UbiquitousRat's Roleplaying Dreams

UbiquitousRat's Roleplaying Dreams: April 2013

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Experiences on Experience

XP: the means by which most RPGs confer improvements upon the characters, earned through their achievements in play. Experience Points (XP) are given at regular intervals to reward the players for taking part in the game. We're all, I think, familiar with the idea.

The question has always been, "What's the best way to go about awarding XP?"

The answer lies in what you want to achieve. If you want to encourage any given behaviour then that is what you reward. Thus, if you give XP for killing monsters and finding treasure you'll focus the players on those two activities.

There is no right or wrong way to reward players in your game. There are simply more or less effective ways to encourage the behaviours that you want to see. For example, seeking to encourage more "roleplay", i.e. acting in role, instead of the more common descriptive style of play, I've introduced suggestions for XP multipliers. Taken straight from "Gamemastery", these bonuses have had a dramatic effect on the behaviours of the players and the quality of the game.

Experience from Fantasy

My current Fantasy-genre game is being currently played using the default rules of Castles & Crusades. The guys are enjoying themselves, although there have been rumblings for one or two tweaks, such as with the combat rules. 

From my perspective, however, the real challenge has been calibrating the XP system. C&C uses a very slow progression rate and encourages the GM to add in delays between levelling up processes too: one week of training (expensive) per level gained, e.g. going to Level 3... well that's 3 weeks training, dude.

With staggered level-up points for each different class, low-value awards for combat, and low-encouragement to give other awards... well, I found myself unwittingly starving my players of XP. Following the default rules was making them jittery because they wanted to get to Level 2 and 3 quickly. Remembering Wick's Law that you should "run the game the player's want to play", I knew that they needed a boost.

Step One was to add in the following XP multipliers to encourage role-playing over roll-playing:

Step Two has been to adjust the amount of XP per creature overcome. My players want an action-game where monster kills are valuable, in the Old School tradition, so I will give it to them. I've decided to make the monster-kill XP a per-hero total instead of being divided between them. Thus, when my 5 heroes kill 10 Goblins, worth around 100XP they get 100 each, not 20 each. 

Step Three has been to add in larger bonuses for completing non-fighting goals. These are largely improvised but a rough scale exists in my head: 
  • 50-100XP for a small personal goal or small achievement, such as thinking to record something important or prepare something useful. In the last session, one player got 50XP for thinking of making 2 torches from some wood and rotten rags off a looted creature; another got 100XP for recording the details of runes on a doorway.
  • 100-250XP for completing a short-term personal goal, such as found on the player's Roleplaying Sheet, or a story goal in the current adventure.
  • 250XP+ for longer-term personal goal or a major story goal, such as something that would have taken multiple adventures to achieve.
I also took the expedience of giving everyone a 300XP boost at the end of the first adventure to allow them, after four sessions, to level-up. Oh, and I have dumped the training for this event.

Musings for Beta

Beta RPG is the system I'm developing for my own gaming pleasure. Right now it's very embryonic but it does have the basics in place.

One thing Beta does lack, however, is an XP system. I've not finalised anything yet but I am leaning towards a couple of things based on the experiences of giving XP to my group.

Firstly, they like big numbers. Increments of "1000XP = a reward" sounds nice and feel good. Perhaps each 1000XP total will unlock an upgrade, allowing for some chunky XP awards depending on the genre of play.

That's a good second point too: different genres and styles of play will warrant different XP awards. Fantasy gaming will probably reward creature kills where modern gaming may not... unless it's a monster-hunt game. Thus XP calibration advice to GMs needs to outline how different awards will affect play.

Thirdly, the roleplaying multipliers will probably become a default element of the XP system, encouraging good quality play.

Lastly, the system should draw fair-sized rewards from the Roleplaying (RP) Sheet, which needs to be a part of the character creation process... perhaps similar to the bonuses I mentioned above.

And finally...

The process of XP awards needs to be flexible. It needs to reward the behaviours you want in your game.

I still want to go back and check out the Rolemaster XP system again. Years ago I used the system outlined in the GM book from RMFRP and found it to be really useful. There are all-manner of useful ideas for XP bonuses in there, despite my memory failing me right now. I need to be able to drop in some new rewards ideas if they prove useful.

Do you want them to investigate? Then give XP for each clue found and a big reward for solving the mystery. Do you want them to stop killing like psychos? Then don't reward monster kills with XP.

That said... remember: "You have to run the game the players want to play".

