Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Storytelling "Games" Are Different

Storytelling games aren't games, per se. Not in the same sense as a board game like Trivial Pursuit, a video game like Marathon 2, or a quasi-sport like tenpin bowling. The closest term I can find that describes them is an "activity", but that word is so vague and broad that it adds additional time to most conversations, to the extent that one frequently resorts to the term "game" anyway just to get out of the conversational clover-loop.
Me: I'll be running an... activity next Today.
Any human: What kind of activity?
Me: Umm... a storytelling activity.
Any human: What?
Me: A... game, kind of.
I'm not the only one who can't find a more appropriate, generally-understood word than "game" to describe this sort of thing. On the American version of Whose Line Is It Anyway? (one of the few shows I will stop and watch if it's on) the various portions of the show, such as "Dubbing" and "Scenes From A Hat", are referred to as games by the host. There are sometimes rules put in place; in "Questions", the performer is buzzed and has to swap out with their teammate if they can't think of a response, or answer in the form of a statement.

But the penalty for breaking the rules of the show itself - i.e., no content that makes the censor unhappy - is that the "game" temporarily halts, and things are reset to a prior point. (This isn't apparent when watching the broadcast, but watching the outtakes reels like this one can be very instructive - not to mention, frequently just as funny as the finished show.) The rules in an improvisational activity like WLIIA are more guidelines to ensure that "play" proceeds smoothly. This is purely format-oriented and censor-oriented in that show, but in a storytelling "game", tone and agency are also important.

Another example from television is helpful here; in an episode of The Office (again, the US version) where Michael is at an improv class, he frequently disrupts others' scenes by charging in with a handgun and shooting everyone. The other participants generally comply, acting as if they were shot, but are clearly not happy about it; their reactions suggest that this happens even more frequently than the viewers are shown. We've probably all encountered players like Michael, and even if they aren't bad people, they're bad players in the sense of being disruptive - having fun at their peers' expense.

I would suggest that this tends to happen more in storytelling "games" than in roleplaying games, due to the use of easily-bent guidelines rather than mutually agreed-upon and enforced rules, but I haven't had enough experience with the former to be sure; perhaps someone else can offer their two cents.

What's the difference?

But what separates a storytelling "game" from an RPG? An easy distinction is sometimes provided by the product itself; Prince Valiant, as well as most of the World of Darkness lines (Classic, New, and Chronicles), specifically refer to themselves as Storytelling Games. These games de-emphasize rules, suggesting that dice rolls be minimal and that rules be changed or ignored in the service of the "story"; in Prince Valiant, it is even explicitly stated that players have only limited agency.

In contrast, a roleplaying game - emphasis on game - has defined rules that are adhered to, and the emergence of a "story" can be something that is applied afterwards, rather than consciously created by the Referee and/or certain players. The game may not have the same limits as a board or card game, but it does still have some limits, demarcated by the rules.

If a game specifically identifies itself as an RPG, that doesn't mean that the presentation of the rules is geared toward providing rules for a game. It certainly doesn't mean that a particular group will treat it as such. I've been in multiple games referred to as "Dungeons & Dragons", and with a bright red D&D emblem on the covers of the rulebooks, that were clearly being run as storytelling games. I've also discovered that some games, such as Halberd, are too loosely written and full of gaps to function as actual RPGs - but as the framework for a storytelling game, they're adequate.

This does not mean that storytelling games are bad or wrong. A storytelling game can be a great deal of fun for those who enjoy improvisational thinking and character interaction, when the players and the Storyteller "click" and agree on what they will and will not do. (Boundaries are just as important in a storytelling game as in an RPG - possibly more so.) And I've participated in storytelling games that were almost completely free-form, with the only method of task resolution being a Magic 8-Ball (seriously). These were fun, but in a very different way than an RPG.

Neither a storytelling game nor a roleplaying game is the best kind of game, and it's definitely possible to enjoy both. But I think that having a clearer distinction between the two, and making it clear which is preferred and which is being offered, will lead to a lot less friction and disappointment about the game itself. There will always be overly-controlling "Dungeon Masters", narcissistic players, and potato-headed rulebook authors, but if a player knows that they're getting into a storytelling game and is prepared to participate in such, they will be less likely to balk at the lack of risk or the use of fuzzy rules (heh) than if they were told that they were joining a roleplaying game.

I'd replace the title with "Storytelling", but that would make it less clear to most.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Authentic Role-playing

Quick update: the first episode of Alexis' Authentic Role-playing podcast is live as of yesterday. I've just listened to it, and there is some good discussion between Alexis and his guest, Sterling Blake (who should be commended for taking the plunge, as it were).

I'm sharing the news here for both selfish and unselfish reasons. In the latter category, I quite enjoyed his prior podcast, and getting the word out (through my admittedly limited "channel") will hopefully mean that more podcasts in a similar vein can be made in the future. In the former... well, I don't want to jinx anything, so I'll just say that I'm looking forward to the remaining episodes of this season.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

A Gnome By Any Other Gname

A slight follow-up to my previous post, with some more musing I've done on the roles of dwarves, gnomes, and halflings in my campaign.

