Monthly Archives: August 2011

Explaining What Role-playing Games Are

Last Thursday, Wittenberg University had their annual Student Activities Fair. In this event, each of the university student organizations has a table to present their organization and get interested students (mostly Freshmen) to sign up on their mailing lists. I was at the table for the Wittenberg Role-playing Guild, which plays role-playing games, has board game nights every Saturday, and has a loyal group of Magic: The Gathering players. Explaining board game nights to Freshmen was easy enough and Magic players already know if they are Magic players. But I ran into a recurring problem that I’ve never been able to resolve: I couldn’t find a good way of trying to succinctly explain to the Freshmen what exactly a tabletop role-playing game is.

First, let’s look at the Wikipedia definition of a tabletop role-playing game:

A tabletop role-playing game or pen-and-paper role-playing game is a form of role-playing game (RPG) in which the participants describe their characters’ actions through speech. Participants determine the actions of their characters based on their characterization, and the actions succeed or fail according to a formal system of rules and guidelines. Within the rules, players have the freedom to improvise; their choices shape the direction and outcome of the game.

Everything about that definition is true, but it’s rather technical and can still be confusing to someone who has never heard of an RPG before. The core of the problem seems to be that people don’t really have a good frame of reference for what an RPG is, and thus it’s difficult to succinctly describe to someone unfamiliar with it.

I’ve seen explanations that try to create a frame of reference by expanding on the definition of board games. For instance, a tabletop RPG could be described as Clue where players give Miss Scarlet and Colonel Mustard personalities and have discussions as they are completing their objective. I’ve also heard recently that “it’s like Inception” where one person is creating the dream world and other people are going inside of it (and no, I still haven’t actually seen that movie yet). Both of these can be good definitions, but I don’t think they’re perfect because they focus on one aspect of an RPG while ignoring others, thus not giving a full picture.

Another problem is that sometimes they have the wrong frame of reference. I’ve met people who think it’s like World of Warcraft (which is technically a computer RPG). I’ve also had people think that when I say “role-playing game,” I mean dressing up in a costume, wielding a foam sword, and heading out to a forest to beat up similarly dressed people (that would be a Live Action Role-playing Game, or LARP). Unfortunately, these preconceived notions can be a barrier when trying to explain what a tabletop RPG is.

During the Student Activities Fair, I kind of sidestepped the problem by talking about the different RPGs that are out there (i.e. not just Dungeons & Dragons!) in the hopes that they would be interested in playing a game involving a genre they might be interested in. Still, I really want to find a great elevator pitch explanation of what a tabletop role-playing game is. It needs to be short, doesn’t require prior knowledge, and can clearly and accurately describe what a tabletop role-playing game is. Bonus points if it doesn’t leave the listener wondering if it’s like a computer RPG or a LARP.

If any of you have one, I’d love to hear it!


When You Give Your Posse Dynamite…

I realized that I forgot to share a very important thing about my Deadlands Devil’s Tower campaign. In the middle of the campaign, the party snuck into Rock Island Prison, the Alcatraz of the Weird West. They were joined that session by a replacement character: a Scottsman martial artist (he really could throw telephone poles and such).

The real Alcatraz Island. The layout of Rock Island Prison is heavily based on this.

He also had dynamite on him. Now that wasn’t unusual in and of itself and I didn’t think much about it. Any character can purchase dynamite in Deadlands and I’ve often said that no Deadlands campaign is complete without at least one massive dynamite explosion.

As they’re traveling through Rock Island prison, they found an armory for the security guards. And they decided to blow it up. It took out a big chunk of Rock Island prison and managed to cut the guards off from the sublevels where they were.

When planning an escape route, they decided not to exit from the sewer pipe that they entered, but instead to just blow a hole through the wall. About this point, I asked how much dynamite the Scottsman actually had on him. He said that he had a whole bunch strapped on a bandolier. So he had a lot, but how much?

