Published on 6/21/2011 Written by 11 comments

You Can Have Fun Without Dice

I've always thought of myself as a dice-whore. I own lots of dice, I covet other people's cool dice, and I like games where you can roll lots of dice. (I even listed it as one of the reasons Star Wars is the Best RPG Ever). I love that the Hackmaster RPG has an entire chapter devoted to proper dice rolling techniques and etiquette. I've always been apprehensive about games that do not use dice. And yet, despite all this, I've recently come to a realization.

The dice are talking to me.

You can have fun without dice. I know it sounds crazy, but it's true. As a corollary to this theory, too much dice-rolling can also suck.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I am playing in a Battlestar Galactica game through play-by-email with a friend who's new to game mastering. He's
been doing a great job, despite that running PBEM came can be quite frustrating. Rolling all those dice and determining the outcomes behind the scenes can be a real pain in the ass. Know how he's doing it? By keeping us out of any scenes that require us to roll dice. I don't remember the last time we had to execute an action that hinged on a die-roll to determine the outcome. Instead he's running it like an interactive mystery - we learn bits of the story as we go along, and depending on who or what we interact with, we get more bits of the story. Plus, there's plenty of opportunity for role-playing, and for the players to add to the story, as we go along.

No dice means no combat, of course, and I suspect that at least one of the players has been getting a little antsy without having a chance to blow shit up. For
me, anyway, I think it's all good. The combat was giving me heart palpitations.

Either way, I'm cool with the way things are going. We have suspense, intrigue, mystery, and more than a little bit of excitement (There's a bomb in the hangar, someone's ransacking sick bay and there's a saboteur still loose somewhere on the ship: what do you deal with first?), all without rolling a single die. Some of the role-playing is starting to seem a bit more like "Grey's Anatomy" than "Battlestar Galactica," but I can live with that. In between the soap-operay bits I think more people get shot/murdered/blown-up on Grey's, anyway.

Just another day at the office...

Reinforcing my current love of dicelessness is the other game I've been playing lately - D&D 4th Edition. I know I've bitched about the game before, but I really don't hate it, nor do I mean to start another argument about it. It can be a fun game and I do like playing it most of the time, but I am getting bored with it. The combat is not bad (It's not the dice that's the problem there, it's all the other stupid stuff you need to keep track of). What's really been pissing me off lately is how "rolling dice" has replaced "playing the game."


GM: You enter the throne room and meet the king. What do you do?

PLAYER: I roll Insight. (rolls, scores a success)

GM: You think you should roll Diplomacy.

PLAYER: (rolls, success)
GM: The king is happy. Roll Perception.

PLAYER: (rolls, success)

GM: You notice a man dressed in black lurking behind a tapestry in the corner.

PLAYER: I try to scare him off.

GM: What?
PLAYER: I mean... I roll Intimidate. (rolls, success)

GM: You have completed the skills challenge. The man in black's thugs now rush in and attack, so we'll begin the combat encounter. Give me a few minutes to set up my battlemat.


Yeah, that's how I felt.

I'm exaggerating a little, but I've taken part in games that played out pretty much just like that. Mostly Living Forgotten Realms adventures, which tend to be poorly written and are run by judges that are afraid to do anything outside of exactly what is written there, least some magical, evil agents of the RPGA (Role-Playing Game Association) show up at our door threatening to not allow us to play anymore. Even if they actually cared, and we somehow did break one of their "rules," what difference does it make? I still haven't figured out the advantage to playing by the RPGA/LFR rules anyway, except that I don't have anyone else to play with locally.

4E doesn't have to play that badly. I've seen it done better. But I've seen it done badly regularly enough that I just need a break. And a relatively open-ended, free-form version of Battlestar: Grey's Anatomy might just be what the doctor ordered.

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Published on 6/14/2011 Written by 19 comments

How to Make Super Heroes That Suck

I recently discovered 4-Color Heroes, a retro-clone of the old TSR Game, Marvel Super Heroes. I mentioned before that MSH was one of the first RPGs I ever played, and even though we never actually read the rules, we played the shit out of that thing. We had a blast making up our own heroes to do battle with the top players in the Marvel Universe (it was so satisfying to punch Cyclops in the face).

