4/27/2016

Published on 4/27/2016 Written by 2 comments

Home Brew Black Ocean RPG

About 6 months ago I read through all of JS Morin's Black Ocean series.  These are short novellas, episodic in nature and feel a lot like the TV show Firefly where a crew of a ship gets up to silly hi-jinx while always looking for the next job, the next score, or the next get rich quick scheme.
The whole time I was reading the series, I felt like there was potential for a  RPG to be based on this setting.  It has all the essentials - an easy to sum up background, potential for fun quirky characters, and a familiar enough feel to get the uninitiated in to it.  Keep this last point in mind while I tell this next part...

Yep, this gets complicated....
A group of 6 or 7 of us have been playing a D6 Star Wars adventure fairly regularly for the past 4 months or so - typically meeting on Skype twice a month.  While not everyone can make it every time, we've managed to keep a fun adventure going with different characters popping in and out as available.  to be fair we're pretty spread out, one player in Newfoundland Canada, a bunch of us in Ontario, one in Alberta, and the last in Japan.  Time-zone coordination is a skill we keep adding ranks to.  Last week was supposed to be our next session, 8pm Friday night.  By about noon on Thursday it became apparent that not enough of us would be available to make it worth continuing the story, so the 3 of us that could make it talked about what we should do.  I volunteered to run a game. So, with about 30 hours to prepare, 19 of them spent at work and 7 sleeping, I did what I could.

While I had thought about a Black Ocean game, I hadn't gone past the very basic framework of an adventure.  I hadn't thought about the game system, or any of the details.  Once my 2 PC's picked character types, I made up some stats for each and sent them to the players to customize.

It's hard to sum up an universe created over 8 books in to a 2 paragraph email, but that's what I did.  Surprisingly, my players stayed mostly within the framework of the universe and the archetypes of their characters.  The impressive part of this is that neither of them had read any of the source material, I was the only one to have read any of it.

Being familiar with the D6 Star Wars game we had been playing, I based my system very loosely on this.
I picked skills relevant to each player type and gave them starting values.  To try to keep the game from getting too crunchy on the numbers, outside of the named skills, everything else starts as 1d6.  So if a player wants to try something, just roll a die and see what happens.  The skills that seemed most essential to that character started at 2d6.

Challenges are broken down in to difficulties.  To do something easy, roll a 3 or better.  So for those "everything else" rolls, players have a 50% chance of success.  If it's a skill they possess, they'll succeed 97% of the time.  These are the types of tasks that the average person can do most of the time untrained, and that people who are trained to do them do many many times in a day.  An example would be the pilot character coming in for a landing in good weather.
Numbers are fun!
To do a more difficult task, a 6 or better is needed.  At 2d6 players will still succeed 72% of the time, but there is a small but significant chance of failure.  Like the pilot landing in some fog with a cross-wind.
Next step up needs a 9 or better to succeed.  At this point only 28% of 2d6 rolls will make it.  Landing the ship in bad weather while running on auxiliary power only.
Difficulties continue to increase by 3 as things get harder and harder.  At 12, less than 3% of unmodified 2d6 rolls will make it. - landing in bad weather with aux power only and 6 ships shooting at you.
A failure on a roll doesn't mean the end though.  It just means there are some consequences to the action - in the landing example, maybe the ship is damaged and needs repair before it can fly again.  While you need a bit of danger to keep things tense enough, I wanted the players to be willing to try goofy stuff and experiment with the world knowing they wouldn't die at the first bad roll.

Things went well with some fun role-plays from my players, some of which I'll try to get to another post about soon, as well as some of the background I gave them.  I'm looking forward to our next Star Wars session, but I also hope we get to return to the Black Ocean some time soon.

Questions about the game?  Let me know in the comments.


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4/25/2016

Published on 4/25/2016 Written by 1 comment

Roleplaying Blind


To clarify, this post has nothing to do about playing a visually-impaired character, or playing a game whilst being visually-impaired yourself. In retrospect, it was probably a terrible idea for a title.

Sometimes it's nice to have no idea what you're doing.

On Friday I went into a game with a nearly complete blank slate. As I've said in the past, it's very unusual for me to play in a game (instead of game mastering), so when a number of my regulars couldn't make it to our Star Wars campaign, I quite happily agreed to let one of the players run a game of his own. It meant a change of pace for everyone and a bit of a break for me.

The game was a homebrew D6-hack based on JS Morin's "Black Ocean" series of novels. I didn't know the system (it was the GM's own invention and his first time running it) and I've never read the books, so I had absolutely no knowledge of the setting. I had made my own character with the scant information he was able to give us just before the game, but I had no idea what most of my skills or abilities did. I was going in completely blind and flying by the seat of my pants, and I loved it.

