26 January 2012

Why Less is More -- My Pathfinder Character Dilemma

I'm currently playing in the serpent's skull adventure path and having a lot of fun.  My group is solid, the adventure is a nice blend of mystery, exploration, and combat, and the DM does a great job.  We've just completed the first book of the AP and are currently gearing up for a trek into the Mwangi Expanse.  Now, let me tell you about my character. . .

Really, what I want is some help with this guy.  Culver Farwalker is an adventurer's adventurer.  He's motivated by finding lost ruins, discovering new knowledge, and, yes, gaining some loot in the process.  One of his major goals is to become a member of the Pathfinder Society.  He's mostly heroic when it comes to his friends, but is certainly more motivated by uncovering relics than any sort of greater good.  Indiana Jones is certainly an inspiration.

Is this slight of hand?  But then how do I get weapon specialization: whip?

All of this is great and I feel pretty comfortable with Culver now after some initial misgivings.  But notice something about the above description -- it has nothing to do with class or abilities.  He could be anything!  So I am having trouble figuring out what he should be.  Technically, he's a bard, but I don't feel terribly comfortable with that choice.  I've been given permission to "reskin" him into a different class.  This leads me with a problem and some observations.

Problem:  What should I do with him, class wise?  The party has a fighter, cleric, paladin, and a wizard.  The wizard's player isn't very experienced, so doesn't make the best choices regarding spell choice and use.  He also misses some games due to work.  Thus we have a 30% wizard.  What can he be that will help the party, be fun to play, and not, well, suck?


  • I can't help but think that, in Old School sorts of games, this dilemma wouldn't be an issue.  That is, the choice of race/class wouldn't matter as much because of all the things we know about old school gaming (no skills, player skill matters a lot, party balance and composition not as important, etc).  But these things DO matter a lot in Pathfinder, so I can't help but engage in some sort of character optimization.
  • Boy, Pathfinder has a lot of options.  Just in the SRD, there are core classes and base classes.  Each one of those, in turn, has archetypes!  Some, like the sorcerer, have further options like bloodlines.  I know many people see this as a feature, but I can't help but be struck by option paralysis as I try to see how all those things could be combined to fit the concept.  I want Culver to know things about history, ancient cults, and the peoples of Golarion.  So do I need to take a class that has a lot of skill points so that he can put some into various knowledge skills?  But just knowing things makes for a somewhat crappy character in a game where one fights monsters and runs into traps, so how do I get some combat ability out of this guy while still allowing him to do the things that no one else in the party can do -- like disarm traps?
  • The above, especially, has led me to the conclusion that comprehensive skill lists are much more of a hindrance than a help and I vastly prefer systems with few or no skills.
Since I can't make Culver into a fighting-man, what am I to do?

24 January 2012

"How to Prepare" - -Mentzer Reflections, Part 15

This continues my series chronically a close examination of the Mentzer Basic Player's Manual.  My central thesis here is that Mentzer was tasked with creating a self-teaching system from the basic Moldvay rules.  In so doing, certain implicit or default assumptions about play were made into "rules."  Today's section certainly supports that thesis.

"How to Prepare" spans pages 53-55 of the Player's Manual.  It deals with player mechanics and roles around the table, speaking little of character abilities or rules.  It starts with what to read (the PM) and what to bring to the table.  Of course, the most important thing a player needs is a Dungeon Master!  Other than that, you need characters, dice, pencils, paper, and likely refreshments.  You may also need retainers if you only have two or three players.

This section also sees the famous "mapper" and "caller" player roles spelled out, with Mentzer placing considerable emphasis on mapping skill:
Mapping is an important part of imagining where your characters are. . . If you play often, take turns at mapping; it is an important and useful skill to learn.
Mentzer also urges the players to think about the characters a bit before play with some who, why, where, when, and what questions. This, to me, really signals a move toward less "disposable" characters.  Though character creation is still 3d6 in order, paying attention to this level of motivation prior to the first dungeon foray doesn't 100% fit with the 2 hit point fighter who will likely die in the first room.  It's a fine line to draw, as one wants more than just numbers on a page, but one also doesn't want to spend too much effort too early on when survival is very difficult.

The section also contains a rudimentary guide to tactics -- put the fighter up front and the magic user in the middle, let high CHA characters do the talking, etc.  I remember following these to a "T".

