Monday, July 13, 2020

Playing Catch Up

Hey all.

Sorry I've been quiet this month but a number of things have come across my control console here at the Barking Alien Blog that require my attention. 

First and foremost, my girlfriend Esmeralda's birthday was July 11th. Happy Birthday My Love! Not being able to be with her due to distance and the current planet-wide health crisis truly sucks. I mean it really REALLY sucks. I am glad she is safe and sound at her place and the same for me at mine but I miss her terribly, especially today. 

Meanwhile, I have been looking over a number of RPG items that have come my way and learning what it takes to get me interested in a game. What I mean is, what makes me want to learn a new set of rules, tackle a particular setting or genre, and how or if I plan to use a given game in the future. 

Cases in point...

Modiphius Entertainment recently released the PDF for a new Core Rulebook for the Star Trek Adventures RPG entitled 'The Klingon Empire'. This book is not only a sourcebook for all things Klingon but a true core book for running Star Trek Adventures, albeit with a Klingon bend. 

The book features some reorganization and clarifications of the Star Trek Adventures rules and while not exactly an 'Second Edition', it is a better representation of the ideas and mechanics used in this RPG, one that's become a favorite of mine. 

That said, I am in no rush to get it. I really wish they'd make it a sourcebook instead. I don't feel like I need a new core rulebook, I am not in desperate need of that much Klingon material, and most importantly, it's not like I am going to be running a Klingon focused campaign - one where the PCs are Klingons on a Klingon ship - any time soon. OK, maybe ever. This makes the book, with it's tons of pages and larger price point not especially enticing to me. I'll get it eventually, it's a Star Trek RPG book after all, but I am in not hurry. 

The next item, which is holding much more of my interest and attention, is Free League's Vaesen RPG, a game about 19th Century Paranormal Investigators dealing with Faerie Hauntings in Sweden.

I know, niche much?

I have long been intrigued by the faerie folklore of Europe; not just the popularized Pixies and Banshee of the British Isles, but the lesser known and appreciated Nisse, Vaettir, and very different Trolls of Scandinavia.

Running a game that is one part dark fairy tale and one part Call of Cthulhu is right up my alley, though I do wonder if perhaps I should move the setting to mid-1800s London to make it more familiar to my players and I. I have knowledge of what a Wood Wife is but only a vague grasp of life in 19th Century Upsala. 

Next up is an upcoming RPG that is currently in Playtest status. I can't discuss it at this juncture but I surely will in the future. Trying to make time to read it between all the other reading I'm doing. Actually playing it is another matter entirely. Isn't there a pandemic? Don't I have all this free time? I thought I did...

Finally, I am working on a project near and dear to my heart that, like my ALIEN RPG campaign and my old Smurfs RPG idea, has been on my mind for over 35 years. I am putting it today with an original rules set derived from many of the mechanics I've encountered over the last decade and trying to get it all to function in harmony.

Fingers crossed and more about what it is as it gets closer to completion. 

Anyway, that's where my head is at. Hopefully I can get a few things out of the way to post some more real content in the near future. 

Thanks for dropping by,

Barking Alien

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Change of Plans

I deleted my previous post because after follow up research, analysis, and reflection, I don't believe the campaign story I planned to post was really the one I wanted to tell. 

I am looking to describe the first campaign I ran that I feel illustrates my approach to Gamemastering (and RPG gaming in general) and I don't think the one I was going to use was really the first one.

It's difficult to recount such a milestone because usually there isn't one. A person doesn't normally change their style and thinking suddenly but rather gradually over time. It most often occurs in small increments and builds up to a preferred approach after years of trial and error. 

That said, by 1982 - the year I first purchased my own games with my own money - I'd already had 5-6 years of gaming experience. I was probably already doing things a bit outside the normal of course (as noted in my previous post) but I don't know I thought about what I was doing ahead of time. I didn't sit down to design a campaign and say, "OK, I am going to handle this one differently from how I did the previous one. I am going to go at this with a completely new attitude. Here's what I'll do..."

I know that running Superheroes and Science Fiction (particularly Star Trek) as often as I did/do, and running Dungeons & Dragons and its ilk as little as I have, definitely influenced my perspective on tabletop gaming very early on. It is surely the origin of why such things as Player Character Rewards (discussed recently) and 'Realistic' Tactical Combat don't really interest me that much. 

When did it happen though? When did I stop caring about things like Initiative, Encumbrance, Range in inches on a Hex Map...wait...I never cared about those things. I mean I used them (OK not really the later two) but I didn't get all excited about any of that crap.

Could it be there is no origin story to be found? No single campaign I can point to at all because doing things the way I wanted to do them and see them done was always there? 

This will take some more thought but for now I am going to talk about other things.