It helps that this series can best be described as "Firefly" with crazy space wizards.
Or at least that's how
I was playing it.
Usually (like, 99% of the time) I'm the GM, so I've always got to do some amount of prep-work before the game. Sometimes, with games like Dungeon World or Made to Suffer it's minimal, but other times it takes hours and hours to get ready. My Star Wars game has been like that lately, with me creating tons of background info that will probably never see the light of day. Fourth Edition D&D used to take me days to prepare for a single night of a couple of encounters. So for me, to go in with no prior knowledge or time to prepare was a total thrill.

Maybe a lot of players actually play like this. I've certainly run into plenty of folks who lose their character sheets between every session and have never read a rule book in their lives. But for me, I like to know what's going on. I prefer to play in settings that I'm familiar with for that reason, but even if I don't know the background, I still spend as much time as possible going over the rules and the system beforehand. How crunchy is it? How lethal? How does it reward roleplaying? What kind of cool and unique mechanics does it have? This time I had none of that. I was playing a gravity- and reality-manipulating space wizard with a "General Wizarding" ability listed on my character sheet, and I just wanted to see how much mileage I could get out of that.

GM: There is no spoon.
Me: No, it's a spoon. *rolls*
GM: Okay, fine. It's a spoon.
It worked because the GM and both players all knew each other well, and everyone played off everyone else and just kind of rolled with everything. I'm sure both players (neither of us had read the books) were making a mockery of the setting at every turn, but the GM let it slide. The other player ran a chemically-enhanced supersoldier fratboy who was just "bro-ing" out all over the place (alternating his time between masturbating and working out, he was still a way more useful member of the party than I was), and I tried to do whatever shit I could think of with my magic and the GM shoehorned it as best he could with only a few small exceptions. I'm still disappointed that while I can project an entire spaceship into the Astral Plane to travel faster than light, I can't conjure a couple of tropical fish out of thin air.

He did allow my "I turn into a box!" though, so I can't complain too much.

I typed "Illusionary Box" into Google Image Search and I keep getting pictures of this bullshit.
If anyone is interesting in reading up on the source material that we surely butchered, you can check out JS Morin's website right here. It actually sounds pretty cool. Any blurb that starts with "In the year 2254 gravity was officially declared to be magic" and goes on to describe the first interstellar space ship as "shaped like a hand giving the middle finger to science" is okay in my book. I'm probably going to have to check it out myself.

If JS Morin is reading this, then I am well and truly sorry for bastardizing your work.

If Jason is reading this (who is honestly probably the only person who is), then I'm sorry for being a goofus and screwing around and I hope you'll run us through a game again some time.  And hey, if you still have posting privileges on Rule of the Dice, throw up the rules for the world to see. Maybe next time I'll have half an idea of what I'm doing.

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3/01/2016

Published on 3/01/2016 Written by 6 comments

Playing RPGs with a 4-Year-Old is Exactly the Same as Playing with 35-Year-Olds

I had a funny experience a couple weekends ago.

On Saturday night I played what is rapidly-becoming one of my new favourite games, Dungeon World. (We'll ignore for a moment that one of the players brought a Super-Flu into the house that knocked out my entire family for 2 weeks, which is why it took me so long to write this).

On Sunday morning, I played "Secret Lab" with my 4-year old son, which is basically sitting in a blanket fort making up "secrets," which usually end up being variations of "I stole treasure from the chocolate factory and hid it in the back yard."

Guess what? Turns out they're both exactly the same game.

Stick with me here.

For those not familiar, Dungeon World is a "de-crunched" version of Dungeons & Dragons where the rules have been dialed back to allow more room for storytelling. It is of course based on another game, Apocalypse World, which is a similar set of rules used in a post-apocalyptic setting. It uses simple, open-ended mechanics that leave a lot to interpretation and imagination, and encourages the players to fill in the gaps in between.

Personally I find the biggest difference between Dungeon World and D&D is that it takes a lot of the agency away from the Dungeon Master and gives it to the players, which is a very good thing. Instead of the DM building the world like a director and leading the players through it like puppets actors, in DW the players really build it themselves as they go. The Dungeon Master is there to nudge them along and get the story flowing and the players get to decide exactly what kind of game they want to play.

