Gaming on the cheap?

Fairly often, people will complain that RPGs are getting more expensive. That it’s impossible to keep up. That we can no longer afford this hobby.

It’s certainly possible to spend a lot on RPGs. If you buy all the new hardcover books, it’s easy to spend thousands of dollars a month. Even if you only collect a few game lines, it’s easy to spend a bundle. If you consider it a prerequisite to own a sizeable portion of the published material for D&D, GURPS, HârnMaster or whatever else before you consider them useful, that’s going to be a huge expense. And it’s easy to spend huge sums on dice, miniatures, battlemats, laptops, projectors, etc.

But then, there are hobbies that are much more expensive. I’m also into astronomy, and while it’s possible to do a lot with just your naked eyes and free star charts, doing much serious observing quickly requires hundreds of dollars’ expense at a minimum. Want to do really nice astrophotos? Expect to spend probably at least US$10,000, if not US$100,000.

Costs in RPGs don’t ramp up that quickly, and it’s possible to do a lot without spending anything at all. There are some really terrific, completely free games out there, like Risus, Danger Patrol and Old School Hack. Even if you want to stick with D&D, there are lots of retroclones that are free, such as Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardy and Dark Dungeons. Many of these and other free games can easily be run with materials you already have lying around the house: the dice from that Yahtzee game you’ve never used, scratch paper, your computer that you’d already use, three-ring binders you get for free from work, free internet resources, etc. And of course it’s possible to create our own games for nothing, and to create our own adventures for nothing, just the time invested. It’s possible to spend almost nothing and have hundreds of hours of fun.

Most people know all this, right? So where does the complaining come from? I can see several sources:

  • Comparing costs now to costs decades ago, without adjusting for inflation. Yes, in 1980 a boxed set of D&D may have only cost around US$10, but in 1980, the median income in the US was also only around US$20,000. Now, that basic set costs around US$20, and median income is around US$50,000. These days, a can of pop in the FLGS costs at least US$1.00; I remember it costing only US$0.50 when I was a teenager. Though the absolute numbers have gone up significantly, the relative costs of RPG products have generally kept pace with incomes.
  • Print quality has gone up, generally speaking: lots of RPGs are published now with full-color printing, glorious art and glossy pages. As quality has gone up, though, gamers’ expectations have gone up considerably. I think we’re demanding more from our games, these days, and as a result publishers are having to set prices for deluxe versions higher. Some aspects of printing quality have gone down (cracked bindings seem a lot more common now than they did two decades ago, for example), which I think has led people to complain more than they used to about value for money. How many of us would really accept B&W-only games in exchange for never again having a book with a broken spine? I’m guessing the number is rather low.
  • The poor economy has reduced almost everyone’s discretionary spending. It also seems (from purely anecdotal experience) that gamers skew less wealthy than (say)people who are into astrophotography, so as income distribution has gotten worse, we’ve also felt the pinch more.
  • As we’re all getting busier and busier (or at least it seems we are), we have less time for developing our own gaming materials. As a result, I think, gamers are buying more and more pre-packaged setting and adventure materials, and that requires more money.
  • Another effect of people being busier is that, I think, more and more people have no time to actually game. I think a significant portion of the people who buy games do so without much hope or intent of actually playing them; a lot of us seem resigned to never getting a group together again, and we console ourselves with ‘merely’ reading RPG materials. (I’ll discuss why I think reading RPG materials is nothing to be ashamed of in a later post.) And if RPGs can only give you enjoyment when you can buy more of them, that’s going to be a net increase in the cost of RPGs for you.

What other reasons can you think of?

So I guess I’ve convinced myself (and perhaps you) that there are some really good reasons to complain about the price of RPGs. But it’s still equally possible to enjoy them with nearly no expense.

Con of the North event registration open

Con of the North is the Twin Cities’ biggest, best gaming convention. Next year’s CotN will be Presidents’ Day Weekend, Feb. 15-17, 2013.

Event registration has recently gone live. I just sent in mine.