Previously, I've been hamstrung in attempting to make major changes to my game, largely in part due to the ruleset being used (AD&D 2e for some time). I was reluctant to change things due to other elements of the rules taking the specifics of each part into account when making additional material. Admittedly, 2e isn't nearly as strict about this as 3.5 or Pathfinder, but the problem is still there to some extent.

A major advantage of switching to a sparser system (in this case Basic Fantasy, although it could have been original D&D or Dungeon Crawl Classics if different circumstances had prevailed) is that I feel more freedom to build things up as I and my players see fit. The players who have little interest in giving input on the rules - i.e., most of them - find it easier to begin with less and then add more, instead of starting with too much and then having me take it away (which I would have to do if I ran 5e or some other thing).

In the interest of "less", I've been thinking about what exactly a gnome should be in my game world. When most people hear "gnome", they think of the really little lawn jockeys with white beards and pointed hats. The same might be said of "elf", but the cultural impact of The Lord of the Rings is so massive by this point that the roughly human-sized elves come to mind just as easily. Since the Bombadilesque gnomes aren't a firm factor in my game... why not make them Tiny?

Saturday, March 10, 2018

DCC RPG: First Impressions

(Brief explanation for the recent flurry of posts: I've had a reduction in my work hours, and yesterday had to take a sick day, so while I'm tired and my throat hurts all day, it's a more stable state than being semi-energetic in the morning and exhausted in the evening. I doubt I'll be able to keep up this pace of content, but don't think I'm not going to try while taking sick leave from gaming for a short while.)

I told myself that I wouldn't buy any more of what JB calls "fantasy heartbreakers" (or FHBs). I don't need a different variant on a very similar game, especially after spending so much time and effort putting my campaign's rules into Basic Fantasy. But at a chain bookstore, I found the softcover version of Dungeon Crawl Classics on clearance for $15.00, and I couldn't resist.

I have yet to read the entire rulebook, but I've finished most of the sections on character creation and combat; the bulk of the 376 pages (!) is taken up by the magic system. I'll list some bullet points of my initial impressions below.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

House Rule: Healing Jelly

So, players want to have some means of healing more than 1 or 2 hit points per day, when they're 1st level and have no healing spells. Some Referees solve this by making potions of healing easily purchased, and in fact they're listed right on the equipment list in the 5th Edition Player's Handbook. While I get the desire for some help in a low-powered game like mine, having this in 5e - where even fighters can heal themselves, using some pseudo-feat called "Second Wind" - is a bit excessive. (This also points to my oft-repeated lament that there is no such thing as a plain fighter in 5e, but that's beside the point.)

My old reliable game, B/X, had an interesting idea: giant bees make honey that is so nourishing, it serves as a weaker form of a healing potion! One's head swarms (heh) with the possibilities of the players going off to raid a huge nest of giant bees; if they succeed, they'll be better equipped for future adventures, at the risk of dying horribly from toxic shock and full-body edema. In fact, in my setting, it's now official that potions of healing use giant bee honey as the active ingredient.

But I wanted to address the desire for some extra healing, for those situations where luck is emphatically on the monsters' side. I found a bit of inspiration in the game I've been playing recently, Fallout: New Vegas. I play it on Hardcore Mode, where healing items such as Stimpacks and food don't instantly restore health, but do so over a span of several seconds. In a game with real-time combat, watching both damage and healing ticking up at similar rates creates a lot of tension, something that is hard to duplicate in a tabletop game. The idea of gradual healing stuck with me, though, and the final inspiration came from the bizarre first-aid item in The Ring: Terror's Realm known only as "Healing Jelly". (Spoony's mockery of this is what made it jump out to me.)

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Wet Paint

So over two years ago, I thought that I would probably never paint miniatures. But it's 2018 now - the Year of the Dog! - and I have slowly started painting some miniatures.

Well, a miniature. My FLGS started stocking the unpainted plastic D&D miniatures by WizKids, and they stocked a lot of them. At $5 for a two-pack, including bases, it's a pretty good deal. An even bigger advantage for me is that they already have primer applied, so they're ready to paint. Faced with these facts, I decided that I might as well give miniature painting another shot.

My first purchase was the female Halfling Rogue two-pack; I really like the top figure, and it is a pretty good representation of my gnome character Roywyn. One can criticize the WOTC for any number of things, but the scale of these miniatures is a lot less inflated than that of HeroForge or even Reaper's Bones minis.

I'd imagine Roywyn likes to let her hair down now and then.

Since I try to avoid carrying around large amounts of spending money, I only buy a couple of items at a time. Currently, I only have three pots of paint, all of which are Citadel paints: the Layer paints Kislev Flesh and Warpstone Glow, and the Base paint Mournfang Brown. I also bought the Human Monk two-pack today, partly because Mournfang Brown can be used for both Roywyn's leather armor, and a darker flesh-tone for my monk character Cavidge.

So far it's going pretty well, although I can't post any pictures until I get my old digital camera out from wherever it's hiding. The pre-priming on the figure saves me both time and money, as I'm not going to dive into the wacky world of primer until I figure out whether I like the painting enough to start working on my Bones and metal figures. I know that I'm not buying any more unpainted minis until I get at least this one finished... but now that I have a day job, pre-painted plastic figures aren't too expensive for an occasional purchase.