In Dungeon World, this could be a perfectly acceptable character.
A big part of the DM's job during character creation in Dungeon World is encouraging the players to use their stats to come up with more and more details about their characters. For instance, the Fighter in DW starts play with a "signature weapon." Technically this is just an item with a couple of numerical bonuses, but the DM should be asking lots of questions - What does it look like? When was it made? Does it have a name? How did the player come to possess it? Who was its previous owner? Does it have any secret powers or curses that the character is aware of? Does anyone else know (or suspect) what it can do and seek to obtain it? Suddenly, the GM now has a ton of information to work with - information to craft enemies, adventures and non-player characters the heroes can encounter in their travel. Plus the character herself (and her favourite weapon) takes on a life of her own.

Now, when we did this the other night my players (who are not used to this type of game play) kinda balked at my line of questioning, They felt like I was grilling them as I kept asking "and then what? And who was that? And what did that look like?" Some people think better on their feet, that's fair, but once they got the hang of it everyone started coming up with stuff and having fun with it. For instance, we have a ranger who bonded with his animal companion - a bear - after becoming the surrogate father to her cub when the biological father was killed by hunters. It was a nice twist on the ranger raising an animal himself, which is where we probably would have gone with it normally.

Actually, normally the conversation would go:
"What kind of animal companion do you want?"
"I don't care. Whatever has the most hit points."
The next morning, when I played "Secret Lab" with my son, we went through the same exercise. When I asked him his secret and he said he "stole treasure from the chocolate factory," I immediately started prodding him and prompting him for more details. "What kind of treasure did you steal? What did it to? Who tried to take it from you?" When he wasn't certain I helped him fill in details, and soon we had a story about stealing a magic mirror from mermaids but then having it stolen from us by an evil wizard and we had to enlist the aide of a monkey to climb a mountain to get it back and return it to the mermaids so they could use its magic to dispel a curse. We were TOTALLY playing Dungeon World, just without the dice rolls. I've dreamed about one day playing role-playing games with my kids, and here we were suddenly playing one by accident. It was amazing.

It was extra amazing to have the experiences of both a 4-year-old and 30-somethings back-to-back to compare. The toddler was unlocking his imagination and storytelling abilities for the first time. The adults were re-learning how to do it. Both were feeling their way through the exercise in the same way, and it was a fascinating look into how people learn and express themselves.


Even outside of Dungeon World, I think the exercises we went through would be useful for any type of game as well as other creative endeavours. Asking questions and building connections is an easy way I've started to use in character- and world-building techniques with my Star Wars game, which I previously mentioned was feeling a little more awkward than I would have liked. I'm trying to push back on the players to help them help me build the world and the universe a little more, make them more a part of it. They gave me a couple of great ideas last session that I hope to incorporate into future games.

If that doesn't work, at least I know I've planted the seeds with my son to get him ready for a full-blown campaign in a couple of years...

How about you? Have you played Dungeon World? How do you think it compares to more classic games like Dungeons & Dragons? Is it a useful system for getting kids into the game?
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2/02/2016

Published on 2/02/2016 Written by 5 comments

Revisiting Star Wars, the Greatest RPG of All Time

It's been five years since I started writing for Rule of the Dice, and a lot has changed in my life since then. Having two kids is certainly the biggest event(s), and publishing my first novel was also cool. But of particular interest to this blog is how my outlook on and taste in role-playing games have changed. One of my first posts here was fawning over my favourite game of all time, the old D6 Star Wars RPG by West End Games. Recently I've started running a Star Wars campaign again for the first time in many years, thanks in part to the buzz and excitement provided by the first good Star Wars movie in many, many years. Yet playing this game again regularly for the first time since I was a kid has struck me with an odd thought:

I'm not sure if I still like it as much anymore.

In honour of my new game, the new movie and my five-year anniversary with Rule of the Dice, I thought I would revisit my previous argument and touch on the five reasons why I originally stated that Star Wars D6 was the greatest RPG of all time.

(To clarify, the numbered headlines are the arguments I made 5 years ago, but the explanations below them are my new thoughts on each point)

1. It's Star Wars
Lightsabers, droids, stormtroopers, it all checks out. Han's looking a lot older and grumpier, though.
He'll definitely shoot first if you don't get off his space-lawn.
Well, it's still Star Wars, and thanks to The Force Awakens, Star Wars is fun again. I've been on a huge Star Wars high for months, the biggest I've been on since playing the RPG and reading the Timothy Zahn novels as a teenager twenty years ago. I'll be honest: I got a little choked up watching the trailers for Episode VII when they first came out, and then again when I sat down in the theatre and the opening crawl started. I've been hit with a wave of nostalgia that I've not felt with any of the other cash grab reboots and sequels that have been coming out lately. Plus, I thought the new movie was actually pretty good - sure it had some faults, but over all I really enjoyed it and really look forward to the next one. The biggest sign that I enjoy something is that it makes me want to game it, and The Force Awakens did that for me in spades.

