"Oh cool... So you're STILL working on this?" -- A guy at GenCon

"If I see Drah-koo-lah, I will. kick. him. in. the eye!!!" -- My 4 (almost 5) year old daughter. She GETS it!

"Meatpie Forever!" -- A playtester at GenCon 2013

Friday, January 10, 2014

Tales from the Tomb: Tables, Emergent Play, and Antagonism

I'll begin this post with a quote that is so good it deserved to lead off the post...

The rules shouldn't be the game -- playing the game should be the game. (Ben Lathrop) 

Ben's comment to my last post was well said.

It resonated with a couple of questions that have come up over the past few weeks:

Why are there so many tables in Transylvanian Adventures? 100 pages???
Why Ruin?

It may not be clear at first. But the answer to both of those questions is Ben's quote right up there. Playing the game should be the game.

Why So Many Tables?

I thought there was a good chance that Transylvanian Adventures would fail to find an audience. There was a possibility that this would be the only book. Ever.

That sobering realization forced my hand to put the items that I felt were necessary to play these types of games (Gothic Ass-Kicking Horror) into the first (and possibly only) book.

Some of the best playtests we had were from the In-Between Adventures chapters and Investigation phase. The "mad-libs" section was initially intended as an optional section for the second book. But it, too, was too much fun to leave out.

I also noticed that players never asked for more monsters (we had books and books full of them) or more magic (there was plenty in DCC RPG that we used). They instead echoed the same question: "What's next?"

It was clear to me that the In-Between Adventures and Investigation chapters had to go into the first book. They were the answer to that ubiquitous question.

But there's more to it than that. That's where Ben's quote comes in.

Emergent Play

I'm a big fan of emergent play in table-top roleplaying games. According to wikipedia, emergent play is:
"complex situations that emerge from the interaction of relatively simple game mechanics"
I view emergent play as things being introduced into the roleplaying game (often randomly) that take the story in unexpected directions. For me, it's story emerging in a non-directed fashion from the result of play.

Transylvanian Adventures tackles this in three ways.
  1. Shared Authorial Role. Some of the character classes in Transylvanian Adventures have abilities that change the game intentionally. Luck (and even Ruin) can also be used by players to affect the game in unexpected ways.
  2. Tables. More about these in a bit.
  3. Gambling. Ruin makes a gambling mechanic out of other games' "death spiral". Gambling mechanics introduce risk and surprising results. More on this in a bit too.

What's So Great About Emergent Play?

Emergent play breaks us out of routines. If left to our own devices, we may find ourselves playing similar characters and similar adventures featuring all-too-familiar plotlines. Emergent play drives us in new directions. Transylvanian Adventures does this from the moment a character is created, not just with the 3d6 down-the-line attributes, but also with the tables associated with character generation.

The character in that linked blog post enjoys sculpting and is driven to "always get things done especially when patience is the best course of action". I wouldn't have chosen either of those out of thin air. 

I've played many, many games where the tools for introducing emergent play are readily available, yet time and again I've seen inspiration either come up short or take us down repetitive paths.

This is one of the reasons I chose tables as a tool for emergent play.

Can't We All Just Get Along?

Antagonism is the other reason I was heavy on emergent play and, especially, on tables. On many rpg blogs, we read about "protagonism" -- empowering the players to do what they want in the game world. But what about antagonism?

That's right. I'm advocating that the Judge actively oppose the players.

Common wisdom among roleplaying game circles advise Judges to empower players, give them just enough resistance to make them care about their goals, and generally not be a jerk.

This is because most games rely on intentional emergent play. Meaning that they only introduce elements into play that players and the Judge want to be there. Someone owns that big pile of crap that was just dropped on that player. And this makes whoever dropped that big pile of crap on the player a big jerk.

Some games make "being the jerk" part of the game mechanics. I never found this satisfactory. I felt these types of mechanics fomented a player-versus-player mentality. I didn't find that fun. It was the kind of antagonism that ruined games, in my opinion.

But I didn't enjoy games with faux-antagonism either -- where the Judge was complicit in our success as players. The challenge, it was clear, was an illusion. Yet I had no desire to revisit the old days of authoritarian and slightly unhinged "Dungeon Masters" who, at times, really were just jerks.

Here's something true and slightly awesome. In DCC RPG, a Wizard can cast a spell and wind up with the head of a chicken. In what other spawn of the WMPFRPG would that be possible by any other means besides the Judge being a complete bastard?

Yet this can happen in a game of DCC RPG and everyone is okay with it because it is the result of a table, not an arbitrary invention of the Judge. 

The table is the bastard, not the Judge.

In Transylvanian Adventures, the tables help Judges introduce real antagonism to oppose the players. It does so within boundaries that help insure players are not de-protagonized. But it does not pull any punches either. 

