Friday, September 30, 2005

Idea for making more effective use of game books in a campaign

This entry inspired by More Books, or Fewer Books? on Martin Ralya's blog, and a first draft of this idea appears in the comments there.

Hi, my name is Frank and I collect RPG books. I've got several book cases of game books, but when I actually start gaming, it's rare for more than a few books to come into play.

In my current Arcana Evolved game, Arcana Evolved, Transcendance, the Dungeon Masters Guide, and the Monster Manual all get heavy use. Other books get minor use. I look up stuff occaisionally in the Players Handbook and have used a Dwarf NPC, and played with writing up a Spryte Rogue. Another NPC uses the Scout and Highland Stalker class from Complete Adventurer. One PC used some stuff from the Book of Roguish Luck.

I tried to use Mystic Secrets, but the players didn't find anything of real interest, despite it being freebie stuff (characters get a number of Power Rituals equal to 1 + Int bonus, plus more if their Knowledge (Ceremony) has more than 4 ranks). I've pulled occaisional monsters from the other monster books I have. I hardly ever use anything from the Players Guide to the Wilderlands, the campaign setting (and only one player looked at it, to choose his god for the Priest feat).

A variety of factors come into play in why this happens, but a couple critical factors:

First, it's only possible to really absorb so much material.

Second, since my players aren't as voracious collectors as I am, and some don't even like to read books, the players have very little idea of what might be in the other books I have on my shelf.

So here's a proposal for a way to gain more effective use of books in a game, by limiting the number of books in play.

First, the basic idea of the campaign is settled, including what the game system is. Then the core rule books for that game system are automatically included in the book set for the campaign (PH, DMG, and MM in the case of D&D. AE, DMG, and MM in the case of Arcana Evolved). Then, each player (including the GM), chooses one book. It's best for the group to choose these books together. A concensus process should be used to handle disagreement (so the GM, or anyone else, doesn't get to just veto books, but a book someone really is uncomfortable introducing into play also won't be brought in).

Then, each player takes their chosen book home and reads it. They should spend some time really reading the book. Their assignment is to be able to come back to the group and present just how that book will come into play. They aren't just picking one or two items from the book to use for their character, they're defining how the book will impact play (for example, several characters have evolved levels in my AE campaign, and they are constantly doing jobs for dragons - a definite tone has been set and Transcendence is being well used in my campaign).

After that, ideally the players would all commit to at least some time reading the other people's books. Perhaps each person reads one other person's book, concentrating on the highlighted areas or things that might be of interest to them personally. The GM might have to committ to more reading. Having multiple copies of the books would be good to speed up this phase.

Another possibility is for each player to commit to finding one feature in each book to highlight for play (so now in a group with a GM and 4 players, we have one more extensive presentation, and four additional nuggets for each book). Some kind of reward or recognition should be given to players (not the GM) who highlight things in the books that the GM could use against the players (a monster, a class that will be used by a major villain, an adventure seed inspired by something in the book).

Now sometimes there is some really cool idea (feat, class, spell, magic item) from a book, but there isn't enough material of interest to use the whole book. The hard line approach would be to say no. Leave that idea for use in a different campaign that does make use of the book. Another idea is to allow each player to introduce a small amount of material in this way. Ideally they would type up (or extract from a PDF) the little bit they are interested in, and that material would get added to the "house rules notebook." Of course there are possible copyright issues with doing this (but a group doing this for their own purpose, who own the book in question aren't really doing any harm). By doing this, the game isn't cluttered with books that really aren't being used.

Of course if the GM likes to use modules, they would be exempt. For one time monster appearances, the GM might be allowed to bring the monster in without adding it to the house rules notebook, though I'd be inclined to seriously constrain this. I think it would be much more effective if at most one extra monster book was used in a campaign, and a real commitment to regularly use those monsters is made. The group of course should negotiate exactly what the GM is allowed to use (and GMs shouldn't be forcing modules down their players throats).

I think to make the most effective use of this idea, even setting sourcebooks should not be exempt. As my example shows, a setting book that isn't being referenced is just clutter. So what happens if a setting is large, and has more books than players? Well, perhaps it's good that the campaign is constrained somewhat to a portion of the setting. Or maybe each player gets two books (but I suspect that would really wind up to be too many books). Maybe you can introduce the other books slowly over time. Perhaps a player is always allowed to introduce a cultural book for a new character (the 7th Sea setting comes to mind from this perspective). Another thought is that additional setting books come and go from play as needed (just like modules). If the book isn't one of the "chosen" then any idea from it that will stick around after the campaign moves out of that area needs to be entered into the house rules notebook.

What if this idea is appealing, but like me you have some players who just don't like to read? One possibility is to let them off the hook by using their slots to pull in books everyone is excited about (Transcendence would be perfect for this in my game).

I think there will be a cool benefit beyond streamlining the set of books in use, and increasing the players awareness of the content of each book. I think this process will give the players more buy in to the campaign. Not only do they know more about the campaign, but they've even had some significant input.

