Tag Archives: Roleplaying

Exploring the wreckage of a more interesting age: when game backstories overshadow the actual game

In Bioshock, the high quality of the game's backstory can make it feel like you've missed out on all the good stuff.

Have you ever played a game whose backstory was more interesting than the game’s actual current setting and plot?

Over the last year, I played through Bioshock and its sequel, the appropriately-named Bioshock 2. Both are very good games. In both, you assume the roll of an “outsider” exploring the wreckage of a failed underwater utopia called Rapture; as you progress through the ruins, you learn about the politics, intrigue, and violence that “wrecked” Rapture and paved the way for your arrival on the scene.

The backstories of both games are filled with warring political factions, double agents, megalomaniacal villains (on all sides), betrayal, mass murder, twisted science, and sordid affairs. Or so is implied by the bits and pieces of history you pick up as you roam through the game.

By contrast, the plots that you, the player, experience are interesting, but rather tame by comparison. It is not inaccurate to say that in both games, you’re merely playing out the epilogue of a grander, more intriguing story that has already taken place.

I feel a bit ridiculous critiquing the Bioshocks on these grounds, because as it happens, both feature excellent plots and memorable characters. But both games teeter on the brink of an age-old danger in game design: making the game background so interesting and involved that it threatens to overshadow the players and their stories.

Exalted is the rare game that attempts to make its lost golden age a playable setting.

Related to this problem is the fantasy genre staple of the “lost golden age”—an era in the distant past in which everything was simply more awesome in every respect than the current age. Think Middle-Earth’s First Age; Exalted’s (uh) First Age, 4th edition D&D’s fallen empire of Nerath, all post-apocalyptic games, many sci-fi games, etc. (Exalted does get bonus points for actually publishing a sourcebook on its lost golden age.)

I know there are some excellent reasons that “golden ages” don’t make great adventuring settings—but surely I’m not the only person who, upon reading about the greatness of what came before, occasionally wonders why I’m not adventuring in that setting, instead of picking my way through its wreckage.

What about you? Ever played a computer or tabletop game and been more interested in its backstory than its current setting?

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Weekend game report: halfling zombie edition

I ran a game of Castles & Crusades on Friday evening for my wife and a friend. I realized two things:

  • It’s not a good idea to GM when the only thing keeping you conscious is a melange of cold medications.
  • C&C is pretty darn close to my perfect ideal of Dungeons and Dragons.

I’ve run C&C off-and-on for several years now; it’s my go-to game when we want to do something with an old-school vibe but don’t feel like wrangling with the generally Byzantine rules of the actual old-school games themselves. It’s trivially easy to master and to teach to new players, and yet it manages to preserve most of the charm of Gygax-era D&D.

We played through the first half of Shadows of the Halfling Hall. Despite the aforementioned cold medication, it was surprisingly fun. It’s rather rare, in my experience, to come across adventures set in halfling/hobbit settlements, which due to the nature of their inhabitants tend to be dull, safe, and pleasant locations. Kudos to Troll Lord Games for finding a fun way to work dungeon crawls and zombies into Hobbiton-with-the-serial-numbers-filed-off.

(Speaking of Hobbiton, one of the better MERP supplements was The Shire, which did a nice job of showing how many adventure possibilities lurk within the superficially dull Hobbit homeland.)

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Why was there no classic campaign for Middle-Earth Role Playing?

Writing my last post on epic adventure paths in D&D got me thinking about some of the most famous adventure sagas in other roleplaying systems. Consider these famous game campaigns, all of which are considered to encapsulate the essence of the games for which they were published:

I’m not familiar with every one of these, but I know that each of these campaigns lets players participate in a significant, world-changing storyline within the framework of the game. They involve lots of travel to interesting locations around the game world, a wide variety of opponents and challenges, and memorable scenes and characters of the sort that players will reminisce about years later.

One game that almost never got around to publishing a “Tolkien-esque” campaign saga was, ironically, Middle Earth Role Playing.

MERP has often been criticized for being “D&D in Middle-Earth”—for using the setting and trappings of Tolkien to do the same dungeon crawls and treasure-hunting that characterized D&D, rather than empowering players to live out grand stories in the vein of The Lord of the Rings.

This is true to a large extent. The modules published for MERP exhaustively detailed particular geographic points of interest in Middle-Earth (and their wonderful thoroughness makes them a joy to read even now the game itself is long defunct). But despite the obvious obsession with Tolkien that produced such thorough game modules, there was rarely any effort to lay out an epic quest or adventure that would tie all those locations together. It’s as if the game writers assumed that what people loved about Tolkien was the detail of the setting rather than the characters and storyline of Tolkien’s tales.

You could, of course, create your own epic, Lord of the Rings-scale quest, but it was odd that the published game rarely helped you do this; it seemed to assume your party would rather stick around the Barrow-Downs for months raiding tomb after tomb for petty magic items, instead of passing through them as part of a bigger, more epic heroic quest. Toward the end of the MERP timeline, Iron Crown did publish at least one product that took aim at an epic storyline: Palantir Quest, which set the PCs off on a quest for a lost palantir. It was good, but was the only product of its type (that I’m aware of).

Maybe it didn’t sell well; maybe most gamers didn’t want epic quest campaigns. It’s impossible to know for sure now—but if more like it had been published, maybe MERP would have its own “classic campaign” to add to the list of all-time favorite game sagas above. As it is, it’s unfortunate that the roleplaying game based on the greatest fantasy narrative of all time shied away from, well, great fantasy narratives.

