Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Why I'm down on Optimization Guides. (kind of).

Okay, I'm not actually down on optimization guides. The truth is kinda dig 'em. I like getting the thoughtful analysis, and I appreciate getting an editorial slant on spells/powers/etc. There is a lot of precision and effort that goes into writing these things.

But that's the problem. If you aren't careful, the math starts to stack up so well that it's hard to imagine arranging your guy any other way and you quickly end up with the same character that everyone else who happened to read that guide. Where's the fun in that?

Now, like I said, I'm not really trying to pour cold water on the idea of guides. But I DO think that you need read them carefully, remembering to take their advice with a huge grain of salt.

I say this because guide writers have no idea what the group you play with is like, what the dm you play for is like, or what your campaign might have in store. All they have to go on is the relative value of the crunchy stuff and so they base their judgement on synergy and combat potency.

And...I can only speak from my own experience here, but there has never been a character that I've ever had in one of my campaigns that is worth remembering simply because of how well they were built or because of the loophole they were built to exploit.

For me, it's the illogical quirks that are truly compelling: the fears, the drives, the fascinations, and the foibles. It's the moments where somebody sticks their neck out and does something stupid, something brave, something unexpected simply because it's what their character would do.

Here's another thing to consider: When I've optimized my guys, (and I most certainly have done my share of optimization), there's been another thing that I've noticed: My favorite aspects of the characters end up having nothing to do with the jacked up stats.  In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the optimized parts have actually been slightly disappointing. Why? I'm not totally sure, but if I went out on a limb I'd guess that, hidden underneath the idea of optimization, is the implicit promise of success - a promise which flies in the face of a game where you roll the dice for everything you do.

Optimization is not a dirty word, so long as it's a means and not an end. (And so long as you can keep it in your head that an RPG is not a video game in need of a walkthrough).

Sunday, February 12, 2012

DMing: “Always Say Yes”

This is the first rule of group improvisation and it needs a little explanation.

“Always say yes” does not mean that you literally always say "yes" to whatever your players ask. If you have people begging you to give them +5 sword of ungodly awesomeness to start the adventure, you can (and probably should) say no.

What “always say yes” actually means is that you should make a habit of accepting what players bring to the story and use their actions as the base upon which you build the story forward.  To frame it in the negative, this rule says: “don’t shut them down”!

If they want to make a pass at a queen? Let them. If they want to kill an NPC? You can offer resistance through the NPC, but you can't stop them from trying. Heck, if they want to spend two hours trying to head butt their way through a brick wall, you can have an NPC warn them against it, or you can have them roll to see how many points of intelligence they lose (and whether, by some miracle, they actually break through).

But remember: while success is never guaranteed, players should always be able to try.
If your players are at all decent to work with, even their most crazy intentions contain some thread that you can weave into the tapestry. 

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Collaboration and DM Flexibility.

If you've ever DM'ed before, you know that there can be a lot of ego invested in developing your campaign, a lot of pressure to provide a satisfying game experience for your friends.

Quite naturally, our first instinct as DM's is often to find ways to "ensure" success; we do things like pre-planning awesome moments and sketching out great character arcs for our players.

The problem, of course, is that it doesn't start with your players. in other words: you're forcing it. And that's bad because when a DM forces things, a player has really only two options: resignation or rebellion - both of which I view as game killers.

Something I plan on discussing at more length in the near future is DM flexibility and player free will. To me, it is the part of the game that is least talked about - in part, because it is the least quantifiable.
At it's essence, it boils down to this: A great DM does not just create an unforgettable story; they CO-create it. And that difference is huge.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Why Roleplay?

There are so many options available to the modern fantasy loving nerd: movies, books, tv shows, video games, strategy games, card games, table top miniatures... so why do we keep coming back to the pencil/paper RPG?

I am writing this blog because I want to explore the flip side of d20, the side that often gets left behind in favor of stat blocks and character optimization. Don't get me wrong, I love the crunchy stuff too, but I think it's only half the picture. Or, maybe this is a better way to say it: if all d20 roleplaying had to offer were the stat blocks and character builds, I think we'd all have abandoned it long ago for video games, stratagy games, movies, books, etc. But we haven't. And I want shed a little light on why. 

In my opinion, a pencil-paper style RPG remains special because of it's potent cocktail of three things: uncertainty, camaraderie, and, the best of the bunch, free will.

By uncertainty, I mean that the future is a blank slate. Books, movies, and video games have endings that existed before you ever began reading/watching/playing them. In roleplaying campaign, however, players begin a story that is not just unfinished but one that will depend upon the player’s own actions to help determine the course and ultimate resolution.

By camaraderie, I mean that players experience this story together as a group.  You and your friends get to stand shoulder to shoulder, stare into the abyss of hell, and then piss on its raging fire.  Good roleplaying campaigns generate “war stories” that you and your buddies will talk about for years.

By free will, I mean players are totally in charge of their own action. When faced with a problem, they can try anything they want! Take a ship across the ocean to do some magical research? Why not! Burn down a house to distract the local police? Nothing stopping them! Run for public office just to rally community support and piss off the main bad guy? Absolutely! While success is never guaranteed, thinking outside the box is more possible here than in any other form of entertainment.

More to come...