The coolest thing about MSH, which 4C-Heroes has retained, is the ability to make completely random characters/heroes. Random stupid characters bring a nostalgic tear to my eye: my very first character's only "powers" were lust-inducing pheromones and a boomerang. Seriously. It could just as easily have been a guy who could stick to walls and fart rainbows. No game balance, no logic, just roll some dice, spit out a bunch of random stats and powers, then try to explain how the fuck it works.

To be fair, this is probably how most comic book writers and artists create characters.

To test out the 4C game, I started rolling up some characters, with hilariously terrible results. I decided to share them with you, so you too can be revel in the craptasticness.

Origin: Skilled Human (ie, a dude who gains his powers through training/study.)

Fighting: Typical (6)
Agility: Good (10)
Strength: Good (10)
Endurance: Typical (6)
Reason: Incredible (40)
Intuition: Incredible (40)
Psyche: Remarkable (30)

Health 32
Karma: 110
Resources: Remarkable (30)
Popularity: 20

Magic - Feeble (1)

So here we have a guy with perfectly average human fighting ability and endurance, and only slightly above-average agility and strength. His reason, intuition and psyche are at or slightly above the maximum of normal human range. Even better, he is also quite wealthy, and pretty popular for a starting hero. And he has magic! Magic, one of the rarest and most powerful abilities in the game, allowing him to recreate any other super power at will: flight, energy blasts, super healing, ANYTHING. Only one problem...

...I rolled the absolute lowest possible score for his magic ability. He is literally Harry Potter BEFORE he started at Hogwarts.

BACKSTORY: Maurice was a shrewd businessman and a professional illusionist/magician. He even has his own television show on cable, though his ratings sucked. Still, he was dedicated, and spent years mastering the art of illusion, and studied so feverishly that he accidentally discovered REAL magic, through a dusty old manuscript that he thought would finally teach him the secrets to the "coin behind the ear" trick. Unfortunately, without a true teacher, he was never able to do anything spectacular (in fact his "fake" tricks were a lot more impressive), so he never much pursued his gift, and just considered his abilities a fluke. Until, one day during a show, he discovered a rival magician - SIMON, THE SPECTACULAR SORCERER - backstage trying to steal the secrets to his tricks. Maurice ran him off, and attempted to cast one of his true spells on him. The spell of course missed by a mile, but by chance or fate it happened to hit one of the thieves who were robbing the bank across the street. The "fireball" was of course only mildly discomforting to the crook (it felt more like a cozy blanket), but the spell startled him enough that the would-be villain stepped out into the street and was run over by a bus. Suddenly, Maurice was a hero, and he used his new found fame to draw attention to his show and make big money. His fame as a crime fighter draws regular requests from people seeking aid, but because his powers have not improved any, he is loath to do any real super-heroing.

: Changed Human (ie, a dude who gains his powers through outside forces.)

Fighting: Amazing (50)
Agility: Excellent (20)
Strength: Incredible (40)
Endurance: Excellent (20)
Reason: Remarkable (30)
Intuition: Remarkable (30)
Psyche: Remarkable (30)

Health: 130
Karma: 90
Resources: Amazing (50)
Pop: 41

Super Leap - Remarkable (30)

Okay, now we have a guy with decent stats across the board! Amazing fighting ability and great strength, not too shabby for a guy who kicks ass for a living. And has for his powers, well! He can JUMP. And he's really famous. Those are his powers, in their entirety.

BACKSTORY: Admiral Kangaroo was born Lionel Lyons, a rich kid from upstate New York who had everything handed to him on a silver platter. He planned to coast through life on his trust fund, until a strange event at a zoo changed his life forever. One day, when Lionel was visiting the zoo with his bratty cousins, a young kangaroo escaped from his cage and mauled the rich douchebag, putting him into a coma.

