Monday, February 27, 2023

Generating Interest - Part I

I had a fascinating conversation with my friend Ray last week regarding Player Characters in Fantasy RPGs versus those in other games.

The focus of the discussion followed Ray's observations as to why I - me personally - often find it difficult to create Fantasy PCs and why I don't often find the Fantasy Player Characters I generate all that interesting. This can lead to my becoming bored with the character, wanting to try some other sort of Race/Class combo, or simply losing interest in the game overall. 

Ray's keen insight into why I don't have an investment in Fantasy RPG characters is that they simply aren't particularly intriguing to begin with. They are not, by their nature, especially cool. To paraphrase Ray himself...

'Fantasy RPG characters don't start out interesting. They become interesting.'
I can just imagine the reactions to this statement out there in TRPG Internet Land and the images it conjures in my minds give me quite the hearty chuckle.

I should point out we are talking about Fantasy PCs created in the majority of the bigger, more popular Fantasy game systems; the discussion concentrates on RPGs like D&D, Pathfinder, Cypher System, and other Race/Class/Level based games. I could absolutely create a PC I find interesting in Ars Magica. Ars Magica is a very different beast from the games we're talking about here, though some of what makes it different will come into play (no pun intended) later in the post.

Many a modern gamer would disagree with this statement outright, saying the PC is as rich a character as the work you put into it. A truism I'll grant but that work is all you the player, with little coming from the system itself. Remember we are talking beginning PCs starting at 1st level here. I know many like to run and create characters that begin at 3rd Level or even higher but that only proves my point. The bulk of the classic style Fantasy games don't have you start at First Level with the kind of character you'd really like to play. That comes later (this is a key point that will come up further on in the post).

I can see the Grognards and Neckbeard Old-Schoolers (the latter the name of a Dwarf I met once I'm sure of it) saying that's the point! You start with nothing, a nobody, you're not a 'Character' in a story but a game piece, a component for the game that is D&D (or Rolemaster, Tunnels & Trolls, etc.). That's possibly true...and doesn't interest me. I don't want to play a glorified wargame or innovative board game. I want to go on adventures that tells/turns into stories and I want to be part of those stories with a story of my own. 

Now back to Ray's proclamation: It's always kind of bugged me that you begin many Fantasy game with a character who often seems like they never existed before they first stepped foot in 'Ye Ole' Meeting Place' tavern or the Dungeon-of-the-Week. 

"Flakgore the Barbarian turns to see an Elf in the Wizard Robes standing next to him. She wasn't there a moment ago but then again...was he? He has no memories of his life before opening the vaulted doors of the Crypt of Cataclysm. Looking at the other members of his party, there is a vague recollection of meeting them all in a tavern..."

These types of characters rarely feel 'real' to me and as such, I usually concoct a short description of who they are and why they've deciding upon the life of an adventurer. Without that, it all feels immaterial to me. Unimportant and definitely not special. The problem is, in my experience, I can't come up with a description because there isn't much to go on inspiration wise. Fantasy game settings often feel same-y to me and since I'm not a fan of the genre overall, these elements combine to create a blandness that doesn't motivate me to come up with much. 

Then there's the make-up of the characters themselves...We begin with 'Race'. Humans are boring, the other Races sound cool on paper but have few mechanics reflecting the fluff, and there are rarely rules for creating your own Species. This has improved in later editions and various systems. Classes are fairly rigid, start with few abilities, and multi-classing is usually poorly thought out. There is little to give any ideas for character background (later editions of D&D and other systems have added this and its much appreciated), and I just don't know where to go with it since I'm at a handicap with Fantasy to begin with.  

Compare this to some of my favorite games from other genres:

Star Trek (various versions) and Traveller: Rolls and/or choices develop your PCs pre-playing history. Your 'starting' character isn't just starting out in life but moving onto the next big, bold chapter of it - it just happens to be the chapter the GM and other players are interacting with. 

Characters begin the campaign after their 'Pre-Academy' days and 'Tours of Duty'. They may have gained 'Special Assignments', received 'Promotions' and/or 'Commendations'. They've lived interesting fictional lives before they've even entered the first session. This person is, to me, instantly interesting. It inspires ideas and makes me want to answer questions like, 'What was their homeworld like?', 'What was the Special Assignment they were given?', and 'Who gave them their Commendation? Are they still in touch?'.