Some old things, some new things, some tried-and-true things, and some experimental things. 

Stay tuned.

Barking Alien

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Self Analysis

Each one of us games the way we do because of various factors that have worked their way into our psyches over the course of our participation in the hobby.

In theory, the longer we go at this, the more the way we do things and the way we like things done develops, changes, and hopefully improves our personal experiences. Eventually, certain things cement themselves in our minds to become what one might call our gaming preferences. We establish a 'style of play' and hope to find other players whose own style of play matches well with ours. 

I talk a lot about my personal style of play, my outlook on what constitutes a good game, a good GM, and good players, and often question the more traditional and widespread approaches to gaming without giving a clear historical context.

That is to say, most readers of this blog know I've been gaming since 1977, which is 43 years. Most know I generally run a 'standard' table, with a GM, players, dice, and a relatively familiar gaming structure. At the same time, my outlook and view points on a number of gaming sacred cows - Adventure Design, Combat, Experience and Rewards, Initiative, PC Death - are quite different from others who grew up in the same era. 

The question I often find myself asking is why? Why is my style of play so different from other 50something+ gamers? Why don't I like Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, and the 'popular' games? Why is it so much harder to find like minded players these days than it was as a kid, in Junior High, High School, College, and even a while after? 

The answer to the first few questions is quite simple.

My start in the hobby, my very first session, went a bit differently than similar tales I've heard told by other gamers. We went into it thinking Television Shows, Movies, and Comic Books, not novels. We saw ourselves as heroes, like Superman or Captain Kirk, not adventurers like Fafhrd and Conan. Our characters were out to help the Good King, not to kill monsters and steal from them.

We started our journey from an atypical point on the map and it lead us on a non-standard path from the get-go.

As time moved forward, I found that not everyone played the way that first group did and though I adapted and even enjoyed the more standard approach to gaming for a while, I grew weary of it after a stint, missing the initial joy of that first game.

I also played with a bunch of people here and there who were really enamored with D&D and AD&D in the RAW* and their style of play turned me off to it even further. As a matter of fact, for a long while it was very rare for me to participate in a D&D game run by someone else that didn't feel oppressive, limiting, and just outright terrible. It was during this period, the late 70s and early 80s, that I decided I didn't enjoy playing even half as much as GMing. That feeling would continue to this day, though it's eased up immensely over the last five years.

I began incorporating my alternate approaches and ideas into an Advanced D&D campaign of my own design that ended up becoming my occasionally mentioned 'D&D-But-Not' game. That game appealed to me quite a bit for a while until I discovered...there were other games. Not just other systems but games that weren't about Wizards and Dragons, which only intrigued me so far as they related to old folklore and myths, which D&D in it's various incarnations rarely did.

No, no, there were games about subjects I truly loved like Science Fiction and Superheroes. There was a Star Trek RPG! A Star Trek RPG! Eventually I discovered more and more games that were not D&D and I couldn't imagine going back. Why would I? 

For years and years I experimented with new systems, new genres, and new ways of staging a session. I used elements from film and TV, from Japanese Animation, video games, and other sources to give the games I ran a [hopefullu] unique feel. I focused on the PCs, on their stories, on the world/setting and its story, on the atmosphere and the timing, and occasionally looked over my shoulder to make sure the rules were still there. They were and so I went back to paying them little mind. 

The only way this worked over the course of 43 years was because of my players. I had...well I just had the best players. Some I grew up with and we developed our styles and approaches together. Some I met and found our approaches compatible. Some I introduced to gaming using my outlook and literally had them say, "Wow. I always thought gaming was like THAT. I didn't know it could be like THIS!". 

Sadly, perfect players and games are a zeitgeist we often fail to appreciate. People move, they marry and have kids, they change jobs, they divorce, and sometimes they pass on. 

A gamer who loves to game continues to enjoy the hobby with new groups of friends and new players. I found though that as I cast my net wider, there were many who didn't play the way I did, didn't think about gaming the way I do, and had their own, very different, developmental experiences.

I have tried to incorporate my style of play into games with these newer players and it's either worked or hasn't to varying degrees. In some cases I have made new friends who get what I do and enjoy it, contributing every bit as much to our games as did my old groups.

Unfortunately, that's not everyone and I can't expect it to be. I've modified my gaming style here and there to work with my modern groups and it's OK. A bit of the old me, a bit of the new me, and mixed results ranging from Awesome to wanting to pull my hair out of my head. I am grateful to have what I have of course and it could be worse. 

I have been thinking of illustrating my preferred style of play by recapping my very first campaign ever, a Basic D&D game featuring the DM and three players (one of which was me), that began on August 25th, 1977. Then I realized I have done that already. There are at least three posts that tell that tale.