So yeah, the game definitely still has that going for it.

2. You can make a character in 90 seconds
Which is probably still longer than they spent developing
Captain Phasma, am I right?
This is still very much true. I have a couple of new players who have never played the game before (but also a couple of the guys I actually played with as a teenager) so it took a little longer at first, but character creation is still really easy and stream-lined. That being said, it also leaves very little room for customized flair or tweaking, which leaves the characters coming out very flat. Every character will inevitably get some combination of the skills blaster, dodge, starship piloting and starship gunnery. You also have to have at least one guy with starship repair, and another with con (bluff). These are the skills you need to survive, so everyone picks the same ones. It gets to the point where if someone picks first aid it seems like a novelty.

Worse, the game is very crunchy and combat heavy (more on that in a second). There is absolutely no room for characters to have dramatic or role-playing advantages, at least not in a rules sense. In recent years I've started to lean way more to games that encourage storytelling and leave more freedom for their characters to improvise and be creative, like FATE and Apocalypse World-based games (Side note, I played my first game of Dungeon World a few weeks ago and it was the most fun I've had with a game in YEARS). Of course, you can always put that into your game, and I'm encouraging my players to have fun with it (in our last session they spent half-an-hour discussing with cleaning droids what scent of air freshener to use on their ship), but in my opinion the rules don't really encourage that kind of creativity.

3. You don't learn skills or powers magically and spontaneously
Which, if you think about it, characters in Star Wars actually do ALL THE TIME.
This is still very true. I do like the way the skills grow organically, and you have to focus on training them individually and specifically instead of getting broad increases in a level-type system. Again though, it's very crunchy and detailed. It would work great in a video game, but it's not so much what I look for in an table-top RPG anymore. You have to spend your characters points, a few at a time, increasing your skills one "pip" at a time, laser-focusing on the skills you use most often... which means you're going to be putting most of your points into blaster, dodge, starship piloting and starship gunnery. I think I would prefer a system where your skills are broader and looser, like you can have a character that's good at piloting, and he can fly anything - starfighters, transports, airspeeders, whatever, and you don't need to quantify that his repulsorlift operation is 4D+2 and his space transports piloting is 5D+1. I think it would be good enough to know he's good at piloting, give him a flat bonus for all ships, and maybe an extra bonus on his preferred ship type or something.

4. You get to roll buckets of dice
Or use this, as the case may be.
This is not as much fun as I remember it being. Okay sure, in an epic encounter where you get to roll like 20D on one attack it's great, but when you have to roll several handfuls of dice on EVERY attack, it gets pretty tedious, pretty fast. An average attack action involves a character rolling 4-5 dice (and adding them up) to hit, the defender rolling 4-5 dice (and adding them up) to defend, the attacker rolling another 4-5 dice (and adding them up) for damage and then the defender rolling another 4-5 dice (and adding them up) to resist the damage. That's 16-20 dice and a lot of fucking math for EVERY ATTACK ACTION, and characters can sometimes take 2 or 3 attacks per turn. Multiply that by every player and enemy on the table, every round and well, no. Just no.

Just typing that exhausted me.

5. The fake ads in the book

While this is true, unfortunately we are not using the old book anymore. I still have my old book, but since we're playing online, I've been using the fan-created "REUP" version (it stands for "Revised, Expanded, UPdated). It compiles all the old West End Games material (along with a bunch of community-created content) into one massive tome that covers everything from Episodes 1-6. If you haven't seen this PDF file, do yourself a favour and check it out. It's a very detailed, high-quality labour of love by some very dedicated fans. Sure, it doesn't have the fake ads anymore, and the pictures on the character templates are ridiculous (they look like digital paintings over top of celebrity headshots), but it's still a really, really awesome book that is just as cool as my old hardback, just in a different way.
Hey look, Katniss/Jennifer Lawrence is in Star Wars, now.

And who made Seth Green a Jedi?
So there we go. I think I wrote my original post five years ago whilst wearing a pair of rosy nostalgia glasses (and trying to ape Cracked.com's crude dick-joke style of writing - seriously, it's embarrassing). Or maybe my tastes really have changed that much in the last half-decade. Either way, while I'm not so high on the game as I used to be, we're still having a ton of fun, and that can carry even the worst games a long way. People must play Palladium games for some reason, after all.

