Customization, Part IV: The World

Of all the ways to let your players customize their RPG experience, letting them effect the world is the most daunting. It also happens to be the one customization every player enters an RPG hoping to make, whether they know it or not.

Role playing games can have many different goals, but they’re based around the concept of telling a story. Stories, in turn, tend to be based around characters and their affects on the world. Even in stories that are based around internal conflict the author has to allow the characters personal descisions to have a lasting affect on the setting.

In the same way, if your RPG players spend a campaign arc rescuing a princess, only to have her killed offscreen in the next session, they will get discouraged. The more freedom your players have, and the more you allow thier actions to change the game world, the more invested they will have to be in the game every time they play.

If characters support a kingdom, make a note that that kingdom should prosper more, or at least be better protected, than its neighbors. If players make a base it should endure, even if the ownership changes, and if they make allies those allies should be reliable.

I haven’t done it yet, but I’ve always wanted to run a campaign, then run a second one set in the same world. Even without running the second campaign, I think it’s helpfull to keep the question in the back of your mind: “How can we change our world this game session?”

Customization, Part III: Home Base

Home bases have always been very populare in every RPG my usual group has played. These bases can take several shapes: spaceships, ranch homes, small cottages, steam boats, or even the spare room in a friendly beekeepers house.

Home bases have always seemed like a great way for players to customize the game world through thier characters. If you’re having trouble bringing your players and thier characters into your world I suggest giving them a base of opperations, even if they’ll only have it for a few weeks.

Additionally, I’d say a good idea would be to give the players a flawed home base. If you give the players a room, maybe it has no curtains or lock on the front door. If it’s a spaceship, maybe it has mechanical issues, no guns, and a room which isn’t airtight. This will encourage players to either set thier characters to work modifying the base, or accept the circumstances and improvise as needed. This is what we did in the ranch home base, where all of our bullet holes were patched up on the kitchen table.

A base is an exellent way to encourage game play though customization, but there are more ways to do this, which will be coming in the fourth and final installation in this series…

Customization, Part II: Physical Appearance

In the first part of this series I mentioned how suprising it was that players are not encouraged to customize thier gear more, as it had fairly little effect on the game overall. Todays topic, characters physical appearance, is a little more complicated to make sense of customizing, but is so personal that I felt it needed to be part of this series.

First off, I think the base physical appearance of a character needs to stay roughly the same, unless you want to make plastic surgurey a prominent feature of your RPG world. That being said, there are still a ton of options for customization, some of the most obviouse that come to mind are changing hair color or getting a tattoo. It’s not nescessary to go even this far to make a substantial change though.

I like to draw on TV shows or movie series for inspiration. Consider Luke Skywalker from the original Star Wars trillogy. As the movies progress, in each one his hair gets shorter and he holds his jaw more firmly. If you saw a picture of just the actors face, you could tell which of the movies it was from. TV shows tend to do the same sort of thing, slightly altering the characters appearance from season to season.

I like to think of my RPG characters lives in “seasons”. For instance, I have a character in a western rpg, who’s on the run from a wizards guild, trying to hide out in the frontier as a gambler. For his first “season” I described him as looking very put together, with a black suit and well combed hair. During that time he was a little ackward and tended to panic in danger. I view his first season as ending in our last campaign we played, which involved a botched heist in a big city, a lot of running away from gaurds, and then my character being suprised and blasting an innocent gaurd in the chest. After alot of debate the gaurd died, and I feel like that’ll have a huge effect on my character.

I plan on describing him as looking a little less put together, with his hair always just kinda in need of a cutting and his jacket unbuttoned. I also intend on playing him as resisting his panic and trying to think in danger.

I don’t think physical appearance gets enough thought in RPG’s after the initial setup, so I’d encourage players to bring it up to thier GM’s or GM’s to ask every few adventures “Do these last few events make your character look any different?”

Great Expectations

It was the best of backstories, it was the mediocre of backstories…

I had requested that my players come up with some background for their characters. Although I don’t generally require a detailed backstory when I GM, this was a unique situation.