Game on!

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Sunday, 21 April 2013

Descent: Journeys in the Dark

This week my wife bought a copy of Descent: Journeys in the Dark, Second Edition.

This short review outlines the generally positive feeling that the game gave me (at least as Overlord) and one or two concerns that arose from the other player's reactions.

This is a high-quality board game from Fantasy Flight Games. It draws inspiration from the classical dungeon adventure of D&D fame, pitting a team of adventurers against the denizens of various short quests. 

The biggest break with roleplaying, however, lies with the fact that the Hero players (who play an adventurer) are in direct competition with the Overload player (who has all the critters and lots of power). 

This makes Descent a board game, not a roleplaying experience.


Costing around £50-55, what do you get for your money? Impressively, quite a bit. 

Firstly there are 39 miniatures, of which 8 are heroes and the rest are groups of monsters. Chunky dragons and elementals rub shoulders with Goblins and zombies. These are in a reasonably detailed plastic which provides three colours  - grey for heroes, white for basic monsters, and red for "Master" monsters (aka bosses). No assembly was required, although I was slightly disappointed that my Master Zombie model had become bent in the box, leaving him perpetually leaning back (as if drunk) despite attempts to bend him upright.

Next is all the card. Hard-stock board sections, each numbered and double-sided. Lots of chunky counters from the same cardstock. Very little wastage from the frames. The boards are all marked with squares for movement, although my colour-blind eyes found seeing the lines awkward on some sections. 

There are also a myriad of playing-card sized reference cards and various decks for use in play. From the Overlord Deck (with which I am becoming familiar) through to the Monsters Cards, these are all beautifully illustrated. There is also a smaller-sized card used for Condition Cards and other, smaller decks. At first we were worried at the volume of card types but, with play, realised that relatively few are in use at any given time: you will be swapping Act I decks for Act II decks later in the campaign (should you use it) and you don't need everything all of the time.

There are eight heroes (archetypes), 8 character classes (two per hero archetype) and many choices to be made should you want to play through a campaign.

Mention of the campaign means it's worth mentioning that, in addition to a very easy-to-read and well-constructed rulebook, you also receive a Quest Book. This contains 20 quests, of which 16 are useable as one-off games. Together the 20 quests comprise a campaign, playing 9 of the quests in a sequence through which the outcome of each quest affects the later events in the campaign.

Of note is also the fact that the cards come pre-sorted in ziploc bags. We liked this. Oh, and there are special custom dice.

Game Play

It's simple. Heroes go first, in any order the players choose. Then the Overlord goes.

Heroes and monsters get two actions per turn. Heroes can repeat actions (including Attack) but monsters can only Attack once. You can move, attack, use skills and abilities, help injured friends and many other useful options exist. You roll dice to resolve most actions.

Each quest is a mini-mission. A couple of quests only have one encounter but most have two. You play through the encounters and seek to achieve your goals - Heroes and Overlord have different objectives each time. In the first game, for example, the Overlord needed to get 5 Goblins to escape the evil Heroes... while the Heroes were seeking to kill the Ettin... which they did very quickly in our case. 

You can play at a basic level, treating each quest as a one-off game. You can play one-offs but increase the power-level of the game by one or two notches. Or you can play the campaign.

This is a fast, easy-to-run and well-ordered system of play. We liked it.


After one game we decided we wanted to keep the heroes and develop their powers. The campaign was obviously the way to go.

After each quest there is a brief Campaign phase. The heroes return to the town, gain experience points to spend on improving their abilities (all chosen from their Class deck), spend cash earned in the Shop (all from a card deck), and choose their next quest. The Overlord also gains XP and can upgrade their own Overlord Deck, choosing from both universal cards and those belonging to one of three Overlord Classes.

Once prepped, the heroes travel to their next quest. There is a map with travel encounters possible (again, through the use of a deck of cards). This took but a minute to resolve when we played and is very slick.

Once arrived, the heroes enter the next quest's first encounter. You set up, place the models and set to. It's quite easy and the Quest book gives the Overlord a lot of choices to consider.


We had a good session with two quests, for a total of three encounters, played over around 4 hours. The campaign promises some 20+ hours of game time over multiple sittings.

What impresses me is the combinations of play which means that there is considerable re-playability for the campaign. Each of the eight heroes has two classes to choose from; the Class Cards can't all be bought over the 9 quests that form the campaign, so you have to make choices; the Overlord is customising their own deck and choosing different monsters each time they run a quest; and so on. There are enough choices and random elements to guarantee that no two quests will play the same way.