I was surprised by the number of indie RPGs being run, and not just by the House of Indie Games (which I help with). There are some pretty nifty games on offer. If you’re going to be in the area, consider registering; CotN is a huge amount of fun in a 60-hour package. And if you’re going to go, what are you registering for?

In praise of Patrons

Supplement 6: 76 Patrons

Traveller RPG Supplement 6:
76 Patrons

One of my favorite GM aids is from the black book version of the Traveller RPG. It is Supplement 6: 76 Patrons.

It presents 76 different patron encounters, each with a variety of different possible twists. The patrons are organized by number of players — there’s even a section for single-player scenarios — and many assume that the PCs have a starship.

Each patron is essentially an adventure seed, with minimal background or direction given to the GM. Some imply a fair amount of additional work: maps, NPC stats, detailing further webs of relationships, etc. But others could probably be dropped into any appropriate session with no prep by the GM, especially if you’re good at improvising details.

17. Merchant

The players are contacted by Tristam Shabie, a merchant who seeks a group of trustworthy people to act as a bodyguard while he makes a tour of the subsector…

76 Patrons, p. 17

The supplement isn’t without problems. Most seem to assume that the PCs are of the amoral wandering thug type. (In fantasy, this is sometimes termed the “murderhobo”; the equivalent for SF settings, as I’ve heard it, is the “space asshole”.) That’s clearly not suited to every group; if your group isn’t going to be up for random jobs from mysterious strangers in a starport, you’re not going to get much out of this supplement. And too many of the missions are of the “break into X and steal Y” type. There isn’t very much variety there.

Also, the ratio of men patrons to women patrons is annoyingly high. On a quick count, I found only 10 patrons who are women, vs. about 36 that are identified as men (with the rest either being groups or ambiguous). And one man is described as “effete”. I prefer more gender equality in my games.

Each patron is presented with a matrix of possible complications. It’s intended that the GM will roll for complications on 1D6. Most of the time, a result of 1 means that all is as presented: the patron has told the truth, the reward is as promised, the mission goes as planned. Other rolls will give different results: the patron has lied about who they really are, or the opposition is stronger than expected, or the stakes are generally higher than planned, or whatever.

These complications are where the supplement’s real promise shows through, I think. The idea that a single encounter could turn out in such radically different ways was pretty mind-blowing for me when I first read it, in the early 80s. The idea of having a branching tree of semi-planned, interesting complications for each encounter was a big deal. I’ve tended to plan that way ever since: every encounter I present my players with can go different ways, depending on what hooks they bite on and what they leave by the wayside.

A problem for the 76 Patrons complications is that they tend towards two extremes: either everything is as the patron said, and the mission goes by the numbers, or the patron has screwed the PCs over and the mission is far harder than they bargained for. While those two possibilities can be fun occasionally, I tend to think that encounters should each have a wide variety of possible complications, each of which is an interesting twist. And only a few should ever result in bland, by-the-book resolution or impossible odds.

But the overall concept of complications and patrons and encounter seeds is a good one. I love how each kernel of an idea can blossom into so many interesting paths. 76 Patrons is still a great inspiration to me.

With those considerations in mind, I plan to start an occasional series of encounters suitable for different genres, and with a variety of branching possibilities for each. Watch this space.

Ikea worldbuilding

At last WisCon, there were several great panels about worldbuilding. One, in particular, brought up the concept of using different standard blocks, like “elves who are immortal and hate dwarves”, “the monotheistic religion is on a crusade to destroy the other monotheistic religion”, or “space travel is through jump gates”. There are a lot of setting elements that we all recognize pretty quickly; they’re the elements where you can say “You know Babylon 5? Jump gates are like that” or “they’re pretty much the standard Tolkien elves” or “it’s kinda like medieval Christianity”.

Someone on the panel, I’m not sure who, termed this “Ikea worldbuilding”. I really like that turn of phrase. Like shopping at Ikea, there are a bunch of pretty standard furnishings that are available to everyone. Like Ikea furniture, it’s so common that you’re likely to see it in many different settings. “Oh, yeah, I recognize those elves, they’re the same ones as in the Forgotten Realms”, you might say.

