Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Jumping on the OGL Bandwagon

I've said it before, but one of my most favorite games is Big Eyes, Small Mouth (also known as BESM).  The rules are a kind of cross between a simpler, easier version of Hero System and a more fun, less crunchy version of GURPS.  The greatest failing of the game is that its publisher (Guardians of Order) went tango-uniform a number of years ago, and the title went to White Wolf, a publisher who has let it languish.  It is only available for purchase as over priced (IMHO) PDF files

Before they went kaput, however, Guardians wrote a D20 port of the game, and released that under the Open Gaming License (OGL).  While the game was released as BESM D20, there was also a trademark free version called "Anime D20".  (Note that it's only free of the BESM trademark, and that it still carries WOTC's "D20" trademark and related licensing burden).  I happened to be reading Anime D20 this past week, and it struck me that I could get rid of all the D20 cruft and have a pretty good approximation of the original BESM game.  This version would be covered under the OGL, so I could distribute it freely--even publish it, if I were so inclined!

So this is my next gaming project.  It needs a name.  For the time being I'm calling it Dekahedron 2.0 (Dekahedron is a public domain RPG that I wrote years ago.  More importantly, it happens to be a domain name that I own).

So do I start a new blog for the project? Or do I use this one?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Background Questions

In the Star Trek game we're in the process of converting the characters from Risus to Tri-Stat dX. While I like the open-ended freeform approach of Risus, the current group likes the structure provided by additional rules.

Tri-Stat dX is basically a generic version of the Big Eyes, Small Mouth (also known as BESM) RPG. Like BESM, it was originally published by Guardians of Order and is now owned by White Wolf. I've been a fan of BESM's character creation for years now, and have been looking forward to a chance to run it again. I picked the generic version because it's legally available as a free download.

When making characters, the players are given additional points if they provide a background story.  Background narratives are ok, but most of them tend to read pretty much the same (why are so many player characters orphans?) and they lack the details I want as a GM to make the story more relavant to the characters.

To that end I developed the following questions that the player must answer about their character in order to receive the background points.  I have little doubt that I probably encountered some of these questions in various places over my many years of gaming, but that's how life works.

Anyway, here's my list.  I hope you find it useful.  Feel free to add you own questions in the comments!

  • Why did you join Starfleet (or whatever works for the specific campaign)?
  • What are your long term goals?
  • What are your immediate goals?
  • What is getting in the way of achieving these goals?
  • Name three things that you don't want others to know about you
  • Who would you be willing to risk your life for? Why?
  • Who would be willing to risk their life for you? Why?
  • What temptation(s) are the hardest to resist (or motivate you the most)? (Sex, Food, Wealth, Praise & adoration, Booze/drugs/etc,Gambling, Power, Leisure time, etc)
  • Three people (or groups, I suppose) who dislike you, including
    • What bad thing they would like to see done to you (killed,  killed at their own hand, tortured and killed, left penniless, publicly disgraced, etc)
    • Why do they feel that way?

Friday, September 28, 2012

Who's the fairest of them all?

Once of the players had a conflict, so the Star Trek campaign was put aside for a couple months.  During that time Pete and I played T&T instead.  Now that Jim's back, though, it was time to get back into the Trek universe.

The first session was horrible.  Two months is a long time, and people's memories and notes were conflicting.  So this week I just popped a mini reset--the characters woke up in the Mirror Universe.  I don't like what the studio did with the DS9-era Mirror universe, so I popped them back to the TOS-era.  It would be too trite to send them to the Enterprise, but still wanting there to be familiar surroundings I placed them aboard the U.S.S. Constellation under Commodore Mathew Decker from the episode "The Doomsday Machine".

The session went well, I think.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A New (Virtual) Tabletop

While face-to-face gaming is, by far, the best way to play, it isn't practical when when the players live 400 miles away. That's why we play online.  Once we agreed to play, I decided to search for a software platform to enable us.  I made a brief list of requirements:

  • It must be free for players.  While I don't mind paying as the GM, I'm not going to make my players pay for the "pleasure" of sitting around my table.
  • It must support players using Windows.
  • The player interface must run on older computers.
  • It must be easy for the players to install.
  • It must be scriptable to allow me to program custom dice rolls as I play games that use different dice techniques than is standard in most RPGs (such as the sum of the lowest y dice of x dice thrown).
  • Optionally, but ideally, the GM interface should support Mac. 