Tactically the game is challenging. Players have to work together and decide how to tackle each part of the quest. The Overlord gets to throw spanners into their plans. Playing cards from the Overlord Deck essentially either boosts the monsters or disrupts the heroes. My favourite card is "Tripwire".

Of concern for one player was the sense that the game favours the Overlord somewhat. I think that, if this perception is correct (and it might not be) that would be acceptable because the game should be challenging for the Heroes... especially as they form a team with ever-growing powers. But then, I would say that... I played the Overlord.

Is there enough variety in the monsters? Probably. There aren't too many different types but they do upgrade in Act II of the campaign, and there are basic versions as well as bosses. In a way, too many monster choices might make for fiddly play. As Overlord I had enough choices and variety in our first two quests... and the Heroes quickly worked out how to defeat them.

My largest disappointment is that the Lieutenants, special characters used by the Overlord in some missions, didn't come with miniatures. They are represented by tokens. I know that eight or so extra models would be expensive but it did detract from the high-quality of the rest of the creatures. It would be nice to be able to place them as miniatures, just like everyone else.

Overall... well, I was impressed. My wife and friends seemed to have a good time. We are a competitive bunch, though, so the Overlord versus Heroes vibe did get intense... which is not always a good thing. 

It's a high-quality board game which, for me, rivals Warhammer Quest (one of the greatest games ever designed) but doesn't quite pip it. Descent is very, very playable and a game that I hope to be coming back to sooner rather than later.

Game on!

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Sunday, 14 April 2013

Better Gamemastering

Friday night was the third session in our ongoing first adventure "The Hunt for Gerulf", played with Castles & Crusades and supported by the techniques in Gamemastering. Today's post is a reflection on the three key things that I have noticed from these games.

Simple = Invisible

Firstly, our games have been a lot easier to run and much more flowing using Castles & Crusades. I'm not sure that this is because C&C is the "perfect game" or anything so crass, but rather because it is simple enough to become largely invisible.

Last session the only times I had to pick up the rules were to check on spell descriptions. This is because I'm the only one with the rules. At the end of the session, the third successful games night in a row, the players voiced the desire to access the rules for themselves - the guy with the Cleric stated that it was time to get the rules so he could learn the spell descriptions.

The system wasn't invisible in the first two sessions though. There is a learning curve with any game and there is a need for us to get our heads around the specifics through play. That's ok as long as the learning period is short and doesn't get in the way of the session. I believe the success of C&C for us (so far) has to do with it being familiar to anyone who has played D&D or any d20-system game.

The weird thing is that I wasn't entirely sure that I'd enjoy the system. I was positive about C&C because it has an Old School, stripped down, no messing around kind of feel. Yet, as anyone who reads this column knows, I like my detail and complexity. If there's one thing I have learned, however, it's that detail and complexity is only going to work in a game if you can remember it and use it easily. When it comes down to playing games, it's a lot more fun to just roll with a simpler game and enjoy the show.

As a related thought, reading John Wick's "Play Dirty" last night, I realised the truth of another thing:
One of the not-so-dirty secrets I've learned of being a good GM is you run what the players want to play, not what you want to run
Seeing my players really engaged and enjoying the relatively simple and classically fantasy D&D-like game makes it really hard to want to do anything other than deliver more of what they want.

Camera, Actor, Judge

Brian Jamison's "Gamemastering" is becoming quite an influential book for me. It's not that I agree with everything he has written but more that, as I try out his techniques, I am discovering ways to more effectively engage the group of players.

The biggest change in the last two sessions has been my practising of the three modes as GM: camera, actor and judge. Although I am still not confident in actor-mode, pushing my boundaries a little more has been fun to do. I've certainly seen my players rise more to the challenge of playing in-character too - especially after I introduced XP rewards for maintaining it all session.

Most influential, however, has been camera-mode. Focusing on what I describe and making sure that description is both detailed and accurate for what the players need has been key. For example, when describing the throne room in our last session it was important to focus the camera on three features: the throne, the Shaman's possessions, and the sign on the exit door. Simply remembering not to add in details that would distract from these key elements was a major boost to the play of the group: the players were able to focus on what was important to the story while not being distracted by unnecessary red-herrings.