For this Legendary Rank campaign, I figured each of them had made a fair amount of money and gave each character $1,000 starting cash (which, adjusted for inflation, would have the buying power of roughly $20,000 today). Seeing as he had so much dynamite, I asked how much of his starting cash he spent on it. Turns out he spent $420 on sticks of dynamite (over 150 sticks!), put as many as he could carry on his bandolier, and put the rest of them in his saddlebags!

Unfortunately for the Scotsman, he started running low and only had twelve sticks left. So the party spent a few minutes trying to figure out where the best place to place them would be to do the most destruction to Rock Island Prison. Finally, one of the players said, “Why don’t we put them all right next to the ghost rock power generator?”

For those of you not familiar, ghost rock is a substance in Deadlands that is highly flammable, burns hotter and longer than coal, and is used to power all sorts of weird science gadgets. And Rock Island Prison had a power generator with superheated chunks of the stuff inside. So they set all twelve sticks of dynamite next to the thing, got as long a fuse as they possibly could, lit it, and ran for their lives! Old Pete picked them up in a getaway boat, fired up the engine, and went full throttle before…


And the posse blew up Rock Island Prison.

For what it’s worth, it really was a shining moment of awesome and I think it’ll be something that the group will remember for quite a long time.

Victory Requires the Threat of Defeat

One thing I’ve learned in my time as a GM: a satisfying victory requires the threat that the heroes can be defeated. What that threat is depends on the genre. In a Pulp setting, the threat might not be the Nazis themselves, but rather what the Nazis would do if they’re not stopped. In a horror setting, the threat is the “things man was not meant to know” and whether the heroes will survive their encounter with them. If that threat isn’t there, the victory can be hollow. Personally, I think that’s why dungeon crawls aren’t very interesting; there’s little threat that the monsters will kill the heroes and there’s no threat that the monsters will do anything if the characters just walk away from the dungeon.

For the finale of my summer Deadlands mini-campaign, I decided that I really needed to up the threat level. This was a campaign for “Legendary” level characters and the stakes were literally the safety of the world. Their experience against Los Diablos several sessions earlier did present a huge threat (and four characters died from it) but I figured that their victory at the end of this campaign would be so much more satisfying if they were facing an enormous threat of defeat. In other words, I wanted them to have so much to lose that if they won, their victory would be so much more meaningful.

I won’t give too many spoilers about the ending to the Devil’s Tower campaign itself, but the heroes quickly discovered that they were literally trying to prevent Hell on Earth (the sequel setting to Deadlands exploring a possible future where the heroes lost and the power of fear completely destroyed the world). In order to prevent it, they had to find a portal to the Hunting Grounds and take the Heart o’ Darkness through to somewhere else.

They didn’t have much difficulty reaching the portal, but when they did, they found someone else was already there to stop them:


Now Stone is the biggest, baddest undead gunslinger of all time. As I mentioned in an earlier post, he is essentially the most powerful person in the entire setting, gets supernatural powers from Death itself, and is just about evil incarnate. If his presence wasn’t enough to make the posse shaking in their boots, he demonstrated why he’s called the “Servitor of Death” by pulling out one of his Colt Dragoons, fanning the hammer and killing half of the scientists in the room, holstering that gun and pulling out the other, fanning the hammer again to kill the other half of the scientists, and then holstered that and drew both (magically reloaded!) all in the span of a few seconds!

There was a rare moment when the players themselves were spooked along with their characters. They had one, maybe two combat rounds to save the world or die trying (which would mean that evil had completely won).

The posse’s “nun with a gun” fired at Stone hoping to kill him swiftly. The shot would have killed any other man, but this was the Servitor of Death! He fell down, only to stand back up again and give an angry snarl as he fanned the hammer and four bullets hit the nun in the head, killing her instantly.

Zed the Huckster tried unleashing some powerful magic to detain Stone long enough for them to make it through the portal to the Hunting Grounds. But a curious thing happened. Instead of flinging a razor-sharp card at Stone, he watched in horror as he flung a card at one of his allies, killing him instantly.

You see, Zed had taken the Veteran o’ the Weird West Edge and paid a huge price for power. It turns out that his consequence was that he was terminally ill and, unbeknownst to him, he’d actually died early on in the campaign and had become a Harrowed, meaning that he was dead, but a manitou was inside his head keeping him alive. The manitou stayed hidden until the very end when he temporarily took control of Zed’s body in order to make him attack his friends instead.