Unbeknownst to Lionel, a few weeks before an accident near the zoo resulted in a transport truck dumping a load of toxic waste into the sewers. At the same time, a mommy kangaroo was giving birth in the facility. The zookeeper assisting at the delivery dropped the slimy newborn (he only got the job because his uncle was the night manager) and it rolled into a drain, into the sewer and somehow ended up falling into the radioactive sludge in the dank tunnels below. The baby joey was fished out and was nursed back to health, but it suddenly started growing at an alarming rate, reaching full maturity within days, and leading to its eventual butt-kicking of Lionel. After the attack, when Lionel awoke a month later, he had the strength, fighting and leaping abilities of a true outback kangaroo.

Like so.

He took the name Admiral Kangaroo (because an Admiral is better than a Captain), and is now a major celebrity, regularly appearing on the cover of tabloid magazines and attending movie premiers and other black tie events with super heroines on his arm.

Yeah, that's a stupid back story, but a stupid character deserves no better.

: Robot (ie, a dude... who's a robot.)

Fighting: Typical (6)
Agility: Excellent (20)
Strength: Remarkable (30)
Endurance: Incredible (40)
Reason: Feeble (1)
Intuition: Remarkable (30)
Psyche: Typical (6)

Health: 96
Karma: 37
Resources: Feeble (1)
Popularity: 0

Super Leap - Excellent (20)
Phasing - Incredible (40)

Ooh, a Robot, neat. Lousy fighting ability, and dumb as a rock, though oddly his intuition is very high (kinda like that guy from The Green Mile). Maybe his memory has been wiped, but he has excellent sensors to perceive the world around him? He has no cash (that's okay, what does a robot need with money?) and no popularity (an automatic flaw for robot characters).

For powers we have super leap (what, again?), a sidekick (WTF?) and phasing. I can work with this.

BACKSTORY: Little Timmy Thomas was playing in a quarry near his grandmother's house one day when he discovered something strange: a big-ass metal robot. It had been buried in the gravel for a long time, but with great perseverance Timmy was able to dig it out. He found a button on the back of its head and pushed it, which reactivated the machine. The robot cannot remember his name or where he came from, so Timmy named him Dirt Bucket, cause duh, he found him in a pile of dirt. Dirt Bucket is sentient and free-willed, though he is incredibly stupid, and damage to his neural pathways makes him nearly incapable of remembering anything. Still, he gets along well with Timmy. The boy first used him to combat bullies, but soon upgraded to fighting crime. (You're a kid with a robot - what are you going to do with it?) With his piston-powered legs, Dirt Bucket can chase down bad guys by leaping on them from great distances. Oddly, the robot is also able to walk through walls. While Timmy thinks this is really awesome, he fails to recognize the implications of such unnatural abilities; the robot is probably of extraterrestrial origin, and the aliens who own it are surely going to come looking for it sometime...

So there we have it. Maurice the Mesmerizing, Admiral Kangaroo, and Dirt Bucket, working together to form the lamest superhero group of all time (outside of Excalibur, or maybe Alpha Flight). Can't you picture the conflict and riveting conversation between the group? Maurice, who has shitty powers and doesn't really want to be a superhero anyway; Kangaroo, who is reasonably capable (but again, with shitty powers) and is only looking out for himself (and probably trying to sign his new reality show deal); and a dumb-as-brick robot led around by an idealistic young boy who thinks it would be cool to beat up bad guys.

Oh, yeah, that's comic book gold, right there. Excuse me while I call Fox to see if they want the movie rights. We'll try to get Brett Ratner to direct.

Anyone have any better ideas for these builds? Or any other cool heroes from old RPGs? Nothing's better than a ridiculous, lame superhero. Except of course, sharing that hero with others.

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Published on 6/09/2011 Written by 7 comments

The mystery of the monsters

I was glancing through the Pathfinder Bestiary the other day, re-familiarizing myself with some of the monsters and their stats, when it hit me; the magic is gone. Just a year or so ago, when I played my first game, there was this allure and mystery about the seemingly limitless monsters and beasties that populated the various fantasy worlds. Now, I see them as stat blocks and powers, obstacles to pit my players against.

