Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Tracking the Wily Intermediate Freelancer Pt. 2: Working on Spec

posted by Mur

In doing general research regarding magazine writing, I've discovered that it is generally a bad idea to work on spec - meaning that you write the entire article and attempt to sell it to a magazine instead of querying, getting approval and writing with the secure knowledge that money will be made. However, I am discovering that the RPG world is, as always, a different animal than the rest of the publishing world.

(I still can't convince my mother that the tiny amount I make writing RPGs is industry standard for someone with fewer than 10 titles. She insists I need an agent. I imagine the look on an agent's face when she figures out what 10% of $.0X a word is. But I digress.)

Back on topic, it seems that you cannot get an assignment writing for RPG publications - just write the piece and send it in. Dungeon, Dragon, Knights of the Dinner Table and Eden Studios Presents all seem to work this way, according to my research. (please correct me if I'm wrong)

While it would no doubt be impressive to developers for me to hand them a copy of Dungeon and show them my 20K word adventure, I have a fear that if I write an adventure and it's rejected, that's a hell of a lot of time and effort wasted. It's not like there's a bunch of RPG magazines I can send an adventure to after one rejection, especially if it's focused on a gaming system like D20. If I wrote a women's health article and failed to sell it to "Shape," I could still send it to "Self," "O," or any number of magazines. My RPG choices are narrowed to keeping the stuff and running it for my gaming group or publishing it online.

Is there another way? I have plenty of RPG work I can show to a magazine; would they respond to a query? Or is the answer just to suck it up and write a bunch of stuff that might not get published?**


** "Ah," you must be thinking, "This Intermediate Freelancer is a whiny one." You may be right. Gaining experience in this field makes me feel as if my number of questions has multiplied. Before, when I scored an assignment or two, I was bowled over with my only question being "Golly, can I really write all that?" Now I look to get more, and more diverse, work, and am finding the prospect daunting. And to anyone who is keeping score, no responses back from any of the contacts I made at Origins, except from Eden who told me to submit (on spec) to Eden Studios Presents. Hence this post.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

the Rock Soup RPG

posted by L0N

Something my gaming group has only done twice, but had quite a good time doing is playing the Rock Soup RPG.

The whole idea started is one of the usual suspects in our gaming group never threw a character sheet away. From one-shots and never got off the ground games. And characters she played for a year or more were in the same beat up manila folder. Characters sheets from Paranoia, CP202, Vampire, 1st ed D&D, Top Secret SI, Middle-Earth Role Playing and well you get the idea.

One night Chuck (another of the usual suspects) joked that someone should take the character sheets from the folder randomly pass them out and try and run a game with whatever people ended up with. This got the wheels turning in my head and a few weeks later I tried it.

When everyone arrived at our house I asked if I could see the folder I drew out one more character sheet than the number of players there that night. I then shuffled them as best I could and passed them out. It has been a few years but if memory serves we had characters from Champions, Cyberpunk 2020, Paranoia, Gamma World, and two others that I can't remember any longer.

I ran a game where the players were "champions called from across time and space" to defend the multiverse from the Daleks. I tried to use the rules native to each game system when possible, but the whole thing was made up on the fly so there wasn’t a lot of strict adherence to the rule. But more of an attempt to just have fun. The night broke down into high comedy when trying to rescue one of the players from a 1920's hospital they realized the only person that could drive a car was hiding in the trunk. Eventually they saved the multiverse and went home.

We tried it one more time with less success than the first, but it was an interesting experiment to try a couple times. I wanted to give it one more try, but the owner of the manila folder cleaned it out so it only had character sheets for active campaigns.

If anyone tries this please let me know. I would like to hope that someone else will play the Rock Soup RPG.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004


posted by Bruce Baugh

Software developer Eric Sink recently wrote an article about pricing software that seems thoroughly relevant to rolegaming pricing, too. Check it out.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Scene Framing

posted by Bruce Baugh

I owe a debt here to a variety of folks, most particularly Neel Krishnaswami, for insightful observations in recent years. None of what follows is intended to look as if it sprang full-grown from the brow of Zeus.

There are a lot of ways that roleplaying games operating in a chosen genre differ from stories and shows in the same genre. One of these is pacing: the rpg version of the scene will almost always start sooner and end later than the other versions. It's customary for those of us with arty pretentious ambitions to sneer at the socially incompetent masses for their need to game out all the details, and I have done that in my time, but I'm mellowing in my stance about it. I don't think it's unreasonable to want to make sure your character (and your influence on the story) doesn't get hosed because of conflicting assumptions. What's played out is much easier to agree about than what's glossed over, summarized, or otherwise pushed off screen. That's as true for a group with a lot of trust and shared creative framework as for any other.

It struck me just recently that game mechanics like inspiration (in Adventure) and hero points (in the cinematic Unisystem) provide a good tool here.

The point of including the stuff around the edges of the scene is to make sure that characters have the information and resources they need, the chance to set up plans, and so on. Well, hero points let players declare such things, and come with guidelines for the cost of increasingly significant interpolations. I think that in a game run with each scene in a tighter frame, it might work to simply give the players more points to spend - probably not in a hard-and-fast conversion of expected play time versus increased points (though if anyone were to work out math for that, I'd be glad to see it), but with a significant boost, perhaps enough for one or two really major changes or a bunch of smaller ones for each scene tightened up this way. Then play starts at the first exciting, dramatic, or other worthwhile moment; interpolations are handled in compact flashbacks, the narrative version of zooming in for a sudden reveal, and like that.