The surviving characters knew they had to make a plan fast or else they would die, Stone would have the Heart o’ Darkness, and Hell would come to Earth. So the next player up decided to try a different tactic: RUN!!!

He made it through the portal through the Hunting Grounds just in time and Stone started chasing after him. Where did they end up? I decided to leave that ambiguous. But Stone did not reappear from the portal and the Heart of Darkness was no longer around. Neither of them could threaten the world any longer.

They had managed to save the world, but many heroic individuals died in the process. The sole survivor, Andrew Lane, left Devil’s Tower to tell the tale of the heroic deeds of those who sacrificed their lives to save the world.

I think it’s good to have pyrrhic victories like this from time to time. If role-playing games always ended optimally, then victory wouldn’t mean as much because the threat of defeat just wasn’t there. They can be happy that they won, but the fact that they lost so much means that it’s more meaningful and any future victories they have will mean more because there was loss this time around.

All in all, I’m happy with how the campaign turned out. I send an e-mail to my players compiling a list of each character’s fate over the course of the campaign and how they contributed, directly or indirectly, to the final victory of the campaign.

And in the end, all my players, even those who didn’t have surviving characters, had fun. And isn’t that the whole point of a role-playing game?

Having the Players Keep the Party Together

Every once in a while, you’ve got a character in the party who just doesn’t want to work with the rest of the group. Maybe he has differing viewpoints, maybe he disagrees with the party’s goal, maybe he just wants to cause trouble. Sometimes this conflict is good for the game, but often times it can be detrimental. In a premade scenario, it can be a real issue if one of the characters doesn’t want to follow the presumed path.

In my Deadlands mini-campaign, we had a situation like that where one of the characters disagreed with the rest of the group about what to do with the Heart of Darkness. The rest of the party realized that they needed to destroy it, but he wanted to take it straight to Dr. Hellstromme (which would have been a very bad thing). The player told me, “In character, I’m ready to kill this guy who’s trying to stop me and walk to Hellstromme since that’s what my character would do. Out of character, I’d just like to get back to the plot.”

As the GM, I could have narrated something that would force his character to stay with the party. But I thought that this “railroading” might have been an unsatisfying solution to the player and to everyone else.

So I came up with an idea: I told the player to take over the GM reigns for a moment and narrate out the scene so that his character could get back to the plot. He said that if one of the other characters would return the Heart of Darkness that had been pick-pocketed off of him and calmly said to at least have a talk before turning the Heart of Darkness to anyone, then his character could go along with the plot.

And that’s what happened. In the end, everybody was happy and we were able to move along with the prewritten scenario. It turned out to be a really effective tool and it’s one that I think I’ll keep in my GM toolbox for a long time.

Thoughts About Powerful NPCs

When it first came out, Deadlands had a fairly heavy metaplot and the big names in the world were doing a whole lot of stuff with the setting, often without the posse being involved at all. One side effect of this was that certain NPCs were flatly declared to be unkillable because they were important to the overarching story of Deadlands. (Fortunately, this has largely been avoided in Deadlands Reloaded).

At the beginning of my summer Deadlands mini-campaign through the “Devil’s Tower” trilogy, I told my players that I was willing to break the metaplot if their characters wanted to. For what it’s worth, I’m actually a huge fan of the Deadlands metaplot and think there are a lot of cool elements in there about how the world has developed. But it’s not very fun for the GM to intentionally steer things so that they meet a certain official outcome. So if the posse wanted to kill one of the big players, I was totally fine with that.

Two sessions ago, they stuck twelve sticks of dynamite next to Rock Island’s ghost rock generator, leveling the entire island. Changing the metaplot? You betcha, but it was awesome! Last session, they came face to face with two of the Big Bads in the Weird West: Reverend Grimme (a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”) and Stone (the biggest, baddest undead gunslinger of all time).

