The Biblyon Broadsheet

Gods & Monsters Fantasy Role-Playing

Beyond here lie dragons
Biblyon, Highland
Saturday, January 11, 1992
Jerry Stratton, Ed.
Plot is the opposite of roleplaying—Wednesday, January 19th, 2022
God plays dice with the universe

In Burning Wheel, Luke Crane writes that “…nothing happens in the game world that doesn’t involve a player character.” But if NPCs aren’t proactively running their own storylines even when the player characters aren’t involved, doesn’t this mean the NPCs are static?

For example, the orcs are defeated and the player characters leave the frontier village that had been threatened by them. Do the villagers stop everything once the player characters leave? Or do they continue with their lives, long after the PCs have gone, making their own stories and living their own plot lines?

That’s the kind of question that always comes up when someone says something like what Luke Crane wrote. But I’d argue that it’s the NPCs running their own storylines that are static. Such NPCs have their actions locked in without regard to the player characters. They are far more static than the cloud of possibilities that they ought to be in a game that is about roleplaying, about the interaction between player characters and each other, and between player characters and the world.

A dynamic NPC is a cloud of potential narratives waiting to coalesce once they interact with an observer, and the only true observer in a roleplaying game is a player. Non-player characters are not lesser player characters. They are part of the world that the players interact with through their characters.

Of course the villagers would continue their lives, and would do so long after the PCs have gone. But what this means, what they do, only matters once those villagers’ lives involve the PCs again. Nothing happens—there is no plot—that doesn’t involve player characters.

Sandboxing is sometimes described as “plot everywhere”, but that assumes plot must exist. In a sandbox, there is no plot to find. Any narrative must be created by player interaction with the world. Players expecting to find rather than create a plot will be frustrated by sandbox play, as the common complaint about having to “hunt for plot” indicates. Hunting for something that doesn’t exist will always be frustrating.

It occurs to me that much of the misunderstanding might come from an assumption of the GM as a god who knows all, and therefore knows what the NPCs are doing, which implies that what they are doing is always known. If I say that the NPCs are of unknown potential, then, clearly they must be static. God is no longer paying attention to them! But the GM is not god. In a roleplaying game, god is merely one of the GM’s NPCs. The GM does not know everything, and attempting to pretend they do, by treating unobserved and non-affecting ideas as if they were part of the plot, is a failure mode.

Automated Scribus Daredevils NPC character sheets—Wednesday, July 7th, 2021
Scribus Daredevils character sheet

Scribus is great for creating RPG character sheets.

In part 1, the Daredevils NPC generator, I showed how to create simple character data in a form that makes it useful for a simple character sheet. It’s nice, however, to provide players a nice cardstock pregen with a familiar layout. I deliberately made that simple character sheet output from the daredevils script provide the data in a form that makes it easy to import into other software.

I chose to import it into Scribus, an open-source desktop publishing application that creates great PDF files and can be automated using the Python programming language. Scribus runs on macOS, Linux, and Windows.

Scribus has a Script menu; you can choose to “Execute” any Python script on your computer. I keep mine in ~/bin/Scribus, which is to say, in a folder called Scribus in a folder called bin in my macOS user account. You can put them anywhere. An obvious location would a Scribus folder in your Documents folder.

For the Kolchak game, I used a script I called to import the character sheets into Scribus, creating a new layer for each character. The bulk of the work is done in a class called Sheet. Here’s the start of that class:

[toggle code]

  • class Sheet:
    • def __init__(self, characterName):
      • self.skillsRect = self.getRect('skills')
      • self.backgroundItems = []
      • self.quotes = []
      • self.characterName = characterName
      • self.openSection('aspects')
      • # create the layer for this character sheet
      • scribus.gotoPage(1)
      • if characterName in scribus.getLayers():
        • scribus.setActiveLayer(characterName)
      • else:
        • scribus.createLayer(characterName)
      • self.createBox('Character', characterName)
Daredevils NPC generator—Wednesday, June 16th, 2021
Daredevils cover

I ran a fun game of Daredevils at North Texas at the beginning of the month. I set it in 1976 in the Kolchak: The Night Stalker television series universe. I can’t take credit for how great the game was—it was the great characterization by the players of their Kolchak television series characters that made it a high point of the con for me.

But the preparation of those characters was all on me, and I pregenerated a lot of characters for them to choose from. The pregens were various sources Kolchak had used over the series. Everyone from Lila Morton (the bereaved widow from Chopper) to Charles Rolling Thunder (the aged shaman from Bad Medicine), as well as each of Carl’s colleagues at Independent News Service.

This meant a lot of character sheets and it also meant adjusting skills a lot as I attempted to make each character unique and useful to the adventure. I continued adjusting each character as I slowly went through viewing the season again—rewatching Kolchak is never a chore—and added not just stats but quotes and background.