As Judge I realise that, with a simple system, I have less to do in-game. Most of my decisions relating to rules are being made during prep. Yet prep is becoming less intensive too. For example, when constructing the scene with a phalanx of Legionary Skeletons, it was easy to reference the relevant entry in the Monsters & Treasure book, choosing how I would modify the stats and which item I might choose as a reward.

During the game there were far fewer rulings to make because the scene was already thought through and, combined with the simpler system, we found ourselves able to focus on trying to "describe the action" rather than "game the scene".


The other major shift in my thinking has come from Jamison's suggestion of creating obstacles for the players to overcome:
Obstacles are the heart of the game, the fundamental structure that keeps the GM sane and the players motivated. An obstacle is one clearly spelled out challenge. An obstacle must be simple – a locked door that needs to be picked, a foe that needs to be overcome, a message that needs delivering. If you can’t explain the obstacle in such simple terms, then you probably don’t have a single obstacle.
Working my way through Chapter 7 once again (it's a chapter I keep coming back to) I realised that this is the most useful tool in Jamison's box. But it's more subtle than I initially realised.

Every experienced GM gets the idea that clearly spelled-out challenges are key. What Jamison suggests, however, is that each obstacle has three phases:
To conquer any obstacle, three stages are always involved: Information Gathering, The Challenge, and Celebrating Victory. These stages provide a sort of atomic structure for roleplaying games.
This is the thing that has begun to transform my own gaming and, most notably, my prep.

In Friday's session, for example, I provided the group with invitations to go in either of two directions in their quest: deeper into the complex via the door with a warning sign, or back out of the complex trailing the escaped Shaman. The next obstacle in the complex was to cross the Black Bridge; the obstacle outside would be to encounter the Shaman again.

One player initially wanted to follow the Shaman. The key was in the information they gathered: while the tracks showed clearly where to go to pursue the Shaman, the throne room provided the evidence they needed to decide to go deeper. Either obstacle was an option and I tried to remain calm and let the group decide. The result was all the more satisfying for both them and me because they freely chose.

What does this suggest?

GMing my group is becoming a lot more focused. 

I know that I've got an Action-orientated group which means that I can't muck around too much with initial set-up: I need to get the game rolling and add details as we go along. Last session I gave each player a small note asking one or two simple questions to clarify something on their character's RP sheet. These were little details that matter to me as GM but probably less so to the players... at least, not right now. For example: "What's the name of the innkeeper friend you mentioned?"

I am prepping using the obstacle structure and drawing on the ideas that players have suggested on their character's RP sheet. Remembering to provide information, challenge and a celebration has really improved the quality of my obstacles... and the enjoyment of the game.

I am running a simple system that gets out of the way. This means we can focus on becoming better roleplayers. Encouraging in-character interaction has really begun to sparkle: listening to the players discuss, in role, their decisions and ideas is a lot more fun for all.

And you know what? I'm enjoying it all a lot more too.

Here's to another session and another fun time!

Game on!

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Saturday, 6 April 2013

Beta Fantasy

Having some spare time, I've taken the opportunity to try and progress the development of my own RPG system, Beta.

As I mentioned in my last post, this is a long-overdue project and it's nice to be finally working on it in earnest.

This week has seen several small steps in the right direction:

  • Beta RPG has it's own wiki space: betarpg.wikispaces.com
  • The special Beta Dice have been defined
  • Basic rules for taking actions have been drafted
  • Combat rules have had a stab at being written
  • A Character Record sheet has been designed

All of these elements mean that I'm almost ready to inflict the system on my alpha-team of players. Although anyone can access the wiki and view our progress, I'm hoping to initially set up a small game with a couple of players (probably using Roll20.net). The aim will be to see if any of this nonsense actually works.

Until then... well, let's take a look...

Beta Dice

For years, I've been wrestling with how to use Dice Pools to quickly assess the success of an action without giving myself a serious headache. I've tried with d12, d8 and d6. Each time, the problem was that no one die roll gives enough of a range to emulate the effects desired.

In truth, the breakthrough came when I realised that I could combine the concepts behind the luscious polyhedral dice mechanics of the Cortex System with the symbol-dice created for the latest Star Wars system.

Beta RPG is played using a selection of special Beta Dice. These are polyhedral dice bearing two types of symbol: wins and fails.

When making a test the player will assemble a Dice Pool to roll. This is a collection of different dice types and colours based upon the abilities of the hero. Once assembled, the dice are rolled; fails are subtracted from wins, and the final result is announced to the GM.