Instead, I am going to start next month with one of the first game campaigns that I think showed my style establishing itself. Hopefully it will be entertaining as well as revealing, both to my audience and to myself. 

See you soon,

Barking Alien

*Rules As Written

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Just Rewards

In the comments of my post on what I called 'Plot Avoidance', JB of B/X Blackrazor and I got into a discussion about 'Game Rewards', more specifically 'Whether or not Mechanical Game Rewards [such as Experience Points, Stat and Skill Increases, in-game Wealth and Improvements in Gear] were the motivation for playing.' 

The question and conversation so intrigued me that I asked the question of the members of three different Facebook groups dedicated to RPGs; two of which were general and one consisted of only personal friends and those I actually game with. 

Do you - do most gamers for that matter - play in order to gain to XP and treasure and see your characters improve? Is this why you play RPGs? Is that the reason you play or the goal in doing so?

Before revealing what my research discovered, here's my personal take...

For me, XP rewards and other forms of mechanical improvement are simply not that important to my enjoyment of a game. They're not unimportant or uninteresting, I mean, sure I like to see my characters' abilities improve and it's fun to gain new talents over time, but it isn't my motivation for playing. 

I would best describe it as a fringe benefit. It's akin to a tip or a bonus. I don't expect it these days but I'm pleased when it happens.

This wasn't always my viewpoint, though I don't think I ever played BECAUSE of mechanical rewards.* It was certainly never the primary motivator.

I play to explore an idea, create a personality, and to follow my character's story. I want to see development, but development of the PC's personality, relationships, knowledge, and the fulfillment of their desires and goals. I am motivated to play because I love doing these things. I love seeing my PC and their tale form and evolve. Whether or not my Piloting Skill goes from 3 to 4 is a minor concern at best. 

The same is true for many of my players over the years, if not all.

Now to be fair, I have mainly been a Gamemaster over the past 42 years of my time in the hobby so I'm sure I come at it from a different perspective then someone in it mostly as a player. In addition, I long ago turned away from reward focused games like Dungeons and Dragons and other titles that are focused on that sort of thinking. 

For the majority of my gaming experiences I've run and played games with minimal or extremely slow [if any] progression such as Star Trek, Star Wars, classic Traveller, Superhero games**, Ghostbusters, Teenagers from Outer Space, Mekton, and others where the heroes are not known for obvious increases in their perspective stats, station, or abilities. 

To make it clear, I am not saying that there is necessarily no progression at all but it may come slowly, may involve in game story improvements over mechanical ones, or manifest in very small increments. 

Now...that's me.

As mentioned above, I asked the question of a large number of gamers across many different age groups, backgrounds, and interests and the results were quite interesting if not completely unexpected. 

The larger percentage of responders, probably 60% more or less, are very much motivated by the idea of mechanical, rules related rewards for their characters, as well as in-game wealth, magic items (or superior gear), and other treasures. It is, essentially, why they play or at the very least, what they are playing for. Not surprisingly, most of these individuals are Old School gamers, people who have been playing over 20-30 years. Likewise, the majority of them mentioned D&D, Pathfinder, or some other game with the traditional format of raising levels, finding/stealing gold and enchanted items, and the dynamic of doing so by slaying enemies. 

The remaining 40%, who were not principally motivated by the acquisition of money, power, and increases to their 'to hit' were a interestingly mixed group. While many fell in with my own views on the subject, some who advocated it as a genre conceit were largely of the Horror RPG persuasion. That is to say, a good number of those motivated to play in order to explore character, great stories, world build, solve mysteries, and the like were people who played Call of Cthulhu, the new Alien RPG, and other games where at best you hope to survive to make a rude gesture in the direction of death or madness for another day. 

From friends I know personally I've received a number of interesting responses, one of which said that the mechanical rewards were important to him because, in his mind, RPGs are indeed games and games have winners. I don't exactly agree with that myself as earlier posts have made clear, but I understand where he's coming from. To him, as I'm sure it is to many, a game is an endeavor in which you score points and achieve some goal like finishing with the most hotels on the most properties or something. 

Others noted their love of playing particular characters and how the very act of doing that is what brings them back to the table time and again. One of the fellows from my recent and current Red Dwarf / Yellow Sun game noted that his character is the most fun PC he's ever played. Experience points, new abilities, and such haven't even occurred to him. He just wants to play his character and continue having a ball doing it. 

So now I pose the question to you.

Is improving your PC's skills and abilities, finding treasure, and other mechanical or in-game rewards your reason or at least motivation for playing? How important is it to you? If you got one minor raise or a new talent every two dozens sessions, who that be enough? Does it matter?

Tell me what you think.