I found the sample method for dividing treasure, also included here, to be interesting, though I cannot recall ever using it.  Permanent magic items count as one share.  Temporary magic items count as 1/2 of a share.  Add coins up, divide into shares, pick/assign accordingly.  It's straightforward and simple, but we always just tried to get the magic items in the hands of those who could use them.  I don't really remember fighting about treasure that much, irnocally, until 3rd Edition.  But that was a player, not a system issue.

That aside, I see this section as laying out some ways to play the game that really influenced how I, as a player, played.  I'd wager it's the same for a fair amount of others.

23 January 2012

Thoughts on the Player Driven Campaign

Al over at Beyond the Black Gate has an interesting post today about The Player Driven Campaign.  There, he posits that most players aren't as involved in a game's development as the DM.  He also wonders if there is a way to quantify what makes the best sort of players.  There's also the question of if, through any attempt at quantification, one might stifle a player's creativity or turn a player off the game.

As a DM, I want player involvement, but often it's hard to get beyond the minimal involvement a player has during his turn while fighting some monsters.

Maybe there are three levels of player interactivity:
1.  The character level -- where the player makes up some personality and background for her character.
2.  The campaign level -- where the player actively engages in making choices that drive the game forward, advancing her character's agenda within the game world.
3.  The world level -- where the player actively participates in world-building (often through #1 and #2).

In my experience, #1 is fairly easy to come by, even if it's just a few sentences about their character.  2 & 3 are harder, because they require a bit larger scope.  The player may also wonder about stepping on the DM's toes.

I also think I am a better player than DM.  Here are some semi-random thoughts about what makes a good player:

  • Honesty
  • A minimal familiarity with the rule set
  • Creativity
  • Communication skills
  • Problem-solving skills
I am sure there are more, but that's what immediately comes to mind.

Thanks, Al, for the interesting post.

20 January 2012

Mystara Love

Reinforcing my desire to run a Mystara campaign is a recent spate of blog posts about the setting:

There is Beedo's "Ode to Mystara" at Dreams in the Lich House.

Age of Ravens has reviews of The Principalities of Galantri, The Emirates of Ylarum, and The Grand Duchy of Karmeikos.

And I just discovered Darva Shriver's Stocking the Dungeon, which is all about Mystara and BECMI D&D.  It's an awesome blog!

Gaming and blogging in 2012 (part 1)

The lack of recent posts has not (only) been the result of some hectic moments at work, but also due to some background thinking on my part about my gaming and blogging in the new year.  I am trying to figure out what I  want to accomplish.  I've reached the point where some decisions need to be made, so I am throwing my thoughts up here for some feedback.

I really want to game more.  While I still play in the bi-monthly Pathfinder Serpent's Skull game, I definitely want to expand beyond that.  I think I have the time and I know I have the desire.  So, I've concluded I want to try and run a somewhat regular game via Google Hangout, drawing in a few of my former gaming friends who are now scattered about.  Additional choices need to be made here, about who else to include, how best to facilitate the game, what sort of schedule I can sustain, etc, but the decision to DO IT has been made.

That leaves me with another choice that hasn't been made yet -- what sort of game to run.  For rules, I am likely going to go with some sort of BECMI/Lamentations of the Flame Princesses mash-up (I really like the specialist from LotFP), with final decisions there to be made in consultation with the core players.  It's the setting I am really trying to figure out; I have two basic choices.

1.  I've been going on and on for a long time about a desert setting, something like Arabian Nights meets ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia meets the Old West.  My recent hand-drawn map sprung from this idea.  I have scattered notes about the setting elements and a list of things to look at for inspiration.  But that's really the extent of the development here.  Thus, there is a lot of work to do.  Playing in such a setting would "force" me to do more work.  Such work would be fun in and of itself, but would certainly consume some time and creative energy.  Such work would also be very good blog fodder.

2.  Use Mystara/The Known World from the BECMI series, including some published adventures.  I really do like this setting, not just because of it's nostalgia value, but because it strikes a nice balance between gonzo/kitchen sink fun and coherence.  I have a lot of material for Mystara, including most of the Gazetteers and a lot of adventures.  I also think it would be an interesting experiment to drop the LotFP rules into this setting and see what happens.  Prep work would be lighter, but I don't get the satisfaction of some collaborative world building and moving forward on a long-discussed gaming project.

All of this relates to other things, like blogging and some work things I want to accomplish this year.  I'll talk about those in the next post.  Any thoughts or feedback about the above are appreciated.  Thanks for reading!