Perhaps it was bound to happen as I became the primary gamemaster for my group. But it's still left me feeling somewhat disappointed. The realization that a small part of the game is now gone for good leaves me wanting that feeling of surprise anew.

I can't recall the very first monster I ever faced as a player, though I imagine it was something suitably low-level. Like a kobold, or goblin, or possibly a level-0 farmer. Something easy, that was for certain.

Or perhaps Farmer Smurf, the level-0 Smurf!

But I can remember the combat I most enjoyed from those early games. It had everything: A mysterious monster, a desperate fight, and a sense of discovery for me as a player. Characters can be played without the knowledge of how the game world works, but as a player learns the system and setting, the magic of discovery disappears. As a player, not knowing exactly what you're up against can be the most fun part of a game.

For me, it was a retroclone, most likely Labyrinth Lord. And that enemy was a black pudding.

Even though I'd never played roleplaying games before--not even many on the PC--I knew well enough what a goblin was. Heck, I even had a pretty good idea of a kobold. After all, these were common stereotypes, whether in fantasy literature or in non-roleplaying games. But a black pudding? Isn't that some kind of sausage or something? I mean, I'm not a big sausage fan, but that doesn't sound hugely threatening.

I stand corrected; this is in fact the most terrifying thing I've ever seen.

The fight was long and the rest of my party far smarter than myself, having run away at the start of it. Not realizing that fire was the only effective way to hurt it, I kept throwing my poor little fighter into battle, swinging away, determined not to be beaten by an amorphous blob of goop.

Soon the entire corridor was filled with mini-black puddings thanks to my efforts, and my fighter was overwhelmed, thus providing me with a healthy fear of all slithering blobs of Lovecraftian design.

Now, however, though my character may not know that only fire will slay such a fiend, I do. The sheer thrill, frustration, and wonder at meeting a new enemy is gone. There's still fun to be had, but the mystery of being a new player is no more.

I think if anything this just gives me more resolve to make the games I run as interesting and exciting as those early games that I'd been fortunate enough to play in. Whether it's in the setting or the plot, I think if I try to keep an air of mystery alive throughout, the feeling of discovery and exploration will add considerably to the fun. This tends to be a little harder in a generic fantasy setting, where everyone knows elves are forest-dwelling hippies, dwarves are Scottish miners, and Smurfs make for terrible farmers. Without altering stat bonuses and character abilities, you'll have a trickier time proposing that dwarves are actually half-crazed vampires cast down into the bowels of the earth by the gods themselves, allergic to sunlight, and suffering from very mild cannibalistic tendencies.

What about you? Is it possible that some games do lose something indefinable the more you understand and play them? Or am I completely off track here?

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Published on 6/07/2011 Written by 27 comments

Top 4 Bands That Write Songs Based on Their D&D Campaign

There are many bands out there who like to play loud, ass-kicking, speaker-bursting music with thrashing guitars and pounding drums. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, most of them are total geeks. They may look like hard-ass biker leather fetishists, but in reality they're just D&D and Lord of the Rings nerds who hope that if they sing about dwarves and elves loud enough, people will think they're tough and not pick on them anymore.

He was almost cool. Then he opened his mouth.

Although I'm sure we could list thousands of bands that could fall into the genre, I'm just going to list The Top 4 Bands That Write Songs Based on Their D&D Campaigns. Actually, they're just my 4 favourites, but whatever.

4. Iron Maiden

Seriously, how many kids back in the 80s ran home after school to play D&D and listen to Iron Maiden? Well, probably not THAT many, but if you're reading a blog about role-playing games and you're over 30 years old, you know what I'm talking about.

Nowadays, these guys seems pretty harmless and kinda cheesy (hell, many of their songs were history lessons, or romantic epic poems set to music), but back in the day parents thought these guys were pure evil, much like D&D. Iron Maiden cassettes and funny-shaped dice often got tossed in the garbage together, because they just had to be related somehow (probably all those references to devils).