My first choice was GRiP, as I played with it before.  It was a great system and it supported scripted online character sheets. With it I could, for example, program it in such a way that a player could just click on his strength and GRiP would automatically make a saving roll for that stat! As a benefit, I had previous played in the developer's Traveller campaign. in the end, however, I ruled it out.  I couldn't (at the time) find a current download link, and I had long since lost my registration code.

I briefly considered OpenRPG, another virtual tabletop platform that I had used before.  I ruled it out, though, because at the time it would have imposed a heavy installation burden on my players. Not only do you have to install the program itself, but you have to first install Python, and then the Python bindings for the wx toolkit. While I'm a techie and wouldn't mind that, I felt it was too much for my very non-techie friends.

The search eventually lead me to ScreenMonkey. ScreenMonkey seemed almost ideal.  It supported programming custom commands. Players use a standard web-browser to connect, so there's no special client or installation concerns. And it offered a free trial. The only "problem" is that the GM program is windows only.  I had recently installed a Windows partition on my Mac, though (in order to play the Star Trek Online MMORPG), so it wasn't a show-stopper.

I installed the trial, and had Pete see if he could connect.  Everything went without a hitch, and we were set!  We scheduled the first game and went off to prepare. Meanwhile, I installed some security software and bought a new wireless router. then when game night came, no one could connect.  Oh no!  I troubleshot for hours, but to no avail.  the only thing I could figure was that the connection was being blocked, either by the firewall and/or by the router.

I eventually gave up and settled on good old-fashioned IRC. I selected the network because not only were they both gamer friendly and bot-friendly, but they also had a web-based IRC client that would allow Pete to log in without installing any special software.  I downloaded rbot and wrote some custom scripts to support T&T's "DARO" saving rolls and spite damage rules. that's how we've been playing ever since.

Just last week when we sat down to play, rbot wouldn't launch.  It looks like some dependency somewhere got changed, and that broke the whole thing.  This distracted me during the game as I was multi-tasking the whole time, trying to fix the bot at the same time I was running the game.

Coincidentally, there was recently a firmware update to my router, so I decided to try ScreenMonkey again. Much to my pleasure, it worked!  So I wrote a quick DARO script to get a hang of its scripting language (VBScript), and it looks like we have a new winner!

I've heard that both Skype and Google Hangouts have APIs that will allow me to add dice rolling.  I think that might be my next project, as voice gaming should play faster than text based gaming.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Review: Rat on a Stick

Rat on a Stick is one of those classic RPG modules that lingers in the collective heart of the community.  It's been immortalized in the Munchkin card game, and the real-world recipe is a thing of gaming legend.  This is exactly the type of thing I like to collect! had a used copy for under $5, so I decided to buy it.

The module was published by Judge's Guild (a favorite company of mine) for the Tunnels & Trolls rules system (another favorite of mine), but after reading through the module I have to say that, overall, it's pretty worthless.  I was initially tempted to give some allowance for the age of the product, but then I noticed that it was published in 1982--that's a year after TSR published The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh.  I use Saltmarsh for comparison because it's the first module that I ever read, so I tend to compare everything against it.  But, also, the places where Saltmarsh shine really illustrate the places where Rat on a Stick falls flat.

My first major complaint is the basic purpose of the adventure.  In Rat on a Stick, the characters are pretty much just breaking into homes to kill the occupants and steal their stuff.  Contrast that to Saltmarsh where the characters are called upon by frightened townfolk to investigate mysterious happenings, and along the way uncover a nefarious plot.  In Saltmarsh the characters are heroes who save poor innocents from dark forces, while in Rat the characters are racially motivated murderers and thieves!  (Lest I glorify Saltmarsh too much, I should point out that the nefarious plot that the players uncover is ... tax evasion!  *gasp*)

My next complaint is the sheer randomness of it all.  From the things I've read in my collection of old supplements, this was actually pretty common in the 1970's gaming scene.  See, in the 70's it seems that it was enough to just throw some random monsters and treasures into random rooms and call it a day.  By the time the 80's rolled around the concept of adventure design had matured.  A made up example: if there's a powerful magic sword in the otherwise empty room 6, then how come one of the orcs you fight in room 7 doesn't use it?  The 1970's answer is because the orcs don't exist outside of Room 6.  They are static beings; their only purpose in life is to wait around for some player character to walk in.  It's a lazy, amateur approach to dungeon design that I don't expect to find in a professional product.