And like Ikea furniture, this kind of worldbuilding can have a bad reputation. If your entire world is assembled out of Ikea world-blocks, more snobbish worldbuilders might look at it and say “Wow, how unoriginal”. And indeed, some of it will be unoriginal — but originality is not the be-all, end-all of worldbuilding.

In fact, like Ikea furniture, an important part of worldbuilding is allowing your audience (who, in an RPG, are most often your players) to come to grips with the setting quickly. If it takes active pondering before they can operate your fancy new chair, it’s arguable that the chair is a failure from a design standpoint. If everything is beautifully designed, totally original and yet thoroughly impossible to come to grips with, it’s not very useful as a world for gaming in. (Though it’s fine to appreciate it as a world in itself.)

A lot of people look down on Ikea furniture, but it’s successful for a reason. It’s cheap, it’s easy to assemble and it’s (mostly) achieved popularity because it works. It’s quickly understood and it’s pretty likely to work with the other elements you already have. When you’re building a world for RPGs, those are all useful elements to have. You don’t always have time to come up with completely new architectural styles, for example; it can be a lot easier to say “See these Moroccan houses? They look like that”. Ikea worldbuilding has its drawbacks, but it has some real advantages, too.

Miniatures and the Three-Body Problem

Keeping combat straight can be tricky. When everyone at the table agrees to keep things loose, it’s possible to forego maps and rely on oral description of what’s going on. And, of course, the system can help this; I can hardly imagine running a Ghostbusters combat using minis, for example. It would destroy the flavor of the game. If the game and the social contract allow for it, abstract combat can be much less of a headache.

In a more simulationist game, it can be more difficult, but still possible, to play without minis. My most recent session of Blade & Crown was a fight with a dozen or so combatants, PCs vs. bandits. We managed to run the whole thing abstractly, without resorting to a map. There were several moments where we nearly decided that abstract wasn’t working, but in the end, we managed to keep it fairly clear in all our heads.

The biggest need for minis, I think, comes from disagreements about who is where, and what they can do. And disagreements almost always seem to come from different people at the table having different conceptions of the topography. Not to say that anyone is willfully misconstruing anything; I think I’ve only encountered that a few times in my gaming. But when the GM says “There’s a lantern in the middle of the room”, some of the players may be thinking of a standing candelabra, while others may be thinking of a chandelier suitable for swinging from. Drawing a map can sort those kinds of problems out instantly.

They can also serve to muddle things further, but maps usually do more good than harm, in my experience. An important consideration is that different people process information differently. For some people, a map makes everything clear; for others, a purely oral description is best. But by relying on purely oral description, you’re limiting the modes of communication to just one, and whichever of the players process information visually are then likely to lose out on something.

Another reason for minis is what I’ve dubbed the Three-Body Problem of RPG combat. The original Three-Body Problem, of course, describes the difficulty of predicting the positions of three bodies acting on each other through gravity. In RPG combat, we’re talking about the problem of showing how three (or more) combatants change in relative position to each other.

Many games keep combat mapping abstract by using a linear graph. Agon, for example, and 3:16: Carnage amongst the Stars both do this, with variations. The trick is, though, what if someone wants to move perpendicular to the axis between other combatants? If, that is, Alice wants to move away from both Bob and Chris? A linear system can fall down when trying to represent this. And trying to represent sneaking around someone in a linear graph system can be a headache in itself. That’s the Three-Body Problem of RPGs.

The system used by Warhammer 3E is a nifty blend of abstract linear and explicit mapping. In it, you place counters for combatants on the table, and then place range markers between them. So, for example, if Alice wants to move away from both Bob and Chris, you place extra range markers between Alice and Bob, and between Alice and Chris. It seems to work well (though I haven’t had a chance to actually play it yet).

There’s a way to do this without buying Warhammer, of course; just use glass beads for range markers. Or, if you prefer, use dice. A D20 works nicely for this, as long as ranges aren’t too high. If the D20 sitting between Alice and Chris says “17”, then they’re 17 hexes apart. (Or feet. Or whatever.) And you could even use different-colored dice to indicate especially large ranges: “Red D20 = tens of yards, blue D20 = single yards”, for example.