Likewise with Ruin. It's a bit like rolling dice out in the open. If you roll a "20", everyone sees it. It's no one's fault that a character just got critted. It just is. The dice fall as they may, for good or ill. 

In other games, I (as the Judge) would be a cad if I announced a character was dead in the first encounter. There are all sorts of mechanics that have been introduced of late to bring characters back from the dead or to insure they won't ever die -- to protect players from evil DMs.

But that's not necessary in Transylvanian Adventures. If a character gets dropped with 1 Ruin or 8 Ruin and doesn't make the roll, the character is dead. But there are times where a character might have 5 or more Ruin and still makes the roll. And when this happens, it's memorable. Moreso because the players are (often rightly) assuming I'm actively trying to kill the characters -- within the scope of the rules, mind you.

In summary, Transylvanian Adventures was designed to play. I like it because I can throw the kitchen sink at players and they can give it back to me just as much. I also like it because terrible things can happen to the characters without me being a completely evil bastard.

The class abilities, tables, and mechanics are what help make this possible. It's what fuels the engine that allows a Judge to be a "nice guy Judge" and brutal antagonist.

And I haven't even mentioned the Adversary Die.

POD available on RPGNow

The print-on-demand version of Transylvanian Adventures is now available. Sorry for the long wait. Those who purchased a PDF copy have been sent a coupon directing them to a $14.99 discount. This means that, for a limited time, they can purchase the hardcover for $20 + shipping.

There is a Print + PDF bundle version available on RPGNow. I will continue to offer free PDFs for those who purchase the hardcover through Lulu. Of the two printings, I prefer the Lulu hardcover. But it is nice to have options for sure.

Thanks to everyone for the continued support.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Tales From the Tomb: Character Mortality

When I first began writing Transylvanian Adventures, it was at an awkward nexus of playing the fourth edition of the World's Most Popular Roleplaying Game and, by comparison, my favorite edition(s) of said game -- Basic, OD&D, AD&D -- as well as numerous independent games I'd played the decade plus prior to the Fourth's release.

It didn't take a statistician to gauge where some things had gone right and other things had gone wrong. And still more things had been kicked off the boat needlessly, even thoughtlessly.

Most of my musings circled, like a hungry vulture, over the topic of Character Mortality.

It's Important To Be Able To Die

One of the recent trends I've noticed is the exclusion of one of the key NPCs in a roleplaying game: the Angel of Death. I've read many roleplaying games where death is eliminated from the game altogether. Here is what I found.

Removal of the threat of death did not lead to more risk-taking among players. It did not lead to more heroism. Even when heroic acts were genre appropriate.

The reason for this appeared to be that nothing was at risk for players. Survival was a given. Defeating vile monstrosities was an exercise in accounting. DPR (damage per round) was the real focus. It was like fantasy football, with elves.

I will never forget sitting there, as a player, begging a GM to let my character sacrifice himself to save the party. It was a comical loophole in the rules of that game. Because not only could my character not die. But even if I were to have stayed behind, I could've taken on hordes and hordes of opponents with only a 5% chance of dying. The sacrifice was superfluous. Even disallowed.

Boromir takes dozens of arrows to the chest and still fights off the orc horde anyway.

I never forgot that feeling of cognitive dissonance towards Character Mortality and vowed to give death a feature role in Transylvanian Adventures. The threat of character death is why the Accountants, Circus Performers, and Chronologists in TATG seem so badass. They're like salmon swimming upstream. If they can get past that big nasty Grim Reaper, they will create a better world.

But the Grim Reaper has to be real for it to mean anything. And in Transylvanian Adventures it is.

Most Players Do Less With More And Vice-Versa

As we'll discover with the continuation of the Paper Hero series, characters in Transylvanian Adventures are about as super-powered as an AD&D Thief, Ranger, or Cavalier. They aren't the Justice League or anything.

So why do players engage in cathartic action-hero stunts with these characters?

One thing I noticed from playing and running games with heavily codified rules is that players don't do a whole lot in them. And I think I get it.

Players aren't likely to play reckless with a character that takes two hours to create. There's no return on investment. Especially when the safe path is the one that is best supported in the rules.

Second, complex rules inspire people to work within the rules. This means players will explore the options at their disposal, as opposed to trying to improvise a solution that meets the situation. Many times, I've seen rules disempower characters who want to try something awesome. This requires the Judge to improvise rulings to empower the players, often with no support in the ruleset.

That's not what I wanted Transylvanian Adventures to be.

To inspire players to do courageous, even reckless, things, I endeavored to work within a system that encourages those actions. DCC RPG does this spectacularly. I wanted to keep character generation to a minimum, in effect giving the player less investment in a character, while finding a way to make that "less" something "more".