A minor quibble is the selection of monsters.  The major culprits seem to be orcs, vampires, and (I kid you not) black hobbits. There's some trolls and dragons thrown in, of course.  There's a whole selection of "pun monsters" like the dreaded "windshield vipers".  But the author also threw in some creatures I'd never heard of.  T&T lacks any sort of "Monster Manual", so it relies on the creatures being part of the fantasy zeitgeist.  These were just names and MR's (er, that's "Monster Ratings"--T&T speak for "Hit Dice", only better). Fortunately it's not 1982 any more, so Google and Wikipedia let me know that these were creatures from the works of H.P. Lovecraft. In this modern age, I now have enough to run with, but back in the 80's I would have been stuck.  (Mind you, in T&T all you really need is a MR, but descriptions are needed to keep the illusion of fantasy combat versus a dice rolling game).

My last minor quibble is the layout of the dungeon.  Saltmarsh is a "haunted house"--and it's laid out like a house ought to be (though on a bizarrely huge scale).  And there's some natural caverns nearby, to add some randomness. The dungeon in Rat on a Stick is laid out like someone was designing a role-playing game module.  The only rationale I can come up with is that the dungeon was originally a natural cave formation, and then the walls were finished by "cave settlers".

Of course, Rat on a Stick has it's good points, as well.  The first is the module's namesake--the players can buy a Rat on a Stick fast food franchise. It's a kind of neat option. It lets the players set up inside the dungeon selling tasty treats to both monsters and delvers alike.  It also allows them to take a more defensive stance--characters get to defend franchise from would be robbers.  This goes a long way to addressing my first major complaint.

Another big plus is that the wandering monster table is accompanied by a "what is the wandering monster trying to do" table.  The "monster" might want to establish an alliance with the party, or might just be looking for the way home.  This means that each random encounter becomes a role-playing experience rather than just another combat.

I also liked the physical format of the book--32 pages, on 8.5x11 newsprint, and using saddle-staple binding.  It's basic, functional, and effective. I like it when companies care more about the content of a book than the cover.  I also like the complete absence of boxed text; I could spend a full blog post about the evils of boxed text in modules!

So, all-in-all, like I said, the book is pretty worthless.  I'm pretty sure I'll never run it, but the franchise idea might be worth stealing, as well as one or two of the magic items.  The rest is meh.  If it were for sale today, I would say $2.50 would be a good value for a printed copy, and maybe $0.99 for electronic.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Introduction Done

Last night was another session of the Trek game.  The last of the major story elements were introduced, though the players may not have recognized them for what they are.  But that's a good thing.

In the sandbox style of games that I run, I find introductions to be the hardest part, because so many things have to be thrown at the players all at once, and I'm never sure which ones they're going to follow.  That part is over now.  With everything out there, I can let the players do most the driving.

It was a good game, though I wish the players would stop splitting up.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Google Hangouts

One of the reasons this blog is called "Just another Vagabond GM" is that, like any other vagabond, I constantly wander around, not settling anywhere too long.  Instead of wandering physically, though, I wander from game system to game system and from play method to play method.

My preferred play method is face to face.  That's difficult when the players and the GM are 400 miles apart. Over the years I've used various "virtual tabletop" solutions, and I'm currently using the IRC network with some custom die-rolling scripts that I wrote for rbot. Online methods are great in many ways, but they have the disadvantage of being horribly slow.

I recently read that Google Hangout has an interface that I could use to write a die-rolling app for that.  I think that might be a solution.  I'll let you know.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Missed Clue

The Trek game's plot is basically a mystery at this point.  The large duranium chest that Captain Sulok asked them to deliver has mysteriously vanished off of their shuttle in DS9's landing bay, and the players are actively searching for it.