Doing all this rewriting by hand is a recipe for disaster. So I wrote a script (Zip file, 16.8 KB) to:

  • calculate each character’s calculated stats;
  • handle old age for the older characters;
  • verify each character’s attribute and development totals;
  • keep the format of the character sheets standard.

By using a script to calculate the calculated statistics, I ensure that no character has a mistake.1 And when I wanted to add a new calculated stat, I just had to add it to the script and re-run the script on the characters to give everyone that new calculation.

In a game like Daredevils, that’s useful, because while the rulebook lists a few official calculated statistics in the character creation section, there are also unofficial calculations scattered throughout the book. These are calculations that are technically not character stats but for all practical purposes are character stats. It’s nice to give them to the players to see.

When I decided to add the Healing Rate calculation—not technically a stat—I added its calculation to the script, and it added that line to all of the character files.

When I decided to add the optional “Luck” rule, I added Luck to the script, and it added Luck to all of the character files.

Daredevils Detailed Action Time and Action Options Cube—Wednesday, May 26th, 2021

I’m prepping a game that I’ll hopefully run at the North Texas RPG Con this year. I didn’t realize I’d be running it until after the deadline for putting a game in the online system, so if you want to play it, show up at 9:00 in the morning on Thursday at the main check-in area. It’ll be the standard 4-hour slot for that time, so you won’t miss any of the 1 o’clock games.

The Montique Fantom uses Kolchak: The Night Stalker guest stars (as well as Carl himself), is set in 1976 Chicago, and uses the Daredevils rules. I’ve been thinking about running a game with this premise for several months now. The reason I didn’t have it ready in time to submit is that I had no idea what system to use. I considered both DC Heroes, AD&D, and my own Gods & Monsters, but none of them seemed a good fit.

Then, while wandering the net looking for something else, I ran across a mention of Daredevils and discovered that FGU was still selling copies of the boxed set. I looked for some info about it, and found Action and Adventure in the Two-Fisted Thirties. It sounded a lot like what I wanted for my Kolchak game, so I ordered a copy.

I was right, though I’ll talk more about that later.

One of the many interesting things about Daredevils is the “Detailed Action Time”. Detailed Action Time is…

…used for situations where the specific actions of the characters and the time it takes them to resolve such actions are followed in close detail. The most common use of this scale is for combat.

One turn in this scale is called a Detailed Turn and lasts approximately 6 seconds. The turn is broken down into four Phases: Declaration Phase, two Action Phases, and Bookkeeping Phase.

On the Declaration phase, each character decides which Option will be chosen for the rest of the Detailed Turn. Players indicate the Option chosen by writing it down or placing a six-sided die with the number of the Option on the top face. The choice of Option is concealed from the other players until all have chosen for their characters. No characters may act on this Phase.

On an Action phase each player may select one of the Actions allowed by the Option for his character. All Actions are considered simultaneous. The Gamemaster must adjudicate the results of conflicting Actions by separate characters. To lessen confusion, the Gamemaster may wish to have the character’s Actions resolved in order of highest Deftness.

There are several interestingly different things in here. That “the most common use of this scale is for combat” implies that it’s meant to be more abstract than that, and handle other complex, fast-moving situations as well.

Very interesting to me is that “All Actions are considered simultaneous.” Part of the reason this is especially interesting is that nowhere else do the rules define what simultaneous means. The obvious meaning is that they all happen at the same time, just like the no-initiative system I designed for Gods & Monsters. A character that gets disabled during an Action phase will still get to take their action, even if whatever disabled them happened to be resolved beforehand.

Watches in Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition—Wednesday, April 21st, 2021
Eight-character watches

I’m in a couple of D&D 5e groups; it’s great to see the resurgence in D&D’s popularity. One thing I’ve noticed is that people seem to be much more accepting of unprotected sleep periods—that is, not putting up a watch. Reading this answer to the question about how to have a watch with only three characters I can understand why. The answer is correct, but also very complicated.

Back in AD&D, we not only used to always have a watch, we tried very hard to have double watches, preferably staggered watches. Having two eyes and ears available for every encounter instead of one vastly decreases the chance of being surprised. However, AD&D had a much more freeform definition of resting, so we could pretty much design our watches as we wanted within reason.

Resting is described on page 186 of the Players Handbook. Excepting Elves,

  1. Characters need eight hours of rest.
  2. Within that eight hours, characters must get six hours of sleep. This means no more than two hours of non-sleep during that eight hours.
  3. Within that eight hours, there must be less than one hour of strenuous activity, if any.

D&D 5E’s very strict definition has a couple of important implications for intelligent watches.

As long as you have four or more characters, individual watches are pretty easy. Divide the number of characters into eight hours, and everyone has at least six hours of sleep over a total of an eight hour rest with no more than two hours not sleeping; as long as you don’t get into a fight or flight lasting an hour, Bob’s your uncle.1

Three watches, you’ll probably want to drop down to two watches, either by letting someone sleep all they want or having one watch of two people and one watch of one person. Because in order for everyone to have six hours of sleep in an eight hour period in an uncomplicated manner, you’ll need three different eight hour periods. They’ll overlap some, but it’ll still mean a rest period of eighteen hours. With two watches, you’re down to only twelve hours.