Now in the Deadlands Classic era, Grimme and Stone were flat out declared to be invincible. In fact, the entry for Stone says that he’s a plot device, that he’s not allowed to die under any circumstances, and that he’s so badass that he doesn’t even need stats. The lack of stats was rationalized in the Deadlands Classic Marshal’s Handbook by saying:

[There’s an] old rule in game design that ‘if you stat it, they will kill it.’ How many of you used to go hunting the Gods of Asgard in your high-school fantasy rpgs? —Deadlands Marshal’s Handbook, pg. 30

I get what they’re coming from and they’re right: the gods of Asgard shouldn’t be seen as common enemies to be killed. And Stone is supposed to most powerful individual in the entire setting. But I find this solution a bit hard to accept. It means that no matter how powerful the player characters are, they are never able to defeat him.

The other solution is to make them invulnerable, but still capable of dying if the heroes are able to find and exploit their weakness (in Savage Worlds, all invulnerable creatures must have a weakness). Sometimes this works and sometimes it can lead to an unsatisfying situation, as happened with my Independence Day one-shot where “The Butcher” got incapacitated and the suspense fizzled as the heroes sat around for a while not sure what to do. In retrospect, I think that since the Butcher was invulnerable to bullets, I should have ruled that he was shot down, then instantly got back up instead of being down for several rounds.

Both Reverend Grimme and Stone had an invulnerability like this. The posse could not harm them unless they could exploit their respective weaknesses, which are secret enough that finding it could be a campaign in and of itself. If the PCs planned on attacking them during my mini-campaign, my plan was to use their stats (yes, Deadlands Reloaded actually gave them stats) and just have an awesome description for how their invulnerability worked. To me, this is a good solution for the bad guys. They’re not totally invulnerable, they won’t go down like punks, and they can still possibly be defeated.

On the flip side, this solution doesn’t work at all for NPCs who are allied with the PCs. The third part of the Devil’s Tower trilogy features a character named “Jackie Wells.” Here is her description from the scenario:

Jackie’s stats aren’t listed here for a good reason. We don’t want her to get killed off. She’s a plot device, and she‘s important to moving the storyline along. In combat, assume Jackie’sa fearless dynamo. She can take out about one opponent wiih every round (deal her 1d4+1 cards each round, just to make things seem like they’re on the up-and-up). The trick here is to balance battles so that the heroes don‘t come to rely on her too much. —Fortress o’ Fear, pg. 10

Jackie is a prototypical example of a “Marie Sue” character. The name comes from the Star Trek parody fanfiction story A Trekkie’s Tale where Lieutenant Mary Sue winds up outshining Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the rest of the crew while they sit back and admire her awesomeness. Especially in role-playing games, that just doesn’t work. The heroes are the stars of the adventure and sitting back on the sidelines to watch some NPC do the work really isn’t that fun.

Fortunately, I had an innovative way of dealing with her. The posse wound up finding her journal, containing the important plot information, another way. And on their way to the Devil’s Tower, they saw a gravestone with the following epitaph:

Here Lies
Jackie “Mary Sue” Wells

Jackie was a “plot device”
The GM killed her out of spite
The author never gave her stats
She didn’t even have a hat.

Yep. I killed off Jackie Wells. She was a character who was a time traveller from the future, who was too awesome to have stats, who had a gun that could kill Stone even when he was incorporeal, who regularly pushed around the party, and who would attack the party if they didn’t want to do what she said to do. I just felt including her would just hurt the scenario far more than help. So I removed her from the scenario and made it clear to my players that I was doing them a favor for it because NPC allies that save the world while the PCs watch just isn’t fun.

Jackie pointing a gun at Stone, who is holding the Heart o' Darkness

Jackie "Mary Sue" Wells intimidating Stone. According to the scenario, this scene should be resolved by having the posse literally just sit in the background and watch her beat up Stone without any dice being rolled.

So in summary, unkillable NPCs are bad, bad, bad! Having the biggest, baddest enemies in the world with invulnerabilities and a weakness can work out if used correctly. Having allied NPCs who are invulnerable, or otherwise are able to massively outshine the NPCs are about the worst thing you can do to your players.

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