In the last session, one of them asked a question that would reveal everything. We're still so close to the beginning of the story, that I really didn't want that much revealed yet, but I always figure that the players should be rewarded for their ingenuity, and not penalized for the sake of the story.  So I answered honestly.

The thing is, I know what's really happening, and they don't.  So what seemed like a completely obvious situation that would give everything away, just sailed over their head with nary a notice.


The thing I really like about this, is that later on, when the reveal actually happens, they'll be able to look back at this session and say "Yeah... the clues were there all along!"  I think that kind of story consistency really enhances game play.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

My Origin Story

I'm TDY in Rhode Island, and I was driving down New London Turnpike, and it occurred ro me that I was driving past the side street where I played my first RPG.  But let's start at the beginning...

It was 1977 or 1978, I'm not sure which.  I was a student at Coventry Junior High East, and my friends were John "Jay" Hennessy and Don Goulart. Jay and I would regularly get together after school to play board games such as Risk and Backgammon.

Don, on the other hand, had a friend named Jim. During Christmas break Jim's parents bought him a game: Dungeons & Dragons.  For those who track such things, it was the "Holmes Edition" of the original D&D game--the predecessor to the Basic Set.

I learned about the game after Christmas break when Don and Jim came up to me and said something like "You're good with words, can you come up with a name for our group?" I asked a bit about the group, which meant they had to explain the game to me.  I was intrigued. Don asked if I wanted a copy of the game, and, of course, I said yes.

Back then "a copy" meant a pirated copy.  The process was drawn out, though, and went something like this:
  • Day 1 (night): Jim would go home and re-type a page or two of text from the rule book. Remember that this was back in the 70's, before everyone owned a computer, so Jim was using a manual typewriter!  
  • Day 2 (day): The next day, he would give the type-written pages to Don.
  • Day 2 (night): Don would give them to his father.
  • Day 3 (day): Don's father would take the pages to work and photocopy them...
  • Day 3 (night): ...and then give the copies to Don.
  • Day 4: Don would bring the copied pages to school for us.
On the first page or two that Jim typed up was the description for Charisma.  "Charisma is a combination of personality, appearance, and sex appeal..."  Remember, I'm 12 or 13 at this point, and the idea "sex appeal" in a game seemed downright scandalous.  I was hooked.

Eventually, in a flash of common sense, Don's dad just said "why doesn't he just give me the book?"  So it came to pass that my first ever role-playing game was a Xerox-pirated copy of D&D. (As young tweens/teens we didn't really understand copyright, and back then there wasn't as much cultural awareness as there is today, either. In any case, within a year or two, I owned my own copy of that book and several other TSR products as well, so they got their money in the end).

I read the book, but I didn't exactly understand.  I remember asking Don what the board looked like, because in my mind all games were board games.  He explained it to me, but I didn't really understand it until my first session.

My first session was at Don's house.  His brother Steve was there, and Jim was running the game.  "He can play the cleric" someone said, so they handed me a lead miniature and a character sheet for "Bjorg the Cleric." I don't remember anything else, but I left finally understanding the game.  I got out my bootleg book and started to make a character of my own.

I wanted to play a magic-user, but my stats forced me to be a "fighting man."  That meant he was Human, because non-Humans were their own class. He had stats, and equipment, but no name. So I dubbed him "Snowgen," a word of my own creation.

Eventually one game led to others, and other gamers became friends, and life went on until today, almost 35 years later, when I still use the name "Snowgen," and I still play games.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A New Campaign Begins

Last night was the first session of a new campaign.  It was played via IRC, and the players were my long time friends Jim and Pete.  Jim was responsible for me discovering the RPG hobby back in the 1970's, and the hobby was responsible for me meeting Pete in the 80's.

The game itself was a homebrew/frankengame thing I'm calling Blurbs.  It's basically using the class system from Risus (called "cliches," but I'm calling them "blurbs"), and the task resolution system of Fudge with proverbial bailing wire and chewing gum to hold the pieces together.


It was set in the Star Trek universe, in 2371 (around Stardate 48300.0, for you Trek geeks).  The characters started out on the USS Thunderchild, but were ordered to deliver a China-class runabout to Deep Space 9.  Just as they were about the leave, Captain Sulok asked them to deliver a large duranium chest covered with Vulcan glyphs to Commander Sisko.