But the reason I’m looking at this is because I don’t like individual watches. They mean a greater risk of someone falling asleep, and even if each individual stays awake, there’s a greater risk that they miss something important until it blunders into camp. I prefer having two people on watch throughout the rest period.

Cinematic roleplaying is an oxymoron—Wednesday, June 24th, 2020
Sacrifice to the Plot Queen

I recently read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for the first time. It is amazingly different from the cinematic portrayals of the story, so much so that it isn’t the same story. The cinematic portrayal relies on cues—corpses, Germanic nobiliary particles, lightning-powered resurrections—that are entirely absent from the book and completely change what it’s about.

The differences are, I think, emblematic of what makes “cinematic roleplaying” an oxymoron. It doesn’t generally involve role-playing, but rather abbreviated telling and required actions. There is no need to roleplay because the cues determine PC actions. The PC is required to act this way because it follows, cinematically, from that thing.

If you don’t pay attention to how the pattern developed in cinema (scripts and directors controlling every action) you are likely to repeat it in role-playing games (rules and GMs controlling every action).

I recently got into a discussion on theRPGSite that went the way “cinematic roleplaying” discussions always seem to go. I don’t mean to single out this designer as exceptional. He may even come up with a good system. But I doubt it, because he’s locked himself into a rhetorical box, cinematic roleplaying, from which there is no escape. His specific complaint is that when he plays, he wants his character to do things that are not his definition of cinematic role-playing:

That [Player choice] won't work well, I'm afraid. A substantial part of the trad games community wants to take the optimal tactical decision and I largely share that sentiment.

He wants a game that forbids him from having his character do what he wants his character to do, because he doesn’t want his character to do it.

I wish there had been a rule in place that had kept me from attacking.

Choosing to do what isn’t optimal for your character is roleplaying. But the same choice, forced, is not a choice, and cannot be roleplaying.

This is not about whether he’s having fun; he claims his fun requires cinematic control of player choices. What I’m interested in is how trying for cinematic gaming necessarily requires the muddy thinking of wanting characters to do what you don’t want them to do. It is difficult to define what you want when you keep looking in the wrong place, when you define what you want as what you don’t want, or what you don’t want as what you want.

I am coming increasingly to the belief that, despite their superficial similarities, “cinematic roleplaying” is an oxymoron. Cinematic techniques are counterproductive in roleplaying because the needs of cinema are counter to the needs of roleplaying games.

Blackhawk: Blitzkrieg at North Texas RPG Con—Saturday, March 28th, 2020
Blackhawk (DC Heroes)

Update April 13: signup is now live.

If you’ve ever wanted to play DC Heroes, or play in DC Comics’s World War II setting, I’ll be running a Blackhawk game at North Texas on Thursday, June 4.

They are the subject of legend, the Blackhawk Squadron… a heroic group of fighter aces sworn to protect the Allied nations against the insidious Axis powers.

Now, the Squadron must penetrate Nazi-occupied territory for a crucial rescue and reconnaissance mission. The outcome of World War II hangs in the balance as the Blackhawks struggle against time to rescue American prisoners-of-war from a German factory… and discover what mad weapon the factory produces.

DC Heroes is an easy game to play. A little more difficult to run, but I’ll be handling that end of things. There is little in the way of powers among these characters, of course, as they’re all human pilots. Characters such as Stanislaus and Weng, and to a lesser extent Hendy, stray into superhero-level attributes or skills, but they’re still standard human skills, just amped up.

Of course the Blackhawks often face Nazi super-science—from the war wheel to flying tanks, to giant mechanical insects. But they defeat it with genuine human ingenuity, the killer instinct, as historian Victor Davis Hanson might say, of free men in the defense of liberty. What Epaminondas did to the Spartans, and Sherman to the Confederacy, Blackhawk and his pilots do to Nazi Germany: penetrate its tough outer shell to expose the weakness inherent in any slave society, any society that denies free speech and free expression.

Which is a lot deeper than this adventure gets, fortunately. There will be fist fights, gun fights, and, if you play your hand right, an aerial duel against an unbeatable and deadly foe.

becoming DM podcast for experienced and new dungeon masters—Friday, March 6th, 2020

“Whether you’re a classic or fresh DM, John and Felicia’s varied experience is sure to provide you that extra information you need to amp up your tabletop game.”

Becoming DM is a neat podcast about… becoming a DM, by an experienced game master and a new game master. The topics covered so far run from creating NPCs, to building a setting, to dealing with problem players.

They’ve been getting a little long-winded lately, but most of them run only about half an hour, for those of us with curious minds but short attention spans!

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