This group of players had been trying to startup an Adventures in Middle Earth campaign for several months. They (which included me at the time) had gone through several GMs. For various reasons these GMs had to step down and another would take their place. I stepped up and have been running the campaign for a couple years now.

The players had shared backstory information with previous GMs, and there was an assumption that I had received that information as well. I had bits and pieces, but not all of it. Therefore, I asked everyone to provide a brief synopsis.

Game night came, the backstories piled up, and then I realized I had made a mistake. I hadn’t set parameter for the back stories. I had assumed the players understood how Middle Earth worked in the 3rd era. This lead to an issue with one backstory, and I will fully admit that I was at fault.

In fantasy media, Elves are normally portrayed as too good to be true. They excel at everything, they are handsome/beautiful, and many times immortal. One player wanted to play a character disenchanted with elf perfection. They spun a tale of deception, intrigue,and murder, with the blame placed fully on the shoulders of elf kind.

Now to be fair, they didn’t place the blame fully on all elves, but they had elves doing things that Middle Earth elves would not be doing in the setting we are playing.

“Thus entered panic into my brain, and fear into my soul.”

Okay, maybe a slight exaggeration, however my immediate reaction was to dismiss the backstory completely. This was not okay and after chatting with my fellow blogger Frerin, I have a possible solution for the type of situation.

  1. Apologize for not setting better guidelines, and for immediately dismissing the backstory. In short: Own up to my mistake in the situation.
  2. Offer to modify the story to fit, if the player would like to keep the basics of the story. There is plenty of room for prejudice and distrust in the setting. Much of Tolkien’s writings contain people overcoming racism and hatred.
  3. Provide clearer guidelines and the chance to rewrite for anyone who would like to make their story fit better into the setting.

No matter how long you GM, you will make mistakes. I have been blessed to play with a patient, understanding, and forgiving group. I wouldn’t trade them for the world. (I might TPK them for a pizza though.)

Fun Limitations vs. Character Flaws

First off let me say that I’m slightly annoyed at the terminology already used by D&D, because it makes diferentiating a error in character abilities from a playable limitation difficult. What D&D refers to as character flaws I would call a limitation: Your character is afraid of snakes? Very good, have fun playing with that characteristic.

What I would refer to as a character flaw is a character whose game balance is flawed. If your character cannot hit an enemy, notice any object in a room, recall any information, or survive a couple of enemy attacks, then I would call that character flawed.

I’ve been playing a Dwarf scholar in an RPG called Adventures in Middle Earth for several years, and when the character was at his first level he was flawed. In the first two battles we played he was almost totally useless, and in the next two battles he came very close to dieing. Fortunately our DM saw this issue and realized it for what it was, a flaw in the characters balance. To remedy it, he gave my character a more powerfull weapon. I still didn’t hit very often, but when I did I could take out a significant chunk of the enemies health. I now had a chance of removing enemies before dropping unconscious.

We played Adventures in Middle Earth again last week, and I took a moment to appreciate that my character has some limitations, not flaws. My character can’t talk very well, but insists on trying. It results in alot of fun, but he can easily be overruled by other players. My character can also hold his own in a battle, sure, he might get down to single digit health points, but I know I can deal damage and heal myself, battles aren’t frantic attemps to survive anymore, they’re fun.

Organized Chaos

Like herding Cats…

I’m currently prepping to GM a session for a group that stopped midway of a module over a month ago. I had to evaluate some of my organizational GM standards because of this.

ISSUE #1: I didn’t take good enough notes.

SOLUTION: This group had been meeting often enough that I was able to get by with shorthand notes. This was a mistake, always take notes as if you will need to recap the entire session for someone. It will save you a headache later.

ISSUE #2 (Possibly): My players may have not taken good notes.

SOLUTION: This makes issue 1 less of a problem. I chose several options provided by the module for moving forward that fit the notes I do have. I will present this as a “previously” recap, and then we will move on with the game.

ISSUE #3: The module scales with player count, and my player count may be different than when we shelved the module. This unfortunately means I need to be prepared to run between 3 and 20 enemies for one fight.