13 January 2012

"Missions" and Sandbox Play

What role does the "mission" have in sandbox play?

By mission I mean an in-game objective which the characters seek to achieve, arising out of their own motives or due to their taking on a task given to them by another.  I'll give a few examples to show what I mean:

1.  In the brief Stonehell Dungeon game I ran, the party captured some goblins trying to sneak out of Stonehell. They learned of the goblins' conflict against the orcs and decided to help the goblins out, mainly so they could use the goblins as fodder against the stronger orcs.  The mission: eradicate the orcs on the first level of Stonehell. (Voluntary, wholly player driven).

2.  In the lengthy and fun 2E game in which I played while I was in grad school, our party had some downtime in a big city during a festival.  During that time, we were approached by a few different sorts of people, each of which wanted us to do, find, or recover something and get some sort of reward in return.  We elected to help this magic-user named Rinver travel to a ruined temple of Oghma in exchange for payment and a big share of any treasure.  The mission: get the magic-user safely into the ruined temple.  (Voluntary, somewhat player driven.  That is, we were given a choice of missions and took one instead of just saying "let's see what's in this hex over there").

3.  In the same game, my character became cursed.  Well, it was mostly his own fault, but that's another story.  The point was, to remove his curse he had to travel to the distant desert of his youth and recover an artifact.  The mission: travel to the distant desert land and recover an artifact.  (Involuntary -- my character would have Bad Things happen unless he did this thing.  Not very player driven -- the curse was a consequence of my PC's actions, but the manner of the curse and its removal was not).

I'd submit that the mission has a vital role in sandbox/old-school play.  I believe all three types listed above can fit, if posed properly.  Missions that are offered as actual choices and/or consequences of PC's actions can fit quite well.  In #2, we could have turned down Rinver and accepted an alternative offer.  In #3, while I did not know my PC's actions would lead directly to a curse that would then necessitate a mission, I had a good idea that Bad Things could happen by continuing on the present path, yet I persisted.  The problem comes when missions are presented as meta-game imperatives, as in "You have to take this wizard's offer or we have no adventure tonight."

Thoughts?  Does the mission have a place in sandbox play?

10 January 2012

The Joy of Books

This just makes me very happy.

06 January 2012

This should have been written yesterday.

This should have been written yesterday, but seven hours worth of meetings prevented it:

Today, ten years ago, I was lucky enough to marry the woman I loved.  It was a beautiful day; I will always remember how she looked, standing at the end of the church's center aisle, entering into our marriage.  I am blessed to have had her love and support over the past ten years and I look forward to many, many more years to come.

And, since this is a gaming-related blog, here's a gaming-related story about my non-gamer wife that shows how much she loves and puts up with me:

I was still living in Texas, where I met her; we had been dating about a year.  I had been up-front about my geekery from the start.  She knew I collected comic books and that, almost every Friday night, I got together with a bunch of other geeks to roll dice and pretend to kill things and take their stuff.  She wasn't interested in the activity -- I am not sure she even really understood it -- but she liked me and was happy to see me happy.  Often, I'd call her as the game was wrapping up.  This was before cell phones, so I'd say something like 'We'll be done in half an hour.  Do you want to come over?"  She'd meet me at my house and we'd hang out.

I had done this same this night, calling her as I thought things were finishing up, but then things began to run long.  The final combat took awhile, there was some group squabbling afterwards, some further discussion about what to do with the squabblers even after that in the parking lot of the apartment complex, and then I realized in had been an hour and a half since I called my girlfriend and said I'd meet her in thirty minutes.  Crap.

I rushed back to my house and saw her car parked in the driveway.  That was good.  There were no lights on in the house, however, and my roommate wasn't home.  That was not good.  As I parked and got out, I saw she was still in the car.  She had been waiting for an hour!  I got closer and realized she was asleep.  That's right, this girl had come to meet me and had fallen asleep in the car, waiting on me to finish killing orcs.  I was, and am, a lucky, lucky man.

Happy Anniversary!

04 January 2012

Starting Back Up

Winter break is over.  We made it to and from Texas with minimal hassle.   I am back at work, already caught up in the frenzy of an impending semester (I am all but finished with the syllabus for the class on comic books I am co-teaching this semester), and have already managed to clutter up my desk.

Gaming (the Pathfinder adventure path) will start back up next week.  I'm looking forward to that, as well as to some other projects on the horizon.  I hope everyone had a great Christmas and New Year's.