The most fun comes from the fact that it's a shared universe that we all understand, care about and enjoy. I think it's the only setting where I've ever experienced so much buy-in by every player. Except perhaps Battlestar Galactica. Or ROBOTECH. Huh. I guess I just really like licensed Sci-fi games.

Anyway, I think I might want to try Fantasy Flight Games' new Star Wars RPG. It certainly sounds like a lot of fun if the Campaign Podcast is any indication (by the way, check out the Campaign Podcast, it's awesome). Or maybe I should try to make an Apocalyse/Dungeon World hack for Star Wars.

Hmm...

I think I just thought of a new project for myself.

Has anyone else played Star Wars D6? What do you think of it? What about some of the other Star Wars games out there, like Wizards of the Coasts' D20 version, or the new Fantasy Flight Games series?
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1/12/2016

Published on 1/12/2016 Written by 12 comments

My Biggest Issue With The Force Awakens is Not What You Think

Don't get me wrong, I quite enjoyed The Force Awakens. It was familiar and just felt like an updated version of something I loved as a kid, paying homage to it lovingly while adding enough new touches to open up a new world for future stories.

But therein lies the problem, at least from a gaming perspective.

A day or two after I saw the film, I sat down to stat out the characters and ships for use in a game.

(Everyone does this right? You see the world around you in terms of RPG statistics? For instance, I know my boss has a really high bureaucracy skill, but a middling command/charisma. My Hyundai Elantra has a pitiful maneuverability and movement score, but it has decent cargo capacity for a vehicle its size. My kids have amazing saving throws - all kids do, otherwise they would never survive all the dumb stuff they do.)

Anyway, I started statting out the material from the movie in a system I know (Star Wars D6), comparing it to existing material in the system as a baseline. The new movie had X-Wings - great, I'll just compare them to X-Wings in the old system. We also have TIE fighters. Okay, same deal. And Star Destroyers. And the Millennium Falcon.

Does the square satellite dish add or subtract from the Falcon's maneuver check?

I had to stop to think: Were there even any new ships? Kylo Ren's shuttle, I suppose, which is probably not that far from a Lambda-shuttle (the one the crew stole to sneak onto Endor). Some troop drop ships, which are non combative and don't really need stats. Han Solo had a new ship, but I don't remember if they even showed the outside of it onscreen or even gave it a name.

So what we're left with is just a bunch of new models of old spacecraft. Great, except what is the point of "updating" the numbers, besides creating a Pokemon-level of power creep? Sure, the new X-wing is faster, and probably has better weapons. But so too does the new TIE Fighter, right? So rather than "improve" the stats on both, why not just leave them both the same? Their comparative ratios should remain pretty consistent. Why completely redesign something that is essentially the same ship with a new coat of paint?

Same goes for the characters. What kind of new classes/templates could the players create? Jedi are still just as rare (if not moreso) than in the original trilogy, so they're out except as (maybe) poorly-trained apprentices. We still have the same pilots/smugglers/scoundrels/Resistance fighters. For enemies, we still have Stormtroopers and "Imperial" officers and pilots. The only new enemies are the Knights of Ren, which we know literally nothing about. Are they all even Dark Jedi? I would have to take major liberties if I wanted to use them in a game.

(I think we got one new droid. I guess I could stat out BB-8. His speed and maneuverability is hugely improved over R2, but he doesn't seem to have as many cool gadgets.)

The conclusion I came to is that I could just take the stats from everything whole-cloth from a Rebellion-era RPG (either D6, WotC's d20 version or Fantasy Flight's awesome Edge of the Empire) and just change a few names. Boom, now I have a Force Awakens game. I find this incredibly disappointing. Is it less work? Absolutely. But it's also no where near as fun.

Side note: As my wife so astutely pointed out, why didn't Finn ever say:
"Damn, I can shoot so much better without that stupid helmet!"

Say what you will about the prequels (no seriously, go ahead, they were terrible movies) but at least they gave us a plethora of crunchy, game-able material. Every Episode from 1-3 gave us hundreds of new ships, droids, characters, weapons and aliens. Sure, it was probably just to sell more toys, but it was a treasure-trove for gamers.

I have to reiterate: I enjoyed the movie, I just didn't see a lot of gamey-material in it. How about you? Did you go home and try to determine if the new X-wings have a movement rate of 9 or 10? Do the new TIE's have shields? Has the Falcon's weapons and armour been updated over the years to match the improved capabilities of the those ships? Or should we just scratch out "T-65" and replace it with "T-70" and replace "Rebellion" with "Resistance" and just go with it?
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