After they left the ship in the runabout, they detect some anomalous readings, and investigated.  Concerned with what they detected, they try to transmit a warning, but were unable to do so for some reason. Shortly thereafter they received a distress signal from the Thunderchild. The characters immediately set course back to the Thunderchild, but while trying to boost the engines for more speed, they accidentally triggered a cascading malfunction in the warp system that took hours to repair.  When they were finally underway, figuring that it was too late to help, they resumed course for DS9.


I found myself frustrated with the slow pacing that happens with online games.  Maybe I should consider shifting the game to Skype or something in the future.  The rules seemed to work ok, though the dice were very harsh on the engineer.  I think that might actually be a feature, though, as the engineering character has a low engineering skill.

Still, I left the game with the sense that it's a good beginning, and I'm looking forward to the next session.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Struggle for a Story

When I decided to start this blog, one of the things I struggled with was the name.  "GM" is short for "game master", and is kind of a genericized version of D&D's infamous "dungeon master." There are, however, other terms for that position.  Traveller used "referee," a term originating with the war games that the RPG hobby evolved from. Another early term was "judge", which inspired the name of pioneering publisher Judge's Guild. More modern games migrated towards words like "narrator" (Last Unicorn Games) and "story teller" (White Wolf Games).  I considered all of these terms before I settled on GM.

I have to say, though, the "story teller" term really irks me.  Not so much the term, but the mindset that the GM has some story that he's supposed to be telling.  In my mind that attitude is synonymous with rail-roading.  When the GM has a plot, then the he tries to protect it.  He gets upset if the players do something to "ruin the plot".  In the end, he takes choice away from the players to further the ending that he has envisioned.

It is not the GM's job to tell a story.  It is the GM's job to set the stage that allows the characters to tell their own stories.

What brings this to mind is that I'll be running a game set in the Star Trek universe on Wednesday, and I've been struggling all week to come up with plots.  It sounds hypocritical, to say on one hand that the GM shouldn't be telling a story, but then to say that I'm trying to come up with one.  The difference is that I'm coming up with the story that is happening around the players--I fully expect them to ruin it.  Maybe they'll ruin it by defeating the "bad guys" before I expect.  Maybe they'll ruin it by joining forces with the bad guys and viewing the "good guys" as the villains.  I don't know--the choice belongs to them.

But I need to set the stage, and I only have until Wednesday night to do it.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Who am I?

I was joining Trollhalla a few months ago and, as he does with everyone, Ken St Andre asked me to post an "introductory poem."  I thought that I would repost it here, so you know a little more about the dude writing this blog.

I am Snowgen, so you know,
Who faced Dungeons and Dragons long ago,

I crossed the land and crossed the sea
Seeking more Adventures in Fantasy.

I soared in the skies on silver wings,
And stumbled upon Top Secret things.

I was a Traveller brave and bold,
And conquered the Star Frontiers of old.

With companions brave I huddled and curled
On a cold, desolate Gamma World.

I've seen many Powers & Perils, and suffered damnation
After I vanquished the foul Lords of Creation.

I’ve slain the menace that lies in the east--
Making sounds of slurps and GURPS--oh the beast!

I've suffered injury, illness, and Paranoia. Don't judge!
All those problems were cured by magical Fudge!

I have dined with Grimtooth, in his home,
Made him scribble my name in his tome.

I wandered the heavens on a Star Trek.
Killed a troll with Big Eyes, Small Mouth, and no neck.

I am Snowgen, so you know,
Facing Tunnels and Trolls from long ago.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

First Post!

So I've had this account with Blogger forever, and have been wanting to blog about something.  The problem was that no matter what idea I came up with, I could never figure out why someone else would want to read about it.  Then inspiration came to me through a friend who has a great blog about mountain unicycling.  Even though I have no real interest in mountain unicycling, I very much enjoy reading his posts.  When I told him this he seemed surprised.  "I don't really write for other people," he explained. "I just write for myself."

So this is me, doing what he does: writing for myself about something that I love.  If no one ever reads this, I'll be fine with it.