of alignments in the Core Rules), the destruction of some Planes and a redraw of much of the Southern portion of Faerûn.

I don’t have problems with the vast majority of these changes. In fact, I really like the idea of a campaign that runs through the Spellplague – something the book suggests as a way of updating older characters or allowing them to be replaced.

Overall, I do feel disappointed by the 4E setting so far. It seems less detailed and less comprehensive than the previous editions. On one hand, this is a blessing for GMs because they can just lift areas of Toril for use without using the rule changes that are forthcoming in FR Player Guide, but on the other hand, GMs may be asked to purchase (or indeed feel obliged to purchase) the extra book because players want the extra rule changes, races, classes and so on. I suspect that with the addition of the Player Guide, it will feel a lot more rounded and like a complete setting instead of just an empty world.

Other then that, my only real niggle is to do with the condition of the book. Unfortunately, I bought the last copy from the usually excellent Static Games in Glasgow, and it has a couple of very damaged pages which I didn’t notice until I got home. Not sure if they’d let me swap it, but I might mention it next time I’m buying from there and see if I can swing a discount.

Dungeons and Dragons – Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide is out now priced at £24.99 (±$50). It’s companion volume, the Forgotten Realms Player Guide is due out September 2008.