Find out more here: betarpg.wikispaces.com/Beta+Dice

Character Record v1

Wanting to start designing a character I realised that I needed something to record my decisions on. A couple of hours of design have resulted in the creation of the first sheet, designed to handle Attributes, Knacks, Ineptitudes and Knowledges. I'll need to expand it... but first things first, as they say.

Curious people can grab the sheet here: betarpg.wikispaces.com/Downloads

Fantasy Time

Once that lot was out of the way I decided to begin prepping for some playtesting. As a starting point for playtesting Beta RPG it makes sense to begin with a relatively simple setting.

Mykovnia is my own fantasy world. It was born some 28 or so years ago, when I was a young aspiring gamer. It was a place of dark fantasy and night terrors. 

Mykovnia is a gritty fantasy, suitable for swords-and-sorcery style play. Despite recent attempts, the world has never been accurately modelled with an RPG system because things never seemed to feel quite... right. Now is the time.

Having recently started to model a couple of characters in the setting using the RuneQuest 6th Edition rules, I decided to look at converting one of them over. Enter Darryn. You can read about his genesis in my review article for RQ6 at The Iron Tavern. 


Darryn is a tribal hunter from a group of Humans living just south of a bitter arctic tundra. He is a somewhat dour and serious fellow, trained in the arts of the Wolf Hunt - a form of ritual - and marked as being under the gaze of the Moon Queen.

Using the draft Character Creation rules I converted him over to Beta in about 5 minutes. He still needs an Edge and a Flaw, but then I need to design some rules for those too. 

Here's what I came up with so far:

All in all, I'm really excited to be rolling hot with the system. I'm sure that my ego will crash mightily the minute that anyone reading decides to point out my glaring errors, but in the meantime it feels good to be finally writing something fresh.

Ego aside, though, don't be hesitant to comment. If you spot a glaring error then it's better to bruise my fragile ego than to leave it there... glaring... staring, like the proverbial Beholder.

What's next? Well... giving Darryn an Edge and a Flaw for starters. Then it's time to create Shanna, the shaman's apprentice. And you know what I'll need to write to make her playable, right?

Game on!

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Monday, 1 April 2013

Going Beta

As mentioned back in January, the time has come for me to (finally) pull together my own RPG. This has, in fact, been a live project since January... but has faced its own challenges and delays. 

Today I can finally reveal that development of "Beta" has truly begun in earnest. Oh, and I'd better mention that Beta is a working title. 


Beta is named for the fact that it arises out of the charred ashes of Alpha.

Alpha was developed a few years ago as the evolution of several previous attempts to design an RPG system that fits my own style of play. One of the key features of Alpha was that it operated a two-tier system of characterisation: a roleplaying level and a skirmish level. 

The former level was the familiar RPG approach... but the skirmish level allowed players to run quick engagements or short scenarios utilising miniatures and terrain on the tabletop. This suited the Dark Reich setting, an fantastic WWII alternative world, because it opened up the same game to be played in a quick wargaming style too.

I'm not sure why Alpha stalled and failed. In the end, I think, it was just too much pressure to develop a game system plus a unique setting on my own.

Beta is already a superior development because I'm not alone: working with some very old friends, I'm able to get the benefits that arise from collaboration and feedback. Things are in the opening stages of a first draft... but the mutual support of three other gamers is a very great aid indeed.

What's the Point?

I've been pingling around with a lot of ideas which link back to Beta. I really want to evolve a game system that is quintessentially about how I'd like to roleplay.

Right now the Beta project has some serious parameters:
  • it has to be relatively rules light, even a bit 'old school' in simplicity
  • it has to be able to support my meta-setting, which is a genre blend
  • character development is going to be fluid and a constant flow
  • it needs to be beginner friendly, easy to grasp
  • it needs to be GM friendly, with low prep complications
I need to swallow the pill: this is a new product; it needs to bring something new to roleplaying. 

Finally, Beta has to be something which the players around me can buy in to: no players, no point.

What's Next?

First step is to finish writing the draft and then share that with the core team. From this I hope to publish a complete "beginner's game" version set in one of the many worlds of my dreaming. 

Initially I am tempted to present the first part of my meta-setting through the medium of the fantasy-apocalyptic. More on that another time.

In the end, this is a project that is going to take time. It'll also need to discover some friends. To facilitate feedback we'll open a wiki space and invite interested parties to read, play and comment. If you're interested in trying this system out then I'd like to hear from you: pop a comment on below.

Until next time... well, I'd better go and write another section of the rules, eh?

Game on!

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