For my current campaign, my input would be the following:

I would extract Dwarves and the Rogue from the SRD and enter them into the house rules notebook. I might take the combat section (that I always reference in preference to the same section from AE) and put that into the house rules notebook. And then I'd put the PH on the bookshelf (ok, so for my current adventure, I might also have to extract a few spells from the SRD). I'd probably put all my additional monster books on the shelf (in fact, since I've started to use the SRD to pull text from to create my monster stat blocks, there's a real incentive to sticking with the SRD monsters). I'm really not sure what my one book would be. I'm really tempted to choose one of the environment books (Stormwrack, Sandstorm, or Frostburn).

What if no one picks a setting book? Well, perhaps that means no one is really interested in the setting, or perhaps it means the players aren't interested in where the PCs fit into the world. Using this idea doesn't necessarily prevent the GM from perusing other books outside the session. He can always bring material in through the house rules notebook (so can any other player).

Of course the books aren't chosen in a vacuum, so if the book you absolutely want in the game is chosen by someone else, well, that leaves you with another choice (or leaves them with another choice if your passion for the book is higher).


Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Challenging the assumption that permanent death of character must be at stake in D&D

In my Arcana Evolved campaign, I've been working at removing death of character from the table.

Characters in my game are built with 32 points, come in at the same level all the other characters are at, everyone gets standard wealth (when they level up, they get to buy/improve items up to the standard wealth), hit points for each level are non-random (die size/2 + 1 + Con bonus - even at 1st). So there is nothing mechanical that stops a player from erasing the character name and damage from his dead charater's sheet and writing a new name down and introducing Fred II to the party.

And I won't even raise a social barrier to them doing that. I've even suggested it once or twice.

So why even make the player do that? I suggested to my players that at the end of an encounter, if a character died, they can simply state, no, I didn't die if they want. If they're ready to move on to a new character, cool.

My players resisted. That would be taking away the threat of death and cheapening the game. But they aren't losing anything by introducing Fred II that they haven't already lost (the character did still go down in battle).

Last night, a PC died. They were going to have him raised which would take 7 days and 7 castings of raise dead, and then the PC would lose a level. Likely no one would play a character who was a level behind when they could bring in a new character, even Fred II. So let's not make raise actually cost a level. But there's still this 7 days thing.

I again pointed out that the player could just bring in Fred II. And I re-offered the possibility of just sidestepping the BS and let the player reject the death. And I think it finally sunk in.

Does this idea really cheapen the game? Not if one accepts that basically all characters are the same level and have the same wealth.


Monday, September 26, 2005

Are D&D characters too complex?

I'm in the middle of my second D&D 3.5 game, well, actually I use Monte Cook's Arcana Unearthed/Evolved, but the basic game is still D&D. One of the issues I have with the game is that the characters are too complex. They have too many skills, feats, and abilities that never get used.

I've been trying to think about how to pare down the skill list to a set of skills that will actually get used. We use spot, listen, and search all the time. Intimidate and other charismatic skills get used occaisionally (though we never seem to have characters that really focus on those skills). Knowledge skills get almost no use (and the Akashics in the games almost never delved into the Akashic Record). The "thief" skills (disable device and open locks) rarely get used (I have always felt that these skills were circularly justified, traps started appearing in D&D, so we needed someone to deal with them, so the thief class was introduced, but now we have a character that can't contribute that well in combat, so we need more locks and traps for the thief to deal with, so now we really need thieves, and round and round the mulberry bush of justification we go). Climb, jump, and the other athletic skills get used rarely (especially given the ease of getting flying characters in AE). Tumble is hard to use (for one thing, it's not clear, does the attacker make two rolls, one against your tumble check and one against your AC, or just one. If the attacker makes just one roll, your tumble check has to have a good chance of being better than your AC to be even worth trying).

Spell casters also may end up with too many options. And then there's people's magic item lists. 3e isn't as bad as my AD&D days where PCs might have 20+ items, but still, characters that have items other than standard AC, weapon, and save items that are factored into the "combat" abilities spelled out on the character sheet often get forgotten.

On the other hand, all of these options are important for creating unique characters and providing a wealth of options that are gameable (I like the tactical wargame nature of D&D play). Some are important for creating flavor even if that flavor ends up granting little or no mechanical advantage.

But trading effectiveness for flavor creates imbalances in the characters. We have had numerous flavorful characters that basically sat around on their butts during combat. Even if the character sees use outside of combat, it still seems less effective. And potentially there is circular justification going on.

Character sheets tend to show the failings of this complexity. One page character sheets don't really work. All the skills need to be listed to remind folks what skills are there. There has to be space to show how things like saves and attacks are derrived (and it doesn't really work to have the formula on a "worksheet" on the back, and just plug in the number on the front). Spell casters need at least half a page to list out their spells. Magic item and possession lists take space. Even if you could keep the sheet to one page, there would probably still be stuff missed. My current sheet is four pages, though I get everything (except for spells) necessary for combat on one page (well, skills aren't on there either, but few skills apply in combat - perhaps I should make room for a couple on the front page like Tumble - but then information is being copied since those skills should still be listed with the rest).


Here I am