The thing is, of course, once you get dozens of range markers or dice on the table, along with markers for all the combatants, it can almost be easier to just break out a map and minis. And then, the GM is more likely to describe that lantern clearly.

Bad guy, plan and flaws

One question I’ve often gotten at “Beginning GM” panels is, how do you write an RPG scenario? For a lot of beginning GMs, this can be a daunting task; it feels like you have to write a novel from scratch, except that you need to come up with thousands of possible plots, not just one.

My advice? Well, actually, my first piece of advice is to not think in terms of complex plots all laid out ahead of time. Not only is it excessively time-consuming, it’s a sure-fire way to end up with a railroaded game. (Though perhaps your players want that.)

But more practically, my advice is this: Think of a bad guy. Give that bad guy a plan. Then give it some flaws.

The bad guy

If you know your setting, you probably know of some bad folks going around.

Perhaps there are bandits near the Baron’s Road. Perhaps there’s a corporation who cares only about gaining a monopoly over the oxygen supply. Perhaps there’s a mysterious spy organization who are up to no good.

Find a bad guy somewhere in your campaign, one who interests you and one who could present an interesting opposition to your PCs.

It’s good if the bad guy is slightly more rounded than just ‘bad’.

Why are those bandits near the Baron’s Road? Why is that corporation not trying to monopolize the media instead?

Think about the bad guy’s strengths and motivations. Think about why they do what they do, and what they want to accomplish.

Maybe those bandits are sticking near to the Baron’s Road because the bandit queen was once a baroness herself, and she has dreams of taking the barony as her own.

The plan

Now, give the bad guy a plan. Something a little more ambitious than they’ve had before, something a bit more dramatic than the average.

Let’s say the bandit queen wants to build a palisade across the Road so she can get her ‘tax’ more easily, and because it will give her a ‘castle’ that she can claim as a baronial seat.

Look at the bad guy’s motives and strengths and find something they can do, with a bit of effort, that will advance their goals.

Detail that plan a bit more. How will they achieve it? If it’s ambitious, it won’t be done easily, so it’ll have several stages and requirements.

To build her palisade, the bandit queen will need many things:

  • Raw materials: Strong wood (perhaps not available locally), lots of rope and fireproofing materials
  • Expertise: Architects or engineers to help her design and build it, and those experts might not be easy for her to find
  • A good place to build: Someplace on the Baron’s Road, where a palisade will be unassailable and impossible to just skip around.
  • Security: Protection from do-gooders before the palisade is done, and some way to make sure the bandits don’t rebel, either.

The plan doesn’t have to be ultra-detailed; just think of a few important steps that the bad guy will need to do in order to achieve their goals. And remember, because they’re a bad guy, they’re not going to go through their plan in completely legitimate ways.

How will the bandit queen build her wall?

  • She might reasonably decide to start assembling raw materials first, while at the same time trying to ascertain who the best available engineers and architects are.
  • Next, she plans to send out some of her bandits to kidnap whatever experts she can find, while keeping a few busy chopping wood at the hideout.
  • She might send out a few more to recruit new bandits, probably in a different direction than where she gets the experts from.
  • Once she gets the experts, she’ll keep them hostage in the hideout’s most secure spot.
  • Then, she’ll have the new recruits do most of the building while the experienced troops keep an eye on the new ones.
  • When she’s done, she’ll kill the experts and have a nice, big, powerful newquarters, and tough new troops to go with it.

The flaws

Now, the critical stage: look at that plan and see where it has flaws. Every bad guy’s plan has flaws, because every plan has flaws. Further, bad guys will often skimp on materials or time, or discount human factors, or simply overestimate their own abilities. And, in metagame terms, if the plan is flawless, then the PCs can’t possibly defeat it.

Think about the stages of their plan. Think about what could go wrong in each stage, and ways in which the PCs could stop the bad guy’s plans from coming to fruition.