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Lend me a hand, Wizards: sell me some non-randomized miniatures

I bet this miniature gets a lot of use in your average D&D gameI like Wizards’ pre-painted plastic miniatures, both the D&D and Star Wars flavors—I make heavy use of them in the games I run. But I really think Wizards is missing an opportunity by not releasing a few RPGer-friendly miniature sets.

By this I mean that I would be a happier GM if I could go to my friendly local game store and buy a box of non-random, themed plastic miniatures—say, a box of a dozen skeletons, or goblins, or kobolds or Stormtroopers or what-have-you. As it is, because the miniature packs sold by Wizards are randomized, I’ve got just as much chance of winding up with a celestial black bear (truly, a staple of any D&D game) as I do of getting the basic gnoll that I’ll actually use in my game.

Yes, it’s not too difficult to assemble “encounter groups” by purchasing miniatures individually from a place like GMSarli Games or Miniature Market. The former online store even sells themed encounter packs to make your life easier. But why isn’t Wizards doing this? Why aren’t they selling packs of miniatures as companions to the adventure modules they’re releasing? (Some brave soul on rpg.net has gone through and listed out miniatures that cover every monster in Keep on the Shadowfell—looks awesome, but prohibitively expensive to collect individually.)

Ah well, I’m just another GM ranting that Wizards isn’t making the exact product that he wants… but I’ve seen other gamers online calling for non-random miniature sets, and you’d think Wizards could at least test the concept with a release or two. Wizards, are you listening? Add my vote to the record….

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When a game session goes well

There’s nothing quite so fun as a game session that goes well. (Well, there probably are a few other things that are that fun. But just a few.)

Last night I ran a D&D 3.5 game that was… just a great deal of fun. Gaming over the last year has been a tad lackluster for various reasons, but sessions like last night’s remind why I love this hobby so much. A few observations from the game:

  • I love playing with newbies. A couple of the people in last night’s game group were totally new to D&D. I love being there when the game finally “clicks” for them. Almost invariably, about an hour into the game, there’s a flash of excitement and understanding on their face and they ask: “You mean… my character can do anything I want in this game?” Last night, that moment came as the party explored an old warehouse, came to a closed door behind which they knew enemies were lurking, and realized… hey, we don’t have to charge through that door—we don’t even have to fight these enemies at all if we don’t want to. A simple scene, but inspiring!
  • I’m never going to tire of D&D. That’s not entirely true; every couple of years I get overdosed on D&D and need to take some time off to play other games instead. But I always come back. At the end of the day, I’ll never say no to a good old-fashioned game of fantasy adventurers, sinister villains, and noble quests. Other great games come and go, but nothing does “kill the bad guys and take their stuff” like D&D.
  • I love gaming. This is probably an obvious point, but I had an epiphany this weekend: I love gaming just as much as I did when I was younger, but these days my reasons for loving gaming are quite a bit different. As one of the players last night commented during the game: “You know, for me, D&D is really all about eating unhealthy snacks and laughing with friends.” When I was a kid, I played RPGs with my friends because we loved the games; the social interaction with my friends was just a side benefit. Today, I play RPGs with friends almost entirely because of the social interaction: few other activities let me laugh and connect with them in quite the same way. There were times during the game last night that the entire table was paralyzed with laughter at somebody’s witty one-liner. It really doesn’t get much better than that.

As with any social activity, not every game is a transformative and joyous experience, as any gamer will tell you. But when they do go well, they leave me glowing for days. And now I couldn’t possibly be in better spirits for my trip to Gencon later this week!

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GaryCon 2008: Mr. Gygax, we salute you

gygaxMany, many people have in the last few days written eloquent tributes to Gary Gygax, so I won’t try and compete with them—I’ll just say that if Gary Gygax had not created a little game called Dungeons & Dragons, my life would be radically different than it is.

How many hours did I spent in my youth poring over game rulebooks, plotting out adventures in my mind, rolling up dozens and dozens of characters just for the sheer imaginative thrill of it? My first roleplaying experience was Tomb of the Lizard King—not one of Gary’s modules, but it wasn’t long before I was soaking up every piece of Gygax writing I could find. My cousins and I had so much fun with Tomb of the Lizard King that we proceeded to hole up for three straight days doing nothing but playing D&D (much to the consternation of our parents, who didn’t know what the heck to make of our excited babbling about clerics and hit points and gelatinous cubes). None of us had even the slightest idea what we were doing (my cousins made me GM even though I had never before laid eyes on a rulebook), but we knew we had stumbled upon something incredible. I have vivid memories of hours spent intensely reading through my cousin’s copy of the 1st edition Dungeon Masters Guide. After that it was Top Secret, Middle Earth Role Playing, Mechwarrior and many others… games written by others but which owed their existence to Gygax’s pioneering. Thank you, Gary Gygax, for sharing your creation with the rest of us, and for giving this awkward teenager an outlet for his imagination.

garyconTonight we participated in what some are calling “GaryCon”—a game of dungeon-crawling, kobold-killing, treasure-looting D&D in memory of Gary. I ran the players through a mostly improvised dungeon populated by skeletons, giant rats, and an owlbear, and remembering Gary’s DMG advice not to coddle players, I even managed to kill one of them with said owlbear. It was not the best game I’ve ever run, nor was it the worst: it was just a good game, and that seemed perfectly appropriate.

At the end of the game we each rolled a d20 in honor of Gary. I rolled a 19.

Rest in peace, Mr. Gygax.

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