Star Wars (specifically the West End Games D6 System) is so customizable that you can practically make up a cool character first, then figure out the Template's numbers, skills, Species abilities, etc. Let's say...OK let me try an experiment. I am going to do a Google Image Search for 'Star Wars Alien'. Give me a moment.

OK, the first three were a Hutt, Grogu (Yoda's Species), and Jar Jar Binks, a Gungan. OK, I love redeeming the Gungans so I'll make one of those. What Template? I'll build my own. There is no official Gungan Mercenary but I like the idea of playing one. Another quick search shows a few different Gungan Species write-ups. The Second Edition has a Mercenary Template as well as rules for making Templates so - bing, bang, boom - I can make a Gungan Mercenary, customize some of the skills, take away some gear since I get a few Amphibious abilities as a Gungan and I have a character I like that I designed myself for the most part. His name is, hmm, Junji Terble. Yeah. I could totally play this guy. 

I had 20 minutes and too much coffee so I made an image. 

Champions and Ars Magica take the previous approach and lean in on it hard. Through the purchasing of Attributes, choosing Advantages and Disadvantages, building your various Powers and Abilities exactly the way you want, I can create precisely the character I would find interesting. I can come up with a story for the character and then dig through the systems for rules that reflect that story. If my Superhero character's origin has her trapped in a forest fire before being given her plant powers by Flora - Spirit of All Plants, Daughter of Mother Nature - she might be as mighty as a Redwood but remain afraid of fire. So...hmm...Psychological Limitation. Cool. How about...Pyrophobia and maybe she takes Vulnerability: Extra Damage from Fire. Nice. That gives me more points so I can add more Plant-themed gimmicks to my PC's repertoire. Which gimmicks? How do they work? The ones I want and how I want them. 

One of my oldest Superhero characters, Excelsior - art by Keith Conroy, 1992.

The randomly generated Villains and Vigilantes version was cool. 
The custom built Champions version was AWESOME!

It would seem that the main focus of classic Fantasy RPG Character Creation is more Character 'Generation'. You are, for the most part, along for the ride as you roll dice and make some choices. You are a passenger on a commercial airplane flight. You get to pick your meal from one or two choices, decide what you want to drink, and whether or not you want the peanuts. 

With many of the games I enjoy it's more like being the pilot of a private jet. It's your plane. Go where you want to go, bring the food you want to eat, and if you want the peanuts, hell, knock yourself out. 

As Ray notes (paraphrasing): 

"The Fantasy character traditionally starts off simple. A basic design without much to make them appear unique. As they adventure, as they explore, fight monsters, and perform their skills, they will gather experience points they can spend to get new and more special abilities. Even more so, they will establish friends, enemies, and live through events that will give them a 'life story'.

Eventually, the PC will become much more interesting, both mechanically and narratively, as they've gone through numerous 'character building' moments."

OK, I get that. That certainly makes sense. I'll even go as far as to say it sounds fun to follow this complete rookie, this noob, through their development into a hero of the realm. But...

Spoiled as I may be, what with having cool traits, knacks, and maybe some neat equipment at the very start - all of which I built or decided upon myself - can you see how I'd automatically be more invested, more attached to this kind of character than the one just described? 

At the end of say a dozen sessions, both a classic Fantasy RPG PC and a Space Adventure/Supers RPG PC will have had the same amount of potential in-game character building and development time.

Yet the Space Adventure/Supers character had a head start on the 'being cool' factor right from the get-go. This is key to my forming a relationship with the PC that makes me want to keep playing them.

What can be done...?

Barking Alien

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Where I'm At

February. Oh boy. Where to even begin?

The month of February is always a taxing one for me, both physically, mentally, and emotionally. It marks a lot of major and minor occasions in my life, as well as being the month wherein things get really busy for my business after the lull of the Xmas to New Year's Holiday season. 

Today in particular is my birthday, a day I have not traditionally been a fan of acknowledging but I am in good spirits so this year, I am feeling particularly positive about it. I have a true day off, had a lovely dinner with my Mom last night (Peruvian Seafood!) and I'm going to try to get some RPG things done (maybe even another Post? Baby steps...). 