Dudes in bands back in the 80s really took care of their hair.

Tell me you can't picture these guys rushing home from the studio after recording that track and going "awesome, man, I totally have to put some of those monsters in the adventure tonight!"

3. Savatage

Before they were the founders of the Trans-Siberian Ochestra, they were a metal band called Savatage. They started in the 80s, when it was cool for guys to have big hair and tight pants. It wasn't cool to talk about dwarves stealing treasure from sorcerer kings under mountains, but fuck it, they sang about that, too.

Of course, they also went on to perform music about Sugarplum Fairies.

Their music was heavily inspired by Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, and their lyrics were heavily inspired by Gary Gygax and Tolkein.

Ah, the 80s. A simpler time, when it was okay to have little people in bad prosthethics and a dopey looking hairdresser in a cravat in your music videos.

Many fans were pissed that they didn't "make it big" until they started doing Christmas Music full time, but hey, what can you do? Jesus pays better than dwarves.

But together they make an awesome 8-man acapella group.

2. Dragonforce

Dragonforce got a huge burst in popularity a few years ago thanks to Guitar Hero. If you recall, their shredding tune "Through the Fire and the Flame" was featured as a bonus track on Guitar Hero III, and became one of the most popular songs on a stupidly-popular game. Mostly because being able to get through it on the highest difficulty setting was a badge of honour for both 14-year olds and drunken frat boys alike.

Dragonforce SHOULD have been popular because they sang about dragons and fire. They SHOULD have done the soundtrack for Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings. They SHOULD be rolling in piles of money and drugs, like Smaug rolling in piles of gold. (Actually, they probably are on drugs. I saw them live a couple of years ago, and I swear no human being can play like that for 90 minutes straight without enough amphetemines in their system to make a horse's heart explode.)

Pick up any Dragonforce CD and look at the track listing on the back. Out of 8 to 10 song titles, there are probably around 40 words or so between them. I guarantee you that at least 25 of them are variations of the following words:
  • Fire/flame
  • Sword/steel
  • Dragon
  • Storm
For the rest of the lyrics, they just roll percentiles and pick random words out of the Player's Handbook.

It's unfortunate that for a song about fires and dragons, the video's only special effect is the camera guy shaking the camera, as if the band's music is so powerful it's causing an earthquake.

1. Rhapsody

No one beats the Europeans when it comes to blending screaming metal with Tolkien/Gygax influences. And no one does it better than Rhapsody.

Described by Allmusic.com as "elaborately conceived progressive baroque power metal," and endorsed by none other than Christopher Lee himself (Christopher Lee of course being the most awesome person who ever lived - check out his bio and trivia on IMDB.com), Rhapsody is an Italian metal band also known as Thundercross and Rhapsody of Fire. No one, not even Dragonforce on a good day, can jam as much fire, steel and dragons into a song as these guys. Not only that, but their albums are often epic, operatic concept pieces that tell an over-arching storyline. They have five records that comprise the Emerald Sword Saga which tells the story of the heroic Warrior of Ice battling against the evil Akron, the Black King. Seriously, this is just BEGGING to be turned into an old-school RPG campaign. It has monsters, dungeons, NPCs, cities and backstory, all ready to go.

I can't decide if this is a power metal music video, or an extended advertisement for a LARP camp. Either way, it's six kinds of awesome.

Anyway, I'm sure I've probably missed your favourite nerd metal band, so go ahead and point them out to me in the comments below. Seriously, I need new tunes for my iPod.

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Published on 6/01/2011 Written by 2 comments

A Very Big Thank You

This is a long overdue thank you to Joe Nelson and C.D. Gallant-King. Thanks for keeping this blog alive and kicking while I have worked (and avoided working) on many other projects that are likely to go undeveloped for years to come. I am very happy to have both of you writing for Rule of the Dice, and you can consider this blog as much yours as it is mine. Thanks guys.

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