Barking Alien

*I once argued the Superheroes do indeed increase in ability and that rules for character improvement should be included in Superhero RPG. This was in counterpoint to the Marvel Heroic RPG by Cam Banks, which didn't really include a direct system for improving characters because, as he noted in interviews, it was his feeling that comic book Superheroes don't actually improve in a linear fashion. 

While I think they do, and gave my reasons why in that post, I am not really chomping at the bit to improve my Superhero PCs in general. It's nice to get a bonus every once in a while, but not a major concern. 

**This statement, which I've made before in some form or another has given me an idea for an upcoming series of posts. I want to detail to the best of my knowledge my first Dungeons & Dragons game ever. We're talking 43 years ago this August. It will explain a lot. LOL

Monday, June 8, 2020

Player Profiles - David Cotton

On Saturday, May 30th, 2020, one of my closest friends passed away. 

David Cotton, mentioned numerous times throughout the online history of this blog, suffered a heart attack as a result of a seizure. I was informed on Thursday, June 4th, but our mutual friend Eric, who was contacted by Dave's mother earlier that day.

Last night, from 6 pm to roughly 11 pm, Dave's friends including myself (who facilitated the event) held an online Memorial, sharing memories, telling stories, and of course recounting his many RPG characters and exploits. Eight members of our circles of friends showed up with calls, messages, and emails from literally dozens of others sending their love and sadness over his passing and their regret over not being about to attend live. A post on Facebook related to the new gained over 40 comments and nearly 60 likes/hearts in just a day and a half.

I first met David Cotton about 14 or 15 years ago when I decided to run a campaign of Mutants & Masterminds at my FLGS, The Compleat Strategist, in New York City. My wife and I had separated a year or so before and I hadn't gamed since. Gaming was such a big part of our time together and it didn't bring me joy any longer to do it without her. That was until I realized not doing it, not doing something I really loved, was preventing me from moving on and so I set up this Superhero campaign and opened the table to anyone who wanted in. 

At first I got some old friends and acquaintances I'd met over the years of shopping at the store and working in the retail game industry myself. It was a good sized group right off the bat, maybe six or seven players. Then a fellow came in, saw us getting ready, and asked what game we were running. This was Dave.

He came up with a character concept based on one he'd made for fun (not specifically for gaming) and I fudged his stats and such for the 'Session Zero' introduction. He returned the following session and from there on in never missed a game. In addition he brought in his cousin and later another friend. 

That campaign was easily one of my best Superhero games ever and the largest, with an average of 9 players showing up monthly and a maximum of 12. Dave was a key part of making the game entertaining and over time we learned we had a lot of interests in common beyond games. We shared a love of the same foods, films, social concerns, and many other details. Amazingly his birthday was February 11th. Mine is the 12th. 

Dave's A-List Superhero Characters
(Only a small portion of the ones he'd created)

IMPACT!, Silver Sun, Night Knight, and Anthem

The following fifteen years or so saw us becoming really close friends, discussing some of life's best and worst moments. From hirings to firings, found loves to break-ups, Dave was always there with warm, intelligence, and honesty. And I gave it all right back because that is what true friends do, even, no especially when times are tough. 

He was also a great sounding board for ideas; creative and supportive but honest when he didn't like something or thought is could be better. He coined a number of phrases and concepts that still stick with me and always will about the creative process, how I myself do things, and how things can be done. We didn't always agree. We definitely had our differences of opinion but we shared a love a reasonable discussion and debate. We changed each others minds as often as we patted each other on the back. 

He would say, "I am a Reese's guy. I want some chocolate in my peanut butter." This was his way of explaining why he would combine two or more genres together to me, how can sometimes be a setting purist. 

When I would get confused or even frustrated over what to run he would say, "Adam, you make too kinds of campaigns: Summer Blockbusters and Indie Art Films.The Blockbusters aren't as close to your heart but they always go over well. Doing them earns you the credit and good will to suggest the Art film".

Mobile Suit Pilot Dane Bradley and his GM Striker

We would also spoke about our views on racial justice and equality that ring through my head continuously in our current world situation. I regret that I will never hear his thoughts on this past week. I, and others, will not get to know his take on what can be done to make things right and make them better. 

Universally, every person I have ever spoken to about Dave, whether they were close to him or had only met him once for a game at a Convention, described him the same way - One of the truly good people on this Earth. Kind, supportive, compassionate, confident not only in his own abilities, his own success, but in yours.

The Lady Luck, caracca of the Half-Elven Pirate Hero Jorvan StarsByNight

You believed him too, because his belief in himself and in you was a like a force of nature. It was like a hurricane. 

The winds have died down. The storm is over. Only memories remain. 

Through the memories, I hope to retain a spark of Dave's lightning within me always. 

So long my friend,

Barking Alien