RPG Musings Part 2: How Small Can You Go?

26 09 2014

My Iron Kingdoms game ground to a halt a few weeks back when all members of the party present were knocked unconscious by a sinister baddy, unsure if they will ever wake up.* After this indeterminate TPK, we’ve taken a vacation from the Iron Kingdoms to play other games (specifically a 5th Edition home brew of Eberon, but that’s another story). This has left me trapped in my head thinking, musing and generally scheming of role playing scenarios.

One question I keep coming back to is this: how small can I make a role playing adventure?

Now, by small I do not mean short. I mean as in physically petite. To understand, keep in mind my love of terrain, war games and Iron Kingdoms. In other words: Could I make a single piece of terrain and play an entire campaign using nothing but that terrain?

I’d like to think this is possible. I even think it could be amazingly beneficial. With a limited locale it is possible to go deeper both in terms of story and player interaction. I’ve been involved in a “sandbox” campaign with no over-arching story that allowed the party to roam far and wide. What happened was that we never stayed anywhere long enough to build a story. We just hacked and whacked.

What if the party was physically in one place and could not leave? What would they do? How would they interact? What if instead of going to the monsters, the monsters came to them? What if they were the monsters? etc. etc.

In truth, I think the wanderlust would be too much. But, what if the locale was an air ship? A zeppelin? A floating town? Hmmmm….

I’m not sure where these musing will lead. I love terrain. I have a 2′ x 2′ MDF board sitting in the basement begging to be transformed into a little world. Would it be possible for 4-5 characters to exist in that space? That’s 144′ x 144′ in scale—roughly half an American football field. What story could I write in that world? What scenario could I create to keep my players interested?

Maybe this is my players’ future?

* I need to qualify “all members present” because one crucial member decided to go play skee ball instead of show up and in some ways helped cause the existential dilemma for the rest of the party. Oddly, his absence might all provide an option for GM hand waving to allow the story to continue later.

RPG Musings Part 1: Who controls the story?

3 08 2014

I’ve had a lot of role-playing-game musings as of late and need a place to sort some of them out. This is the first of (hopefully) a multi-part series on pen-and-paper RPGs. While there are a lot of things to talk about from crunch to fluff to the relationship of this genre to other forms of geekery (e.g. tactical war games, LARPing, etc), I want to start with story.

Lately I’ve been looking at systems that allow for more story telling without overtaxing anyone person at the table. Several systems seem to be “story optional.” As much as I love them both Iron Kingdoms RPG Core Rules and Pathfinder seem not to care about the story. You can play each as basically skirmisher board games without any problems. This has forced me to look at the problem from different angles and look at other systems for help.

So who controls the story in your typical RPG? There are several possible answers here.

1) One one level, there’s the game master/dungeon master. The persons who are “running the game” obviously have a lot of control over the story. They at bare minimum tell provide description and colour to a scene and arbitrate the rules of an encounter. However they might also be the game designer (or at least the game tinkerer who has adapted a scenario to fit the party or larger story arc).

Some systems, such as the Fantasy Flight Star Wars Edge of The Empire RPG Core Rulebook, place even more of the story in the GM’s hands by having them improvise story elements based off of dice rolls. What does it mean that a player succeeds with a disadvantage? Well, that’s up to the GM to show. The GM in such systems either has too much power over players or becomes fatigued by the system forcing them to do too much.

2) On another level the story is also in the hands of the players. Players (at least should) have names, backstories, hopes and dreams, and other narrative hooks that help tie them to each other and the adventure. These narrative elements can (AND SHOULD) influence the story in the mind of the GM.

Some systems put an amazing amounts likewise put even more of the story into the players’ hands. I recently ran through the beta of Dark. It’s a fascinating system that forces the players to come up with a narrative explanation of why they are using the skills/abilities/card that they are to overcome a certain obstacle. My gaming group had some problems with this, but the idea is sound.

Another two systems that builds player story building into the very fabric of the mechanics are the Fate: Core System and the Cortex Role Playing Game System. I’ve played both and like them. They allow for the players to build the narrative with the GM. Always a nice bit

3) Of course, if you are using a pre-generated adventure/module there is a game designer somewhere in the background here as well. This is often where issues of rail-roading come into play. Indeed, if you are in an established world (Eberon, Forgotten Realms, Iron Kingdoms, Star Wars, etc.) there is even more of an issue. Does what the players and GM are doing change the canon? Are the players always relegated to the periphery of the world with only voyeuristic glimpses at Yoda or Drizzt?

Dark puts too much onus on the players. Star Wars puts too much on the GM. Fate just seems to overtax everyone from what I can tell. The best I’ve played with has been Cortex. However, that’s might be a function of the group I’ve been in more than the system itself.

Grind Review

12 02 2014

Over the last few months I’ve been trying out a few miniature sports games. I plan on reviewing a few here.

There is a definite draw for me to this genre of miniatures since the games involve a fairly small investment, have a reasonable playing time, and generally avoid power creep.

Up first: Privateer Press’ Grind.


Given my love for Warmachine/Hordes I picked up Privateer Press’ sports game Grind. I had read the original rules for use with MKI found in No Quarter 10 and thought they were pretty straightforward and interesting (even given the problems I had translating them back with my MKII knowledge of the game). However, the board game version of Grind turned out to be a different animal all together.

Looks cooler than it its.

In Grind, two players go head-to-head controlling five giant steam-powered robots trying to roll a four-ton spiked ball into the opponents goal. Each robot (conventionally called wajack or ‘jack) can be fitted with a variety of special arm that make it better at ball handling, blocking or disabling opponents ‘jacks.

Turns are controlled by a dice pool mechanic similar to Privateer Press’ Monsterpocalypse. There are three types of dice. Each has six sides but provide different probabilities for success, becoming better when moving from white, to blue, to red. White dice serve as a resource for each turn. As you use them they are moved to your opponents reserve. You can use more or less of these for different actions, but you must use at least one for each maneuver. There are likewise a fixed number of blue dice that you can use to help boost certain rolls. You have fewer of these, but they don’t wind up in your opponents reserves. Finally there are red dice. These have no chance of failure, but only slowly enter the game. They serve as a timer. Each round another is released from the round counter and when they are all in play, the round ends.

I really wanted to like this game, but simply couldn’t. I knew going in it had problems. Privateer Press has largely stopped supporting the game, and its forum are an empty wasteland. The rule book for Grind is a mess: poorly organized and aesthetically ugly in its lay out. Many of the issues that came up in my first game (heck, first turn!) were simply not addressed, and I was forced to wing it and houserule from the get go. The game does come with player aids, but even these are of little help when you start out. Privateer Press seemed to have realize this, because they even provide walkthrough videos on their website; but these were likewise less than helpful. It took myself and another competent gamer almost two hours to play a single half. Games tended to be three hour ordeals spent scanning the rulebook and discussing what the hell they were thinking.

Pretty, stompy robots

On the plus side, the game components are quite pretty and comes with 2 Cygnar heavy ‘jacks, 3 Cygnar light ‘jacks, 2 Khador heavies, and 3 Khador lights. These are all made of a cheaper plastic than those of the Warmachine plastic kits, but they are the same size and largely the same mold. At a price of less than $30 I now have ton of bits to mod into a variety of warjack for Warmachine or an Iron Kingdom character.


Grind is a great buy for bits but a horrible game to play.