Characters in other games are given things to fight with. Characters in Transylvanian Adventures are supplied with things to fight for. And with the "less" in terms of rules, I've found that players do more. Punching sharks. Jumping onto the backs of dinosaurs and stabbing them in the eyes. Dropkicking velociraptors. Wrestling a werewolf with their bare hands.

Crazy, awesome heroic deeds that are remembered long after the dice hit the table, given all the more gravity because a bad die roll could mean that the character bites the big one.

The engine that powers all of this in Transylvanian Adventures is made of Mighty Deeds, Ruin, Luck, and character class abilities that empower players.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Happy New Year's

2013 in Review

First off, thanks to everyone who has purchased a copy of Transylvanian Adventures. My hope was to create a game that would become a new way of roleplaying in the Victorian/Gothic Horror era -- a way that relied heavily on emergent play, the familiarity of OSR gaming, and the foundation established by DCC RPG. Time will tell if I have hit that mark or not.

Transylvanian Adventures has done well. I'm projecting breaking even on the project by the end of March. Breaking even means I've paid myself back for the art and other expenses I've incurred specifically in putting the book together. These expenses do not include the time I spent writing it or that Jenn spent laying it out. So it's a very lean "break even".

At the beginning, I'd hoped to break even on the book. I wasn't at all sure that would be possible. As a stretch goal I'd hoped to make enough money to bring on another writer and buy even more art for the second and third books.

That is not likely to materialize.

2014 in Preview

Which leads us to perhaps the biggest announcement in this "State of the Land of Phantoms" post. The publishing model by which I was hoping to release the second and third books has to change. I figured this might be the case but I at least wanted to give the first book to the end of the year to prove me wrong. If I were to stick to the original plan, I likely wouldn't be releasing The Hanging Judge's Guide until 2015 and I'm in no position to incur the kind of costs that went into the first book.

By my estimation, that's a loss for both of us -- you all for having to wait a full year to get anything new and me for having to rush it and pay for it with money I don't have and can't recoup.

I've mentioned on the Spellburn podcast why I'm not likely to go the Kickstarter route. But even if I were to do so, it only solves one axis of the problem.

My solution, therefore, is to move to a publishing model whereby I release sections of books two and three as they are completed. These releases would feature minimal or no art. They will be PDF only and will be very affordable. They may even be pay-what-you-want. All the proceeds from these downloads will go towards art and completion of books two and three.

Even better, those who have a driving interest in the books will have a say in what is released when -- following the first couple of sections I plan on completing. If, for example, you all say you'd rather have the spells from book three before the Adversaries in book two, I'll be able to oblige. Or if you want a shot at the Theorist. Or the setting hacks I have planned.

I've put a great deal of thought into this and it's grown on me over time. It gives me a chance to release additional material more quickly, yet still have the time I would need to put together a quality product with the print books.

When all the sections of each book are finished, they'll be compiled with art and released as print-on-demand. I don't know if I'll make the compiled books available as PDFs. That's something you'll help me decide. It's conceivable (by this model) that the Grimoire might see print before the Judge's Guide. I'm okay with that.

I'd also like to know your thoughts on the proposed publishing model. Please feel free to do so in the comments.


Here's what's coming up in 2014 for TATG:
  • Print-on-demand through RPGNow. I underestimated the impact of the holidays on the POD approval process and missed the final buzzer by a good deal. It was my intention to have this ready by Christmas. It's now looking like a January release. As soon as it's available, PDF owners will get a discount on the hardcover.
  • Updating the LoP site. It needs a facelift badly. I got it together in a rush. I'd like to make it look better.
  • TA Basic. I'm still planning to release a low-fidelity, download only copy of Transylvanian Adventures. It will have no art. It will not have the Half-Breed, Scoundrel, or Exotic. It will not have the optional tables for the "Mad-Lib" character generation. It will have some of the other tables. But not all of them. It will be 33-40% of the big book. But it will be affordably priced for those looking to try-before-they-buy.
  • Hexmap/Setting and Monsters. In an order based on popular demand, I'd like to make these my first two releases in 2014. I'm hoping one by the end of May and the other in July or August. After that, we can decide what we'd like to release next. There's been some demand for spells. So maybe we dive into Book Three before finishing up Book Two. Or maybe we branch off completely and do another adventure.
I think these are reasonable goals for 2014. We'll see how much I'm able to accomplish. I'd like very much to participate more in the DCC RPG community in 2014. I would also be open to running an online game of Transylvanian Adventures or even putting together a podcast or two to walk people through character generation, the In-Between Adventures phase, the Investigation phase, and some of the rules listed in Transylvanian Adventures.