Anyway, a bit of an overall overview of my gaming these days - turns out the break I look at the end of 2022 was just the ticket.

I have, as noted before and in upcoming posts, begun my Pokemon AD homebrew RPG campaign, Pokemon: Rise and Fall which has only had two full sessions as of this writing. The players seem really into it and I am excited to see where it goes. 

Star Trek: Prosperity - my bi-weekly, Friday night Star Trek Adventures group - has returned to the final frontier! Now in our 7th year - Yes, you read that right - we've already had two real bangers; each session was both self-contained and part of a larger ongoing story. Once again, everyone seems to be enjoying it immensely, myself included.

Finally, I am playing in an Anime Fantasy RPG using the Cypher System, inspired by the Japanese TRPG Sword World. The jury is still out on this one but so far so good. We've only had Character Creation and a short introductory Bar Fight at this point. I trust the GM, my buddy Keith, who ran a fantastic and long Superhero game but I am still a little wary. I'm the big Anime otaku in the group and I don't yet know how Keith will make the game feel 'Anime/Manga'-ish. It's also the Cypher System, of which I am not a fan. Still and all, I'm optimistic. Let's see what happens.

I also want to raise a glass...OK, a mug of my dearly departed friend David Cotton, whose birthday was yesterday, the 11th. Miss you brother. 

Anyway, that's what's going on. Now on to...well...whatever comes next!

Barking Alien

Saturday, February 4, 2023

BREAK!! On Through To The Other Side

Ten Years In The Making...
Is WAAAY Too Long!

But still...

For a long while now, nearly as long as I've had this blog, I've been aware of and interested in an RPG project called BREAK!! 

Well, it turns out a Kickstarter for the release of the BREAK!! rulebook is starting very soon and I'd be VERY surprised if this didn't get funded and freakin' quick! 

Created by author Reynaldo MadriƱan and artist 'Grey Wizard', BREAK!! is a Tabletop RPG inspired by Japanese Anime and Video Games that seems to have been in development for a least a decade. It uses multiple die type (Booo!) but mostly D20 and D12.

Characters are essentially defined by a Calling, an archetype not unlike a Template or Class in other RPGs but broader as I understand it. Each Calling gives the PC a framework or outline structure while also providing a wide array of options that enable the player to customize their characters. In addition, PCs have a Species, a Trait, a Quirk, Equipment, and all the things you'd expect to see in a 'Classic' or 'Old School' RPG. 

For the GM there is a ton of setting material, from locations and monsters, to magic and technology, and many other things with which to create adventures and campaigns. In addition, and most interesting to me, are guidelines you can use to create stuff all your own. Tools for adding my own components? I do love that. Remember that this is a game with Anime/Manga/Computer Games inspirations. In addition to Goblins, Wizards, and trap filled Dungeons, you'll also see Mecha, adorable Witches with Rocket-Powered Brooms, and bizarre terrain frozen in Day Time, Night Time, The Past, or The Future. 

This is a game I've been extremely curious about for, as noted above, an especially long time. I've checked back regularly, watched the YouTube videos on Character and Adversary Creation, and signed up for the mailing list. That last part is how I found out about the Kickstarter Pre-Launch and I have to admit, I was surprised. 

After so many years of following the project with no completion in sight, the idea that BREAK!! might actually come out wasn't something I consciously considered. The website was fun to check in with, the art is awesome and inspiring, but the thought, 'I can't wait until I can buy this!' hadn't seriously occurred to me since waaay before the height of the Pandemic. I viewed the game as something akin to actively developing vaporware. 

Now it might actual come out and I'm both excited and more than a little nervous. I don't need a Fantasy RPG but I do like the aesthetic and Anime/Video Game elements. I don't like Multiple Die Type systems (why do games I am initially excited about keep using all the dice?! So rude!) but I think I could mine the ideas in this for other systems, making it a fantastic resource.

All that aside, I want to see this! I really do. I just want to see what a decade of work on a single product can achieve. Having worked on pet projects of my own for decades, I know how difficult it can be to finally say you're done.

I am amazed not only by the effort and talent showcased here but seriously inspired by whomever said..."OK, it's finished."

I will be supporting this and I will keep you posted on how things go.

Barking Alien