(I also wonder if it would help to declare a caption or summary for each scene: "At the Bank", "Two Conversations", "The First Assassination Attempt". The sort of strong-genre story I'm thinking about here has a familiar structure amenable to themes and variations, and it seems like it'd help players use their resources effectively if they know at least some of what's coming. There's still room for surprise.)

Has anyone tried deliberately running in this style? I'm looking forward to trying it out myself.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Dissecting a Character Sheet

posted by Al-X

One of the vital ingredients of any RPG is the character sheet. It’s actually one of the first things I look for when considering a new game, since it gives me a summarized glimpse at what the game considers important that a player should have handy. It also gives me an idea on what the company considers good layout, and a messy character sheet often speaks of messy content.

A character sheet is also a window for the rules system, and although it won’t be possible to glean the actual rules, it will at least give someone an idea on what the game is about. Going over the sheets of some games, there are some common elements to all of them that can be used as tools for deciding what a game should or could have in its system.

Personal Information: The character’s description in mostly non-mechanic terms. Name, height, weight, hair and eye color, etc. This area also includes the description of the character’s general classification within the game system, such as race and class in D&D as well as clan, tribe, etc. in White Wolf games. It also describes in-game associations and allegiances.

Personal Attributes: Some games dispense with this, but it’s a major staple of RPGs that a character has a set of basic characteristics describing him or her in general terms, giving a quantitative expression to basic talents or aptitudes. These characteristics represent innate capabilities that can be applied in many situations or in a wide spectrum of task resolution challenges, applying a value to the challenge, providing a target number for the dice and/or combining with other, more specific values. In D&D, these are the six abilities (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Wisdom, Intelligence and Charisma). In the Storyteller system, these are the nine attributes divided in three categories: Physical (Strength, Dexterity and Stamina), Social (Charisma, Manipulation and Appearance) and Mental (Intelligence, Perception and Wits). In Tri-Stat, they are the three stats that give the system its name: Body, Mind and Soul.

The various systems bear many similarities, as there are only a few logical ways to describe a character, but also note how each game stresses its focus by stating what defines a character. Tri-Stat stresses simplicity as it divides the attributes in three broad values, while Storyteller adds the social aspects missing in D&D attributes.

Task Resolution Capabilities: Also known as ‘skills’ in most systems. These represent definite areas of expertise that characters do not have for free in any measure; they must be purchased during character creation to define what the character knows what to do. D&D 2nd Ed. was sorely lacking in this area, using weapon and non-weapon proficiencies to cover what other games rightfully devote more space towards. Task resolution challenges involve pitting the characters’ skills against a particular difficulty for the dice to match and surpass. A system like Nobilis dispenses with the randomness, simply stating that a character automatically achieves something that falls within his expertise. The challenges tend to involve fairly mundane tasks (even if sometimes dangerous in-game). Some systems include the character’s combat abilities into this area, considering combat just another possible challenge.

Combat: Even a social-oriented game like Vampire has its area devoted to combat. In a very tactical game like D&D, it has its own terms and values while in Storyteller and Tri-Stat these are folded with the task resolution capabilities above. However, the character sheet almost always include an area where a player can write down the numbers he needs to conduct attacks and defense, including the information of weapons, techniques and combat-oriented powers.

Life: While dependant on combat mostly, the life area of a character gives a numerical gauge to the threat of character death. The player subtracts numbers or crosses boxes to represent the wounds or reduction in vitality his character is taking. Once this gauge is depleted, the character is either dead or dying.

Inventory: An area to write down the character’s equipment, such as weapons, armor, gear and other goods independent from the character. Some items have their own characteristics, which some character sheets contemplate by including their own format in a separate area.

Special Abilities: This area would describe the special abilities and powers characters possess that make them different from other similar characters. They are blank lines in games with several options, while they can already be written down in the sheet if they are few (such as Spheres in Mage: the Ascension). These abilities can be mundane, like D&D’s feats and many of Tri-Stat’s attributes; or they can be superhuman, like D&D’s racial traits and spells, Vampire’s Disciplines and Whispering Vault’s Servitors.

Character Resource: These are special traits that represent a pool a character can draw from to achieve certain effects during play. This pool can be tied to activate one of the above special abilities, or may be more open-ended and allow for a variety of effects. The character resource depletes with use or with time, and depending on the system, it can be renewed. The rate of renewal of a resource is balanced to its utility in the game as well as on its focus. In D&D, a character resource is a bard’s music ability, a monk’s stunning fist uses or a spellcaster’s spell slots. In White Wolf games, Willpower is a generalized resource and each game adds its own like Blood (Vampire), Psi (Trinity) or Essence motes (Exalted).

Character Description: A more in-depth treatment of the Personal Information fields, Character Description may be cosmetic or mechanic, depending on how much the game system pays attention to things that describes a character’s personality and history. Few sheets contain this information except in expanded versions that go into detail about the characters’ family, loyalties and even appearance. Some systems add mechanics to this, such as Storyteller’s Backgrounds and some of Tri-Stat’s attributes. Wraith’s Passions and Fetters are a prime example of mechanic-driven in-depth description.