The bandit queen’s plans have numerous failure modes:

  • Perhaps the rope isn’t available anywhere near her hideout, so mysterious strangers all across the land are buying rope in large quantities.
  • Bandits aren’t always the best judges of expertise, so they may accost the wrong ‘experts’ or have to search far and wide to find someone suitable.
  • At the hideout, morale might be low, leading to fighting between the bandits.
  • Or the new recruits might be disillusioned; they thought they were going to be engaging in adventurous robbery, but instead they spend their days chopping wood.
  • And whoever the queen has kidnapped might be trying their hardest to escape.

Of course, you don’t have to detail everything the PCs can do to defeat the plan. In fact, it’s good to leave things a little loose and allow the PCs to devise their own counter-plans. If the ways to defeat the plan are few in number, rigidly defined and hard to discover, the players will be frustrated and the game will suffer.

Early stages of the bad guy’s plans can make for a good adventure hook.

Perhaps the PCs hear rumors of mysterious strangers buying large quantities of rope, or one of the PCs gets accosted in an alleyway by a bandit trying to kidnap architects.

The plot of the scenario then depends on two things: the bad guy’s ability to advance it, and the PCs’ ability to stop it. Make sure that the bad guy is working to advance their plan, and that the situation changes as they do so. But at the same time, make sure the PCs have the ability to make progress against the plan. If the plan continues apace regardless of what the PCs do, then it’s less an RPG and more a novel.

Part-way through the adventure, perhaps the bandit queen has kidnapped several experts, and has her bandits building the palisade. But morale is flagging, and as the PCs come upon the camp, some of the bandits are arguing over who has to dig the next set of holes.

Will the PCs be able to divide and conquer the bandits, fighting them in small, manageable groups? Or perhaps they’ll be able to convince the bandits to turn on the queen. Or they’ll convince the queen herself that the old Baron has died and named her heir. Or something even more outlandish. Let the players try whatever they come up with!

This system doesn’t work for every session, of course. You don’t want to do this style of scenario multiple times in a row; your players will likely start to tire of it. And many campaigns will evolve to have much more organic scenarios that arise naturally out of conflicts that are woven through the larger fabric of the game. But if you’re a beginning GM, trying to create a scenario from scratch for the first time, this can be a good method to start with.

Print edition getting close

After viewing multiple print samples of Blade & Crown from Lightning Source, Inc., I decided it was worth trying a different printer. I’ve now seen one proof from Lulu, and it was very nice. I’ve got another sample in the pipe and hopefully, if it looks good, I’ll have the B&W printed edition of Blade & Crown for sale within a few weeks. The sale price should be pretty reasonable. Not as much as I’d make printing through LSI, but the print quality will be much higher.

However, if I went through Lulu for the color edition, the price would be very high. Probably something like $70 for a hardcover, 180-page book. Would you pay that much?

In any case, I’ll still be selling the PDF through DriveThruRPG and RPGNow.

1, 2, 3, Point!

How do you award experience points? The standard method comes down to GM caveat: “Jane, you convinced the mayor to allow that dragon in town; you get 3 XP.” That can work well, especially in a system like Blade & Crown where the range of XP awarded per session is small and there isn’t much room for argument. But it can still lead to disagreements.

That’s why I like to add a player-based element to the award of XP. Blade & Crown already includes this, in the form of getting XP for using Traits negatively. And if your social contract is clear enough, you can award XP for things like creating props or bringing chips. But I like to add an additional system that’s not in the rules.

At the end of the session, all the players save the GM hold their fingers up as if they’re about to have a pointing duel. The GM counts “1, 2, 3, point!” At the call of “point”, everyone points at one other player whom they think gave them the most enjoyment that session. You can’t point at yourself. You can ask players to say why they pointed to whomever they pointed at: “Jane, it was awesome when you convinced the mayor that dragons are domesticated animals!” You can also let players just point. My players don’t like to have the justify their choices, so we just do “1, 2, 3, point!” without explanation.

Each player then gets a number of extra XP equal to the number of fingers pointing at them. (Or, if you’re using a system where the number of XP per session is larger, make it 10 XP per finger, or 1000, or whatever.) So if three people are pointing at Jane, she gets 3 extra XP.

This system could have drawbacks, of course, but it’s worked well for me over a few years of experimentation.