SOLUTION: My solution is bullet points. Most text editors can add bullet points, with sub-points. I can create a quick visual flow for any fight by creating bullet point 1 “Goblin.” Then I put 15 sub points on blank lines. When the fight comes, I just add HP, notes, etc next to the number of lines I need.

  • Goblin (DMG Page 962)
    • 1 20HP, stunned
    • 2 2 HP, prone
    • 3 0HP, dead
    • 4
    • 5
    • …..

Some small thoughts on organization, I hope you all have a wonderful week.

Why is My Character Starting in Prison?

For an upcoming one-shot I’ve been told that the party will be starting the game in a prison. I don’t know if the GM will be telling us why we were all arrested, so just in case he doesn’t I’ve been brainstorming a few reasons and thought I would share them here.

Continue reading “Why is My Character Starting in Prison?”

Buying RPG Dice for Beginners

Don’t Buy a $50 Metal Dice Set… Yet

The first reaction of many people I’ve introduced to Role Playing Games is “I want to get my own set of dice.”

I personally love this sentiment. I started buying polyhedral dice years before I played an RPG.

Continue reading “Buying RPG Dice for Beginners”

Using Mental Stats

An Incomplete Education

Your party sits in the restaurant, anxiously awaiting the governors arrival. He walks through the door, attendants on either side of him, yellow robes billowing behind him.”

I stand immediately!” the Bard blurts. At last, this is his big chance to put all that charisma to use. The rest of the party follows suit much less eagerly, but even the Barbarian knows that this meeting is important.

Very good, the governor sits at your table.”

Governor Basho, thank you for deigning to hear our petition. Would you like anything while we talk? Food? Drink?”

The Barbarians player rolls his eyes at the Bards speech and wonders how long he spent preparing it.

The governor fixes his gaze on you and smiles thinly. ‘I would like a glass of warm wine, that is all.’ he says in a clear voice.”

Continue reading “Using Mental Stats”

The Village Idiot

A fool’s errand…

Last week’s post was aimed at GMs. This week I’ll talk to the players.

If you play RPG’s long enough, you are going to come across “that guy.” You know him (or her). They push the red button, attempt theft in broad daylight, and insult dignitaries to see what happens. It seems like they just want to watch the world burn. Maybe they are trying to play a specific archetype, maybe they think they’re being funny, but the rest of you think they should be hung by their toenails on the nearest light pole.

I think most of us would have to admit that we all get a little satisfaction from causing mayhem in an RPG. What “that guy” (or gal) fails to realize, is when their fun is ruining fun for everyone else.

Playing the fool.

But maybe you want to play the goofball, the idiot, the counter party character. How is that done without ruining the fun?

Here are some suggestions:

Ask the GM: Most GMs have an assumption about how PCs are going to interact with the game world. Tearing apart the narrative on a whim makes the GM’s job hard and if the GM says no, don’t push it. The GM is hopefully looking out for you. Letting the GM know you want to play that character ahead of time allows them to work it in, if it works at all.

Ask the Party: While spontaneity is fun, you really want to read the rest of the group. The other players are the bulwark against which excessive stupidity can break. More asking you say? Won’t that slow down the game? Yes! So…

Limit your “that guyness”: Goofing up at just the right time can lighten up a game. Goofing off all the time slows the game down. Players will quickly build up an immunity (followed by an allergy) to your play style. All things in moderation.

Don’t flippantly foil other PC’s success: We’ve all seen a movie where the hero is sneaking around “big bad villain guy’s” lair. His accident prone side kick knocks something over, the hero is detected, and a chaotic montage of scenes follow. As the audience we love this! However, in an RPG you are not the audience, you are the mortified heroes with no idea if they will survive the encounter. Never do anything that knowingly ruins the game. If you know the big red button kills the party, don’t push it. If the whole party is low on health and items, don’t kick the sleeping dragon they just snuck past.

While there are many other tips that could be given, these few should help steer you away from some of the biggest blunders of playing a counter party character.

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